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The same day a stretch limousine fire claimed five lives in San Francisco, a bachelorette party headed down Interstate 35 in Kansas City in the Midnight Express Party Bus. When the bus hit a bump while rounding a curve, one passenger, 26-year-old Jamie Frecks, tumbled through the rear doors and into oncoming traffic. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Such stories convey heartbreaking personal tragedies. But they’re especially troubling to legitimate chauffeured transportation operators — those who maintain their vehicles and go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to ensuring passenger safety. That’s because they know that while every accident can’t be prevented, the risk of passenger injury or death can be minimized.
Here are some details that investigative news coverage by the Kansas City Star has revealed about the accident. The details sum up all the recent problems and challenges facing the party bus market: The vehicle, owned by Midnight Express Party Bus Service, was operating illegally. It did not have a U.S. Department of Transportation number as required by Kansas law. Midnight Express did not obtain a business license from Kansas City or other local municipalities. The vehicle’s “door ajar” warning system was not working for the doors that Frecks fell through. Wheelchair-loading equipment had been removed from these doors after a 2010 auction of the 14-year-old, Ford E-450 Super Duty municipal shuttle bus, according to the Kansas City Star investigation. Federal regulators ordered the company to shut down in early June.
Of course, to obtain a Department of Transportation number, an operator must carry proper insurance and meet safety requirements, which include keeping records of vehicle maintenance and inspection. Without any DOT inspections, safety issues had little chance of being red flagged.
The problem is that many companies attempt to fly under the radar, rightly suspecting that agencies such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration don’t have the resources to inspect all 7,000-plus limousine companies, says Tom Holden, director of operations for Rose Chauffeured Transportation of Charlotte, N.C. “Unfortunately so many companies look at this and say, ‘Hey, nobody bothers me, I’m a limo company, I’m a van company. Nobody’s ever pulled me over before. Nobody’s ever come to do an audit.’”
The collective grievance within the legitimate sector is that unsafe vehicles and careless operators damage the industry overall. “These fly-by-night operations don’t play by the rules,” says David Bakare, president and owner of Executive Coach Builders of Springfield, Mo. “They don’t worry about safety and if we don’t do something about it, they’re going to bring the whole industry down. It’s not enough that 80%-90% of operators are compliant. The other 10% are going to give the industry a black eye.”
Many operators believe they should report poorly built and maintained limo buses. When full of rowdy party bus passengers, they can lead to tragic accidents, Holden says. “The federal government needs to step in. Currently all they’re doing is telling you to go to the website, file an anonymous report, and we’ll catch them eventually. Well, eventually is most of the time too late. It really does require us, as serious operators, to continually police our own industry. And that’s not a word that most companies want to hear.”
“People should feel that they have the obligation to report when they see something illegal,” Bakare says. “You may think “that’s not my problem,” but when some accident happens, it does affect everybody and becomes your problem. We can’t just sit back and wait for the next accident, because the next one could be the big one that’s actually going to bring the federal regulators in.”
The problem isn’t just rogue operators eluding the DOT. It’s that they often fail to ensure the safety of their passengers, while undercutting the prices of legit operators by avoiding the costs of safety on their bottom line. Customers often don’t know about the wide variety in limo bus quality, ranging from OEM-certified vehicles to roughshod one-offs.
Safety must come first, but often clients don’t want to pay for it, shopping only for the lowest rate, Bakare says. “We have to make sure we educate our clients and they educate their clients as well to say, ‘Look, you may be getting $10 to $20 an hour cheaper from that other guy, but here’s the risk you take.’”