Information received from Dir of Logistics, HQ CAP, 28 Aug 02

Please pass this article to those who are closest to the operation of 15 passenger vans.

This article describes a safety concern with 15 passenger vans rolling over. Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded 15 passenger vans were not inherently dangerous, the high center of gravity, coupled with inexperienced drivers piloting fully loaded vehicles, creates a safety risk. With a high center of gravity the van can tip over more easily than cars if a driver has to negotiate sudden turns. These vans don't handle like a passenger car, they handle more like a truck. Drivers have to be particularly careful to avoid a situation that could lead to a rollover.

A van must not be overloaded and if it is driven properly, it is safe. It is primarily a behavior issue with drivers and passengers. Only experienced drivers should operate the vans and passengers and driver must wear seat belts. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said the overwhelming majority of the people who died in 15-passenger van crashes were not wearing seat belts. Operators of 15 passenger vans, and all vehicles, should not make sharp turns, use excessive speed and avoid abrupt maneuvers.

The fleet manager for the buy of Chevrolet 15 PAX vans has indicated that the new vans have an extended wheel base which should increase the margin of safety of vans tipping over.

Thank you for your help in disseminating this article.

Mike Stewart
Director of Logistics, HQ CAP

August 24, 2002
Some Insurers Halt Coverage for Vans Linked to Rollovers

After deadly rollover crashes of 15-passenger vans that killed or injured young athletes, church choir members and summer campers, a growing number of colleges and churches are prohibiting or severely limiting the use of the vehicles, and some insurance companies are refusing to insure the vans as costly lawsuit settlements threaten to cut into their profits.

Accidents involving athletes from Urbana University, Kenyon College, DePaul University, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and Prairie View A&M University within three months led federal officials to issue a well-publicized warning about the vans two years ago.

But the officials, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, concluded that the vans, which are also commonly used by airport shuttle services and day care centers, were not inherently dangerous. Many of the problems, it said, are attributable to inexperienced drivers piloting fully loaded vehicles.

Last April the agency repeated its warning. The Marine Corps, which, like other military services, uses the vans widely, distributed the safety alert to all of those using the vehicles. Capt. Shawn Turner, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon, said last night that the corps was considering limiting the use of the vans because of safety concerns.

When carrying only a few passengers, the traffic agency said, the vans have a rollover rate that is similar to other light trucks and vans. But when fully loaded, the likelihood of a rollover is six times the usual. The insurers say the vans, even when lightly loaded, sometimes roll over if the steering wheel is jerked in an emergency maneuver.

The Ford Motor Company, which accounts for about 80 percent of the 21,000 15-passenger vans sold annually, acknowledges that its E350, Econline and Club Wagon models can be tricky to handle. But Carolyn Brown, a Ford spokeswoman, said: "If it is not overloaded and if it is driven properly, it is a very safe vehicle."

The problem with 15-passenger vans is similar to what Ford experienced two years ago with its Explorer sport utility vehicle. Both have high centers of gravity and thus can tip over more easily than cars if they have to negotiate sudden turns, as when a tire blows out.

Ford has been building similar vehicles for 40 years, Ms. Brown said, adding that sales were on the rise. "We would see no reason why an insurance company would not feel it was a worthy vehicle to insure," Ms. Brown said.

But the Colorado School Districts Self-Insurance Pool, the biggest insurer of public schools in that state, stopped issuing new coverage for the vans on July 1. And, on top of the average premium cost of $750 a vehicle, it imposed a $500 surcharge for customers with up to 10 of the vans.

GuideOne, a leading insurer of churches and their vehicles, announced last week that it had stopped selling new policies. Two other big church insurers, Church Mutual and Brotherhood Mutual, have issued safety advisories.

P. J. Crowley, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group that represents major insurers including State Farm, said other companies were deciding case by case whether to insure the vans.

Fatal rollovers, however, have continued - most recently in late June, when a Ford Econoline van carrying firefighters in Colorado crashed, killing five passengers. Between 1990 and 2000, the large, heavy vans were involved in 388 rollovers, killing 558 people, government records show. Comparable figures for other vehicles were not available.

Jeff Wigington, a lawyer in Corpus Christi, Tex., who has represented plaintiffs in half a dozen cases involving fatal crashes with the vans, says they ought to be recalled.

Other assessments have not gone that far, at least not publicly. But Jim Wallace, the chief executive of GuideOne, called the vehicles "inherently dangerous."

"Our underlying claims experience has been bad on these," he said. "We've had a number of heart-wrenching claims. They tend to be Sunday school classes going on retreat or on missions to help others. These things turn over, and a lot of people die or get injured." GuideOne, based in West Des Moines, Iowa, said it would continue coverage on the 10,000 vans it already insures. But it is raising rates 20 percent to 25 percent and is trying to persuade van owners to replace them with small school buses.

Federal officials say they are powerless to recall a vehicle that may be difficult to handle but that has no specific mechanical defect.

"This is not a defect issue," Dr. Jeffrey Runge, the administrator of the federal agency, said through a spokesman. "It's a behavior issue with drivers and passengers."

The spokesman, Rae Tyson, added: "These vehicles don't handle like a passenger car, they handle more like a truck. And people who drive trucks understand you have to be particularly careful to avoid a situation that could lead to a rollover."

Critics of the traffic safety agency say it is as weak in response to the dangers of the 15-passenger vans as it was to the Ford Explorer problem.

Mr. Wigington called the agency's warnings in this case "merely a Band-Aid on a bleeding wound."

"With the Ford Explorer," he said, "it wasn't until many people died and there was a public outcry that the manufacturer took steps to redesign the vehicle."

The 15-passenger vans are popular in public school fleets because of their ample capacity and modest price - usually less than $30,000 compared with $35,000 or more for a bus of similar size. Congress moved to ban them for public school use in 1974 because they were regarded as far less safe than standard school buses. But it left several loopholes that Representative Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, is trying to close with new legislation. His bill would also prohibit colleges and universities from using the vans.

"We're strongly with Congresssman Udall on this," said Wayne Scott, president of the American Association of Classified School Employees, a union that represents school drivers and other school employees except teachers in 40 states. "They're tremendously dangerous vehicles."

In Tennessee, the Department of Human Services, which oversees day care centers that use hundreds of the vans to transport small children, is imposing new requirements for drivers and by 2005 will ban the use of the vehicles. The University of Virginia has banned them, and the University of Texas athletic department has stopped using them while the university develops a systemwide program on their use, with some restrictions.

Dave Williams, who is in charge of insurance for the three vans of the First Baptist Church of Raytown, near Kansas City, Mo., said that until hearing from GuideOne he had had no inkling that the vans might be dangerous. "I was very grateful," he said, adding that he immediately made plans to replace the vans. He said that he was not surprised by the premium increase and that he planned to stay with GuideOne.

Eliminating a category of coverage is unusual for insurance companies. When claims begin rising, they usually simply increase premiums. In its 55-year history, for example, GuideOne has never eliminated a line of coverage for safety reasons. GuideOne and the Colorado insurer said they would stop issuing new policies out of concern for the safety of their customers and their own bottom lines. GuideOne said that of the crashes in which it paid out more than $100,000 in claims for injuries in the last five years, the cost for those involving 15-passenger vans averaged $492,000, compared with $350,000 for other vehicles.

But Cheryle Sullivan, the chief executive of the Colorado insurance pool, cited another reason. With such widespread notice of the dangers of the vehicles, she said, a court might determine that anyone using one was so reckless that the insurance would be nullified. GuideOne and the Colorado company both said that within a few years, they hope to have none of the vans on their books.

The national traffic safety agency, which began investigating the vans after several crashes involving college athletes, issued a warning to consumers in April 2001, focusing on the propensity of the vehicles to tip over. In that warning and a second one last April, the agency said only experienced drivers should operate the vans. It also stressed the use of seat belts. In another report on the vans, the agency said the overwhelming majority of the people who died in 15-passenger van crashes were not wearing seat belts.

After the government warning in April, Ford issued an advisory cautioning against "sharp turns, excessive speed and abrupt maneuvers."

In most states, people can drive these vans with a standard driver's license. But in January, GuideOne will require its customers either to get a commercial or a chauffeur's license or to pass a defensive driving course.

Richard Schaber, a spokesman for Church Mutual in Merrill, Wis., said his company felt an obligation to continue insuring the vans. "The 15-passenger van is the church vehicle of choice," he said. "So we need to insure them."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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