Passenger Van Accidents: Causes and Liability

Passenger Van Accidents: Causes and Liability

Here in Indiana and Illinois, large passenger vans carrying between 12 and 15 occupants share the roads with other motor vehicles including those big rigs and semis that are so common here in the freight industry’s “Crossroads of America.”  In our last post, we discussed the reality that while these big vans are popular for schools, nursing homes, sports teams, churches, scouts, and family vacation rentals, they need to be recognized as dangerous.

There is a higher risk of serious injury or death for both passengers and drivers of these big passenger vans than in other vehicles.

As long as these bigger passenger vans are allowed on our roadways here in Indiana and Illinois, there will be a concern for their safety and the higher risk of accident.   This is particularly true for those 12 and 15 passenger vans that carry youth groups or school kids on group trips.

1.  Basic Design Problems of the Bigger Passenger Vans

Any large passenger van, no matter the manufacturer or model year, has the same core design.  It is this boxy structure and the need to carry a dozen or more occupants that keeps the 12 and 15 passenger vans dangerous and a true safety concern.  Consider the following:

  • These big passenger vans were originally designed to transport cargo, and the models were then adapted for human passengers. The manufacturers haven’t gone back to square one and re-designed these vans specifically for humans.  It’s more economical to produce cargo and passenger vans from the same core design;
  • These 12 and 15 passenger vans have a high center of gravity. If the van has a full load of passengers, this center of gravity is very high and this makes the vehicle harder to steer and to control;
  • These big passenger vans are boxy and flat on the sides; they are far from streamlined. The result is that they are vulnerable to high winds and can be pushed by the wind into tipping as well as burdening the driver trying to control the van;
  • Newer large passenger van models are taller than older models; this makes them even more dangerous to high winds as well as boosting their center of gravity and being at a greater risk of rollover or other kinds of crashes.

2.  Older Vans May Not Have ESC Systems or Other Safety Measures

The older the passenger van, the higher the risk of injury in an accident.  Passenger vans with model years 2004 or earlier do not have to have electronic stability controls (ESC) installed, for instance.  These ESC systems were required on passenger vans by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) beginning in 2004, but the regulation is not retroactive.

That sounds like it’s a long time ago, right?  Thirteen years later, how many of these vehicles are on the road?  Well, maybe more than you think.  Unlike your daily sedan or SUV that you use in your commute, many of these big vans are only used sporadically by the organizations that own them.  Churches, non-profit organizations, and schools may find it serves their budget to keep older vehicles maintained rather than replaced.

Other safety measures that will not be found on older passenger vans include rollover sensors and stabilizer bars.  The older the passenger van, the greater the risk it is being operated without all available safety measures including those required by law for the newer models.

An additional concern:  passenger vans that do not cross state lines are not regulated in the same way as vans that cross state lines in interstate travel.  See, Overview of Federal Requirements for Interstate 9 to 15 Passenger Vehicles published by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

3.  Tires on Passenger Vans

One of the biggest dangers on these 12 and 15 passenger vans is the van’s tires.  Not only do tires age and deteriorate faster if the vehicle is not routinely driven, but the tires will lose air pressure.  Even new tires may be under-inflated.  Before these big vans are driven, the driver should check the tires not only for air pressure but for tire cracks and tire tread.  Spares should be monitored as well.  If there is a flat and the van’s spare has to be used while on a road trip, it should be used for the minimal miles possible, and a new tire should replace the spare as soon as possible.  Spare tires may look new and with nice tread, but their age alone may make them dangerous.

Tires on these large passenger vans that lack the proper air pressure or tires that have worn tread can cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle and crash or rollover. 

4.  Weight Limits on Passenger Vans

The engines on these passenger vans are mighty and much more powerful than those found on your neighborhood SUV or minivan.  They are built to carry lots of freight or cargo, and the engine can handle a full load of over a dozen people if it is properly maintained.  However, these vans do have maximum weight limits.  Overloading the 12 or 15 passenger van makes it more dangerous on the roads.

Cargo must be considered along with the passengers.  How much does everything weigh, all together?  Suitcases and boxes filled with camping gear or holiday gifts can be heavy.  Another concern for cargo:  it should be loaded in front of the rear axle and cargo should never be stored on the roof of a 12 to 15 passenger van.

5.  Seat Belts Must Be Provided and Used

Excited passengers may consider these van trips to be similar to riding on the school bus or taking the metro.  That’s not true.  Every passenger on a 12 or 15 passenger van needs to buckle up for safety whenever the van is in motion.  This means that the passenger van must be equipped with safety belts for every occupant (passengers and driver).  And these seat belts need to be in proper working order.  Older vans need to have safety belts that operate and that conform to the current safety standards.

According to the NHTSA, “An unrestrained 15-passenger van occupant involved in a single-vehicle crash is approximately three times as likely to be killed as a restrained occupant.” 

Those Who May Be Liable for Serious and Fatal Passenger Van Accidents

These large 12 and 15 passenger vans remain very popular with school districts, day care centers, elder facilities, senior centers, nursing homes, scout troops, churches, and even local hotels and resorts.  They are vehicles that these organizations and businesses can buy or rent for short group trips which serve their clientele, kids, or customers, as well as making good budgetary sense.  From an accounting perspective, the passenger van makes good sense for lots of these entities.

This means that we still have lots of these big passenger vans driving alongside us every day here in Indiana and Illinois.  And it also means that they bring with them the sad reality of a higher likelihood of severe injury or death to their occupants and those who share the roads with them.

It’s not news that these large passenger vans have dangerous defects.  There are design dangers as well as safety concerns.  Victims of passenger van accidents may face death, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, fractures, amputations, and permanent loss of the use of an arm or leg, as well as other life-changing injuries.

When these accidents arise, most often the finger pointing will begin with the driver of the van.  Driver error may be assumed initially.  However, the victims may be able to look to several parties for damage claims and justice. 

These include car makers and the manufacturers of the passenger vans themselves, as well as the companies or agencies that rented or loaned the passenger van, the tire maker, the mechanics at the service center that repaired, maintained, or inspected the passenger van prior to the wreck, as well as the owner of the vehicle and the entity that oversaw its use (the school district, the hotel, the care center, etc.).

Passenger van accidents are often serious and terrible tragedies.  We need to be aware of their dangers as we drive alongside these vehicles and before we allow loved ones to ride in them.  Let’s be careful out there!




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