Highway safety administration repeats warning for 15-passenger vans

Monday, April 15th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government is renewing a safety warning for 15-passenger vans, often used by churches, sports teams and other groups.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration repeated Monday the unusual consumer advisory it issued a year ago, warning the vans have a dramatically higher risk of rollovers when fully loaded and only should be operated by experienced drivers.

NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge said the problems are not related to the van's design.

``This is not a defect issue,'' he said. ``This is a behavioral issue with the drivers.''

Before getting behind the wheel, a driver should be familiar with the handling aspects of such a large vehicle, he said.

NHTSA had no figures on the number of van accidents in the last year, but at least three have resulted in multiple injuries or deaths.

Six members of the Utah State University men's volleyball club were injured when their van flipped last April. A month later, separate accidents killed four women on a trip with the First Assembly of God church in Burkburnett, Texas, and two members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at the University of Central Arkansas.

NHTSA is studying whether to require all new 15-passenger vans to carry a label encouraging seat belt use and warning about rollover risks.

Joan Claybrook, president of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, called NHTSA's actions ``woefully inadequate.''

``A verbal admonishment to wear your seat belt will do nothing to protect these passengers,'' she said. ``A warning label would only shield auto manufacturers from liability, allowing them to argue that they aren't responsible for deaths and injuries sustained in rollover crashes because the drivers and passengers were duly warned.''

NHTSA officials said there are about 1.4 million 15-passenger vans registered in the United States. Popular models include the Econoline E350, Chevrolet Express 3500, GMC Savana G3500, GMC Rally/Vandura G3500 and Dodge Ram Van/Wagon B3500.

Anyone carrying 16 or more people for commercial purposes is required to have a commercial driver's license, but no special license or experience is required for the 15-passenger vans. Federal law bans the purchase of 15-passenger vans for schools, but there is no such ban for colleges.

Runge said he is sending a letter reminding dealerships that it is illegal for them to sell the vans to schools.

When fully loaded, a large van's center of gravity shifts higher and to the back, increasing the risk of rollovers. Last year NHTSA examined accident data in seven states from 1994 through 1997 and found the vans are three times more likely to roll over when carrying 10 or more passengers.