PrimeTime: Minivan Danger

Kim Golden was just steps away from her minivan when it began to roll with her 4-year-old daughter, Lindley inside, and in an attempt to bring the van to a halt was run over and killed. Golden was five months pregnant with twins.

And Amy Dawson's 4-year-old daughter was run over by the family minivan in their own driveway.

Dawson says she walked to the mailbox with her two daughters, 4-year-old Abby and 2-year-old Emily, thinking her Dodge Caravan was safely parked. While Dawson was busy with trash bins, Emily went back to the van, and apparently turned the key in the ignition so she could play a CD. The minivan began to roll, running over Abby, who needed 80 stitches to close her wounds.

Though Chrysler's Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager are the most popular minivans in America, a PrimeTime investigation has found such "rollaway" accidents might have been prevented by an inexpensive safety device that was used on all major carmakers' minivans, except for millions made by Chrysler.

Now, going public about this for the first time, Paul Sheridan, a former Chrysler executive, says the company rejected a proposal to install a device that might have prevented many such rollaway accidents.

Brake Shift Interlock

Rollaway accidents can occur when a child, left alone in a vehicle with the key in the ignition turned to the on position — even if the car is not running — moves the gearshift out of park, sending the car rolling.

When the key is in the ignition, a feature called brake shift interlock makes it necessary to put your foot on the brake in order to shift out of park. Since most young children can't reach the brake and shift gears at the same time, the brake shift interlock works as a safety device.

Between 1995 and 2000, 3 million Chrysler Town and Country, Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans were sold — all without the brake shift interlock. So even with your foot off the brake and the engine off, the car could start rolling when shifted into park, as long as the key was in the ignition.

"They advertise it for families," says Joan Claybrook, a consumer advocate, "and yet it's a killer vehicle. This vehicle can kill people inadvertently."

Claybrook, who's been leading the charge for car safety for a quarter century, says that even though there have been only two such accidents in which people were killed, anybody who's around one of these minivans can be in danger.

Former Employee Speaks

Sheridan was the head of a Chrysler minivan team that tried to keep the company ahead of its competition on safety matters. In 1994, he says, Chrysler faced a serious threat because Ford planned to advertise its new Windstar minivan as the safety leader. Sheridan says he warned Chrysler executives that Ford's minivan had brake shift interlock, while Chrysler's did not.

"If we don't get brake shift interlock," he told them, "we cannot continue our claim as the safety leader."

He says the response he got from executives was, "If we put it on the minivan, we have to put it on all Chrysler vehicles … and that's going to amount to a very large investment."

According to Sheridan, installing brake shift interlock in the minivans would have cost Chrysler $9 per minivan.

Chrysler acknowledges the issue was discussed, but says the allegation that cost was "the determining factor" in their decision to not install the device is false.

Still, Sheridan maintains the company did not want to spend the money.

Ten months after these discussions, Sheridan was fired. He says he was fired because he was about to take this and other concerns to the government. Chrysler says his employment was terminated because Sheridan leaked confidential information to a trade paper, a charge he denies.

Chrysler Responds

Chrysler sent a statement to PrimeTime Thursday pointing out that the government does not require brake shift interlock in vehicles, and that the company does not believe the device reduces the risk of these incidents.

Chrysler also says brake shift interlock was designed to prevent sudden acceleration — not rollaway accidents with children. This sudden acceleration, they said, was a problem not seen in their minivans.

The real issue, Chrysler says, is parents leaving small children unattended in vehicles.

But a PrimeTime investigation uncovered that of 48 gear shift incidents caused by children, 40 were in Chrysler minivans. That's 83 percent.

"It's immoral what they've done," says Claybrook. "People should not die because Chrysler didn't want to put this brake shift interlock in."

Class action lawsuits have been filed against Chrysler in 12 states, charging the automaker with fraud for advertising its minivans as the world's safest, when they did not have brake shift interlock. The company has installed brake shift interlock in its 2001 model minivans.