The deaths of eight Utah State University students and an instructor prompted university officials Wednesday to act on their initial fears by temporarily shutting down the school's 15-passenger van fleet, even as parents of the accident's survivors question reports that seat belts were not being used.
For years, school officials have worried that the top-heavy vans could be dangerous. The school's 2001 vehicle-use policy warns, "Vans represent one of the greatest driving risks to the university."
University officials announced Wednesday a 30-day suspension of the school's van fleet, just two days after the van carrying 10 university students and one instructor rolled at least four times on I-84, killing nine aboard.
Meanwhile, the parents of the two survivors dispute the Utah Highway Patrol reports that none of the 11 passengers was buckled up.
Jared Nelson, 22, Woodburn, Ore., has what looks like a seat belt rash that sits diagonally right across his chest, his father, Brent Nelson, said. He is comatose and remains in critical condition at Ogden Regional Medical Center.
The other survivor, Robert Petersen, 21, Tremonton, has similar bruising and remains in serious condition at McKay-Dee Hospital, his father, Carl Petersen, said.
"He has marks across his cheek diagonally and across his legs — I don't think he put them there," Carl Petersen said of his son's scars. "It just kinda bothers me that all the media is saying nobody was wearing a seat belt."
Inspectors at both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Utah Highway Patrol maintain that none of the van's occupants was wearing a seat belt, UHP trooper Jeff Nigbur said.
Dr. J. Michael Dean, director of University Hospital's Intermountain Injury Control Research Center, said although he has not examined Petersen or Nelson, "If they were ejected, they weren't wearing a seat belt."
The probability that both seat belts failed, tossing Petersen and Nelson from the van, is unlikely, Dean said.
"It's extraordinarily rare for a seat belt to fail, and so if they were ejected, it just makes it a lot less likely that they were belted," he said.
The USU vehicle-use policy requires all occupants of university vehicles to buckle up.
The fleet will be suspended for 30 days while university officials re-examine the safety risks involved with using the top-heavy, 15-passenger vans in the future, said Glenn Ford, vice president of business and finance.
Ford said operation of 36 of the school's 50-van fleet will be suspended for 30 days while school officials review safety issues and possible replacement vehicles for the fleet. The other 14 vans in the fleet will continue operation, as they are designated to move cargo only, he said.
"Safety issues are our primary priority," university spokesman John DeVilbiss said.
During the 30-day suspension, the university will also look at elimination of full-size vans from its fleet or an upgrading of vehicles to make them safer. DeVilbiss said officials are also considering replacement vehicles, such as the Chevy Suburban, or hiring charter buses with designated drivers.
USU officials are also re-examining the school's vehicle-use policy. The policy requires drivers of 15-passenger vans to take a four-hour course.
University officials had told the Deseret Morning News that the driver of the van in Monday's crash, Evan Parker, had completed the training. Later they admitted they were wrong. Parker never took the four-hour course, but he did possess a valid commercial driver's license, DeVilbiss said.