Today’s news report on the horrific New York State Thruway crash notes the fatal lore surrounding the stretch of highway dividing Rockland and Orange, observing that some drivers attribute the number of accidents there to a curse. The article, rest assured, dismisses notions of a curse, as well as any concern that the stretch is any more dangerous than the rest of the Thruway. Doubtless, a richer target for inquiry into factors contributing to the tragedy will be the type of vehicle involved — the ubiquitous extended passenger van.
Federal highway officials have long decried the poor design of such vehicles, which typically hold up to 15 passengers, making them a favorite for church groups, college athletic teams, migrant workers, the military, and even daycare centers. The trouble is, they have a high center of gravity, making them more susceptible to rollover accidents under certain conditions, such as when a driver executes a sharp turn or otherwise “over corrects” when traveling at high speeds. Other factors in the extended van’s well-documented history of carnage: drivers, not necessarily professional drivers, are often unaware of the hazards associated with the vehicles, or the need to be vigilant about tire maintenance; and passengers often raise the ante by not wearing seat belts. Another finding by government researchers: the more people in an extended van, the greater the peril.
Here’s what the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report:
Fifteen-passenger vans, which make up about 0.25 percent of the passenger vehicle fleet in the United States, are frequently used to transport school sports teams, van pools, church groups, and other groups. Although they are involved in a proportionate number of fatal accidents compared to their percentage in the fleet, they are involved in a higher number of single-vehicle accidents involving rollovers than are other passenger vehicles. Various factors have been associated with 15-passenger van rollover, particularly occupancy level and vehicle speed. Because these vans are designed to carry 15 passengers, the Safety Board is particularly concerned about the relationship between occupancy level and vehicle rollover.
In Saturday’s tragedy, police said the van blew a rear tire; the driver over corrected to the right, swerving over the rumble strip; and the van rolled over several times. Passengers — a group from Joy Fellowship Christian Assemblies in the Bronx to a banquet in Schenectady — spilled from the vehicle. Seven were reported dead and several others were injured. Police said that only the driver and front passenger were wearing seat belts.
The accident was reminiscent of one last month in Westchester. One person was killed and nine were injured when an extended van transporting day laborers slid off of Interstate 287 and overturned. Police reported that all of the passengers were ejected from the van.
Obviously, there is much to learn about the facts surrounding Saturday’s tragedy. One need not look too far afield, however, to acknowledge a circumstance that should be relevant to investigators — or anyone who sets foot inside an extended van in the future.