June 26, 2002 11:00 pm

• Item: On Feb. 10, 2000, a van carrying the Prairie View A&M track team rolled. Four died.

• Item: On May 8, 2001, a van carrying 12 women on a church-sponsored shopping trip overturned near Wichita Falls, Texas. Four died, eight were injured.

• Item: On June 10, 2001, a van carrying members of the Marine Forces Reserve rolled near Needles, Calif. Two dead, nine injured.

• Item: On July 1, 2001, a van carrying members of a church youth group rolled near Greensboro, N.C. One dead, 11 injured.

• Item: On June 21, 2002, a 15-passenger van carrying 11 firefighters out of

La Grande crashed on its way to a fire in Colorado. Five of the van's occupants died. Six were injured.

BETWEEN 1990 and 2000, extended vans such as the one that carried firefighters to Colorado last week were involved in 268 single-vehicle rollovers that resulted in 424 deaths. The numbers have continued to climb. There are an estimated 1.4 million of the vans on the road. They are being used by churches, colleges, large families, youth groups — and firefighters.

That the driver of the van carrying firefighters to Colorado is being blamed for the accident, is preposterous. The fault lies with the extended van, which studies have shown is prone to rollovers — especially when loaded and a sudden steering maneuver is undertaken. The vans are accidents waiting to happen. Even the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's studies have shown that the propensity for accidents increases with the number of passengers, and that the vehicles require special handling.

Ford, DaimlerChrysler and General Motors stand by the safety of their extended vans — if they are driven properly. GM's vans have a longer wheelbase, but the others have a seat that rides behind the rear axle. Studies have shown that loading the van causes the center of gravity to shift rearward and upward. A spokesman for Ford has acknowledged that the vans "should be driven in a different style than other vehicles. We tell people to avoid sharp turns, excessive speed and abrupt maneuvers.''

NO SPECIAL RULES are in effect for training people who drive these small buses. The vans fall one passenger short of the rules that apply to buses. Grayback Forestry, whose crew was in the van that crashed Friday in Colorado, does not require its drivers to have commercial driving licenses. It doesn't have to.

Evidence showing that 15-passenger vans are unsafe, especially when loaded, is overwhelming and has been for years. The time has come for the government to issue strict rules for the operation of existing 15-passenger vans and for automakers to phase out production of these death traps and undertake a redesign.

Sadly, it will come too late for the families dealing with the consequences of Friday's accident. But it might help prevent future tragedies.