Tennessee Dad Raises Van Safety Awareness after Daughter’s Death

May 16, 2008

Patrick James was hours away from burying his 10-year-old daughter when he started to learn some disturbing things about her death.

Lexie James was killed in July when the van she was riding in spun out of control and flipped over four times on Interstate 26 in South Carolina. Though she was wearing a seat belt, Lexie was somehow thrown from the vehicle and died at the scene.

What James didn’t know, but would soon discover, was that tests have raised a number of safety questions about 15-passenger vans like the one in which Lexie was riding. The federal government, in fact, has issued four safety warnings about such vehicles since 2001.

“If they are so dangerous, why does the general public not know about this?” James asked himself over and over again.

In his grief, James decided to do whatever he could to make sure everyone knows the risks of climbing aboard one of the vehicles.

He set up a nonprofit agency that he operates out of his Knoxville home to raise awareness about the dangers of the vans and help reduce the number of van fatalities. He traveled to church conventions, sporting events and anywhere else he could find an audience to listen to Lexie’s story. And he pleaded with officials in Washington to push for more testing and safety features on the vehicles.

Late last month, as a result of James’ persistence, the U.S. House passed a resolution that called attention to the increased risks of driving 15-passenger vans and encouraged drivers to get adequate training and safety information before they get behind the wheel.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee also has announced plans to hold hearings on van safety later this year to see what, if any, safety features should be mandated.

James and his father-in-law, retired engineer Rick Koehler, who has helped with his research on van safety, deserve the credit for the attention the issue is getting in Washington, said U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Knoxville.

“Hopefully, it will make some people at least think twice before they let their children ride in these vans or before they rent them themselves,” said Duncan, who sponsored the House resolution.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the government agency that issued the four safety warnings about the vans, also commended James for his efforts.

“People really do need to be aware of the fact that it’s going to take some training and experience on the part of the (van) driver, and it’s certainly essential that all occupants wear safety belts at all times,” said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the federal agency.

From 1997 to 2006, there were 1,090 occupants killed in crashes involving 15-passenger vans, according to the traffic safety agency. Of those, 534 fatalities resulted from largely preventable single-vehicle rollover crashes.

Government tests have shown that 15-passenger vans are more likely than other vehicles to roll over when carrying five or more people. The rollover rate for vans with 10 or more occupants nearly tripled compared to vans carrying fewer than five people.

Other government research found that 74 percent of all 15-passenger vans had improperly inflated tires, which can make it more difficult to handle the vehicle and increase the prospects of a rollover crash. Wearing seat belts dramatically increases the chances of survival during a rollover crash, according to the traffic safety agency, which estimates there are 560,000 of the vehicles traveling the nation’s highways.

Yet, seat belt use “wasn’t enough for my daughter, and it might not be enough for your kid,” James said.

Lexie, a competitive kid who was an honor roll student, was traveling with family friends to a softball tournament in Savannah when a 13-year-old tire on the rear left side of their 1994 Dodge Ram Wagon separated near Columbia, S.C. The van spun out of control, ran off the road and flipped over four times.

The driver and three other passengers suffered minor injuries, but Lexie, though wearing her seat belt, was ejected and died at the scene.

James filed a wrongful-death suit in March against Chrysler LLC, which built the van, and Michelin North America, the tire manufacturer.

“Chrysler’s deepest sympathies are with the James family, who only just recently filed this lawsuit,” spokesman Michael Palese said. “As such, we have been unable to fully investigate the allegations in the lawsuit and cannot comment at this time.”

Chrysler stopped making 15-passenger vans in 2002 because of falling sales, Palese said, but he argued the vans are safe “based on thorough testing of dynamic handling maneuvers under fully loaded conditions.” As evidence, he cited the fact that all of the other occupants of the van Lexie was riding in received minor injuries.

Ford and General Motors, the only two auto manufacturers still producing 15-passenger vans, also insist the vehicles are safe.

Ford stressed in a statement that state and federal data show that passenger cars, pickup trucks and minivans also have higher rollover rates when loaded. General Motors emphasized that it offers a Web-based training course for drivers of passenger vans.

James, however, thinks more needs to be done. He quit his job as area manager for Lowe’s Home Improvement stores and focuses on his nonprofit agency, the American Center for Van and Tire Safety (www.acfvats.org). The center is promoting guidelines for the safe operation of vans and is pushing the federal government to conduct additional tests and issue mandatory safety regulations for aging tires.

Information from: The Knoxville News Sentinel,

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