Full-Size Vans: What You Need To Know To Arrive Safely

July 8, 2009

It's that time of the year again when church groups, summer camps, seasonal jobs, and corporate outings bring people not necessarily accustomed to full-size vans into them.

While minivans are closely related mechanically to sedans and lower crossover vehicles and typically have top-notch safety ratings, full-size vans like the Ford Econoline or Club Wagon, the Chevrolet Express, the GMC Savana or Rally/Vandura, or the now-discontinued Dodge Ram Van are in construction and mechanical layout more like older SUVs, with a body-on-frame configuration that brings a higher center of gravity that makes them more susceptible to rollover.

Typically the most dangerous rollover situations in full-size vans occur if the driver is fatigued or driving too fast and the van is tripped by a ditch, embankment, or median, or if the driver overcorrects in a quick maneuver. These sturdy vans remain popular with touring bands aiming to cover great distances on unfamiliar roads and often sleep-deprived, so they remain a concern.

Until recently, most of these vans didn't have some of the modern safety features, like electronic stability control and side-curtain airbags, that have been widespread in minivans and SUVs.

In study earlier this decade, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found the rollover rate for 15-passenger vans with ten or more occupants to be nearly three times the rate for lightly loaded vans. Why? Vehicles such as the Chevrolet Express, Dodge Ram Van/Wagon, Ford Econoline and Club Wagon, GMC Savana, and GMC Rally/Vandura may be capable of transporting large groups, but with bigger groups comes a greater risk of loss of control during panic maneuvers.

Thanks to increased awareness and standard stability control on newer 15-passenger models, the number of van occupant fatalities each year has mostly been on a downward trend, though there was a slight uptick in 2007.

NHTSA has restated its safety advisory on 15-passenger vans several times in recent years, and although the cautions don't apply specifically to the shorter versions, owners of those models should follow the same advice.

Here are some tips on how to load and drive these vans for the best safety:

Load the van carefully, from the front to the rear. For the best stability, always keep heavy loads as far forward and as low and close to the cargo floor as possible. Don't allow passengers in the rearmost seats if the middle-row seats are unoccupied, and don't strap any heavy objects to the roof. Keeping the van's center of mass as low as possible is important to minimize the chances of a rollover.

Slow down! Remember that for a heavily loaded vehicle, driving at the speed limit may be too fast. Be aware that in these vans you'll probably need to drive a bit slower than cars in wet or slippery conditions. According to a 2004 paper from NHTSA, the odds of rolling over above on roads with speeds above 50 mph are about five-times higher than on lower-speed ones.

Allow extra time to brake. Fully loaded vans have a greatly increased stopping distance compared to lightly loaded vans. At higher speeds, the difference is compounded.

Try to avoid abrupt maneuvers. Abrupt maneuvers, especially those at higher speeds, can trigger a rollover due to the load transfer from front to back while cornering. Never try to change lanes mid-corner.

Use the mirrors. Most big vans come with generously sized side mirrors that help get around the larger-than-usual blind spots in vans. Using them when changing lanes, and doing so cautiously, and not craning your neck rearward, will reduce the chance that you'll have to make a sudden maneuver.

Take frequent breaks. Don't let a drowsy driver take the wheel. Change drivers often, but never let a driver who has just napped get behind the wheel without time to wake up. Also, don't think you can drive through the night just because there are several drivers. If a driver falls asleep for just a moment, the action of jerking the steering wheel to get back on the road might be enough to start a rollover accident. Split a few hotel rooms, or pull over to sleep—it could save your life.

Require everyone to wear seatbelts.
Even when they're sleeping—no exceptions! It dramatically increases your chances of survival; according to federal accident statistics, up to 80 percent of those who die in single vehicle rollovers aren't buckled up. Don’t underestimate the protection of a simple lap belt.

Check the tire pressures frequently.  Underinflation increases the chances of a rollover in an abrupt maneuver, but don't overinflate the tires to compensate. Make sure you know what the maximum recommended pressure is, either from the owner's manual, the doorsill sticker, or your fleet administrator.

Get properly trained. Be aware that driving a loaded full-size van is nothing like driving an ordinary sedan or compact car. There's generally nothing defective with these vehicles; users just need to be familiar with the dos and don'ts of how they should be loaded and driven. Although these vans designated to transport fifteen or less passengers don't require a special license, it's strongly recommended that drivers take training courses for these vehicles. Check with a local driver-training school or commercial driver school if your school, church, or rental agency doesn’t offer training.

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