Transportation safety officials at organizations like the NHTSA have known since 2001 that 15-passenger vans are prone to roll over in a crash when loaded with passengers. Officials have delivered safety warnings to carmakers as well as the public. Still, there are many churches and organizations all over Kentucky, in Louisville, and nationwide that depend on these vans and use them on a daily basis to transport passengers—often including children—to where they need to be.
According to a recent investigation launched by Courier Journal, 600 people have been killed in single-vehicle rollovers involving 15-passenger vans since the safety warnings were issued 17 years ago. The most common vans in these accidents are made by Ford, Chrysler, and GM. The 2002 Ford E350 is one of the most well-known accident-causing culprits.
Courier Journal analyzed millions of crash records from six states between 2004 and 2017 and found that the older vans that lack modern safety features have about a 52% chance of rolling over in a crash when filled with passengers and traveling at standard highway speeds. The NHTSA’s findings were similar. The organization found that the center of gravity shifts in these vans as more passengers are inside, raising the likelihood of a rollover if the driver must make a sharp turn or swerve.
According to the Courier’s research, 71% of deaths in 15-passenger vans happen during rollover crashes. When creating these vans, Ford and Chrysler extended the bodies of the vans designed to carry 12 passengers to allow an extra row of seats. The same wheelbase, or distance between the axles, was used as in the smaller vans.
Evidence shows that in a past lawsuit against Ford for a 15-passenger van accident, product planners recommended extending the wheelbase and adding dual rear wheels. This recommendation wasn’t followed. Newer models feature longer wheelbases as well as electronic stability control that help drivers avoid swerving, but the older models were not updated. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, it’s estimated that about 600,000 older 15-passenger vans remain on the road today.
Ford has historically dominated the 15-passenger van market. The company has also fiercely disputed safety advisories and fought government requests to make their vans safer. In 2003, when the National Transportation Board advised Ford and GM to improve rollover passenger protection, GM complied but Ford did not. Ford was also a year behind GM in releasing newer van models that featured electronic stability control, a breaking system that helps drivers remain in control in emergencies/on slick surfaces.
While it’s possible to retrofit older models, the high costs of doing so make it an unrealistic task for most churches and groups that use them. Ford and GM have not issued any recalls for the older vans and fight every request to do so. During a 2012 lawsuit, a Ford representative stated that the older vans are fine without retrofitted upgrades and perform “reasonably safe if used in a reasonable way.” The defendants tried to claim that the NHTSA’s data was flawed.
In a case involving a 1996 crash, it was suggested that Ford may have not performed adequate simulations to measure the effectiveness of design and factors that contribute to loss of control during rollovers. The plaintiffs’ attorney found evidence suggesting that Ford did the tests but hid the results. The case was settled outside of court.
Accidents continue to happen to this day involving the older 15-passenger vans. Many churches do not know they are dangerous and that multiple lawsuits have been filed against Ford. The most recent lawsuit happened in December 2017 in Missouri. Ford argued that the van was safe even though the accident led to one death and 11 injuries.
One solution is to regulate groups that buy/use these vehicles and/or require van drivers to obtain a commercial driver’s license which may lower the amount of accidents that occur. Unfortunately, either solution is complex and will not take shape easily. Until that point, churches and other organizations are encouraged to remove the rear seats from 15-passenger vans, perform regular inspections, install dual wheels, and only allow experienced drivers to get behind the wheel.