The Long And Short of Stretch Vans
Summer camps, churches and athletic teams often use 15-passenger vans to transport our most prized possessions: our children. But the safety of these vehicles is questionable at best. On October 15, 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a safety report evaluating the rollover propensity of 15-passenger vans. Their findings are startling. When fully loaded, these vans are three times more likely to roll than other vans and SUVs. Specifically, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in 2001 that 15-passenger vans with ten or more occupants had three times the rollover ratio than did those with fewer than ten occupants. This increased propensity to roll over is caused by the location of the center of gravity and by the van’s steering behavior during emergency maneuvers such as a sudden lane change.
Fully loading these vans results in the center of gravity moving upward and rearward. Any object with a higher center of gravity will tip over easier than an object with a lower center of gravity. A brick flat on its side is virtually impossible to tip over by simply asserting a lateral force. Conversely, a pencil balanced on its eraser has a very high relative center of gravity and may be tipped over by simply blowing on it. Working in concert with many other factors, a vehicle’s center of gravity also affects its ability to tip or to roll over. Sports cars with lower centers of gravity rarely roll over. SUVs and vans with higher centers of gravity have a much higher rollover propensity. Fully loaded 15-passenger vans have one of the highest rollover rates of vehicles on the road today.
Adding to the problems with the center of gravity, a fully loaded van more readily transitions from an under steer condition to an over steer condition during emergency maneuvers such as quick lane changes. A vehicle in an over steer condition is more difficult to handle and behaves in a counterintuitive manner. The combination of the higher center of gravity and an over steer condition is deadly.
On February 10, 2000, a 1990 Ford E-350 XLT 15-passenger van rolled while carrying a Texas A&M track coach, a trainer and eight students. Four were killed, and six sustained serious injuries. Sadly, this is a story that has been repeated time and time again. A federal government database, the Fatal Accident Reporting System, shows that 919 people were killed or seriously injured in 214 rollovers involving Ford E-350 15-passenger vans manufactured between 1981 and 1999. Despite the documented increase in rollovers of fully loaded 15-passenger vans, the manufacturers do no dynamic testing to help in the evaluation and reduction of rollover propensity, nor have they made needed design changes to these vehicles.
What can be done? The manufacturers refuse to spend the time and money to test these vans in dynamic real-world conditions. Real testing by the manufacturers is essential. Second, the manufacturers should add dual tires to the rear wheels and widen the track width of the vehicles. These simple changes would drastically reduce the rollover propensity of these vehicles and save lives. Short of design changes, the manufacturers at a minimum should warn consumers about the effect fully loading these vehicles has on handling and stability.
Until vehicle manufacturers implement real changes, we recommend that you and your loved ones simply not ride in 15-passenger vans. We are not alone in this commendation.
In August 2002, the United States Marines considered limiting the use of 15-passenger vans because of safety concerns. Three large church insurers – GuideOne, Brotherhood Mutual and Church Mutual – have all issued safety warnings about 15-passenger vans. One such warning states: “GuideOne believes 15-passenger vans [are] inherently unsafe.”
If riding in 15-passenger vans is an absolute must, never do so with more than ten occupants. If you have any questions about the safety of 15-passenger vans, please do not hesitate to contact Andy Payne.