The large vans that are popular with nonprofits and church groups are in the news again after a tragedy last week in Florida. According to reports, a group of 18 people were overloaded into a 2000 Dodge Ram Wagon last Monday, headed for a church trip. The 15-passenger van was driven by an experienced school bus driver with a good record. Unfortunately, as they traveled down a dark rural road, the driver apparently missed a stop sign at a T-intersection. Subsequently, the van plunged into a ravine. Eight people were killed, including the driver. Ten others were injured; four of them so seriously that they were still in the hospital as of Friday.

Unfortunately, accidents like this one are all-too-common. While specific data wasn’t easily available for South Carolina, the problem is pretty serious nationwide. According to federal data, between 2004 and 2010 there were 521 people killed in accidents involving 15-passenger vans.

Why are 15-passenger vans so dangerous?

For more than a decade, federal transportation officials and safety advocates have been aware of inherent instability problems with 15-passenger vans that make them more susceptible to fatal accidents than many other passenger vehicles.

Most 15-passenger vans are boxy. That height-versus-length ratio gives them a greater propensity for tipping – often demonstrated by blown-out tires on one side – or completely rolling over. The likelihood of a potentially fatal rollover accident is known to increase when the vans are overloaded, too, as the additional weight makes the vans harder to control.

Some newer models have features meant to prevent rollovers, including tire pressure monitoring sensors and stability controls. Older vans – the ones many cost-conscious organizations probably have – lack those features and may not have enough, or the right kind of, seat belts.

What you can do to prevent a tragedy in a 15-passenger van

A wide variety of groups use 15-passenger vans, including nonprofits, day care providers, schools, colleges and religious organizations. If your organization uses one, the NTSB urges you to take special care:

  • Be aware that overloading these vans makes them more difficult to maneuver and increases the risk of a potentially-deadly rollover accident.
  • Check the tire pressure before every trip.
  • Always wear your seatbelt.

And, as always, take active steps to drive safely.