USDA Forest Service Van Advisory

After its Pacific North West Region issued an internal 15-passenger van advisory last summer the USDA national office is considering classifying these vehicles as ”specialized equipment,” which will require specialized training, testing, and license endorsement.

USDA Forest Service Forest Service 12 July 2002

Subject: Operation and Use of 15-Passenger Vans

To: Forest Supervisors, Manager, RO Staff Directors, Program Managers

The recent rollover-vehicle accident involving contract firefighters travelling in a 15-passenger van has compelled us to review our use of these vehicles.

There are about 65 12- and 15-passenger vans in the R-6/PNW fleet. While these vans have been driven without reported accidents for many miles in recent years, a review of information developed by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicates that use of these vehicles warrants special consideration.

Briefly, the NHTSA information indicates:

Risks of rollover are greatly increased when 10 or more people ride in 15-passenger vans, due to the passenger weight shifting the center of gravity up and back. Under these conditions the van has less resistance to rollover and handles differently than other vehicles of a similar size.

Placing any load on the roof also raises the center of gravity, increasing the rollover risk in an accident situation.

More than 90 percent of the rollovers occur after a driver has lost control of the vehicle and has run off the road. These primarily happen: on rural roads, when driver is fatigued or driving too fast for conditions, or when the driver overcorrects the steering as a panic reaction to an emergency or to a wheel dropping off the road.

Over the past decade, 80 percent of the people killed in rollover crashes in 15-passenger vans were unbelted.

Newspaper reports of the Colorado incident indicate that several of the above may have been factors that led to, or contributed to, its occurrence.

NHTSA recommends the following actions when using 15-passenger vans:

o Enforce seat belt use. o Use only experienced drivers. o Avoid conditions that lead to a loss of control. o Drive cautiously on rural roads – particularly curved roads. o Know what to do if wheels drop off the roadway. o Properly maintain tires. Forest Service policy already includes these related precautions:

o All drivers and passengers must wear seat belts whenever the vehicle is in motion.

o The following are prohibited while driving:

o Engaging in distracting conversation or activities. o Eating or drinking. o Using a two-way radio. o Using a cellular telephone. o Using radio/stereo headphones. o Taking prescription drugs that may cause dizziness or lack of concentration or reduce response time. o Reading maps, instruction, or other material. o Transporting pets.

While we believe that our employees are following our policy, we will also take these extra precautions in the use of 15-passenger vans:

o Pull 15-passenger vans from service until the following occur:

o Local Line Officers designate a small number of experienced drivers for each van and provide them with the NHTSA flyer, ”Reducing the Risk of Rollover Crashes in 15-Passenger Vans” (enclosed).

o Local Line Officers discuss the briefing sheet and applicable Health and Safety Code sections with these designated drivers, ensuring a clear understanding of, and comfort with, the additional complexities associated with operating these vehicles.

o Reiterate the requirement that ALL drivers and passengers must wear seat belts at all times and that engaging in distracting activities while driving (eating, drinking, radio, or cell phone use) is prohibited.

Within 20 days of this letter, the following must occur, or the vans be pulled from service until it can be accomplished:

o Remove the rear seat of the 15-passenger vans. Properly screen the rear area to provide a small storage space for items that have the potential to cause injuries if a vehicle comes to an abrupt stop, or an accident occurs.

o Evaluate existing roof racks. Evaluation should be jointly accomplished by Fleet Management and Safety and Health. Remove all except those that carry very light loads, for example: ladder rack, survey poles, and ski equipment. The future use of 15-passenger vans in R-6/PNW will be studied before new vehicle orders are placed. A long-term policy will be recommended.

by Temple Tait-Ochs Safety and Health Mgr, R6/PNW USDA FS 503-808-2626 ttaitochs@fs.fed.us