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Linda Chalat
Linda Chalat
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Passenger Vans Under Scrutiny Again

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A church van blew a tire and rolled over on the New York state Thruway, killing six people, this past weekend. Fourteen people from a Bronx church were on their way to a church event near Schenectady when the tire burst and the van hurtled out of control. The van rolled over into the grassy median, and several passengers were ejected.

The van is a type that some consumer groups have been calling unsafe for nearly a decade. Public Citizen and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety both told The Associated Press on Monday in response to a question that they have been pushing for years for recalls, retrofits and redesigns of 15-passenger vans on the grounds that they are unstable.

Ford Motor Co., which made the 1997 Econoline that crashed, said Monday that government research showed the van is safe "when properly maintained, driven safely by experienced drivers and when occupants wear their safety belts." Ford said preliminary reports indicate Saturday’s accident was caused by a badly maintained tire. Police have not issued an official cause for the crash and plan to interview the driver, who was injured.

Statistics from the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration show there were 1,090 fatalities between 1997 and 2006 in 15-passenger vans, 688 of those in rollovers.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued a 2002 report on van rollovers after studying 20 years’ worth of crashes. It concurred that fully loading such vans affected safety, determining that the rollover rate for fully loaded or nearly loaded 15-passenger vans is about three times the rollover ratio of vans with fewer than five passengers. It also found that increasing the number of passengers and the speed "consistently predict the increased likelihood of 15-passenger van rollover."

Because these 15-passenger vans are often used by "churches, schools, sports teams, and eldercare centers, the crashes typically impact an entire community. This style of van is very popular in Colorado for transport from Denver International Airport to the ski resorts along the Interstate 70 corridor.

Some experts label the 15-passenger vans as "inherently unsafe," pointing to the high center of gravity of the van, particularly when loaded. This puts the van at risk for flipping. When a tire blows, the shift in weight unbalances the vehicle sufficiently to cause a rollover. And when the load includes passengers who aren’t wearing seat belts — like most of the passengers in the van that crashed Saturday — there’s even more of a weight shift.

In 2002, The Public Citizen also issued a report with the suggestion that manufacturers retrofit such vans with four tires rather than two on each rear axle to improve stability. Neither the manufacturers nor NHTSA imposed such a requirement. However, NHTSA has issued safety recommendations for using a 15-passenger van, including checking tires and tire pressure, using drivers with specific training on the vans and seating people near the front when the van is not full.