Ottawa says 15-seat vans no proven risk

Transport Canada says that safety concerns regarding 15-seat passenger vans may be misplaced.

Jessie Chauhan, a senior communications assistant with Transport Canada, said the federal department has investigated four accidents involving this type of vehicle since 2000 and hasn’t seen a recurring pattern.

“We haven’t seen a common thread,” she said.

Eight members of a New Brunswick high school basketball team were killed just after midnight on Jan. 12 when their Ford Cub Wagon veered over the centre just outside of Bathurst. Eight of the van’s 12 occupants were killed on impact and ejected from the vehicle.

Transport Canada has made several statements to the media, in which it has indicated that the van was most likely not the cause of the accident. RCMP sergeant, Derek Strong, of the Mounties’ New Brunswick detachment, said that the accident probably occurred as a result of wet and icy roads.

Nevertheless, the accident has raised questions surround the safety of these vehicles.

Those safety concerns seemed to be validated last Friday when the New Brunswick government announced that it was suspending the use of 15-seat vans. On the same day, the Halifax Grammar School also made the decision to pull its large van off the road.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued numerous warnings regarding the safety issues surrounding 15-seat vans. A 2002 study conducted by the same agency indicated that 1,111 Americans have died in single vehicle roll-overs in these vans between 1990 and 2002.

Nova Scotia public schools have been barred from using 15-seat vans since the early 1990s. In addition, California lawyer Brian Chase told CBC that they have also been banned for use by schools in 29 American states in a recent interview.

David White, the chairman of the Nova Scotia Utilities and Review Board, the provincial body responsible for regulating the use of passenger vehicles in Nova Scotia said the ban was put in place in the early ’90s.

The reason for the ban, he says, has to do with safety. White said the decision to restrict the use of these types of vehicles was made after carefully watching their performance and development through the 1980s, during which time questions regarding their safety were raised. White also acknowledged that while large vans such as the Ford club wagon are not the subject of a widespread ban in Nova Scotia, the provincial government has been working to provide specifications for a replacement vehicle, in addition to providing support to support community groups in the form of safety information and maintenance assistance.

The safety issue, said White, is that while these types of vehicles tend to fare well in head-on collisions, they have a poorly constructed frame which leaves them susceptible to side-impact collisions. In addition, due to their size and high centre of gravity, large vans of the type involved in the Bathurst accident, also have a tendency to roll over.

Chauhan was unable to comment on the Transport Canada investigation, which is being conducted parallel to the RCMP inquiry, but she did say that Transport Canada is considering reclassifying medium sized vehicles such as this one, which could mean different licensing requirements, adding that they are currently grouped in the same category as buses.

“We’re looking at everything in our mandate,” she said, but cautioned that “road use is provincial.”

Chauhan also said a car accident is a complicated event and that a thorough investigator will consider many factors including the state of the driver, the condition of the vehicle and environmental factors.

Local car and truck rental dealers say a combination of safety concerns, high insurance and low demand have meant it is unprofitable for them to continue to keep such vehicles in their fleets.

Ford Canada did not return phone calls.

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