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September 14, 2002 - The Dangers of 15 Passenger Vans

Federal highway-safety regulators have warned for two years that 15-passenger vans are much more likely to roll over when fully loaded. An April report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration warned about the propensity for rollovers and may have foreshadowed the worst motor-vehicle accident in Maine history. Fourteen forestry workers from Honduras and Guatemala died and another swam to safety Thursday after their van pitched off a one-lane bridge across the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Police said the van was traveling an estimated 70 mph.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a member of the Transportation Committee, called for a committee briefing on the report for possible legislative remedies. "Given their frequent use in transporting larger groups, I believe it is important to quantify the safety of these vehicles, particularly during accident avoidance," Snowe said. "A briefing will give the opportunity to air this information, and potential solutions, that can help assure greater safety in these vehicles." Even before the Maine accident, 424 people had died and hundreds were seriously injured in van accidents since 1990, according to a Sept. 4 report on rollovers in the CBS News program "60 Minutes II." About 500,000 of the vans popular with colleges, churches and commuters are on the road.

"I think the vans are dangerous," said John Connor, Maine state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "We need to make sure we're not putting people in these rolling death traps." The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that when the vans are carrying at least 10 people, they are nearly three times more likely to roll over in accidents than when loaded more lightly. The agency issued a safety warning about the vans after the report was published.

Vans with nine or fewer passengers rolled over in 12.7 percent of the single-vehicle accidents studied, compared to 35.4 percent of the time when loaded with 10 or more people. The accidents in the study occurred from 1994 to 1997 in Florida, Maryland, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah. The problem - blamed on the vehicles becoming top-heavy and shifting too much weight to the back when fully loaded - is particularly acute during sudden maneuvers, the report said. A brochure specifically warns against driving off a rural road, driving too fast for conditions and overcorrecting steering in panic. "As a result, the van has less resistance to rollover and handles differently from other commonly driven passenger vehicles, making it more difficult to control in an emergency situation," the agency warned.

To avoid accidents and reduce the risk of injuries, federal officials urged that drivers be properly trained and that occupants wear seat belts. Eighty percent of the people who died in accidents in 2000 weren't wearing seat belts. "Because of these risks, it is vital that users of 15-passenger vans be aware of some safety precautions that will significantly reduce the risk," Dr. Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Safety Administration said at the release of the report.

Federal law prohibits the sale of 15-passenger vans for school-related transport of students in high school or younger. But there is no prohibition for college-age students or other passengers. "As we've said all along, there is nothing unsafe about a 15-passenger van," said Rae Tyson, an agency spokesman. "There are characteristics about their handling. (Drivers) need to take that into account when they are using them."

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