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Safety Issues Unseat Big Vans

Jul 18, 2004 | The Oregonian

Thirteen young people from East Hill Foursquare Church rode in the back, eager to arrive at a Mexican college for the last day of their 1998 summer mission trip.

As the group ascended a vaulting, dusty slope in Tijuana, Charlie Van Housen, the driver, looked to his right and whispered to youth pastor Rich Butler: Something wasn't right.

First, the power steering on the Gresham church's 15-passenger van went out. Then, Van Housen said, the bulky vehicle's brakes failed.

He managed to guide the van to a stop without losing control. If he hadn't, the consequences could have been devastating: When they get into accidents, 15-passenger vans roll over more often than any other vehicle on U.S. roads. And the more passengers on board, the higher the likelihood of a rollover.

The statistics aren't new. But they have prompted another warning this summer from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the third in four years for drivers to take extreme caution when operating the vans. An agency spokesman expressed alarm that so many vans still carry passengers.

Although churches, youth groups, social service agencies and employers have heard the warnings before, they now face challenges on another front: Insurance carriers across the country are raising premiums and imposing strict guidelines on the use of the large vans.

While some groups, like the Gresham church, have modified the vehicles, stopped using them to carry passengers or gotten specialized training for drivers, others have had to make a harder choice.

"Some are faced with just having to give up hope for their vans," said Rick Allen, regional vice president of Heffernan Insurance Brokers in Portland, which serves more than 100 nonprofit clients in the Portland area. "Your chance of getting insured is limited."

Seating reduced

Even those able to find coverage and afford the premiums sometimes can no longer use the vans for 15 passengers. Many insurance carriers have required clients to modify the vehicles by taking out the rear seats which sit behind the rear axle and can cause balance problems to lessen the maximum occupancy load.

The vans made by Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler have a high center of gravity, and the extra passengers in the back make them more prone to rollovers in normally routine driving conditions, according to the traffic safety agency.

In 2001, the year the agency issued its first warning, 40,260 of the vans were manufactured. The following year, the number dropped to 32,873; figures after that are incomplete.

"We remain confident that this is a very safe vehicle," Ford is quoted as saying about its E-series vans in a March article in the Detroit News. A company spokeswoman, according to the article, said details that have emerged from lawsuits involving Ford's full-size vans show the vehicles were subject to driving conditions that no driver and vehicle could navigate safely.

For five to seven years, said Allen of Heffernan Insurance Brokers, insurance carriers have been moving away from offering coverage. The few carriers that will underwrite the 8,500-pound vans have raised premiums 20 percent to 50 percent, he said.

Besides demanding that the seats be modified, those that do underwrite 15-passenger vans require drivers to hit the books before hitting the road: Some carriers require that drivers either have a commercial license or complete special training.

Catholic parishes sell vans

The Archdiocese of Portland, which represents 124 Roman Catholic parishes, began phasing out use of its 24 15-passenger vans for transporting people several months ago because of the traffic safety agency's warnings and the increased insurance premiums.

Bud Bunce, spokesman for the archdiocese, said that in January the archdiocese asked parishes to sell the vehicles or limit their use to carrying cargo. As of July 1, Bunce said, archdiocesan parishes can no longer transport passengers in them.

In blunt terms, Allen said, insurance carriers are "opposed to underwriting 15-passenger vans because they don't want to accept the risks."

"If you have somebody driving a big van like that without the experience, you're asking for trouble," said Van Housen of East Hill Church.

The trip to Mexico was the last time the van would carry his parishioners. Six years later, the Ford E-350 sits in East Hill Foursquare Church's parking lot in downtown Gresham. Only two of the original 15 seats remain, and the church now uses it to haul supplies.

Fifteen-passenger vans are five times more likely to roll over if fully loaded with passengers than if occupied by only the driver, the traffic safety agency says. That number doesn't change much even with the addition of improved suspensions designed to help drivers avoid risky maneuvers. The safety agency reports that between 1990 and 2002 the latest figures available 1,111 people died in crashes of 15-passenger vans.

Florida fatalities

As recently as May, a 15-passenger van carrying 18 soccer players from Indiana crashed in Colorado, injuring all 18. Nine migrant workers died when all 18 occupants were ejected from their 15-passenger near Fort Pierce, Fla., in April.

(Federal law prohibits auto dealerships from selling 15-passenger vans to public schools, to avoid similar incidents involving schoolchildren.)

For Oregonians, the tragedy of these kinds of accidents hit home in June 2002. Five Oregon-based contract firefighters were killed after their 15-passenger Ford Econoline E-350 rolled four times en route to help battle blazes in Colorado. There were 11 people on board.

Liberty Northwest Insurance Corp. in Portland insured Grayback Forestry at the time of the incident. Mac McPherson, an underwriting supervisor with the insurance broker group, said many of the contract firefighter groups his company insured still use the large vans but are shifting toward smaller passenger vehicles.

The incident prompted Grayback Forestry, which contracted the five firefighters who died, to stop using its 15-passenger vans.

Other carriers say it isn't necessary for groups to ban use of the vans altogether. Guide One Insurance is one national carrier that supports its clients using the vans.

Assistance available

Dennis Lio, a career agent with Guide One in Beaverton, said the carrier provides its clients with online training, a manual for safe handling and modifications to the vans removal of the rear seats and installation of safety reminders for drivers. This not only reduces insurance costs but also helps prevent serious accidents, Lio said.

Although the carrier supports its clients who already have 15-passenger vans, it is not writing new policies for this type of vehicle.

"More and more of our churches are getting rid of them," Lio said. "The van's problems aren't going away."

Premiums for Guide One clients have jumped. Yearly premiums in the summer of 2003 might have peaked near $800, but that number could easily reach $1,200 or more today, Lio said.

"It's not that we're trying to make more money," Lio said. "It's that the safety of the passengers is paramount. The last thing we want is to have a group of kids go on a weekend trip and on the following Tuesday or Wednesday having a funeral service."

Other groups also are having to choose between higher insurance costs and the loss that comes with selling or trading the vans for safer vehicles.

Officials at the YMCA's national headquarters in Chicago say that although YMCA branches are autonomous, it has pushed for its chapters to avoid the vans.

"For a number of years we have regularly reminded our charters of the safety concerns," said Arnie Collins, a national spokesman for the YMCA, which has 2,575 branches in 972 communities. "If the U.S. government is concerned about the safety of children, so are we."

Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the traffic safety agency, said in light of the notoriety the vans have gained in the past several years, it is alarming that so many organizations continue to use the vans regularly.

As a percentage of people who die in all auto accidents, Tyson said, the number killed in 15-passenger vans is relatively small. However, he said, "I think any death is tragic, especially if it's preventable.

"When it happens, it just seems to be doubly tragic, because too often the crashes involve a church or youth group or senior citizens."

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