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Jul 14, 2003 |

You'd ride one to shuttle from the airport to your hotel. Maybe your kids take one to camp or to little league games. For many day cares, churches, businesses and large families, a 15-passenger van is the vehicle of choice.

That was the case on April 16, 2002 in Hernando County. A family from Maine drove a 15-passenger van while on vacation in the Tampa area. It was packed with grandparents, aunts and uncles when it rolled over and crashed near Interstate 75.

Two people died.

A similar accident involving a day care van happened on April 27, 2001 in Grand Prairie, Texas. Five children were injured. A sixth died.

Another accident in Brunswick, Virginia killed two people and six others were hurt. Jessie McHansen was among those who survived.

"After the accident everything changed," McHanson says. A wrecked shell is all that is left of the 15 passenger van that carried his family. His wife Tina didn't make it.

Another crash on March 3, 2000 in Manatee County carrying migrant workers killed four migrant workers and injured five others. The driver lost control and the van rolled.

Government records show 15-passenger vans were involved in 483 fatal rollover crashes from 1982 to 2001. The crashes killed 763 people and injured nearly 15-hundred more. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board have both issued consumer warnings about 15-passenger vans. Government findings show the vans are three times more likely to rollover when carrying 10 or more passengers--then when carrying a lighter load.

The government says the problem with these vans is they're designed to carry cargo, not people. Bench seats and passengers shift the van's center of gravity up and back, making the van more likely to fishtail. A top-heavy design compounds the risk of a rollover.

It could be someone speeding, someone who runs off the road and rolls over, it could be a fire blowout that leads to rollover," says Jennifer Bishop with the N.T.S.B. "It could be a sudden maneuver that a driver makes."

But the government has not tested how a passenger van handles. So, Jessie McHansen's who lost his wife hired an attorney and found an automotive expert to conduct their own test.

Consumer group, Public Citizen suggests one way to make the vans safer: Install dual rear wheels. Shurtz tested this theory.

"They are both going 35 miles an hour doing the same accident avoidance maneuver, the same 2000 model van, says Shurtz. "One tips every time and the other handles like a car should handle."

Electronic Stability Control systems are another option that has support. E.S.C. systems, which are already in some S.U.V's, are computer controls that steady a vehicle by monitoring its movement. General Motors started using a stability control system in all its 2004 model 15-passenger vans. Chyrsler stopped manufacturing 15 passenger vans last year. Ford still makes them and points out its vans meet federal safety standards.

But 15-passenger vans fall into regulatory limbo. They're designed to carry more than 10 passengers so they don't have to meet the same safety standards as cars or sport utilities. And even though they're classified as buses, they don't have to meet the more stringent requirements of traditional school buses. Victims' families say unless that loophole is closed, more drivers will likely lose control of their vans and their lives.

Here's what you need to know if you drive a 15-passenger van. The vans should be operated by trained and experienced drivers. All occupants should wear seatbelts. N.H.T.S.A found that 80 percent of those who died in 15-passenger van rollovers nationwide in the year 2000 were not buckled up. Regularly check the tire pressure and tread to ensure that the tires are properly inflated and the tread is not worn down.

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