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The End of the Youth Group 'Deathtrap'?
Image: Gary Smith / Citizen Tribune / AP
Emergency workers respond to a crash involving a passenger bus and a tractor-trailer near Dandridge, Tenn., on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. The bus, which was carrying members of the Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C., blew a tire, veered across the highway median and hit a sport utility vehicle and the tractor-trailer.

Last week's deadly highway accident involving a church bus in Tennessee made national headlines and left experts wondering what safety measures could have been taken to prevent the tragedy that killed eight people.

The accident occurred Wednesday, October 2, after a tire on the Front Street Baptist Church bus blew out, causing the vehicle to swerve through a median into oncoming traffic. The bus, which was carrying 18 seniors coming home from a church event, then collided with an SUV and a semi-truck before flipping onto its side. Six passengers in the bus were killed, along with one person in the SUV and one in the truck.

Dandridge fire chief Andrew Riley described the scene to the Knoxville News Sentinel as a "war zone," and although many bystanders jumped in to help the injured, some died before emergency medical crews arrived.

"We know that God is in control and we know that he is able to heal," said Front Street Baptist Church pastor Rick Cruz in a press conference. "Even in this difficult time we do rejoice in the fact that six of our loved ones are in heaven with the Lord right now."

The investigation into the wreck is ongoing, but the incident is reminiscent of other church vehicle accidents, many involving 15-passenger vans.

When an innocent road trip takes a deadly turn

The Tennessee accident and many other church vehicle accidents share a common pattern: a tire blows out, the driver loses control, the vehicle flips, and the result is deadly.

That's what happened in a recent accident near Ft. Myers, Florida, when a church van flipped and killed three people. When the a tire blew out in a van belonging to the Maranatha French (Mission Group) Seventh-day Adventist Church, the van flipped several times. A 2-year-old was among those critically injured.

Sometimes, other variables are involved in church van accidents, including weather. Such was the case in a September van accident in Oregon, when wet roads and windy conditions may have caused the driver to lose control, resulting in the death of an 11-year-old girl.

And sometimes, the driver simply loses control for no apparent reason, as was the case last week, when a church van collided with a bus and rolled over. The accident killed one of the church leaders in the van. Similarly, in Illinois this May, five people—members of a church group—died when a driver veered off the side of the road.

This is just a sampling of the numerous church van and bus accidents over the year. Why are wrecks involving these 15-passenger vans such a common occurrence?

Mileposts toward vehicle safety

The tendency of 15-passenger vans to flip when a driver loses control came to the public's attention over a decade ago. Back then, agencies including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Citizen Public made significant progress in improving 15-passenger van safety.

In 2003, the NHTSA prompted auto makers to make significant changes to the vans—"deathtraps" and "top-heavy, lumbering behemoths," as a Public Citizen press release called them that year. First, manufacturers were required to equip 15-passenger vans with electronic stability control (ESC) by 2012; however, most vans began installing ESC prior to the mandatory overhaul.

NHTSA also required drivers transporting 16 or more people to have a commercial driver's license; in addition, it required upgrades on the tires for high speed performance, endurance tests, and Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems. NHTSA also introduced rear lap and shoulder belts, and Ford and GM voluntarily installed advanced air bags in their vans.

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The End of the Youth Group 'Deathtrap'?