15-Passenger Vans Remain Legal Despite Rollover Risks

15-passenger vans are among the most dangerous vehicles on U.S. roads and highways. Yet, they are perfectly legal, even while being the subject of many U.S. government warnings. Tragically, they are also a vehicle of choice for transporting children to daycare, teens to youth programs, carpoolers to work, church groups and senior citizens to special events.

15-Passenger Van Rollover Accidents and Other Dangers

Beasley Allen’s auto product liability attorneys have sounded the alarm about 15-passenger van safety for many years, so it’s especially frustrating when we hear of yet another crash involving these tragically unstable vehicles. Our desire to get these vehicles off the roads once and for all is why we continue to aggressively pursue product liability lawsuits on behalf of those who have been injured or killed in a 15-passenger van crash.

The 15-passenger van looks like any other van, except it has been lengthened to accommodate more passengers. In fact, van makers met the growing demand for vans that could accommodate more passengers not by designing a new vehicle but by modifying existing vans. The automakers that redesigned and produced these vans knew they were unstable. Still, they continued to manufacture, promote, and sell them to the American public regardless of their risks.

These alterations introduced a slew of dangerous problems to the safe operation of the vehicles. Most critically, the vans’ high center of gravity and narrow track width make them ill-suited to carry several passengers. In fact, the more passengers that ride in the van, the more likely it is to roll over in an emergency, such as a collision with another vehicle, blown tire, swerve, or overcorrection – all of which are fairly common emergencies.

According to 15-passenger van accident research and data, the rollover risk increases 9%-12% per occupant. In single-vehicle crashes, 15-passenger vans are three times more likely to roll over when occupied by more than ten people (nine passengers and the driver). This means the vans are inherently unsafe when used for their intended purpose.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that 235 people were killed in 15-passenger van rollover crashes from 2010-2019. The agency’s reporting system doesn’t account for the number of non-fatal injuries, but that figure is likely to be just as high or higher.

Fiery 15-Passenger Van Rollover in Atlanta Metro

Beasley Allen’s personal injury lawyers have handled several lawsuits involving fatal and non-fatal injuries associated with 15-passenger van accidents in the past, and we are currently litigating two such cases.  

Chris Glover, Managing Attorney for our Atlanta office, recently filed lawsuits against Chrysler Group and others on behalf of several victims injured and killed in a fiery 15-passenger van rollover in Gwinnett County, Georgia, last year.

The vehicle at the center of that case – a 2002 Dodge Ram passenger van – was used like a mini-bus to transport residents of We Are Living Proof, a Georgia sober living community. The 15-passenger van was driving 14 women to a recovery meeting when the driver suddenly lost control.

The van rolled over onto its side and slid across two lanes of traffic on I-85 just outside of downtown Atlanta before bursting into flames. Seven women died in the fiery crash and the remaining nine were injured.

Glover filed lawsuits for four of the injured women and the families of five of the deceased women. Co-counsel Alan Hamilton, a partner with the Shiver Hamilton firm, joined the injury case filing and filed a separate case for the families of two of the women who died in the crash.

“These vehicles were discontinued the next year after the one holding these women was sold, yet nothing was done to protect the many lives impacted by this dangerous design. Chrysler was well aware of its dangers before they ever sold this van,” Glover said, noting that the government had been warning the public about the vans for years.

“This was a relatively minor tip-over. Everyone should have walked away. It’s a tragedy that due to the vehicle’s design, these women were trapped in a fiery inferno,” Co-Counsel Hamilton said of the Atlanta crash.

Horrific 15-Passenger Van Accident in Greenville, Alabama

Our firm is also handling a lawsuit for the driver of a 15-passenger van and the families of five children who perished in a fiery June 2021 crash in Butler County, Alabama.

The driver was transporting eight children in a Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch van, including two of her own, on I-65 north after a vacation in Gulf Shores. The van crashed after a tractor-trailer in front of it collided with slowed traffic and veered into the lane occupied by the van. Another tractor-trailer struck the van moments later, igniting a fire that quickly engulfed the van.

Bystanders pulled the injured driver from the burning wreckage. She then ran around the burning van, desperately trying to help the children escape, but the fire and the damage from the crash trapped the children, killing all eight of them.

The Evolution of a Dangerous Van

The trouble with 15-passenger vans starts with their design. The market for these vans emerged in the early 1970s with the Dodge Maxi Wagon. In response to the growing demand for vans that could transport more passengers, manufacturers chose to modify their existing cargo vans. The modifications included extending the cargo van’s length by about a foot and a half beyond the rear axle and installing seating capacity for 15 occupants.

Internal industry records show that engineers involved in the development of these vehicles recognized the need to consider alternative design options early on for safety reasons. For example, one manufacturer recognized that extending the wheelbase to lessen the distance between the rear axle and the van’s rear could substantially stabilize the vehicles. The manufacturer also found that adding dual rear wheels would provide more weight-bearing capacity, significantly improving the vehicle’s handling and stability.

The engineering tests showed that adding dual rear wheels in 15-passenger vans would significantly reduce the saturation of the rear tires and the tendency for drivers of the vehicle to over-steer. Thus, the added wheels would have enhanced 15-passenger van safety by providing a safety margin to prevent loss of control and rollover in emergencies.

However, after considering the projected profits of the existing design and the risk of lost opportunity from the delay necessitated by the proposed design changes, the manufacturer’s leadership rejected the engineering recommendations.

Automakers have long had the option of adapting van chassis for dual wheels. Still, they chose not to implement the improvement, even when the estimated cost per vehicle was considerably low – about $315 when the safety studies were conducted.

Government Warnings

After a series of deadly 15-passenger van rollover crashes in the 1990s and early 2000s, NHTSA investigated the vehicles’ crash record and safety. The results of that study prompted the agency to issue a rare consumer advisory warning in 2001 concerning Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet, and GMC 15-passenger vans and their tendency to roll over.

That warning was the first of several to come. From 2002 through 2012, NHTSA issued eight more safety alerts concerning 15-passenger van safety. Today, NHTSA continues to alert consumers about 15-passenger van crash risks. The agency’s website calls attention to the importance of driver experience and attention, speed, seatbelt usage, tire pressure, spare tires, and occupancy and cargo restrictions.

Insurers Issue 15-Passenger Van Safety Warnings

GuideOne Insurance has also warned its policyholders and the general public about the 15-passenger van crash risks. In a review of five accidents involving 15-passenger vans belonging to GuideOne policyholders, the company reported 11 deaths, more than 20 serious injuries, and claims totaling more than $4.3 million.

“More important is the impact that these accidents had on the health and vitality of the ministries and people involved,” the company noted on its website, referring to its church member clientele. “For these reasons, GuideOne believes that 15-passenger vans are inherently unsafe. We highly encourage all policyholders to strongly consider other transportation options.”

The Hanover Insurance Group notes that 15-passenger vans “are more likely to be involved in single-vehicle rollover crashes than any other type of vehicle” and similarly warns its customers of the many risks the vehicles present. Many other insurers have followed suit,

15-Passenger Vans Laws

Under the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005, Congress directed the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to require testing of 15-passenger vans as part of NHTSA’s NCAP rollover resistance program. NHTSA also established a new safety standard for 15-passenger vans and all other vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less. The safety standard was born out of decades of knowledge that tire failure is a leading cause of traffic accidents and catastrophically dangerous for 15-passenger vans and some SUVs.

Electronic Stability Control (ESC) is a standard safety feature in all 15-passenger vans purchased after 2006. ESC is an on-board crash avoidance system designed to help the driver keep control of the vehicle during emergency maneuvers like sudden braking and swerving. While ESC provides 15-passenger vans with many safety benefits, it is not reliable in some road and highway driving situations. And, of course, many older vans unequipped with ESC remain in service today.

15-Passenger Van Rollovers and Other Risks

The high center of gravity in 15-passenger vans is one of the leading causes of rollovers. The more passengers occupy a 15-passenger van, the more top-heavy it becomes. This is especially true when the vans are loaded with more than ten passengers, as weight distribution becomes critical.

For instance, if too many passengers occupy the rear of the vehicle instead of the front, or on one side substantially more than the other, the vehicle becomes harder to handle and more prone to rollover.

Weight Distribution

Improperly loading or overloading causes the van’s center of gravity to shift rearward and upward, thereby increasing the likelihood that the van fishtails (the rear slides to the side). Drivers typically react by countersteering to offset this motion. With a high center of gravity, fishtailing and other emergencies can easily lead to overcorrection and the driver losing control of the vehicle.

Tire Blowouts

Tire tread separations/blowouts on any passenger vehicle are often deadly, but the dangers they present to 15-passenger vehicles cannot be overstated. Improper loading and overloading can greatly diminish tire saturation and increase wear and the risk of a blowout. Proper tire maintenance and ensuring tires are free from defects are critically important to 15-passenger van safety. In the words of one engineer speaking the CBS’ 60 Minutes, “the tires on a 15-passenger van must never fail.”

False Sense of Security

In a report on 15-passenger van safety, the Tennessee Department of Safety explains that a false sense of safety among drivers and passengers can exacerbate the risks of driving and riding in the vehicles:

Many groups purchase 15-passenger vans thinking they are getting a cheaper version of a bus. But this is not the case. Buses are designed with greater safety features. By thinking 15-passenger vans are similar to buses, drivers are less likely to be concerned about tire failure (most buses have four rear tires).

The common perception that 15-passenger vans are as safe as buses makes the serious dangers of these vehicles potentially worse. While drivers may feel more confident behind the wheel of these vehicles, similarly, passengers may feel less inclined to exercise safety precautions.

Seatbelts

According to NHTSA, of the 235 people killed in 15-passenger van accidents from 2010-2019, 57% were ejected from the vehicle. Of those ejected, 69% were not wearing their seatbelts.

As noted earlier, many churches, schools, and others that buy 15-passenger vans believe the vehicles are akin to small buses, and the same perception often is held among drivers and passengers. Passengers may feel less need to wear a seat belt and may even feel it’s safe to move around while it is in motion.

In the event of a 15-passenger van rollover, unrestrained passengers are likely to be ejected through the shattered, non-laminated glass windows. Unlike most buses, 15-passenger vans lack interior crash padding, and thus unrestrained passengers are unprotected from being slammed into hard or sharp surfaces during a crash.

Roof Crush

Several consumer and traffic safety organizations note that whereas buses typically are built with reinforced sides to prevent the roof from collapsing in a rollover, this is not the case with 15-passenger vans. According to the Tennessee Department of Safety, a 15-passenger van rollover “commonly collapses the roof all the way to the seats.”

Recommended Safety Measures of 15-Passenger Van Drivers

NHTSA advises that 15-passenger vans should only be operated by experienced drivers trained in the safe operation of these vans. While drivers don’t need a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to operate a 15-passenger van (they are not classified as commercial vehicles), a commercial license is preferred. Safety recommendations also include:

  • Proper training: Drivers should be trained in the special response and handling of 15-passenger vans. Hiring inexperienced drivers and drivers who lack proper training drastically diminishes safe handling, especially in an emergency situation. Training should also include the safe distribution of passengers and cargo in the vehicle and the proper restraint of both to avoid shifts in weight during travel.
  • Rest: The driver should also be well-rested and attentive to driving at all times. According to NHTSA, 15-passenger van drivers should not exceed driving more than eight hours in a 24-hour period.
  • Distraction: The use of cell phones and other handheld devices should be expressly prohibited for drivers. Additionally, NHTSA recommends that drivers limit their conversation with passengers.  
  • Frequent tire checks: The driver should also regularly check the van’s tires to ensure they are properly inflated and in good condition.
  • Speed: Lastly, the driver should never exceed the posted speed limit and should maintain safe speeds in weather conditions that make the road slippery or limit visibility.

Over the years, Beasley Allen has successfully litigated thousands of personal injury, wrongful death, and product liability cases resulting from 15-passenger vans and other unsafe vehicles. If you or a family member have been injured in a 15-passenger van crash or other auto crash through no fault of your own, give us a call today. Our team of nationally recognized lawyers is backed by decades of combined experience in successfully handling cases involving deadly auto defects. Our firm has the resources to represent car crash clients across the country while never losing sight of the individual. If you have been a victim of a car crash, our lawyers can evaluate your case and determine your best course of action.  

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