PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - Video from Youtube.com shows inside a 2000 Dodge Ram van 3500, the same year, make and model as the passenger van that crashed this morning, killing 8 Fort Pierce church-goers and injuring 10 others on board.
Equipped with four rows of seating, vans like the one involved in Monday morning's crash have fueled more than a decade of debate and scrutiny because of its history of problems.
In 2001, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA, started issuing warnings about 15- passenger van. Among those warnings, that the vans can be difficult to control in emergencies and lack adequate passenger protection, according to NHTSA.
"Why they're still on the roads is beyond me,” said Sean Kane, founder and President of Safety Research & Strategies Inc., a nationwide research firm that analyzes consumer injuries. Kane has reported on the dangers of 15-passenger vans and the government's concerns about them.
"Seatbelts frequently don't function properly. They're hard to use and geometry is very poor so we've seen people get ejected out of the vehicle when they're wearing a seatbelt,” he explained to the Contact 5 Investigators.
In 2001, NHTSA conducted a study to better assess the tendency of 15-passenger vans to roll over. As a result of that study, NHTSA concluded that 15-passenger van occupied with 10 or more passengers had three times the rollover ratio than those occupied with fewer than 10 passengers.
"So the government was saying don't use them with more than 10 people in a vehicle yet they were sold in the market as a 15-passenger vehicle,” said Kane. "It's unprecedented to see that kind of product where it's advertised in the market for one thing but the government has found it's not safe to use it in that practice," he said.
Early Monday morning, a 15-passenger van was overloaded with 18 church-goers from the Independent Haitian Assembly of God in Fort Pierce. The group was traveling back from a retreat at the Eglise De Dieu La Jerusalem Celeste church in Fort Myers when, investigators say, the driver ran a stop sign and crossed all lanes of U.S. 27 before landing in a canal in Moore Haven. The circumstances surrounding the crash remain under investigation. It is not known at this time if the crash resulted from driver error or if a technical issue contributed. A survivor told NewsChannel 5 that the driver couldn't brake and that's why he went through the stop sign. At this point, there is nothing to indicate the van rolled over or that the vehicle's design was a factor in this accident.
Lt. Gregory Bueno, spokesperson for the Florida Highway Patrol told the Contact 5 Investigators on Tuesday, "the crash remains under investigation, we are going to process the vehicle more closely, assess damage and examine for any mechanical defects in coming days. For the integrity of the investigation that is all I am releasing at this point regarding any more in depth dynamics of the crash."
Eric Mayne, spokesperson for Fiat/Chrysler, the manufacturer of the 2000 Dodge Ram van carring the church-goers said, “the vehicle meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety standards. FCA US LLC advises all motorists to follow the operating and maintenance instructions outlined in their owners’ manuals, particularly with regard to seating capacity. Every occupant should have and use his or her own seatbelt, as provided.”
Mayne also told the Contact 5 Investigators that Fiat/Chrysler stopped producing that version of the 15-passenger van after the 2003 model year. The company nows sell a full-size van based on a design that originated in Europe and has a lower center of gravity.