A Dartmouth, N.S., man who quit his volunteer work with a national youth organization over safety concerns says he was troubled by what he calls the inadequate training he received to drive a dozen teenagers across Canada in a 15-passenger van.

The type of van used by Children's International Summer Villages (CISV) Canada has been the centre of past debates over safety, and is banned in several Canadian jurisdictions from being used to transport students to school activities.

Tyler Colbourne, a volunteer co-ordinator with the Dartmouth Learning Network, said he and a Newfoundland woman volunteered as leaders and drivers with CISV to take kids on a trek from Victoria to Halifax between June 24 and Aug. 2.

The non-profit CISV runs a program called Peace Bus, which allows 12 youth and three leaders to travel across Canada to do volunteer work and camp. The program focuses on diversity, human rights, sustainability and conflict resolution.

Colbourne, 32, said shortly after he arrived for CISV national leadership training in Ontario in early May, things began to fall apart, starting with the Peace Bus safety training.

The passenger van was supposed to tow a large U-Haul trailer, but the trailer was not yet on site.

"We didn't get to have any practise with an actual U-Haul trailer, there [were] a lot of hiccups around that," Colbourne said.

Tyler Colbourne

Tyler Colbourne of Nova Scotia is raising concerns about the lack of training he said he received to drive 12 youth across Canada in a 15-passenger van. (Tyler Colbourne)

'It just felt like a lot could go wrong'

Instead, Colbourne said, the training co-ordinator used a piece of piping to attach a small ride-on lawnmower trailer to the van. Drivers took turns backing the trailer between a jug of water and a bucket for about an hour.

"It was little things like that that made me think like, 'Am I ready to sign on to this program? Like do I want to dedicate my volunteer time and take on personal risk and liability as a volunteer, as a legal guardian for these kids?" Colbourne recalled.

"It just felt like a lot could go wrong. I just didn't feel supported or protected."

Colbourne subsequently quit and has been told by the charity he must pay back $879 in training costs, and travel and other expenses. He said he will not.

CISV Canada campers

CISV takes teens across Canada for volunteer work and camping. (Peace Bus Facebook)

Charity responds

In a written statement, Mary Rae Shantz, president of CISV Canada, said the organization has a robust training program. But she admitted that in this particular case, the full training was not completed at the initial session.

"Leaders who completed the full package received additional training specific to the Peace Bus [program], and further risk-management training," Shantz wrote.

"And in this particular case, further training in driving a passenger van equipped with a U-Haul trailer was provided to all leaders selected for the Peace Bus program prior to its departure as the U-Haul trailer was not available at the initial training session."

The organization runs programs for children and youth in over 70 countries around the world, Shantz said in the statement, and takes risk management very seriously and trains all leaders in that area.

As for the type of van used, Shantz said CISV consulted recent safety reviews ordered by Transport Canada before purchasing the vehicle. 

"These studies concluded that such vans are generally as safe as other highway vehicles. The van purchased by CISV is fitted with electronic stability control (ESC) which improves handling and helps to prevent loss of control," Shantz said in an email, adding the van undergoes regular maintenance and pre-drive safety inspections among other "rigid operating procedures."

Driver logs are also kept and consecutive driving hours are restricted, she said.

Safety concerns

There's been a significant debate surrounding the safety of 15-passenger vans.

In 2001, the United States Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration warned the vehicles were more likely to roll over when fully loaded with passengers, although such accidents declined in subsequent years.

In 2008, seven members of a Bathurst, N.B., high school basketball team and their coach's wife were killed when their van collided with a tractor-trailer. The crash was blamed on poor weather, driver error and the poor mechanical condition of the van.

Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and dozens of U.S. states have banned the vehicles from being used to transport students to school activities. Individual school boards in other provinces have also done the same.

Colbourne's nervousness about driving the van and trailer with so little experience wouldn't go away, so he quit the volunteer-run organization.

"At the end of the day it just didn't feel safe," he said.