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USU had cited dangers of vans long before crash

Users told to load wisely — and to wear the seat belts

Deseret Morning News graphic

LOGAN — Years before eight students and one instructor died in a van rollover Monday, Utah State University officials knew the vehicles could be dangerous.

"Vans represent one of the greatest driving risks to the university," the school's 2001 policy on vehicle use states.

The policy warns users not to overload the vans with equipment, since they are known to have problems with balance. It also requires all occupants to buckle up.

Now, USU officials are re-examining that policy, while still allowing scheduled excursions using the 15-passenger vans. The van in Monday's crash was a 1994 Dodge Ram.

Seven students and their instructor were killed in the accident or died shortly thereafter. Another student, 22-year-old Justin Huggins, died in the hospital overnight, bringing the death toll from Monday's crash to nine.

Tuesday, the survivors, Jared P. Nelson, 22, Woodburn, Ore., remained in critical condition, and Robert Hadley Petersen, 21, Tremonton, was in serious condition, at Ogden hospitals.

The students and their instructor were traveling back from an agricultural field trip near Tremonton in Box Elder County when, police say, the left rear tire blew out, causing the vehicle to skid out of control and roll at least four times.

No one was wearing a seat belt and the force of the crash ejected all 11 occupants from the van, Utah Highway Patrol trooper Jeff Nigbur said.

The school has had problems with the vans in the past. Six volleyball players were injured in 2001 after one of the school's vans flipped near Laramie, Wyo.

At USU's Logan campus, school officials struggled to find answers Tuesday as emotions from the previous day's events ran high. Several couldn't speak. They just slumped their shoulders and fought back tears.

Glen Ford, vice president for business and finance, said all scheduled trips requiring use of the vans will still proceed. However, school transportation officials will check all the vans in USU's fleet to ensure tires are properly inflated.

USU's current transportation policy requires that those who drive the vans be certified through a four-hour course.

Evan Parker, 45, the driver and the students' instructor, had not only taken the course but also had a commercial driver's license, USU spokesman John DeVilbiss said.

"Getting in the vehicles themselves is not dangerous, it's in the human element where we run into problems — which is why we require training to drive them," DeVilbiss said. "If we felt they were really dangerous there would be no way we would be keeping them on the road."

Ford said leaders also plan on sending a campuswide e-mail reminding students of the precautions they need to take while traveling in vans, like wearing a seat belt.

"Our policies and our training focuses greatly on the use of seat belts, and they must be worn," Ford said.

Had the passengers in the USU van buckled up, it might have improved their chances for survival, according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The 2004 study found that out of all the 15-passenger van accidents from 1994-2001 involving a single vehicle, 92 percent of all belted occupants survived. An unrestrained 15-passenger van occupant involved in a fatal, single-vehicle crash is about three times as likely to die in the accident compared to someone wearing a seat belt.

"It boggles my mind," agriculture department head Bruce Miller said of the van's occupants not wearing seat belts before the deadly crash.

For years, federal officials have worried about the rollover rate of 15-passenger vehicles. The NHTSA issued a warning in May about the dangers of the big vans, the third such warning in four years.

Researchers warned that 74 percent of all 15-passenger vans had significantly misinflated tires, which increases the prospect of a rollover crash. The report said drivers and passengers can reduce the risks of rollovers by wearing seat belts at all times, checking tire pressure at least once a week, keeping loads off the roof of the van, and making sure the driver is trained and experienced.

But one attorney fighting as many as 14 cases for the victims of 15-passenger van rollovers believes the warnings aren't enough.

"There have been a number of advisories, but I don't think the true message is truly getting out, which is you should never ride in a 15-passenger van," said Jeff Wigington, an attorney in Corpus Christi, Texas, with cases pending against multiple auto manufacturers.

Wigington said the problem is not with the drivers or passengers, "it's the inherent design of the vehicle."

He said he wasn't surprised that the left tire blew in Monday's fatal accident, as most vans are designed to place a disproportionate amount of weight on the left rear tire.

"The auto companies have refused to make their 15-passenger vans safer," Wigington said. "The only thing they do in these accidents is place the blame on the driver."

Michael Palese, a spokesman for DaimlerChrysler Corp., offered his condolences to the victims and their families and said now is not the time to point fingers.

He maintains the company's 15-passenger vans, including the 1994 Dodge Ram van, are safe for everyday use, adding that all vehicles must go through multiple tests and meet tough federal standards before they are sold.

"These vehicles are safe. . . . You can blame the van, but clearly seat belts are clearly the big factor here," Palese told the Deseret Morning News on Tuesday.

DaimlerChrysler discontinued manufacturing the Dodge Ram van after the 1994 model was released.

Both local and federal officials spent the day Tuesday piecing together what could have caused the 15-passenger van's tire to blow. Inspectors from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Utah Highway Patrol are both performing separate inspections on the crash site, Nigbur said.

Initial reports indicate a possible tire failure and excessive speed as the main contributors to the crash, Nigbur said.

One national consumer advocacy group, the Public Citizen, issued a statement Tuesday calling for all universities, churches, seniors' homes and other groups to discontinue use of 15-passenger vans until manufacturers make them safer. The group reiterated NHTSA warnings about the vans, adding that manufacturers should equip all vans with dual rear wheels.

Congress recently passed new legislation that requires auto makers to test 15-passenger vehicles for rollovers, front and side crashes, and post the results on the windows of the vehicles for potential buyers.

The legislation also mandates an increase in the strength of vehicle roofs, which could save lives during a rollover.

"Unfortunately, the effects of these new rules on vehicles won't be seen for five to seven years," said Jane Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and former administrator of the NHTSA. "In the meantime, schools and community organizations should avoid the vans altogether if they want to avoid tragedy."