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A tragic accident in New Brunswick has athletic directors
reevaluating the way they transport their teams

Photo: Andrew Vaughan, CP

Is This your Ride?

By Jordana Stier

In a 15-passenger Ford van, seven high school students and their coach’s wife were killed while driving home from a basketball game in Bathurst, N.B., on Jan. 12. When the news first broke, Canadore College athletic director Linda Turcotte was watching TV with a friend.

“I automatically thought if that was my athletic department and our students in that accident, what would change in my whole way of doing business?” she says. “A lot of things went through my mind.”

Both Canadore and Durham have used the 15-passenger van, known to be unsteady for its narrow wheels and high centre of gravity.

Comparing costs, it’s easy to understand why an athletic director might opt to rent a van as opposed to a coach bus. Turcotte says a 15-passenger goes for about $115 to $120 a day, including taxes and plus gas, while a coach bus would cost anywhere in the neighbourhood of $1,700 to $3,500, depending on the destination.

In order to compensate for the space a coach bus would provide for bags and equipment, she says van drivers would sometimes remove a row of seats.

OCAA executive director Blair Webster says that, as a central office, the association does not pay for transporting teams. “So we can’t dictate on how they get from point A to B,” he says.

"Everyone has traveled in those vans one time or another."

Linda Turcotte
athletic director

That the vans are unsafe comes as no surprise to Coach Canada President Jim Delvin. “We all knew about it. These vans are available from the rental agencies,” he explains. “There are a lot of things that happen with those vehicles, and all you’ve got to do is sit out in the 401 and you will see them.”

He recalls a serious accident in July of 2000 involving a 15-passenger van on Highway 401, where a number of people were killed. In the media storm that followed, Delvin refused to offer comment, afraid that he would come across as “I told you so.”

“When you have a serious accident, the tragedy itself is enough without creating sensational headlines about known factors, and I wouldn’t give interviews because of that,” he explains.

While Nova Scotia and parts of the United States have banned the 15-passenger vans, Ontario has yet to follow suit. According to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, there are strict regulations in place for driving the vans, and Transport Canada is currently reviewing their safety.

Emna Dhahak, a senior media liaison officer with the OMT, says very few drivers have the appropriate qualifications. Anyone driving a 15-passenger, she says, must have a Class F license. If the van is being driven for school-related purposes, Dhahak adds, then the driver must posses a Class E license, pass a written exam, a road test, a medical check and a criminal record check.

The manufacturers say their vans face ongoing testing, and any vehicles on the road must meet exacting standards.

“The safety of our customers is our top priority at Ford,” says Gina Ghelert, communications manager at Ford Canada.

“These vehicles meet or exceed all of the motor vehicle safety standards for Canada and the U.S.”

Van safety is a conversation that came up several years ago around the athletic director’s table, Turcotte notes.

“Since this accident, it really hit home with a lot of the college coaches and athletes across the province, because you know everyone has travelled in those vans one time or another.”

Turcotte says it’s time to start changing policies, but she’s in no hurry.

“We’ve got our schedule for traveling for the rest of this year done,” she says. “We’re not going to change it at this point. Starting next year, I will be finding other avenues, looking into seven-passenger vans, which means I will have to hire an additional driver.”

Durham College’s women’s volleyball coach Stan Marchut said he has used the 15-passenger vans in the past. “I remember last year we took a van if we [didn’t] have a lot of people,” he says. “Normally we go on a bus because they’re safer, but buses have accidents too.”

He wasn’t aware that the van had been banned in Nova Scotia and in a few school boards in Alberta and Saskatchewan. “I didn’t know that. If they have it banned, you shouldn’t use it, that’s for sure.”