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Geology Van Operational Safety & Training

The faculty in the geology department have been using 15 passenger vans for many years to take students into the field and are experienced driving the large, "top heavy" vans. In many cases, Geology's vans are driven on gravel roads and fire roads in the mountains. Experienced are road conditions most university faculty would never encounter. The Geology Transportation coordinator does not encourage faculty to travel with more than ten students in a van, for safety reasons as well as comfort sake. 15 students with field gear can make for a cramped, uncomfortable trip.

Often a paid student assistant will drive the second van for the trip. In rare instances, other students are permitted to drive the Geology vans. Anyone who has ever driven a large van is aware of the top heavy nature and decreased maneuverability and additional problems such as right hand turns.

Ms. Cindy Kearns is currently the supervisor to the geology student assistants. She does not allow the paid assistants to drive the vehicles without knowing they can do so adequately and safely. The students and faculty both know that students are not allowed to drive the vehicles without the approval of Ms. Kearns. For students with experience, she trusts them. She asks what type of vehicles they have driven (it must be, at minimum, a small passenger van but NOT a minivan.). Ms. Kearns feels that experience driving any large van or service truck (not pick-up truck) provides the skills needed to drive a 15-passenger van. She takes special effort to remind them of the nature of vans and that vans cannot be driven like cars.

For a student who has never driven a large vehicle, Ms. Kearns personally takes him or her on a road test. This allows Ms. Kearns to judge their handling skills and provides them with the opportunity to learn the feel of a large van. First she makes the person aware that the van is NOT a car, encouraging the new operator to drive slowly and cautiously. The expectation is that for the student to be able to drive the van out of the parking space and lot (it is very difficult to get a large van out of the cramped motor pool lot!). The student is asked to negotiate several roads, intersections, railroad tracks, and turns in town. They are asked to proceed to the Food Lion parking lot on US33 west where they are asked to park it. This requires the student to make a decision as well as maneuver the van. They then proceed out of town on US33 west to a 55mph speed limit and onto a smaller, windy road. On this small road the student is informed and instructed, "we're done, go ahead and turn around and return to campus." The student must again make a decision on where and how to turn around and negotiate the turn. This is the type of driving a student can expect to experience when driving a field trip. On the way back to campus the student is often more relaxed and sometimes "forgets" about the van. The rear wheel will often go up over the curb on the last right hand turn. The embarrassment of it provides a reminder to always be aware.

Provided by Cynthia A. Kearns
Spring 2001
Lab Specialist
Geology & Environmental Science
James Madison University

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