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GuideOne goes to Washington


Insurer campaigns to make 15-passenger vans safer

Jan Beckstrom, the chief operating officer at GuideOne Insurance, traveled to Washington, D.C., to lend support to proposed legislation that would step up scrutiny on 15-passenger vans.

GuideOne has become what some may view as an unlikely opponent of the large vans, spending more than $100,000 in the past year to mail materials to its policyholders detailing the vans’ susceptibility to rolling over when they are fully loaded and other potential dangers. It says that the accident fatality rate is higher among passengers and drivers of the vans than other type of passenger vehicles.

The vans are popular with churches, schools and other groups because they are relatively inexpensive to operate and don’t require anything more than an ordinary driver’s license to drive. GuideOne is the nation’s biggest insurer of churches.

The campaign has been part carrot and part stick. GuideOne negotiated agreements with Collins Industries, a maker of small buses, that will let its policyholders buy the buses for about $30,000, a “fewer thousand dollars more than the price for a 15-passenger van,” according to GuideOne spokeswoman Emily Abbas. GuideOne sees the buses as a safer alternative to 15-passenger vans.   

“People don’t think it can happen to them, but these accidents happen every day,” Abbas said. “This is something that church leaders need to look into.”

For much of the past year, GuideOne has been trying to persuade its policyholders to better train their vans’ drivers or stop using the vehicles altogether. The company stopped writing policies for new customers that want to insure the large vans. It required existing customers to go through special training classes in order to have their policies renewed.

A year ago, the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes 2” aired an expose on the vans. GuideOne included VCR copies of that story, along with other information, in the packets that it sent to customers. The company mailed 15,000 of the packets as part of what it calls its “Road to Safety” campaign.  

So far 22,000 drivers have either graduated from its training seminars or have earned chauffeur’s or commercial driver’s licenses. About 10,000 of the 50,000 churches that GuideOne insures own 15-passenger vans.

The problems associated with the vans are many, Beckstrom said. They aren’t designed to handle side-impact crashes. The vans either don’t have enough seat belts or passengers don’t use them, and some passengers have been ejected during accidents, she said.

“We believe it is our ethical responsibility to do whatever we can to help protect our policyholders and other Americans from the dangers of 15-passenger vans,” Beckstrom told the Washington, D.C., audience. “Our claims statistics show that the vehicles are inherently unsafe.”

In a review of its claims, GuideOne found that eight people died and 42 were seriously injured in 15-passenger vans that got into accidents between July 1, 2000, and July 1, 2001. The company said there was just one death and 12 serious injuries in accidents involving other types of commercial vehicles during the same time.

More than 500 passengers in 15-passenger vans have died as a result of accidents since 1990, according to Mark Udall, a Colorado congressman who last week introduced legislation that would require the vans to be included in government safety tests.

Congressman Udall’s bill

Legislation proposed last week by Colorado Congressman Mark Udall would require that 15-passenger vans be subject to the same government safety tests that other passenger vehicles undergo.

The vans, which are among the largest vehicles that don’t require additional licenses for drivers to operate, aren’t currently part of tests conducted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to exempt them from the same safety standards” that the NHTSA applies to other passenger vehicles, Udall wrote in a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Udall’s bill would also require that the NHTSA release its safety findings on the vans, including the results of crash tests and rollovers, to the public.  This isn’t Udall’s first attempt to regulate 15-passenger vans. Last year, the Colorado Democrat introduced the School Bus Safety Act, which prevented schools from buying used 15-passenger vans. Schools had earlier been banned from buying new ones.

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