Government: Automakers need to make 15-passenger vans safer

Tuesday, July 15th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. should add lap-and-shoulder seat belts and other improvements to their 15-passenger vans by 2006 to make them safer in rollover accidents, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.

The NTSB wants the seat belts in all seating positions, and recommended that the companies improve interiors and strengthen roofs to prevent head injuries during rollover crashes.

The NTSB only has the power to recommend changes, but NTSB Chairwoman Ellen Engleman made it clear that the board wants action.

``Recommendations are not enough. We want them to be implemented,'' she said.

Both automakers said they would consider the recommendations.

GM spokesman Jim Schell said GM already planned to make some of the changes by 2008.

``We have a history of meeting regulations earlier, but I can't say that we'll be able to do that right away,'' he said.

Schell said GM's 15-passenger vans already meet federal standards for head injury prevention, and 11 of the van's 15 seats have lap-and-shoulder belts. Schell added that most injuries happen when an unbelted passenger's head hits the roof, rather than the roof crushing on the occupant's head.

The NTSB said 15-passenger vans, which are often used to transport children by churches and other groups, have escaped many regulations that apply to passenger cars because they are too large.

The NTSB made its recommendations after reviewing data from two fatal 2001 crashes in Texas and North Carolina. In both cases, tires blew out on church vans that were full of teenagers. The vans left the road and rolled over.

In the Texas crash, the driver of the 1993 Dodge van and three passengers were killed. In the North Carolina crash, one passenger in the 1989 Dodge van was killed. DaimlerChrysler AG no longer makes 15-passenger vans.

NTSB investigators said the tires on both vehicles were over eight years old and had significant wear, but the churches did not do routine maintenance and state inspectors didn't note the problems.

Investigators also pointed out that only three of the 12 passengers in the Texas crash were wearing seat belts. Twelve of the 14 passengers in the North Carolina crash were unbelted.

The NTSB also recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, AAA and others develop a driver training program for 15-passenger vans to make sure drivers understand the vans operate differently than cars. They also want states to adopt license endorsements for 15-passenger vans.

Ford spokeswoman Carolyn Brown said the company is studying improvements, but stands by the safety of its 15-passenger van.

``When they're driven appropriately and all of the occupants are belted, they are an exceedingly safe vehicle,'' Brown said. ``But a 15-passenger van is not a car, and it needs to be driven in a manner that is consistent with that.''

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