PCI: Driver Training and Seatbelt Usage Critical to Safely Using 15-Passenger Vans

June 24, 2005

Insurers have traditionally been among the most active proponents of vehicle safety.

From the beginnings of their careers, insurance professionals are taught that accidents result from a chain of events – the chain of causation. If the chain is broken at any link, the accident will not occur. While there is the natural motive to reduce dollar losses, there is also a deeper sense of the tragedy that any auto accident can cause.

Every day, insurance professionals see the grim aftermath of too many accidents. This experience is what drives them to work to make vehicle travel as safe as possible. But insurance professionals’ advice and warnings only go so far. The persons most accountable for the safety and upkeep of their vehicles are the drivers and owners themselves.

Research has shown that seat belt use is the key to improving rollover survivability. In fact, over 75 percent of 15-passenger van single-vehicle rollover fatalities were not wearing safety belts. Driver training and experience, coupled with proper maintenance (especially for tires) are keys to preventing rollovers.

Considered the perfect size vehicles for mid-size groups, 15-passenger vans are often used by sports teams, church groups and local service organizations as transportation to a variety of events. They provide cost-effective transport for a wide variety of organizations.

Unfortunately, rare but high profile rollover accidents that have each involved a large number of fatalities, often children, have created headlines in recent years. As a means of providing context, consider the fact that 15-passenger van rollovers accounted for an average of just 53 of the nearly 43,000 highway deaths in the U.S. from 1990-2002, or just over one of every 1,000 highway deaths.

In most instances, 15-passenger vans behaved like their smaller van cousins. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) analysis showed that between 1991 and 2000, 15-passenger vans made up about one in every 400 vehicles and were actually involved in slightly less than one in every 400 fatal accidents.

In contrast, the NTSB analysis also showed that 15-passenger vans had a greater likelihood of rolling over than did passenger cars or smaller vans. Just over half of 15-passenger vans involved in single-vehicle, fatal accidents rolled over, compared to one-third of passenger cars in similar accidents. In addition, just over 80 percent of 15-passenger van occupant fatalities occurred in single-vehicle rollover accidents, while about 45 percent of passenger car fatalities occurred in single-vehicle rollovers. Sport utility vehicles (SUVs) present an interesting comparison here: about two-thirds of SUVs involved in single-vehicle fatality accidents rolled over, with nearly 80 percent of SUV fatalities involving rollovers.

Unfortunately, when 15-passenger vans rolled over, they tended to be occupied at or near capacity. The resulting large number of deaths and/or injuries in single-vehicle accidents led in turn to extensive news media attention that a passenger car rollover with one occupant would not attract.

Over the past few years, NTSB and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have conducted numerous studies on the issue and have found that seatbelt use is a key factor in minimizing rollover accident injuries and fatalities. Driver training and vehicle maintenance, particularly regarding the proper inflation pressures of tires, are critical in preventing rollovers.

Taking it one step further, NTSB and NHTSA published several safety tips to reduce the number of rollovers and the severity of injuries with regard to 15-passenger vans including:

• Wear seat belts to protect the body and avoid ejection;
• Check tire pressures, noting different front and rear tire pressure requirements set by vehicle manufacturers;
• Check tire condition often; infrequent use and exposure to sun and weather can make low-mileage tires deteriorate;
• Ensure drivers receive training in the unique handling aspects of 15-passenger vans, especially when fully loaded; and
• Do not overload the vehicle or use a roof rack, as both increase weight and center of gravity.

NTSB and NHTSA are careful to point out, however, that adhering to these safety tips will not assure that injuries and/or fatalities will not occur. These are just steps that owners and drivers of 15-passenger vehicles can take to help reduce the risks associated with accidents involving these vehicles.

Driver responsibility – including the items noted above and driving at a speed appropriate to the vehicle and road conditions – are fundamental steps in preventing and reducing accidents and the subsequent injuries. Requiring all passengers to use the vehicle’s safety belts is a must.

There is good news however.

Educational efforts appear to be working to help reduce fatalities in 15-passenger van rollover crashes. NHTSA recently reported that 15-passenger van rollover fatalities have declined 35 percent since it began issuing advisories in 2001. If we can continue to increase driver awareness of the special needs associated with the vans – seatbelt usage, speed and vehicle maintenance, we can remain optimistic that the risks and injuries related to 15-passenger vans can be dramatically reduced.

While these accidents account for a tiny percentage of overall highway deaths, every life saved is a victory and worth the effort.

Golden is the director, commercial lines at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, where he concentrates on general liability and commercial automobile issues. Prior to joining PCI, he had extensive experience in commercial lines underwriting, marketing and management.

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