The crash of a van that killed six people on the Thruway Saturday is prompting new questions about why seat belt use is not mandated for all passengers in such vehicles.
The passengers from Joy Fellowship Christian Assemblies were headed to the Water’s Edge Lighthouse Restaurant in Glenville to attend a function for First Light Christian Assemblies, its sister congregation in Schenectady. A tire blew on the 1997 van, causing it to slide off into a grassy median and flip over, ejecting some of the passengers.
Police had no additional updates Monday into the cause of the crash, which claimed the life of Elaine Reid, the mother of First Light’s pastor Robert Reid. Five other people were killed including Joy Fellowship’s bishop, Simon White, and his wife.
City Mission Executive Director Mike Saccocio said Robert Reid and his wife Shauna have been volunteering at the organization serving community meals for almost a year.
Elaine Oden, youth services director for Carver Community Center, said the Reids have been volunteering with the group once a week on Tuesday since Christmas of last year, helping with teaching life skills and health and wellness to youths.
“They’re two of the nicest people, helpful and caring people, that you ever wanted to meet,” she said.
The couple had stopped coming this summer but were planning to return in October. Given the tragedy, Oden wasn’t sure if they would continue.
Although passenger vans like the one in the accident have seat belts, the law only mandates their use for the front-seat driver and passenger and children under age 16.
“You really can’t make people do something that’s not required by law,” said David Brown, president of the Albany-based Premiere Transportation Group, which owns a fleet of 41 limousines, sedans vans and minibuses.
Brown said that some people argue they do not want to be constrained by the seat belt.
“These people are on a trip for three hours. They want to relax, They want to lay down. The seat belt is designed to keep you in one position,” he said.
Others say they want to be able to get out in the event of an accident. A state trooper who used to work for the company and saw first hand the horrors of deaths from unrestrained passengers, told Brown he did not consider that a valid argument, noting he has never pulled a dead person from a vehicle who was buckled in with a seat belt.
As for becoming submerged in water, Brown said it is so rare as to not be an issue.
State police spokeswoman Maureen Tuffey agreed that unbuckled passengers are a safety threat in the event of an accident. They can be thrown into other passengers, injuring or killing them.
Tuffey said there have been a few unsuccessful attempts to pass additional seat belt laws in the Legislature. At some point, she believes New York will go that route because it makes sense.
“Without a doubt, as soon as we started mandating seat belts, fatalities and crashes went way down,” she said.
Even without a state law, other local organizations that rely on vans require people to buckle up.
Union College spokesman Phil Wajda said the school requires all passengers to wear seat belts in all five of its 12-passenger vans. Drivers must be at least 21 and are required to take a defensive driving class and road test offered by its Campus Safety department.
It used to have a few 15-passenger vans but began phasing them out many years ago because of safety concerns.
Likewise, Siena College hasn’t used 15-passenger vans in years, according to spokesman Ken Jubie.
Whenever possible, Jubie said, the college uses its own bus operated by a professional driver to transport students to off-campus destinations. It does have minivans for students, faculty and staff that professional drivers operate as well. Only juniors and seniors can drive them and their driver’s licenses are checked to make sure they have a clean driving record.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in April issued a travel advisory for 15-passenger vans, stating that the risk of a crash is greatly increased with 10 or more people because the added passenger weight shifts the vehicle’s center of gravity to the rear and increases the potential for a rollover.
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