“Conversion vans” are passenger vans made in part by major automobile manufacturers, but modified or completed by a van conversion company. Typically, these vehicles have been equipped with trim “upgrades,” such as captains chairs, paneling, raised roofs, sofa chairs, and even television sets, fold-out beds, kitchens and bathrooms.
The plush interiors found in many conversion vans can lull consumers into a false sense of security. While many occupants feel safe in their comfortable surroundings, they are actually at high risk of injury. Captains chairs, for example, have been known to completely break off the vehicle floor, allowing their occupants to be slammed into portions of the vehicle interior with lethal force.
Unfortunately for the consumer, the conversion industry has frequently sacrificed safety in favor of van sales. Many conversion outfits lack sophistication in auto product manufacturing and are surprisingly unaware of their safety obligations under the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. This could lead to a case for an auto product liability lawyer.
When conversion companies add trim upgrades and other luxuries to a conversion van, they often take something else away: the very basic vehicle safety features we have come to take for granted.
In the 1980′s Americans began buying smaller and more fuel efficient recreational vehicles (“RVs”), in the form of converted vans. To meet the demand, thousands of new converters joined the ranks of RV “manufacturing,” buying vans, sprucing them up in simple garages and warehouses, and reselling them at a hefty profit.
The “Big Three” American auto makers each established van conversion programs to actively market their vans. In a typical conversion program, the auto manufacturer contracts with approved converters, who agree to receive a minimum number of vehicles per year. The vehicles are shipped as “incomplete vehicles,” usually without seats or interior trim, to the converter. After adding seating systems, trim and other upgrades, the converter then markets the vans to dealerships.
Safety and quality control are frequently lost during the conversion process. Auto manufacturers select their approved converters based upon their ability to move merchandise, not their safety record. The Big Three auto makers typically do not review their approved converters’ designs, testing or manufacturing processes. When a non-approved converter buys vans on its own and does not deal directly with the auto manufacturer, there is no scrutiny of the conversion work.
The end result is that a consumer buys a major label vehicle new from a major label dealership, but often ends up with minor label safety engineering and testing. This often means no engineering or testing at all for important safety systems.
In this head-on collision between a converted Dodge Caravan and a Pontiac 6000, the Caravan’s captains chairs and seat belts broke, allowing the driver to strike the steering wheel with enough force to cause severe brain damage and quadriplegia. The seat and seat belts in the Pontiac did not break, and the Pontiac driver (pictured here on the ground) suffered only a broken leg and other non permanent injuries. According to the results of government testing, a stock Dodge Caravan with factory seating and restraints would have fared much better in the same accident. Had the Caravan driver been driving a stock minivan, he most likely would have walked away with only minor injuries.
Seats That Don’t Stay Seated During Accidents.
When vans leave the manufacturer on their way to be converted, they typically do not contain seats or interior trim. It is up to the converter to install seating and restraint systems that comply with federal motor vehicle safety standards. Many converters, however, have little engineering experience in designing and testing automobile seats. One recent seat failure case involves as a defendant an office chair manufacturer that got into the automotive seating business by tearing down other car seats and imitating the design — without the help of engineers.
The two front seats in this conversion van failed completely in a collision similar to the 35 mph frontal barrier tests performed by the government. The seat pedestals bent significantly forward and upward, and the seat tracks on the pedestal released. The driver and passenger were seriously injured.
When this conversion van was involved in a moderate frontal collision, the middle row of captains chairs deformed forward, allowing their belted occupants to strike the front seats. One occupant was killed and the other suffered a brain injury. (Photo courtesy of Robert M.N. Palmer, P.C.)
Restraints That Rip Apart.
When seating systems begin to fail, seat belts are often not far behind. Seat belts are not typically designed to withstand the dynamic weight of the occupant and the seat and can give way or break. Seat belts can also become severed when they come into contact with portions of a deforming seat or other sharp, protruding objects.
Roofs That Do Little More Than Keep Out The Rain
Conversion companies frequently cut off the factory steel roof and support structures of the stock van and install raised roofs, usually constructed of fiberglass and attached with simple sheet-metal screws.
Fiberglass raised roofs attached with screws look nice and provide headroom, but they do not provide the same level of protection provided by a steel factory roof that is welded to the vehicle.
Raised roofs allow additional head room, but often at a high price. During rollovers, these roofs can shatter or pull right off the van, creating a huge opening through which occupants can be ejected.
When a conversion van with a raised fiberglass roof is involved in a rollover, the screws attaching the roof to the van can pop out or get sheared off, allowing the roof to completely separate from the van. In these circumstances, ejection of unbelted occupants is all but assured. (Photo courtesy of Ricci, Hubbard, Leopold & Frankel)
The luxurious finish of a conversion van, and marketing brochures showing travelers lounging unrestrained in their tall interiors, can leave consumers feeling as safe in their conversion vans as they are in their living rooms. It is not surprising that a large percentage of conversion occupants do not wear their seatbelts. These occupants are completely unprotected when a roof breaks off or a side window shatters during an accident.
“Picture Windows” That Shatter
Converters often enlarge the window openings, sometimes all the way down to the van floor. These side and rear windows often shatter during collisions, creating large openings through which occupants can be ejected.
Oversized windows can become huge portals of ejection when they shatter and break out during an accident. It is feasible to make these windows out of the same safety glass used in windshields (which typically fractures but remain in place and do not break out during accidents), but this costs more and is typically not done.
The government has studied conversion vans several times, and has made recommendations to the industry. A 1979 study warned of dangers including insufficiently fastened seats, cabinets, and appliances that could break loose in an accident. In 1991, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) worked with an industry association to inform converters about testing in which some pedestal seats “bent all the way forward so as to possibly endanger the occupants when coming into contact with rigid parts of the vehicle.” The industry association also suggested that converters consider voluntary recalls.
While some converters heeded NHTSA’s advice for their future conversion van models, it appears that most did not consider recalling prior defective car models, many of which are still on the road.
The future of conversion van safety is still uncertain. While it appears that the conversion industry has consolidated and that there are fewer converters now than there were just 10 years ago, quality control remains variable. Even today, conversion vans continue to be produced that are not crashworthy and likely violate federal safety standards. Van converters, for example, continue to favor fiberglass roofs, despite their tendency to break off the vehicle during rollovers. Many older, defective models also remain in use.
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