April 07, 2011

Jeff Elbracht
University Recreation Associate Director
Washington State University

The risks involved in using 15-passenger vans has become prevalent in the news over the past few years. From frequent newspaper articles to a full feature in 2002 on ‘60 Minutes’, the hazards of 15-passenger van travel have become well documented. In October 2005, 15-passenger van use once again came to the forefront: nine of eleven students were killed when a van driven by a Utah State University professor blew a tire while traveling at an estimated 95-100 miles per hour on the highway (Salt Lake Tribune, October 2005). What was once viewed as an essential and affordable means of transportation for universities, schools, churches, and YMCA’s is now viewed as a high-risk activity that can often result in rollovers, accidents, and even death.

Concern over the increased risks of 15-passenger van use has lead to a change in Federal law which now prohibits the sale of 15-passenger vans for the school-related transport of high school and younger students. While this law does not prohibit their use for transporting college students nor does it apply to non-school districts, it has set an important precedent for the continued use of 15 passenger vans in the Campus Recreation and university setting.

Over the past five years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued a series of reports addressing the concerns of 15-passenger (and in limited cases 12-passenger) van travel. These studies have focused on issues such as rollover propensity, passenger and cargo loads, seat belt usage, and tire pressure. While each study carried a different focus, the underlying theme was simple and uniform: there are inherent risks associated with using 15-passenger vans for travel.

According to the NHTSA, 1111 fatalities were reported for occupants of 15-passenger vans from 1990-2002 (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration “Analysis of Crashes Involving 15-Passenger Vans”, May 2004). While the likelihood of a 15-passenger van being involved in a fatal crash is only slightly higher than that of a normal passenger vehicle, (0.26% of 15-passenger vans were involved in fatal accidents as opposed to 0.25% of passenger vehicles), the additional contributory factors of 15-passenger vans coupled with how they are being driven make them a target for concern.

While the NHTSA has not gone as far as proposing the complete elimination of 15-passenger vans, they offer compelling arguments against their use – and also highlight the many factors that need to be addressed to reduce the risks when using them. Higher roller propensity for these vehicles is in fact due to their basic engineering. Of the 1111 fatalities from 1990-2002, 349 (31%) were single vehicle rollovers most likely attributed to the high rollover propensity.

In addition to vehicle design, there are several other contributing factors to vehicle rollover and accidents. Luckily these factors can be addressed through effective risk management. Factors such as air tire pressure, vehicle passenger and cargo loads, driver experience and seat belt usage can all be effectively controlled to reduce the risks of an accident – or minimize the consequences when one happens. In the Utah State incident, the van was loaded with 11 passengers (NHTSA recommends loads under 10), only 9 of the 11 were wearing seat belts (NHTSA reports suggest seat belt usage is crucial), and there had been no specific driving training for the professor (NHTSA lists driver experience as a contributing factoring many accidents).

Recent high-profile news stories of college students and athletic team accidents coupled with the NHTSA and media reports has put 15-passenger van travel under a microscope. Due to the nature of these high-profile cases, one can assume that the level of scrutiny will continue to be high. Many states, schools, and universities (including recently Washington State University) have chosen to completely eliminate 15-passenger (and in some cases 12-passenger) vehicles to mitigate the risks. If your institution or department chooses not to eliminate oversize vehicles for travel, it becomes a necessity to properly address the major contributory factors to accidents. The NHTSA (www.NHTSA.gov) provides a better understanding of the risks associated with 15-passenger vans, and recommends ways to help manage those risks.

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