- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

As you might suspect, I read the news reports just as you do. Scanning the pages of the most popular news publications, you no doubt have seen reports of safety groups and their concern about the perceived stability issues surrounding large passenger vans. This is not directed at minivans, but those large, multipassenger vans you see racing around airports and to and from hotels. It has even come to the point where a number of school districts are parking their vans and cutting services because of the concern.

Now, I believe these vehicles are quite safe if driven properly by alert and attentive drivers. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. Many of these drivers barely can keep their hands on the steering wheel, let alone concentrate on keeping the vehicle between the lines. If he or she is unskilled or untrained as a driver, everyone on board is put at risk. That, my friends, is the weak link, not the vehicle.

As a professional driver I have no qualms about speaking my mind and reminding my driver to put the cell phone down and drive me safely to my hotel. I like to think that I am the best advocate for my own safety. After all, a vehicle is only as safe as the driver in control.

However, looking at the reality of the world we live in, the majority of these vehicles are, in fact, driven by unskilled drivers. Many are volunteers from the church or community service group they are transporting. We should be thankful that we have such kind individuals. Without their help, many large groups would never get anywhere. So having the best driver in the most sophisticated vehicle available is the best way to put the odds of getting to your destination in your favor.

General Motors is well aware of the situation, and though it may not be able to do anything about the driver it has taken steps to make its multipassenger vans as capable as possible. GM engineers worked diligently to develop a stability system that would give the vehicle the ability to help the driver retain control in an emergency situation.

I had a very close experience with these General Motors vans during a test session at the Milford Proving Grounds in Michigan. Stability can be an issue with any vehicle, but is compounded by the massive size of a multipassenger van.

If the driver of a vehicle with this stature becomes distracted and inadvertently moves to the shoulder of the road, he usually become startled and jerks the vehicle back toward the roadway. This move upsets the vehicle dynamics and there begins an uncontrolled slide toward the opposite side of the road. It is here that things really get sticky. The driver jerks the wheel back the opposite direction and heaven only knows what will happen in the ensuing minutes. At this time the driver might as well let go of the steering wheel because now he is just a passenger and any command to the wheel will only amplify an already bad situation.

Make this same move in a vehicle equipped with StabiliTrak and you get a completely different outcome. I know, I tried, unsuccessfully, on the test track for well over an hour to get the van I was driving to go out of control.

The StabiliTrak system helps keep the vehicle in control by applying braking to one or more of the four wheels as the vehicle’s many sensors and computer detect an out-of-control situation. The system also regulates the engine’s throttle to assure the driver doesn’t attempt to overaccelerate.

Simulating one of the most treacherous situations on the road, we doused the test area with water. Then I drove the van through the course at speeds ranging from 35 to 60 mph. At the appropriate time I would quickly twist the steering wheel to the right and just as radically back to the left. Each time I went through the test procedure, I would get even more aggressive with twisting the wheel, to the point where I had the front wheels turned as far as they could turn, one way, then the other. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get this GM van to go out of control or spin. Sure it slid and it tried to spin, but it didn’t and it stayed on the road.

No matter how unskilled a driver I tried to emulate, I could not get the van to act as a normally equipped vehicle would in the same circumstances. This test demonstrated that this is a technology that needs to be on every airport, hotel, service group, school and commuter multipassenger van on the road.

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