The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating a recent crash involving a 15-passenger van, a vehicle that’s been under scrutiny for years regarding safety issues. The crash killed eight members of a Florida church. The deadly accident occurred at an unlit T-intersection in farm country. NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said the agency plans to investigate factors affecting the driver’s performance, the functionality of the van’s safety features, whether the 18 occupants were wearing seatbelts and if the intersection has a history of accidents occurring there.
Volsaint Marsaille, 58, was the driver. He and seven of his passengers lost their lives when the van plunged into a ravine. Marsaille had a good record as the longtime driver of the church van. The crash occurred after Marsaille missed a stop sign at the intersection. Consumer watchdogs say the accident illustrates the difficulties involved in controlling the vans during emergencies, such as missed stops. Despite the fact that the van was overloaded and the driver went through the stop sign, consumer advocates say the inherent safety issues make the vehicles more prone to tragedy. According to federal statistics, over 520 people have died in 15-passenger van crashes from 2004 to 2010.
Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA head under President Jimmy Carter and past president of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, highlights the issues:
- Height and width leads to more rollovers
- Structural integrity of seats
- Seatbelt quality and availability
- Lack of stability controls (older models)
- Lack of tire pressure monitoring features (older models)
NHTSA and NTSB have been warning people of the risks of using these vehicles for over a decade now. The warnings include risk of rollover and increase in maneuverability if the vans are overloaded. Seatbelt use is also another focus of the warnings, as is checking tire pressure for every trip.
The safety factors, especially in the older models, are undeniable. Overloading isn’t necessary to have a rollover accident in these vehicles. Even vans with only ten occupants have a rollover risk that is nearly three times that of the same vehicle with only five occupants.
Why then do people continue to use them? They are convenient and affordable means of transportation for churches and other groups, including college teams. They have “utility,” an important distinction in product liability law.
Could something be done about the inherent dangers? No and yes. Nothing other than owner/driver efforts can salvage the older models. Don’t overload, always check tire pressure and make sure everyone buckles up. However, manufacturers could simply extend the wheelbase, which would eliminate a great percentage of center of gravity rollover issues. In fact, one wonders at why they aren’t. At last check, if a relatively easy redesign could solve a safety issue, manufacturers have a duty to do it.
Speaking of duties, while the loss of life in Florida (and in many other states) due to crashes involving these vehicles is tragic, one must also wonder if some of them could have been prevented if owners/drivers had followed safety instructions. Before you call me heartless, consider this:
- No one can argue that seatbelts save lives, yet many passengers in these vans don’t wear them.
- Many warnings are in place to check tire pressure on these (and most other) vehicles. This simple step cuts down on the likelihood of rollovers and loss of maneuverability.
- Occupant limits are there for a reason. One cannot reasonably expect that a vehicle rated for 15 occupants will be safe with 20.
I am not in any way absolving manufacturers of their responsibility to produce safe products. I am, however, saying that personal responsibility (in the form of following the use recommendations of a product) also plays a part in safety. The best possible outcome in the issue of 15-passenger vans would be a redesign to reduce the likelihood of rollovers and an educational campaign designed to instruct (warn, if you will) owners/drivers of the proper use of these vehicles.