Ford 15 Passenger Van Rollover Accident

The type of extended van that rolled over and killed five Oregon-based firefighters on their way to a Colorado wildfire last week was involved in 268 single-vehicle roll-overs from 1990 to 2000, killing 424 people, according to government records.

Fifteen-passenger vans, such as the Ford Econoline E-350 Super Duty that crashed Friday, have a rollover rate three times that of regular vans, said Ray Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington, D.C. Tyson’s agency issued a safety alert in April 2001 and an addendum in April 2002 warning that 15-passenger vans are especially dangerous when driving with 10 or more occupants.

Those long vans — manufactured by Chevrolet, GMC, Dodge and Ford — should only be driven by well-trained drivers, Tyson said. And organizations that most often use them — including church groups, wildfire crews and college athletic teams — should impose strict rules about using safety belts, he said.”The survival rate for belted occupants,” he said, “is really high.”Ninety-two percent of occupants wearing safety belts during the 1990-2000 rollovers survived, while only 23 percent of unbelted occupants survived, Tyson said.

Four of the five firefighters who died in Friday’s rollover in western Colorado were not wearing safety belts and were ejected from the van, according to the Colorado State Patrol. A fifth person killed, riding in the front passenger seat, was wearing a belt. Eleven contract firefighters with Grayback Forestry Inc. of La Grande were driving to central Colorado on Friday when their vehicle — a 2001 Ford E-350 — rolled over four times. Police say driver Megan Helm, 21, reached for a snack and veered to the left on Interstate 70, then over-steered to correct her course, causing the roll-over. Product liability lawsuits have plagued the makers of 15-passenger vans in recent years. Plaintiffs’ attorneys specializing in van and sport utility vehicle roll-overs described Helm’s alleged overcorrection of the vehicle as an all-too-common characteristic of the Ford E-350 van and other such 15 passenger vans.

“It shouldn’t be a death sentence just because someone makes a (driving) mistake,…These vehicles need to be a little more forgiving.” said David P. Willis, a Board-Certified Personal Injury Lawyer in Houston now at work on a case involving the fatal roll-over of a GMC 15-passenger van.

Ford Motor Co.’s official position on the roll-overs is that seat belts — provided for all seats in the 15-passenger Econoline — significantly reduce the risk of ejection, serious injury and death. The Econoline owner’s manual points out that the vans have a higher center of gravity and that loaded vehicles might handle differently than unloaded ones. The manual also notes that drivers should avoid sharp turns and excessive speed. Ford tests the vans beyond the capability of normal drivers while loaded and unloaded, the company said in a written statement last September. “The vehicle meets our stringent internal guidelines, which contain an ample margin of safety.”