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School vans need more wheels, consumer group says

WASHINGTON, November 13, 2002; Rip Watson writing for Bloomberg reported that a consumer group said: General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. should add a second set of rear wheels to 15-passenger vans to help prevent rollovers of the vehicles commonly used by school and church groups.

The change would cost automakers about $135 a vehicle, said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, an advocacy group that says it has 150,000 members. More than 860 people in the U.S. died between 1990 and 2000 in van crashes, half of which were rollovers, the group said. General Motors and Ford said the vehicles are safe. DaimlerChrysler AG no longer makes the vans.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has warned twice in the past 18 months about the tendency of the vans to roll over and said last week it would create rules for smaller school buses as an alternative vehicle. The National Transportation Safety Board also weighed in Nov. 4, urging Ford and General Motors to use technology such as electronic stability control to cut rollover risk.

"It's shameful that the manufacturers have refused for 25 years to make the vehicles safe," said Claybrook, who headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the 1970s. "These vans are horribly unstable when they make an emergency maneuver or turn."

The vans are three times more likely to roll over if they have more than 10 riders than if they have five or fewer, the NHTSA said. Approximately 500,000 of the vehicles are on the road now, Claybrook said. Retrofits to add dual rear wheels would cost at least $295 a vehicle, she said.

"This isn't a vehicle problem," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who said the agency is concerned about the training and experience of van drivers and the fact that most fatalities involve riders who don't use their seat belts.

The agency hasn't evaluated the safety of individual automaker's vans and wasn't told about the consumer group's proposal in advance, he said.

"We have stated all along that our extended vans are safe and reliable," General Motors spokesman Jim Schell said. "Drivers need to understand that these vehicles handle differently than other types of vehicles," which can make them harder to steer.

General Motors would like all 15-passenger-van drivers to have a chauffeur's license, Schell said.

"We are looking at technologies such as electronic stability control for the Econoline and other technologies for these vehicles because we believe in continuous improvement and making them even better than they are today," Ford spokeswoman Sarah Tatchio said.

She said she had never heard of Public Citizen's proposal and that Ford doesn't offer a second set of wheels on the vans.

Chrysler spokesman Mike Aberlich said all Chrysler vans, including 15-passenger vehicles are tested using a variety of maneuvers to simulate vehicle emergency handling, such as a turn in the shape of the letter J, and a lane-to-lane switch to avoid an obstacle in the road. The third-biggest automaker stopped making 15-passenger vans because of falling sales, he said.