My 10-year-old granddaughter, Alexis (Lexie) James was an avid softball player. In July 2007, she was invited, by a close friend of our family, to play in a softball tournament in Savannah Georgia. They lived in Greenville South Carolina and had a 10-year-old daughter that also loved softball. She was one of Lexie’s best friends.
Our family friend was a contractor and had a 15-passenger van that he used primarily for his work, but also used it to transport his family and friends to special events such as the softball tournament. It was a 1994 Dodge former “church van” that he had bought from his church. He left Greenville with his family and Lexie in the morning of July 17. They were traveling on I-26 … the weather was clear; the roads were dry … all was good.
Just south of Columbia South Carolina the left rear tire suddenly lost its tread causing the van to go out of control. It went off the highway and rolled several times. Even though Lexie was wearing her seat belt (a lap belt), she was ejected and killed. All others in the van survived.
Pictured below is the van Lexie was riding in and the tire that caused the crash
After her accident I began researching 15-passenger van and tire safety. When Dodge and Ford introduced these vans in the 70’s they simply took their existing utility/panel van, kept the same track width and wheelbase, and installed an extended body with seating for 15 occupants. This resulted in a significant overhang beyond the rear axle, a high center of gravity and high loading on the rear tires. This caused stability issues and a high propensity for rollover. Also, due to its seating capacity and gross vehicular weight it fell into a federal regulatory abyss … above the regulatory limit for passenger vehicles, but under the regulatory requirement for buses. Thus, it was exempt from most federal safety standards as they applied to passenger vehicles and buses.
This began changing in the early 2000’s when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) expanded many federal safety standards to include 15-passenger vans. In addition, a number of new standards were established. These were in place for all new 15-passenger vans by Model Year 2006. This was all good, but unfortunately by that time there were over 500,000 pre-2006 15-passenger vans in use without the various safety features.
Tires were another issue. The tire that failed on the van in Lexie’s accident was 13 years old. It was the original spare that was put on the van at a tire dealership just prior to the trip with no mention of the tire’s age and possible danger. Seems at the time there was no agreement within the tire industry as to how old is too old. NHTSA began studying the issue in the early 2000’s but had not yet reached a conclusion.
Over the years we’ve worked to try to improve the federal safety rules and regulations as they apply to 15- passenger vans and passenger vehicle tires including tire “aging”. We’ve worked with NHTSA, NTSB, IIHS, GHSA, the House Sub-committee on Highways & Transit, a number of motor vehicle insurance companies, various church organizations, and a few other safety advocates and consultants. Held numerous meetings and wrote numerous papers with recommendations. We plan to continue this in 2019.
We’ve also tried to increase public awareness of the dangers on 15-passenger vans … and “over age” tires. We tried to get to the end user … the motoring public that operate and/or ride in these vans. We’ve tried to get copies of our recommended “15-Passenger Van Safety Guidelines” into their hands.
In recent years, occupant fatalities in 15-passenger vans involved in fatal crashes are approximately half of what they were prior to 2005. This is a good thing, but over the last 5 years or so fatalities changed very little. We are now trying to generate renewed public interest in 15-passenger van and tire safety to further reduce the annual death rate in these vehicles. We need to get our safety guidelines into the hands of those that operate or ride in these vans. That is our primary goal for 2019.
Roderick Koehler (Lexie’s Grandpa)
American Center for Van and Tire Safety