updated 3/14/2004 4:51:35 PM ET 2004-03-14T21:51:35

Ford Motor Co. plans to begin equipping its 15-passenger vans with electronic stabilizing technology starting with the 2006 model year, a move designed to increase the safety of a type of vehicle the federal government and some motorists' lawyers contend has a significant roll-over risk.

The equipment is similar to a system the automaker introduced on its Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicle and SUVs such as the Lincoln Aviator and Navigator, Ford spokeswoman Carolyn Brown said Sunday. Even without the new safety feature, Ford maintains the vans are safe and reliable.

"The vehicle is a very safe vehicle," Brown said. "People just need to understand ... that it's not a car. It has a higher center of gravity. It should not be overloaded. It should not be driven at excessive speed."

Last month, Ford settled a lawsuit in Texas over a van-rollover crash that killed three young missionaries in Mexico in 2002. The case was the first involving its 15-passenger E-350 Econoline van to reach trial in six years. The trial ended with a confidential settlement negotiated after two days of testimony.

An attorney for the plaintiffs blamed the crash on several design defects; Ford said the cause was tire failure.

In 2002, the government renewed a safety warning for 15-passenger vans, which often are used by churches, sports teams and other groups. When carrying 10 or more people, the vans are three times more likely to roll over than lightly loaded vans, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found.

An NHTSA spokesman did not immediately return a call Sunday seeking comment on Ford's plan.

Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford had already strengthened the safety language in its vans' owners manuals, alerting drivers to the higher center of gravity and warning against abrupt maneuvers. The cautions are similar to those on its SUVs.

Stability enhancement systems help drivers maintain control of vehicles when they encounter such things as ice, snow, gravel, wet pavement and uneven road surfaces. They also provide stability in emergency lane changes and sudden movements.

The systems use sensors to recognize wheel skid and activate the brakes to keep the vehicle on course.

Brown said Ford hasn't determined how much adding the technology will cost or whether that will be added to the van's price.

General Motors Corp. said last year it would begin offering its 15-passenger vans with standard stabilizing equipment.

In 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board called on Ford and GM to improve the safety performance of their 15-passenger vans. In letters to the automakers, the NTSB urged them to test the use of electronic stability control systems to help drivers maintain better control of large vans.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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