Safety device missing on Triangle Transit vans

February 23, 2010 4:48:11 PM PST
More than 700 commuters from Wake, Orange and Durham counties use Triangle Transit to get to and from work during the week.

"I have a long commute from Cary to Chapel Hill and it saves money," explained Triangle Transit driver Tom Adams.

Adams has been a van driver for Triangle Transit for eight years. He contacted the I-Team after he discovered a safety feature he expected was not in his Ford E-350 van. He showed us the vehicle does not have Electronic Stability Control or ESC.

ESC is designed to help prevent drivers from losing control of their vehicles at high speeds or on slippery roads.

It's such an important safety feature that in 2007, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - known as NHTSA - ordered automakers to install it in all their vehicles by 2012.

One of the nation's leading auto safety experts, Sean Kane with Safety Research and Strategies, explained to ABC11 why the government is making ESC mandatory.

"NHTSA made ESC mandatory simply because it's been proven to be one of the most effective safety features on a car next to the seatbelt. It's that simple. This feature can prevent more crashes than any other feature that we've seen in modern years," said Kane.

"Electronic Stability Control is one of the most important safety features on vehicles like vans because they have such a high roll over risk and that roll over risk can be mitigated with electronic," he continued.

The I-Team looked into accidents with vans that did not have ESC. According to government statistics, between 1997 and 2004, on average, 117 people died each year in crashes. By 2006, when electronic stability control was available, there were half as many people killed.

At least one state makes ESC mandatory for all its state vans and others are considering it. But after checking state specifications for Triangle Transit vans, we found that in North Carolina ESC is not mandatory. It's not even listed in the specifications for van purchases.

We wanted to find out - since the federal government believes it's crucial enough to mandate it in the future - why the state isn't using it.

We went to Triangle Transit headquarters in Research Triangle Park and spoke to CEO and General Manager David King. He was not aware that most of his vans do not have ESC.

"Generally speaking, the state has produced specifications that are sensitive to low cost and safe operations," he explained.

"Does the state need to re-evaluate its specifications?" asked I-Team investigative reporter Steve Daniels.

"I think in this case, this has really been quite an interesting subject since it got brought to our attention," King responded. "It should be part of that specification and normally would be."

So why isn't it? The I-Team put that question to the State Department of Transportation which develops the specifications for all state vehicles. We spoke to DOT Deputy Secretary Jim Westmoreland - who oversees transit.

"How is ESC left out of state specifications?" asked Daniels.

"The last specification that we developed was back in March of 2004 and ESC was not offered as a feature we could put on the specifications. We really didn't know anything about it," Westmoreland explained.

That surprised the I-Team since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been talking publicly about ESC and its safety benefits since 2003.

"I'm surprised that someone somewhere along the way didn't say we need to put these in these vans to save lives," Daniels told Westmoreland.

"The thing that is important here is we never had any feedback from federal agencies that we deal with, the Ford Motor Vehicle Company or others that gave us any indication that this is something we needed to have on the vans itself," Westmoreland responded.

"What is a little frustrating to me Jim is that it seems like everyone is pass the buck. Triangle Transit says it's the state. You say it's the feds. Where does the buck stop?" Daniels asked.

"I think we have to rely upon each other in determining whether those are features we want on our vans. Certainly, as it relates to things that we are required to do, we look to the federal government when it comes to safety requirements for vehicles. It's not a state responsibility," said Westmoreland.

In 2006, ESC was available and became standard in ford passenger vans. It also added the option starting last year on Ford cargo vans. Triangle Transit buys cargo vans, then adds specially designed passenger seats.

Jim Westmoreland has been on the job for a year at the DOT, and is ready to change the old way of doing things.

"What can you do going forward if you are only reviewing these specifications every 6 years to make sure that important safety devices don't slip through the cracks?" asked Daniels.

"What we are going to do is, we are going to be responsible for reviewing specifications annually now to make sure we have the latest and greatest advances on those vehicles," said Westmoreland.

"I have talked to the state DOT public transportation division director about this very issue since you all brought it up and it is clear to me when the new specs are put together they will include this feature," said King.

Still Adams - who tipped off the I-Team about the issue - is wishing he had ESC in the Triangle Transit van he drives now.

"It would make it safer, and particularly as a driver you know, you don't want to have accidents and this prevents accidents," he said.

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