Consumer Groups Call Church Van in Fatal Accident “Unsafe”

A church van that blew a tire and rolled over on the New York State Thruway, killing six people, is a type that some consumer groups have been calling unsafe for nearly a decade.

Public Citizen and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety both told The Associated Press on Monday in response to a question that they have been pushing for years for recalls, retrofits and redesigns of 15-passenger vans on the grounds that they are unstable.

Dearbon, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co., which made the 1997 Econoline that crashed, said Monday that government research showed the van is safe "when properly maintained, driven safely by experienced drivers and when occupants wear their safety belts."

Other manufacturers including General Motors Co., based in Detroit, and Chrysler Group LLC, based in Auburn Hills, Mich., also have made 15-passenger vans.

Ford said preliminary reports indicate Saturday's accident was caused by a badly maintained tire. Police have not issued an official cause for the crash and plan to interview the driver, who was injured.

Fourteen people from a Bronx church, the Joy Fellowship Christian Assemblies, were on their way to a church event near Schenectady when the tire burst and the van hurtled out of control on the Thruway near Woodbury, about 55 miles from New York City. The van rolled over into the grassy median, and several passengers were ejected.

Bishop Simon White, his wife and four others died. Eight others were injured.

Statistics from the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration show there were 1,090 fatalities between 1997 and 2006 in 15-passenger vans, 688 of those in rollovers.

Joan Claybrook, a Public Citizen board member and president emeritus and a former administrator of the NHTSA, said it was "a criminal act for the manufacturers to make these 15-passenger vans."

"They knew they were unstable and could roll over," Claybrook said.

Claybrook's 2002 letter to the NHTSA, which accompanied Public Citizen's report, noted that because such vans are often used by "churches, schools, sports teams, and eldercare centers ... the crashes that occur are often crushing to entire organizations. The manufacturers and NHTSA share a special obligation to protect the public from such concentrated pain."

It suggested that manufacturers retrofit such vans with four tires rather than two on each rear axle to improve stability.

Neither the manufacturers nor NHTSA imposed such a requirement.

However, NHTSA has issued safety recommendations for using a 15-passenger van, including checking tires and tire pressure, using drivers with specific training on the vans and seating people near the front when the van is not full.

Henry Jasny, general counsel to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the 15-passenger vans are "inherently unsafe."

"They have a high center of gravity to start with, and when they're fully loaded it's even higher, so they have a tendency to roll over," Jasny said Monday.

He said any obstruction that causes a wheel to rise off the road puts the van at risk.

A blown tire, he said, "unbalances the vehicle. The blown tire is lower, even just a few inches, and the load shifts toward that point. That shift of weight can be enough to roll it over."

If the load includes passengers who aren't wearing seat belts — like most of the passengers in the van that crashed Saturday — there's even more of a weight shift, Jasny said.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued a 2002 report on van rollovers after studying 20 years' worth of crashes, spokeswoman Bridget Serchak said Monday. It concurred that fully loading such vans affected safety.

"The rollover rate for fully loaded or nearly loaded 15-passenger vans is about three times the rollover ratio of vans with fewer than five passengers," the report said.

It also found that increasing the number of passengers and the speed "consistently predict the increased likelihood of 15-passenger van rollover."

Ford said Monday that state and federal data indicate other types of vehicles "also show increased rollover rates with loading." Spokesman Wes Sherwood said that buyers of Econolines get tips to avoid rollovers in their owner guides and that the driver-side visor carries a warning about an increased risk of rollovers.

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