It's the 15-passenger van. As 60 Minutes II first reported last spring, the 15-passenger van is one of the most dangerous vehicles on the road in terms of rollover. Since the report aired, two insurers used by churches and schools say they won't cover any more 15-passenger vans, and several universities will no longer allow their athletes to be transported in the vans.
These vans looks like any other van, except they have been lengthened to hold more riders. The problem is, when the van is fully loaded, it is three times more likely to roll over in an emergency. All the American carmakers build a version of the van. Ford sells the most.
Step off a plane and the airport hotel is likely to pick you up in a 15-passenger van. Back home at the day care center, the kids are climbing aboard. Often it's the shuttle for the park & ride, the lift to the universit. The YMCA drives them, the Post Office, too. And when Disabled American Veterans move en masse to lobby Congress, it's the 15-passenger van that carries them.
They seem to be everywhere. There are about 500,000 of them on the road. Millions of Americans who ride in them don't give them a thought until the unique character of the van is suddenly, tragically revealed. That's what happened to the First Baptist Church of Piedmont, S.C., when it sent its children on a Bible retreat. Their 15-passenger van rolled on the highway. Andrew and Joshua Wood were among those inside.
Their mother, Debra Wood, rushed to Joshua's hospital bed when she heard about the accident. His brother Andrew wasn't seriously hurt, but Joshua was unconscious and his mother, a former nurse, had a terrible fear.
"I spoke to him as I put my hand on his forehead and I opened his eye and the nurse behind me gasped when I did that," she says. "I'm sure she didn't expect me to do that because his pupils were fixed and dilated and I'll never forget seeing that."
It was an indication of severe brain damage, she says.
Wood says she sat with him during the night, and talked to him and sang to him, and prayed with him.
"He did not regain consciousness. The physician just turned to me and said, 'Your son is brain dead; there's nothing further we can do,'" she says.
Since 1990, at least 424 people have been killed and hundreds seriously injured in rollovers.
Last spring, 12 members of the First Assembly of God Church in Burkeburnett, Texas, were on a shopping trip when their van rolled. Among the dead were Asline Hinostrosa, Patricia Oliver, Virginia Bean, and Dorothy Griffin, the driver.
"Well the only thing I remember, Dorothy was trying to control it the best she could but it just, to me it seemed like it had a mind of its own," says Wanda Jenkins, one of eight survivors.
You can see what she means by "a mind of its own" on a test track. The vans are not unstable under normal conditions. The trouble starts with emergency maneuvers - a quick turn of the wheel to avoid an obstacle or when a tire tread comes off.
The problem, according to auto safety experts, is the design — the weight and balance of the van.
On most models, the car manufacturers have used the same wheel base. But you can see on the 15-passenger model, the back end has been extended. That means when it's fully loaded, there's a seat with four passengers behind the rear axle. That tends to make the back end heavy, so that when there's a sudden swerve, the rear end can swing out.
The second, critical issue, is that the van is top heavy. It has what engineers call a high center of gravity. The more people on board, the more top heavy it becomes. Milt Chase is an authority on rollovers. He's an engineer who led the design of computer software that Ford uses to test rollover resistance.
"I don't think a vehicle with their rollover rate should be on the road," he says of the 15-passenger van.
Chase showed how, in his opinion, the design of the van caused a Texas accident in 2000. He was hired to analyze the crash for a lawsuit against Ford. Four athletes from Prairie View A&M University were killed when the driver swerved to miss a car.
Looking at the simulation, Chase says: "You can see the back end swinging around. The tires on the outside of the turn at the same time, maintain their grip on the road. And that's enough to pull the vehicle over."
In the Prairie View crash, the van rolled four and a half to six times, nearly covering the length of a football field.
Ford builds the most 15-passenger vans, followed by Dodge. GM has just five percent of the market, and an even smaller fraction of the fatal rollovers. The GM van is a different design. The wheel base is longer. Engineers say that lowers the chance the van will skid sideways. But when loaded, the GM is still top heavy much like the Frod and Dodge.
Ford calls its van the E-350. It started building them about 25 years ago. And according to a former Ford engineer, there was reason to question the van's stability from the start. John Stilson has testified against Ford in lawsuits.
He told Pelley what he saw on Ford's test track back in the 1970s when a prototype of the van went into a series of hairpin turns: "They have three or four hairpins and they have to drive the vehicle through these hairpins when the vehicle is on the test track. When the vehicle went through those maneuvers and into those curves, I could see that an experienced test driver was having a very terrible time trying to control the vehicle."
What hope does a coach, a housewife, a choir director have? Says Stilson: "None. Not if that rear end breaks loose, the vehicle is going to go unstable."
Ford had another indication in 1993. That year, Ford gathered federal crash statistics that showed the 15-passenger van was a standout with a high rate of fatal rollovers compared to other trucks and vans. Six years after its internal analysis, Ford built the van that killed those four Prairie View A&M track stars: Vernon James, Jerome Jackson, Houston Watson and Jason Sturns.
Patricia Sturns, Jason's mother, saw it on the news: "I saw the black bag that he had. It was a set of luggage that he had received from the family for a Christmas present and I saw it sitting in the middle of the highway. Then of course I saw the words 'Prairie View A&M men's track team." And as a mother you just feel these things and you know."
Jeff Wigington is a lawyer who represented the Sturns family in a suit against Ford.
"Our accident wasn't the first," he says. "And it wasn't the first by any means. There have been hundreds of people killed in E350 van rollovers. Before our accident there were others. Before our accident, there were other lawsuits in which the exact same allegations were made."
College sports teams were hit hard in 2000, with a string of rollovers. On Jan. 13, the Kenyon College swim team: one dead. The next week, DePaul University's women's track team: three injured. The week after that, the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, swim team: 2 seriously injured. The week after that, Prairie View A&M. All these vans were Fords.
This series of crashes caught the attention of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It investigated the van's record and issued a rare warning concerning the Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet and GMC vans. The warning says "the risk of rollover increases dramatically as the number of occupants increases…" The agency studied single-vehicle accidents in which at least one person was killed. It found that with 10 or more passengers, 85 percent of the crashes involved a rollover.
The government doesn't require any rollover standards. Stilson says that Ford has internal standards.
Pelley: And they use those guidelines in developing their vehicles?
Stilson: Some vehicles
Pelley: Some vehicles?
Pelley: Which vehicles?
Stilson: The vehicles other than vehicles that weigh more than 8,500 pounds.
Pelley: And the 15-passenger van is over 8,500 pounds.
Stilson: Yeah, in fact in the vans and wagons, that's the only one that's over 8,500 pounds.
Pelley: Why would they do that?
Stilson: 'cause it can't pass the test. It's that simple.
There s one rollover resistance test, a computer simulation, that Ford does on most of its vehicles but not the 15-passenger van. Since Ford doesn't run the test, we asked engineer Milt Chase to run it for us.
The result: "In the gross vehicle weight or the most heavily loaded, the vehicle rolled over at least three times out of four. So it's a disaster, in a sense."
Ford has argued in the past that computer simulation doesn't reproduce the real world performance of this van. So we looked in on a series of tests that were being run on a track in preparation of a lawsuit against Ford.
Robert Hooker with Eliseco Systems of Colorado runs vehicle tests in dozens of cases against carmakers. Hooker is testing a 1995 Ford 15-passenger van. It's a test for a lawsuit involving the crash of the South Carolina church van in 2000.
The test van was loaded with water tanks to simulate 13 passengers plus the driver. Instruments were attached to record steering, speed - all the forces on the van.
The van tipped over on its outriggers at 40 miles an hour. At slower speeds, the van did better — it did not lift off the ground in two tests at 25 miles an hour and one at 30 miles an hour. In another test — the double lane change that's designed to simulate an emergency maneuver, the van tipped at 35 miles an hour.
The final test is one engineers call the fish hook — it's designed to push a vehicle to its tipping point. The van lifted at 35 miles an hour.
Ford argues that those tests are unreliable. In fact, in 1999, in a 15-passenger van lawsuit, Ford's lawyers said that Hooker's tests were "outrageously severe stunts for the sole aim of tipping up the vehicles." But the judge allowed Hooker's tests. A jury ordered Ford to pay the victims about $20 million. The case is under appeal.
Ford declined an interview but the company sent this letter. Its says Ford "…tests its 15 passenger Econoline van in a broad set of handling evaluations, including extreme maneuvers beyond the capability of normal drivers…" Ford wrote "the vehicle meets our stringent internal guidelines, which contain an ample margin of safety."
But Ford also included these words of caution for drivers — "avoid sharp turns, excessive speed and abrupt maneuvers…" We asked engineer Milt Chase about that advice.
"There can be situations, something falling off a truck in front of us or someone darting out, or a deer, and the only thing that can avoid a collision is to swerve, to say 'avoid that avoidance maneuver' is asking something unreasonable."
The accidents keep coming. It happened again last week, when a U.S. marshal's van carrying federal prisoners rolled in Texas — two people were killed. The week before in Florida, another rollover and 15 injured. They are accidents all too familiar to survivors like Rosalie McCarty from that Texas church van rollover: "I fear for the people that have them, for the churches, the different organizations that have these vans, the colleges. We were in Oklahoma City at a college. And there was five of 'em just like ours parked out there and I cringe at the thought of anyone getting in those vans."
Deborah Wood, whose son Joshua was killed in 1996, says she notices the vans all over town.
"Every time I see one, I just always say a prayer for the people I see on those vehicles," she says.
Both Daimler/Chrysler and General Motors declined interviews. GM told us its longer wheel base results in "a more stable vehicle that allows the driver more control…" Chrysler said its 15-passenger van "is subjected to a wide range of strenuous handling and stability maneuvers…" But it added that the vans "require the driver to understand the unique characteristics of the van."
Safety experts tell us that, to drive a 15-passenger van with greater safety, it must be loaded with no more than 10 passengers. Those passengers should be seated toward the front, seat belts are essential. It's also important to maintain the tires. In the words of one engineer we talked to, "the tires on a 15-passenger van must never fail."