Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Feds 'negligent' for not warning about passenger vans: B.C. inspector

A British Columbia motor-vehicle inspector and mechanic is accusing Transport Canada of "negligence" for failing to educate the public — particularly the parents of schoolchildren — about the dangers of 15-passenger vans.

"Transport Canada has not issued any recommendations against using these vans. They're passing responsibility to the provinces and the school districts, and I think that's short-sighted thinking," said Bryan Murphy, a licensed vehicle inspector who works as a school bus mechanic and driver with School District 68 in Nanaimo, B.C.

"Transport Canada is negligent in not addressing this issue and bringing it to public attention."

Seven high school basketball students and a teacher were killed in 2008 when their 15-passenger van slammed into a transport truck in New Brunswick.

A coroner's inquest into the tragedy recommended that 15-passenger vans — called "death traps" by a U.S. consumer watchdog agency — be banned for student travel across Canada.

"I don't want to see more blood on our highways before people are finally made aware of the dangers of these vans, but it seems that's what it will take," said Murphy.

Murphy, who represents the Canadian Union of Public Employees on his school district's safety committee, said he has been asked by the union's B.C. leaders to begin a tour of the province, speaking to schools and parents about the threats posed by the vans.

A recent Canwest News Service investigation found that more than half of the school districts in B.C., and many others across Canada, use the vans to transport children to extracurricular events.

Because they were originally designed as cargo vehicles, 12-and-15-seat vans lack the passenger protections, such as reinforced steel frames and laminated side windows, common on many other vehicles, particularly school buses.

They also have a high centre of gravity and are more prone to rollovers than any other vehicle on the road, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration .

In recent years NHTSA has issued numerous safety warnings about the vans, which are now banned for the transport of children in more than 30 U.S. states. The U.S. government also prohibits the sale of the vans to schools and daycares.

In Canada, however, only Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec outlaw the vans for school use.

Transport Canada says vehicle use is not a federal responsibility, but lies with the provinces. And while the department oversees the types of vehicles sold in Canada, it has not imposed any restrictions on 15-passenger van sales, or adopted a new Canadian Standards Association protocol for a safer minibus design that could replace 15-seat vans.

The department, whose senior officials have declined interview requests on the subject, also blames the New Brunswick van crash not on the vehicle type itself, but on driver error and slippery road conditions.

Murphy said a school bus driven by a professional driver would have better protected the victims of that accident. He said Transport Canada should take the lead in raising public awareness about the vans' documented dangers, and in pushing provinces and school boards to ban them.

High schools in Murphy's own school board still rent 15-passenger vans for transporting students to out-of-town sporting events. Murphy has pleaded with trustees in Nanaimo to ban the vans, but they said they didn't know how they would replace them.

"It's very difficult to carry out extracurricular activity without using those vans," said district Supt. Mike Munro. "We are looking at new vehicles, and we've asked staff to watch for those to become available. If they do, we'll be moving to that right away."

The B.C. government has advised its schools to use 15-passenger vans with special precautions, such as no overloading, no cargo on the roof, and being aware of road conditions and speed.

Murphy said that's not enough, and wonders why — nearly two years after the New Brunswick tragedy — governments in Canada aren't taking more action against 15-passenger vans.

"There needs to be far more awareness of this problem among the general public," he said. "Whether it's students, or daycare children, or even senior citizens riding in those vans, they're not the right vehicle for the job."

With files from Derek Spalding, Nanaimo Daily News

© Copyright (c) Canwest News Service

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