April 07, 2011


Chris Tapfer
Emergency Management Coordinator
Washington State University

Each year students and staff participating in collegiate recreation programs log thousands of miles traveling to compete in sport club matches, outdoor activities, or extramural competitions. Even with the best planning, preparation, and procedures in place, the possibility always exists that a vehicle accident will occur and individuals could be injured. Until you have this happen to your program, you can never be sure what to expect and what the impacts will be. In a span of ten years, I have worked with two major vehicle accidents involving sport club teams. Each incident had different outcomes and each became the driving force for significant institutional changes for student travel.

In November, 1994 the Men’s Lacrosse Club was returning from a tournament in two new 15-passenger vans. One van contained nine students the other ten. Just before 4 AM, one van left the Interstate and rolled several times. Of the nine students in the van, miraculously, seven received either minor or no injuries. Of the other two, one had a broken back and the other had been partially expelled from the van, which had rolled over him crushing his arm and damaging his leg.

In March of 2004, the Women’s Rugby Club was returning in a 15-passenger van from a tournament at a site just three hours away. Less than a half-hour away from home, the student driver tried to take a well-known shortcut but turned onto the wrong road. Details are not clear as to what occurred next, but the end result was the van left the road and rolled several times into a ditch. All students were using seatbelts and only minor injuries occurred.

Two van roll-overs ten years apart. One incident involved serious injuries and one did not. Each incident led to significant changes at the department and University level regarding student travel and use of vans. The more serious 1994 incident led primarily to changes by the recreation department, with only minor changes at the University level and none at the State level. The less serious 2004 incident had more dramatic repercussions within the State and University, leading to the functional elimination of the use of large vans for passenger transport by state agencies. Even though the end results of these two incidents were different, both provide valuable lessons to be considered, if your programs include any student travel.

Both incidents described involved large vans. The 2001 NHTSA report ( on the safety and stability of large (15-passenger sized) vans as well as subsequent research has made use of these vehicles for student activities suspect and closely scrutinized.

The following summarizes some of our ‘lessons learned’. Hopefully these will assist in your planning efforts to minimize serious transportation incidents:

  • Use public or charter forms of travel (Air, Train, Bus, etc.) when possible. Driving to an activity may seem to be the most cost-effective, but even under the best of circumstances, the risk is higher.
  • No matter what type of vehicle is involved, be sure the students who will be driving are properly trained, have a lot of driving experience and do not have a poor driving record. The latter can be checked with your State/Provincial Driver Licensing agency.
  • Consider applying the same policies and regulations that you would use for driving University owned vehicles to students driving their own vehicles for approved University activities.
  • Have strict limits on how long drivers can drive and how far they can drive. Limit night driving. Establish trip plans with specific routes and agendas.
  • Plan ahead and be prepared for emergencies like vehicle accidents. Have an emergency plan and make sure all involved are trained in what they should do to prevent accidents as well as what to do after an accident.
  • Plan, test and exercise your plan. This can not be emphasized enough. A “van accident scenario” is currently used for several training exercises within the University. The scenario never fails to make people uncomfortable, think, and become better prepared to deal with a real incident, if it occurs.


  • Consult with your University legal counsel regarding your emergency procedures. Be sure your plan includes what to say and not say at a scene of an accident.
  • Make sure your administration and legal counsel is informed of any accidents immediately.
  • Be sure there is a “point person” at your institution who is trained and of appropriate seniority to interact with the parents of the students who were in the accident, whether or not any were injured.
  • Be prepared for legal action. Consult your legal counsel for information on what forms, records, reports, etc. you should prepare ahead of any travel and keep on file after the travel is concluded. Have a clear records retention policy and plan. You will be surprised to discover the type and quantity of information opposing attorneys want you to provide.
  • Expect public scrutiny of all your policies and procedures. Expect the media to become involved and be prepared for everything from praise to vilification depending on your actions or lack of actions. Part of your planning should be to contact your University Relations/Press Office to inform them of the incident as soon as possible.
  • Be prepared to provide support to the students who have been involved in an accident. This can vary from counseling and grief support to helping them make arrangements to make up missed classes and exams.
  • Expect the possibility of an overreaction on the part of many within the University. Due to the extent of the injuries suffered by the two students and the subsequent tort claims after the 1994 incident, some of the institutional leadership wanted to eliminate the Sport Club program to prevent further incidents. After the initial uproar, cooler heads prevailed and the program survived.

Under the best of circumstances, student activity travel is risky. It is crucial to be properly prepared to provide safe travel for participants in our programs while maintaining protection for our institution. Despite the best intentioned decision making, any incident will likely bring great scrutiny to current practices, so it is imperative that you plan for any possible scenario and consult with others such as legal counsel, risk management/insurance experts and institutional media relations personnel in you’re planning and policy development. You can also research and study the causes and results of other student travel incidents for guidelines as you develop your policies. With careful planning and well-documented procedures, student travel can become one less thing to worry about.

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