U uses vans despite accidents, warnings

Branden Peterson

In the past four years, six University-owned 15-passenger vans have been in rollover accidents, one of which prompted a lawsuit by a University student.

During the same time period, the federal government issued several safety warnings on the vans.

Despite accidents and warnings, Fleet Services maintains the vehicles are safe and continues to provide 55 vans to campus groups throughout the University system.

Seven Big Ten schools have stopped using the vans, Fleet Services director Bill Roberts said.

Universities began cutting their use of the vans after 2001 and 2002, when the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration warned 15-passenger vans might have a tendency to roll over.

Despite warnings, Roberts is not convinced the vans should be off the road.

“I don’t see the (highway safety administration) stats to back it up,” Roberts said.

Some colleges are now purchasing sport utility vehicles, which Roberts said makes him question which statistics other schools are analyzing.

“They’re more expensive, and I would say they’re more dangerous,” he said.

In the van warnings, the highway safety administration said the vehicles’ high center of gravity, along with their design to be back-heavy when fully loaded, contributes to the vans’ tendency to roll over.

Highway safety administration warnings caused Northwestern University risk management officials to eliminate van rentals by dropping insurance, said David Kite, a Northwestern motor pool supervisor. Now only three vans are used on the campus.

“Most universities have gotten out of the business,” Kite said. “They’re concerned that in a major accident they’d find themselves in a lawsuit and being told ‘you heard about these warnings.’ “

Driver’s ed

In July 2002, the University started requiring training courses for anyone who would be driving the vans.

Since then, approximately 1,500 individuals have taken the two-hour training course.

No University vans have rolled over since the course began last summer.

Roberts said he uses photos from past accidents to provide examples of what can happen quickly and unexpectedly.

“I try and scare them a bit,” he said of his trainees, who also must be at least 19 years old and have a valid driver’s license.

Roberts travels several times each year between University campuses at Crookston, Duluth, Morris and the Twin Cities to teach the van-driving courses.

Many Big Ten schools are trying training programs. At Penn State University, drivers must be at least 25 years old and go through an extensive Web-based course.

“The age limit helped it a lot,” said Keith Beisel, a Penn State fleet operations supervisor. “When students are driving students, I don’t think that’s a great idea.”

Approximately 90 percent of trainees become certified, Beisel said.

Student sues for injuries

On Feb. 1, 2002, Jessica Mann and seven other University students were traveling to Chicago when their 15-passenger rental van slid over ice and rolled off the highway, according to a police report.

Mann and the driver, Aaron Asmundson, did not return requests for comment.

Mann suffered several lifelong injuries in the crash, her attorney, Harry Sieben, said.

Sieben said Mann is suing Asmundson, a Student Activities Office director, and the University for her medical expenses and future lost earnings.

The possibility of accidents does not deter some campus groups from using the vans.

To go on its nature excursions, the Center for Outdoor Adventure coordinator Sean Morrissey said, “They work perfectly for outdoor programs.”

To keep its traveling record clean, Morrissey said the center also stresses safety by requiring that no person drives more than four hours consecutively, all passengers must wear seat belts and drivers must follow speed limits.

University YMCA Executive Director Peter Radosovich said all his drivers complete the van training, and some have been denied for not having a clean driving record.

“We’re trusting that the University and Fleet Services are keeping up with the trends and what other universities are doing,” he said.

Student-athletes and vans

According to Fleet Services, University athletics groups are the most frequent users of 15-passenger vans because they are often the cheapest travel option.

College student-athletes have been injured or killed in several van rollovers, but the NCAA has not asked universities to stop transporting student-athletes in the 15-passenger vans.

NCAA spokeswoman Laronica Conway said the athletics organization doesn’t have the authority to tell its universities how to travel.

With issues of budget, facilities and travel, the NCAA leaves that responsibility to the universities, Conway said.

Next July, Fleet Services will re-examine the future of 15-passenger vans at the University. If van rollovers continue despite efforts to train drivers, the University might instead start leasing minivans or other vehicles.

Branden Peterson welcomes comments at [email protected]