Understanding more about the rollover risk posed by 15-passenger vans

While the rollover accident risk for 15-passenger vans endures, there are some simple driving practices that can go a long way toward keeping passengers safe.

When buses are not an option, airports, hotels, sports teams, summer camps, day care organizations, youth groups and even churches will often look to the next best alternative: 15-passenger vans.

While this makes sense given that 15-passenger vans are cheaper to procure and maintain, and perhaps even more versatile in terms of transportation capabilities, it's important to understand that these vehicles are at an elevated risk of being involved in serious -- and even fatal -- rollover accidents.

The numbers don't lie

While it may be hard to believe that these ubiquitous and seemingly sturdy 15-passenger vans could imperil passengers, consider the following statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System:

  • There were 1,512 fatal accidents involving 15-passenger vans from 1994 to 2004, including 642 single-vehicle crashes, 515 of which were rollovers.
  • The chances of a 15-passenger van rolling over are three times greater when more than ten occupants are present.
  • From 2009 through 2013, there were 34 deadly crashes involving 15-passenger vans here in California, the second most in the nation.

The primary rollover risk

According to the NTSB, much of this rollover risk can be traced to the design of 15-passenger vans. Specifically, when these vehicles are fully- or even moderately-loaded, the center of gravity shifts higher and backward, such that the weight on the front wheels is lighter.

This becomes problematic in the event of sudden braking or turning, as the weight of the vehicle will rapidly shift back to the front wheels, making the steering and braking especially sensitive to overly compensatory driving maneuvers and greatly increasing the risk of a rollover.

Staying safe

As disconcerting as this is, the NHTSA has identified several basic tips for drivers and passengers to help abate the rollover risk of 15-passenger vans:

  • Never exceed the 15-passenger limit and when fewer than 15 passengers are present ensure they are seated ahead of the rear axle
  • Always abide by the vehicle's weight restrictions, always place cargo ahead of the rear axle and always avoid carrying loads on the roof
  • Obey the speed limit, gradually reduce speed when negotiating turns and be mindful of weather conditions
  • Inspect and check tire pressure before every trip, replacing them if they are past their service life, or show signs of cracking or uneven wear.
  • Always wear seatbelts

It is worth noting that here in California, state law dictates that virtually anyone looking to operate a 15-passenger van must possess a valid commercial driver's license, a requirement that, in theory, helps ensure that drivers have an understanding of the vehicle's limitations.

Furthermore, many of the 15-passenger vans manufactured over the last several years have been outfitted with advanced safety technology, including next generation airbags, lane departure warning systems and, perhaps most significantly, electronic stability control.

The risk remains

The unfortunate reality to all of this, however, is that there are still people who will flout the state's commercial drivers license requirement, there are still people who will drive recklessly despite everything we know about the rollover risk, and there are still older model vans out on the roads lacking the next generation safety technology.

However, always remember that if you or your child are harmed in a 15-passenger van rollover accident caused by the negligence of another, an experienced legal professional can fight to protect your rights, and secure the peace of mind you need and deserve going forward.