Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Opinion: Musicians' Choice of Transportation Can be Deadly: Two Critically Injured in 15 Passenger Crash in BC

Tommy Alto members (left to right) Chartwell Kerr, Ben Klassen, Tom Vander Kam , Paul Engels and Dan Besser in a photo taken on their most recent tour. The band was in a 15 passenger van crash on August 23 that sent two members, drummer Chartwell Kerr and bassist Paul Engels, to Royal Columbian Hospital in critical condition.


The 15-passenger van is the traditional, if not iconic, ride for musicians and bands but I am very upset that organizations such as the music industry has not taken a more serious and firm stance on the inherent design flaws of this mode of small group transport.

The painful memory of my son's untimely death came flooding back with a sickening wave when I first read the news that the Surrey, BC band,Tommy Alto, had been involved in a major motor vehicle incident involving their FORD E350 15-passenger van on August 23, 2013 on the Crow's Nest Highway just east of Hope, BC. My name is Stella Gurr and I lost my 26-year old son, Michael Benedetti Gurr, in a single vehicle FORD E350 15-passenger van rollover on the outskirts of Brandon, Manitoba on September 25, 2008. He was the drummer in a Vancouver based indie band called The Hotel Lobbyists that was on the last leg of a cross-Canada tour. Michael died at the scene and the lead singer, James Wood, received life-altering injuries.

Stella Gurr's son Michael played drums
in the Vancouver based band
The Hotel Lobbyists.
I cannot believe that these incidents continue to occur with 15-passenger vans and the that the music industry has not taken a stronger stance on the van's well-known safety issues. I know that many up and coming musicians dream about 'paying their dues' with long hours of practice, acquiring just the right equipment, playing at as many venues as possible for exposure and purchasing the legendary band van for countless miles of touring across the country. The FORD E-350 (Econoline) 15-passenger van is the vehicle of choice as they are plentiful and less expensive than better built vehicles and can serve as both transport and housing. It is the 'jamming econo' as coined by Mike Watts of the former post-punk band, the Minutemen back in the 80's that lends a legendary mystic vibe to the ownership of this particular van. But there is no mystic vibe to injury, death and the dangers of 15-passenger van use.

Extensive and valid research on 15-passenger vans has proven over and over again that these vehicles are just plain dangerous. They have been examined and closely scrutinized for more than 40 years and are still considered "a high risk vehicle" as stated in one of the BC coroner's recommendations into the 2007 Abbotsford  15-passenger van rollover which killed 3 farm workers. Developed in the late 60's and early 70's as a cargo van, the auto manufacturers decided to add windows along the side and install seats in order to increase sales to consumers as an affordable large van that could accommodate up to 15 occupants. There were touted as larger than a minivan and smaller than a bus and perfect for small group travel. What the manufacturers failed to mention to the public was that it was merely an oversized van with a high centre of gravity originally built to carry freight on the floor and then never redesigned for human transportation!

Stella and Isabelle Hains at
the House of Commons,
Ottawa, May 2010.
After the death of my son, I began my own personal journey to bring awareness to the circumstances of Michael's death and petitioned both the Province of BC and Transport Canada to investigate the safety issues surrounding the 15-passenger vans. I wanted the vans banned from use in schools as well as all small group transport. The deadly Abbotsford farm workers crash in 2007 had already brought attention to the problems of design, regulation and enforcement of the 15-passenger vans here in BC. Then in January 2008, seven young high school basketball players and a coach's wife were killed in a horrific highway collision between a FORD E350 15-passenger van and a semi- tracker trailer near Bathurst, NB. This Bathurst Tragedy put a glaring spotlight and national focus on the inherent design limitations of 15-passenger vans as well as, the state of student and small group transportation in Canada.

One of the mothers, Isabelle Hains, who lost her son, Daniel (age 17), in the New Brunswick incident spearheaded a campaign to ban the use of these vehicles in New Brunswick for student transport during co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. She named her advocacy group, Van Angels, and pressured the NB Department of Education to ban the 15-passenger vans in schools. They had already been banned in Nova Scotia (due to previous accidents) and Quebec and she accomplished her goal in 2009 when her province followed suit. Also in 2009, she set up an independent educational website to honour her son, Daniel and the other boys who had died on that cold January night:

Isabelle and I were drawn together in the summer of 2009 by a shared grief ,common beliefs and driven to honour and remember our beautiful sons. We channelled our anger and frustration into a positive course of action in order to save other lives. We combined our strengths and knowledge and were determined to be proactive in educating ourselves and the public on the dangers of 15-passenger vans and bring regulatory enforcement and changes to the vans' use on Canadian roads.

Our concerns are straight forward. The design limitations make the 15-passenger one of the most dangerous vehicles on our roads and almost 80% of these registered vehicles in Canada alone do not have the now mandatory electronic safety control safety feature. Their weight category and carrying capacity of more than 10 passengers defines them as a 'bus. This means that auto manufacturers do not have to meet the the minimum roof crush safety standard that is a Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standard on a regular passenger car (less than 10 passengers). They lack reinforced sides and roof. The heavy, long and  high body combined with the installation of seats increased the van's already high centre of gravity making them more difficult to handle at high speeds, curves, and in certain real world emergency manoeuvres. Unless custom ordered, the 15-passenger vans do not have dual rear wheels which have been proven to assist with stability and rear tire blow out. They are just a disaster waiting to happen.
Our Van Angel group firmly believes that the Canadian public have not been  properly advised of the safety concerns associated with the 15-passenger van use and many organizations have not taken the time nor interest to review the facts and protect their members, including the music industry. Isabelle and I have successfully pressured Transport Canada to test these vehicle and to look at developing  a national approach that would share provincial and territorial recommendations, regulations and enforcement so that information would be not only available but consistent in its content and message.

Phase I (static stability and braking), Phase II (dynamic manoeuvres) and Phase III (crashworthiness) was completed in 2012 and an evaluation of the tests and a brochure on "Safety Guidelines for the Use of 15-Passenger vans" were released by the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators " (CCMTA) in early 2013. This information should be available from every provincial and territorial Ministry of Transport and our Van Angels website. Page 5 of the Guidelines clearly states that: "When operating a 15-passenger van, it is important to recognize that these vans handle differently than passenger vehicles especially fully loaded with people or luggage/equipment." and "Fifteen passenger vans are large vehicles and do not respond well to abrupt steering ..."To date, we have confirmed that the Northwest Territories are the only jurisdiction to physically sent out the information to every registered 15-passenger van owner.

But please be aware that these are just recommendations and not laws and all the responsibility of operating these dangerous vehicles have been placed squarely on the shoulders of the public. The provinces and territories regulate motor vehicles and drivers and they have the power to regulate, enforce and even ban the 15-passenger vans for human transport. The death and injuries from 15-passenger van accidents will continue unless industry, governments and organizations are responsible for and accountable to their consumers, their citizens and their members.

Stella Gurr

Van Angels West