Dual Rear Wheels: The Fix for 15-Passenger Van Instability

Nov. 12, 2002

Dual Rear Wheels: The Fix for 15-Passenger Van Instability

Retrofit Could Stop Vans From Rolling Over, Spare Hundreds from Injury and Death

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Installing dual rear wheels on 15-passenger vans, which have become notorious for their propensity to roll over when loaded with people and cargo, could effectively stabilize the vehicles, Public Citizen announced today.

At a press conference with six victims of these van rollover crashes and two top auto safety attorneys, Public Citizen called on Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler to install a new axle on the back of the van that would hold four wheels, instead of the usual two. The retrofit would cost manufacturers approximately $135.

The vans, one of which is advertised by Dodge as a “people-moving power house,” are routinely used by churches, universities, airport ground transport companies, day care centers and elder care groups to transport people on field trips, church outings and athletic trips. About 500,000 15-passenger vans were on the road in July 2001, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

“We want the public to know that there is a simple and cost-effective way to reduce these dangerous vans from rolling over, killing and maiming innocent people,” said Public Citizen president Joan Claybrook. “It’s shameful that the manufacturers have refused for 25 years to make these vehicles safe. This isn’t tough, and it isn’t technically complex. They know how to do it.”

The more the vans are loaded, the more likely they are to roll over. The vans are involved in a disproportionate number of single-vehicle crashes involving rollovers when compared to other passenger vehicles. 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. Further, the rollover rate for 15-passenger vans triples when the vans are loaded with 10 or more people, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Prompted by a number of high-profile rollover crashes, NHTSA in April 2001 issued a warning and major report about the dangers of the vans. It issued another warning in April 2002. While this was the first some van owners had heard about the problem, it wasn’t news to auto manufacturers, who have known of the instability problem for years, according to company documents, but have deliberately chosen not to address the problem.

Fifteen-passenger vans exist in regulatory limbo as loophole vehicles under federal law. Because they are designed to carry more than 10 passengers, they are classified as buses, yet they need not meet the more stringent vehicle safety standards required of large and small school buses. The vehicles also do not have to meet key protective federal motor vehicle safety standards that apply to smaller vans, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and passenger cars. They are not included in NHTSA’s New Car Assessment Program, which conducts crash tests of vehicles and publishes the results, nor are they a subject of the agency’s research and pending new rule on a rollover risk testing program.

“For far too long, the auto industry has taken advantage of loopholes and gaps in safety regulations in distributing 15-passenger vans for use by church groups and other organizations,” said C. Tab Turner, an Arkansas attorney representing crash victims. “It is time for the industry to fix the 15-passenger vans or to quit selling them altogether. Until the vans can be redesigned, dual rear wheels will clearly improve their performance and manufacturers should install them immediately. This option has existed for years and is available.”

Added Alabama attorney Ben Hogan, “Although 15-passenger vans are marketed as people carriers, they have never been adequately tested as people carriers. The manufacturers cannot tell you how they will behave when a tire blows out because they don’t know. It is a travesty that it takes the court system and safety groups to call attention to something like this. Manufacturers of these vans up until today have once again placed the almighty dollar ahead of spending the minimum on honest safety testing before marketing their product.”

Public Citizen, Turner and Hogan recommend that:

For vehicles on the road:

  • Manufacturers retrofit all existing 15-passenger vans with a new axle to hold dual rear wheels, stabilizer bars and related technology, as applicable;
  • NHTSA include vans in research programs and apply rollover consumer information rules, which are currently being developed, to 15-passenger vans;
  • NHTSA send warning letters to all 15-passenger van owners;
  • Insurers raise rates for 15-passenger vans and recommend owners dispose of them. In the meantime, insurers should recommend that owners limit the occupancy to five passengers;

For the future:

  • Manufacturers should stop making the vans and incorporate proper rollover prevention designs and crash protection measures in future vans;
  • NHTSA should prohibit further manufacture of the vans by reclassifying them for cargo only;
  • NHTSA should apply all existing small school bus safety standards and all smaller SUV/van crash protection standards to the 15-passenger van; and
  • The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration should amend rules to require 15-passenger van drivers to have commercial driver licenses.

“We have lost so much because of this vehicle’s poor design, and those that had the power to remove it from our highways and did nothing,” said North Carolina resident Mary Joe, who attended the press conference and whose brother was killed in July in a 15-passenger van crash.

Click here to view a copy of the report.