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COMMENTARY: What if a state regulator or enforcement officer showed up at your business, eyeballed your fleet, and told you every one of your stretch limousines (120 in. or less) had to be retrofitted with push-out windows or roof hatches by Jan. 1, 2016? And if you don’t, then you have to buy new limousines that have fifth doors or the approved pop-out windows? No problem, right? It’s just another way to ensure public safety, right?
Well, California operators are facing this dilemma, which is one of the most absurd and unjust spectacles to hit the limousine industry in years. Legislation requiring such emergency exit retrofits, called SB 109, was approved in the state legislature in September. Gov. Jerry Brown signed it on Oct. 11, despite the fact that the group representing the interests of California operators, the Greater California Livery Association (GCLA), wrote a letter to Brown explaining why the facts supported a veto.
By the stats, California has the most limousine operators of any state. From a pro-business standpoint, it’s also known for off-the-wall politics and zealous legislation. The passage of SB109 unfortunately serves as a poster child of such measures, with this one hurting the small businesses that comprise the bulk of the limo industry.
SB109 was sponsored by Sen. Ellen Corbett, a Democrat from the San Francisco Bay Area who serves as the Majority Leader. Corbett proposed her bill in response to the fatal stretch limousine fire of May 4 in which five women burned to death on the San Mateo Bridge while celebrating a bachelorette outing. But Corbett advanced the bill before all the facts were in.
The facts, based on a California Highway Patrol investigation, proved the limousine fire was a one-off catastrophe, not the result of a pattern. A unique set of circumstances, factors and miscues resulted in a horrific outcome. This scenario has not happened before. It’s not a case of exploding Ford Pinto gas tanks that requires safety improvements and new rules.
The GCLA did a valiant job trying to inform and negotiate in good faith on SB109. The GCLA and its lobbyists sought to engage Corbett, suggesting compromises and explaining the effects of the bill. The GCLA even agreed that a fifth-door requirement for new stretch limousines was reasonable, since they are easier for groups to get in and out of than four-door models. But retrofitting windows and roofs is structurally complicated or impossible, not to mention costly. It’s also never been done before on such a mass scale. With all the post-recession consolidations and bankruptcies in limousine manufacturing, there simply are not enough qualified builders in California able or willing to retrofit 3,000 plus stretches by the deadline.