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Crash reopens debate on safety of large vans

Ontario Provincial Police and emergency crews investigate a multiple fatal motor vehicle accident near Hampstead, Ont., , Feb. 6, 2012. Police say 11 people died in the crash.

Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press/Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

Debate over the safety and regulation of vehicles that carry upwards of a dozen people has reignited after 11 people were killed in a crash involving a 15-seat van.

What police have described as a white GMC van was carrying Peruvian migrant labourers and had barely rolled out of a farm in Hampstead, Ont., on Monday night when disaster struck. It was heading west on Line 47 and proceeded past a stop sign at the junction with Perth Road 107. It's not clear whether the driver obeyed the sign before continuing into the intersection.

What is known is that the 15-seat van was struck with devastating force by a southbound flatbed truck, which did not have a stop sign on its approach to the intersection. The impact pitched the van off the road, tearing open the side. The truck driver and 10 people in the van died.

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Some models of these vans carry their weight high and toward the rear, and are known to have compromised stability and handling. Experts say it's too soon to say whether any vehicle could have fared better in the situation.

"All the factors are being looked at," Ontario Provincial Police Sergeant Dave Rektor said. He said the incident had "the largest number of fatalities in a collision" in the province's history.

Collision reconstruction officers will release initial information Wednesday morning at police headquarters in London, Ont.

Neil Bigelow of Bigelow Accident Reconstruction in Markham said it was premature to analyze the factors that led to the collision, or whether the victims might have been safer in another vehicle. He went on to say that a vehicle being T-boned, the colloquial term for being hit squarely on the side, is "one of the worst" sorts of accidents.

"The side of the van is not as strong as the front," he said by phone. "From what I could tell, just from the images I could see, is we're dealing with a van that did not have side-impact air bags."

The impact would push pieces of the van into the passenger compartment, he said. And making the situation even more dangerous would be the damage done by passengers' bodies being thrown against each other.

Transport Canada launched a review of the regulations for 15-person vans in 2010 in consultation with the provinces after an accident in 2008 in New Brunswick. Seven high-school basketball players and their coach's wife were killed when their 15-seater went out of control on a snowy road.

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This week's accident revived painful memories among the mothers of some of the teenagers killed. "Yesterday's terrible tragedy in Ontario is further proof that 15-passenger vans are death traps that should not be used to transport human beings," read a statement released by the mothers of three victims.

In 2007, three farm workers were killed in a collision involving an overloaded 15-passenger van near Abbotsford, B.C. A coroner's inquest recommended the vehicles be classified as high-risk and be subject to more random checks.

Transport Canada's findings are not due until this summer, and Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli told reporters the Ontario government is not going to propose solutions until it has more information about "this unbelievable tragedy."

"I think it would be irresponsible for me now as a minister, or us as a government, to prejudge legislation, regulations, reaction to something that is very multidimensional," he said. "This is not a regular accident. We are talking about foreign workers. We are talking about 15-seat vans. We're talking about a municipal road."

However, he said the government would consider introducing temporary measures, such as requiring more frequent vehicle inspections and reviewing licensing requirements, before Transport Canada releases its report.

With reports from Adrian Morrow in Hampstead, Ont., and Karen Howlett in Toronto

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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