When a Canadian basketball team lost control of their 15-passenger van on an icy highway and crashed into an oncoming vehicle, seven students died along with the coach’s wife. The incident hit particularly close for UT’s Athletic Director, Larry Marfise.
As a wrestling coach at The University of Evansville in Indiana, Marfise and some team members were driving on Highway 41 when a dog ran out in front of the van ahead of him. When he swerved to avoid the dog, his van rolled, though luckily he and his students walked away with only minor injuries.
Despite this and many other unpleasantly surprising statistics about the vans, UT’s athletic department still uses them, as they provide transportation to many competitions.
“They’re extremely dangerous and we are aware of that,” said Marfise.
As an athletic department policy, 15-passenger vans are not used in trips over 100 miles and when they are used, only 10-12 people are allowed in these vans as this decreases the risk of accidents.
However, the teams do not know what kind of vehicle they will be driving until the rental company drops it off.
Marfise estimates that as a result, for one out of 20 trips teams make, a 15-passenger van is used. He stresses the danger not only of these vans but also the condition drivers, usually coaches who are tired after competitions, face when it comes time to drive home.
UT athletics is constrained in its bus usage, as buses are expensive to rent for one-day use, though smaller teams such as tennis and golf use buses more regularly.
Marfise said coaches prefer to use buses, but the cost can be strenuous to the budget. The average cost of a bus is $700 to $1,200 per day, including the driver.
However, renting a 15-person van only costs $300 to $400 dollars.
Again, Marfise stressed that the regularity of van use depends on the budget. He said UT is not one of the top funded teams in the conference, which also hinders spending.
However, he feels it is beneficial to spend more money initially on buses when able to instead of taking vans.
“Accidents involving these vans are always in the back of my mind as we don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way,” Marfise said. He emphasizes the responsibility factor of the athletic department.
“We are responsible for students when they leave with us to go to a game until the time they get back to UT,” he said.
The Athletic Department took safety precautions by allowing players to ride home with parents from games with signed consent. In addition, once or twice each year, student athletes are able to drive themselves to games under certain circumstances.
UT rents its vans from West Coast Van Rentals, which has three locations: Clearwater/St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, and Ft. Myers.
This company has been in existence since 1992. Since the company’s opening, there has been only one documented rollover in a 15-passenger van.
Michele Schildhauer, Vice President of West Coast Van Rentals, said they are not phasing out their 15-passenger vans.
“We specialize in them,” she explained. Schildhauer also said these vans are very safe and feels driver error is the main cause for accidents.
She said in GM and Ford’s 2007 and 2008 models, stability tracks, emergency signals and better grips to prevent swaying have become standard.
All of West Coast Van Rentals are 2007 models, boasting at least 80 15-passenger vans and 30 12-passenger vans.
Schildhauer said the only difference in a 12-passenger van as opposed to a 15-passenger van is there are less seats.
The dangers of 15-passenger vans have become a focus on safety issues in transportation.
Research conducted in April 2001 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests these vans are three times more likely to rollover when loaded with at least 10 persons as opposed to a van with fewer than that.
The instability of these vans is due to a heavier load pushing the center of gravity to the rear of the vehicle, thus putting more weight on the back, creating an inherently less stable vehicle. In the U.S., these vans have been banned from all school districts.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that just over 1,000 people died in rollover accidents between 1992 and 2002.
Florida Highway Patrol Lieutenant Ron Castlebery said it is not illegal to operate 15-passenger vans in the state; a standard class E operator’s license is all that’s required.
“As long as it meets federal requirements, anyone can drive a van who has a standard motor vehicle operating license,” Castlebery said.
Commercial transportation, such as taxis and bus services require a special license.
In contrast, all California drivers must have a special commercial license in order to drive a 15-person van. This rule applies to anyone, including universities.
In regards to the safety of these vans, Castlebery said “[drivers] can push any type of vehicle to its limits.”
When asked if there have been any significant problems in the state with these vans, Castlebery said, “nothing extraordinary that we’re aware of.”