Dangerous 15-Passenger Vans Have Fallen Through Regulatory Cracks
Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook*
Every day, people throughout the country step into 15-passenger vans to attend church events, sports games and outings. Many don’t realize they are climbing aboard what is arguably one of the most unsafe passenger vehicles on the road. These vans are horribly unstable when they make an emergency maneuver or turn, and they become more so as they are loaded with more people and luggage. In other words, the more 15-passenger vans are used for their intended purpose, the more deadly they become.
Between 1990 and 2000, 864 occupants of these vans died in crashes, 424 of them in single vehicle rollover crashes. From 1991 to 2000, 33 percent of passenger vehicles involved in single-vehicle, fatal accidents experienced a rollover compared to 52 percent for 15-passenger vans. Also, 81 percent of all 15-passenger van occupant fatalities occurred in single-vehicle rollover accidents.
The 15-passenger van is a stepchild of sorts. Originally built to transport cargo, automakers cheaply converted the vans to allow them to carry passengers. But they didn’t add the safety features needed for carrying people, rather than just cargo. Federal safety regulators have done nothing about this. The 15-passenger van has been allowed to fall through the regulatory cracks. The van is classified as a bus but does not have to meet safety rules pertaining to school buses because it doesn’t regularly transport children. The vans don’t carry more than 16 people, so their drivers need not obtain commercial driver’s licenses. Further, because they are considered buses, the vans don’t have to meet the same safety requirements as sport utility vehicles and mini-vans.
So the vans lack critical crash safety features. Their roofs can crush easily in rollover crashes because they don’t have to meet any roof crush standard. And when they roll, belts attached to the roof fail to work. They don’t have to comply with any rules relating to head restraints, which help ensure people’s necks don’t snap back in crashes. Nor must the vans meet any standard requiring doors to remain firmly in place during a crash, and side impact requirements are minimal.
Auto companies have known for years that these vehicles are inherently unstable and unsafe, yet they have chosen to do nothing about it. This is particularly egregious because of the gruesome nature of these crashes, which usually involve multiple deaths and injuries. In fact, manufacturers have a higher duty to protect occupants in these vehicles because of the many people carried.
Today we are presenting a way to address this deadly instability problem immediately for vehicles on the road. It’s a simple fix and one that automakers have long known about. That is: dual rear wheels. By installing a new rear axle with four wheels instead of two, the vans can be made much less prone to rolling over. The fix costs manufacturers only about $135.
That’s a start, but there’s more that can be done. In addition to calling on manufacturers to immediately retrofit these vehicles, we demand that they stop making them. Instead, new vans should be redesigned to be made more stable and to include the critical crash protections that they now lack.
Manufacturers aren’t the only ones that can help here. We also call on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to send warning letters to all 15-passenger van owners explaining the dangers associated with the vans. And we urge the agency to include the vans in research programs and apply rollover consumer information rules, which are currently being developed, to 15-passenger vans. We also call on the agency to prohibit further manufacturer of the vans by reclassifying them and to apply all existing school bus safety standards to these vans.
There’s more. We ask insurers to raise rates for 15-passenger vans and urge owners to dispose of them. In the meantime, we urge owners to allow no more than five passengers on the vans at any time.
Finally, we urge Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to require 15-passenger van drivers to have commercial drivers licenses.
This problem is one that is entirely solvable. Let’s do it now, before more innocent people get hurt.
*Joan Claybrook was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977-1981.