Popular vehicle is more dangerous than you might think

CLEVELAND - They seem to be everywhere. Chances are, you or a loved one has driven in one.

In a story that you could have seen only on Action News, The Investigator, Tom Meyer, warned the public about a popular vehicle that could be tons of trouble.

Passenger vans with 15 seats are obviously longer than regular vans, and when they're fully loaded, they can become top-heavy and, without notice, can roll over with disastrous consequences.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration warns that with 10 or more people on board, the vans are three times more likely to roll over during an emergency.

Still, they're widely used by churches, day-care centers, local colleges and schools, among others.

"They're not made to be handling students," Ohio Highway Patrol Lt. Cory Davies said. "The state does no inspection on them like (they do on) a school bus."

What's even more alarming is that the highways have been littered with deadly crashes involving these vans. Since 1990, more than 400 people have been killed in rollover accidents, including Debra Wood's son, Joshua.

"He did not regain consciousness," Debra said. "The physician just turned to me and said, 'Your son is brain dead.' There's nothing further we can do."

Despite the high rollover risk, Action News found the vans all over Cleveland. One was hauling veterans down I-71, another was shuttling airline passengers to and from Hopkins and yet another was transporting grade-schoolers at Case Elementary School in Cleveland.

Fifteen children hopped aboard one van, operated by the Goodrich-Gannett Neighborhood Center in Cleveland. The kids headed to their after-school activities without wearing seat belts.

Dangerous? You bet. A federal study found that 80 percent of those killed in van rollovers were not buckled up.

When asked why the children weren't wearing their belts, the center's executive director, Allison Wallace, said that the vehicles didn't have any. She's the director, and she didn't even know the center's vans were equipped with seat belts.

What's more, Wallace said that her staff was aware of the risks presented by the vehicle, but when approached by Action News, one of the bus drivers admitted that he was not aware of the risks.

The government warns that only trained and experienced drivers should operate 15-passenger vans. Drivers like Marty Scott, who hauls kids for the Cleveland Society for the Blind.

When asked if he takes special precaution, Scott said, "of course I do."

Ford, the leading maker of 15-passenger vans, remains "confident the van is a very safe vehicle." Cleveland attorney James Lowe disagrees. He's suing Ford for a deadly rollover crash.

"They know that this van, when exposed to high lateral acceleration, when it goes sideways, which happens in emergency-avoidance maneuvers, it will rollover," Lowe said.

Lowe said that Ford deliberately tried to hide incriminating test data in 80,000 pages of company records. A federal judge called Ford's conduct totally reprehensible, and imposed sanctions on the giant automaker prior to going to trial.

"The jury will know that Ford's own tests reveal that this vehicle is unsafe in stability and handling," Lowe said. "He's going to tell the jury to accept that as a matter of law."

Ford said in a statement that it did not conduct testing on the type of van in question. In the rollover case, they said "injuries were caused by the driver of the van falling asleep and the occupants being unbelted."

Despite federal safety warnings, 15-passenger vans of all makes still seem to be a popular way to haul large groups. That worries some families who have seen loved ones die in rollover crashes.

"Every time I see one, I just always say a prayer for the people I see in those vehicles," Debra Wood said.

Those vehicles do not currently have to meet any rollover standards. Consumer advocates are pushing for reforms.

For now, people should follow the potentially life-saving advice of experts who say to keep the number of passengers below 10, to sit toward the front of the vehicle and, of course, to wear a seat belt.