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Controlling your risk by Bob Carruth

As Risk Control Manager for the NCACC, Bob Carruth manages the operation of the Risk Control Team for the Risk Management Pools. The team assists members with development of safety policies and programs and identification of liability exposures and controls. Carruth is a Certified Safety Professional and is certified as an Associate – Risk Management.  For archives of this column click here

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Aug 04

Larger vans can increase safety risks

Posted on August 4, 2015 at 12:50 PM by Todd McGee

On March 29, 2015, a 15-passenger van carrying 18 adults and children was returning from a Palm Sunday retreat in south Florida.  The van ran through a stop sign and veered to make a sharp corner.  The driver lost control of the van, sending it into a drainage canal.  Eight passengers were killed, and the other 10 were sent to the hospital. 

On April 6, 2015, a 15-passenger van carrying members of two rock bands traveling from Spartanburg to Atlanta ran off an interstate highway and crashed into a tree.  The van was also towing a cargo trailer. The driver and two passengers were killed and eight more were injured, some severely.  Initial reports indicate that fatigue may have been a factor.

Although there were several factors that contributed to the two incidents highlighted here, both involved the transport of passengers in a 15-passenger van. Although there has been a lot of attention paid over the past 20 years to this type of vehicle, and many organizations have transitioned away from its use, it still remains one of the most popular means for specialty transportation needs.  I am sure most of us have some story to tell about our own experiences traveling to camp or on vacation in one of these vans.  After all, using a large van such as this avoids the long convoy of cars heading down the road, and everyone can pile their personal gear in the van, thereby saving on gas for a long trip.

One can get lulled into a sense of complacency when operating a 15-passenger van.  According to the blogsite “15-passenger.com” and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, research indicates several findings regarding these vans:

  • Risk of rollovers increases significantly when 10 or more passengers ride in a 15-passenger van.
  • Wearing a seatbelt greatly increases the chances of survival. Passengers and drivers should ALWAYS buckle up.
  • Roofs are inadequately reinforced. Even when passengers are wearing seat belts, they will not satisfactorily prevent massive crushing that result in death, traumatic brain injuries or severed spinal cords.
  • Vans should be operated only by well-trained drivers who understand the handling mechanisms of these vehicles, especially when fully loaded.
  • Any load on the roof will be above the center of gravity and increase the possibility of a rollover in an emergency maneuver.
  • Speed plays a role in many accidents. Approximately 25 percent of all accidents are the result of excessive speed. In 15-passenger vans, this is even more significant as speeds that may be acceptable in a smaller passenger car can be highly dangerous in these vans.

Some additional precautions that should be followed by counties: 

  • If 15-passenger vans are still being used for elderly or handicapped transport, make sure that the van hasn’t merely had a wheel chair lift added, but has also been up-fitted with the proper securement hardware. In addition, the suspension should be bolstered to handle the additional weight.
  • When renting a 15-passenger van for a special event, make sure your drivers are either professional drivers (licensed & trained) or that you have special training to help drivers understand the difference in handling of the van when loaded with passengers and cargo.
  • Be diligent about any contract transportation service that you may use to augment your internal resources.  These services, to cut operating costs, often purchase older vehicles that may not have the up-to-date requirements for transportation safety items.
  • Budget to provide for adequate transportation resources.  Note the point above about the increased risk when more than 10 passengers ride in a 15-passenger van.  If necessary, rent a cargo van or truck to transport luggage. Avoid towing a trailer. 
  • Drivers should not be allowed to drive when fatigued, and distractions while driving should be kept to a minimum.  Unlike larger busses, the van driver is not separated from the passengers, and it is quite easy to get distracted.  Due to the different handling and weight of the van, reactions taken by the driver to evade hazards or correct mistakes can often snowball and lead to loss of control.
  • When planning for replacement or addition of transportation assets, serious consideration should be made to replacing any 15-passenger van with a larger bus or smaller van.  

As with any other project or endeavor undertaken, transportation is a key element.  Adequate preparation and planning can help to decrease the risks faced when operating this important element of our transportation networks.