Buckle Up, Van Passengers!

Seat belt buckle over car seat, 1-11-00
People riding in 15-passenger vans are less likely to wear seat belts, putting themselves at greater risk if the van crashes, federal regulators said Tuesday.

In a new study of 15-passenger van crashes between 1990 and 2002, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that three-quarters of the 684 people killed in single-vehicle crashes weren't wearing a seat belt. Fourteen percent were wearing them. In the remainder of the cases, investigators couldn't determine whether the victims were wearing seat belts.

More than half of those killed - 414 - were partially or totally ejected from the van. Almost 90 percent of those who were ejected weren't wearing seat belts.

NHTSA said people riding in 15-passenger vans - which are banned for use by schools but are often used by churches, colleges and prisons - are tied with pickup truck passengers as the least likely to wear seat belts.

The study was released two days after a fiery van crash that killed three members of a New York church group near Niagara Falls. Two of the three weren't wearing seat belts, Ontario police said. The van was carrying 12 people when it crashed.

In all, 1,111 people died in 15-passenger van crashes between 1990 and 2002. But NHTSA only analyzed single-vehicle crashes, saying there wasn't enough data from multiple-vehicle accidents.

NHTSA said 15-passenger van crashes have been decreasing since 1995, but the vans still have a higher fatality rate per 100,000 registered vehicles than cars, pickups or sport utility vehicles. One problem, NHTSA said, is that the large vans are often driven by untrained drivers.

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., which are the only automakers that make 15-passenger vans, have said that the vans are safe if they are driven correctly. But both automakers have pledged to improve safety by adding electronic systems that stabilize the vehicle and prevent tipping. GM made the systems standard in 2004 models; Ford will make them standard in 2006.

NHTSA said preliminary tests indicate the stability systems are effective. But the agency warned drivers to be particularly careful when driving the vans at more than 50 mph or around curves. The agency also said vans are at increased risk when 10 or more passengers are on board because they're more likely to roll over.

By Dee-Ann Durbin