Public Citizen's Advice to Owners of 15-Passenger Vans

Thanks for your interest in improving the safety of your 15-passenger van. Unfortunately, there are no easy steps to fix the vehicles for consumers. In fact, Public Citizen does not recommend the conversion of 15-passenger vans to dual rear wheels by anyone other than the original manufacturer or its dealer. Aftermarket shops may not fully understand the complexity and vehicle impact of such a retrofit and will likely require a waiver of their own liability as a condition of conversion. Because the manufacturers are responsible for the safety hazards afflicting 15-passenger vans, they should be the ones to remedy the problem. We realize that consumers might feel helpless to protect themselves, but we recommend pressuring the manufacturers to fix the vans and purchasing another means of transport.

In our report, entitled Stopping Rollovers: The Dual Wheel Solution, we asked Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation to completely redesign future 15-passenger vans to reduce their rollover propensity and to improve their now inadequate crashworthiness (the capability of a vehicle’s safety design to protect occupants in crash and rollover). As a short term fix, we urged Ford and GM to retrofit existing 15-passenger vans with dual rear wheels in order to mitigate the high susceptibility of these vehicles to rollover.

Some pickup trucks manufactured by Ford and GM include dual rear wheels as standard equipment and others are easily converted. The research cited in the report, conducted by trial attorneys C. Tab Turner and Ben Hogan for the purposes of litigation, demonstrated the ability of dual rear wheels to diminish wheel lift in the dynamic rollover testing of Ford and GM 15-passenger vans. Because dual rear wheels are offered by the manufacturers as a way to improve the handling, stability and traction of pickup trucks, at the very least, manufacturers should take the step of making dual rear wheels available for 15-passenger vans.

Unfortunately, General Motors Corporation and Ford Motor Company refuse to retrofit 15-passenger vans with dual rear wheels. Ford Motor Company maintains that, despite the mounting evidence suggesting otherwise, the E Series van is "a very safe vehicle." The company "recommend[s] that drivers of 15-passenger Econoline vans avoid sharp turns, excessive speeds and abrupt maneuvers." Many rollovers, however, are precipitated by unavoidable emergency maneuvers and tire failures, as Ford perhaps knew. Also, attached is an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times that discusses a recent ruling by a federal judge that concluded Ford deliberately hid evidence related to the company’s testing of its 15-passenger vans.

The high rollover propensity of 15-passenger vans is linked to the vehicle’s high center of gravity, which tends to increase and shift rearward as the vehicle is loaded with occupants and cargo. The rearward shift in the center of gravity decreases the van’s lateral stability and makes it prone to fishtailing. If loss of control occurs, the van’s high center of gravity may cause it to tip and rollover.

Ideally, you should take your 15-passenger van out-of-service and use a small school bus for group transportation. Should you temporarily need to continue to use these dangerous vehicles, the following recommendations are based on those made by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the GuideOne Insurance for lowering the risk of rollover in 15-passenger vans:

  • Screen all drivers: it is best to require that drivers obtain a commercial driver’s license;
  • Remove the rear seat of the vans to reduce loading behind the vehicle’s rear axle;
  • Limit the capacity to 9 persons including the driver, which dramatically reduces the risk of rollover;
  • Load forward seats first at all times;
  • Communicate with passengers, parents and other parties about the high risks;
  • Do not tow anything behind the vehicle or load the roof;
  • Conduct a full safety inspection of the vehicle, including all tires, pre- and post-trip (tire blowouts are particularly dangerous and often lead to rollovers);
  • Include safety items on board, such as a fire extinguisher, first aid kit and cellular phone (which should not be used during driving);
  • Require all passengers and the driver to wear proper safety restraints any time the vehicle is in motion.