10/19 update: The deepening investigation is going on two weeks as accident examiners work toward a preliminary cause report.
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.’”
Matt Assolin, vice president of Houston-based Nikko’s Worldwide Assolin, serves the safety conscious oil and gas industry and makes a point to market safety as part of Nikko’s services. “We promote ourselves as being conscious about maintenance and the necessary steps we take to prevent any type of vehicle malfunction.” Limo bus companies should advertise that they “use vehicles designed from the ground up to be used as limo buses to ensure they are always functioning properly,” he adds.
It’s an uphill but worthy battle, says Diane Forgy, a National Limousine Association board director and owner of Overland Limousine in Kansas City, Mo. “The industry has to try to raise the bar and try to sell the public on safety. [Currently] it’s not enough of an issue for them to walk away from a good deal.”
Forgy says she doesn’t want to scare people away from the industry, which is fundamentally safe, but suggests customers be aware of the different levels of chauffeur training, insurance and fleet quality. “We never point the finger at a company specifically. We talk up what we do. We encourage people to compare everything.”
While the DOT may step up enforcement given the string of recent limo bus accidents, Forgy fears that additional pressure will be mostly on legitimate operators, not phantom limo companies. “They need to focus on the ones that have never had a safety audit, never been inspected, [and] take more time to hunt them down.”
Holden believes custom-built vehicles need better safety regulations. “When we have to replace a window in a bus, there [are] federal guidelines on the material that has to be used to hold that window in place. You can’t afford to be going down the road and your door falls out because you used super-glue from Wal-Mart. The same thing should happen when a bus is being converted. The body shops, the hatchet jobs that are being done on the streets should never be allowed. They should never be approved to be DOT carriers, and they shouldn’t be in business.”
The whole industry suffers when operators use subpar vehicles, Assolin says. “Somebody can go on eBay, buy a 16-passenger paratransit bus, take it to some upholsterer or vehicle outfitter, some random guy, pack it in with the goodies, and boom he’s got a limo bus. It doesn’t mean it’s safe.”
For Holden it’s a matter of updating safety standards. “The way it was five years ago is not the way it is today, and certainly the way it was 10 or 15 years ago is obsolete…I think [all custom limos] should be built by QVM builders for today’s safety and I certainly agree there should be age limits. There’s going to be a lot of people that don’t agree with me on that,” he says.
Limo buses have become synonymous with a raucous time in the eyes of customers. But it’s up to operators to set the parameters for their behavior, Bakare says. “We need to dial it back a little bit. I think operators need to reassess how much freedom they give their customers while they’re inside the bus.”
While the name “party bus” may imply a no-holds-barred environment, some ground rules should apply, Bakare says. “Tell everybody when it’s moving, ‘Please sit down. When I’m parked, yeah you can move around and mingle and party, but when it’s moving, please sit down.’ I think it depends on the individual operator to enforce that.”
Nikko’s Worldwide encourages passengers to remain seated while the vehicle is moving, Assolin says. “If you have people up moving around and horse playing, not even an altercation, you have to stop the bus. If you don’t, someone is going to go through a window. If you have to make a hard stop, people are going to go flying all over the place inside the vehicle.”
Stop the Bus!
Operators and their chauffeurs need to be prepared to stop a ride that is getting out of hand, says Holden, which he had to do in the past for a bachelor party. The 10-guy group was highly intoxicated, got into a barfight that spilled onto the street, and then got back in the van totally out of control. Luckily, his chauffeur knew to call him. “I had him stop the van on a side street. I tried to talk to the passenger. He wasn’t listening to anybody. I instructed the driver to escort them from the vehicle and leave them there. I’m not putting my driver at risk nor am I putting my vehicle at risk. Unless you’re willing to do that, you’re going to continue to have folks fall out of buses.”
Hiring the right chauffeurs with the right personalities and matching them to the right clientele also plays a big part in controlling this kind of crowd, Holden says. “Gone are the days of the 80-year-old driver driving a limousine or a limo bus.”
Assolin believes that such cautioned judgment should be a hallmark of the limousine industry. “As an owner, you have to know your staff and you have to say, ‘Well this person would be able to handle drunken people,” or “No, I would never put him on a bachelor party because they would overwhelm him.’ That’s what separates good companies from the mediocre companies, is being able to manage your staff in that regard.”
And the support to pull the plug needs to come from management, Holden says. “You have to allow your driver to say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m no longer comfortable in this situation. Somebody’s going to get hurt. And that vehicle should be allowed to stop and there should be a line of communication with somebody in the office and make that decision.”
Alex Darbahani, owner and founder of Los Angeles-based KLS Worldwide Chauffeured Services and the party bus service, My Party Ride, keeps the celebratory outings safe. He’s had his chauffeurs trained to respond to emergencies, such as shootings, stabbings, or drug overdoses, as well as how to conduct CPR. Emergency exits are checked to make sure they’re closed and working before every trip. If windows break during the trip, the job is cancelled.
Darbahani also has installed motion sensors near the doors of his buses that will sound an alarm if passengers get too close to the doors during transit. This signals the passengers to step back and the driver to stop the bus. It only costs about $10 at a RadioShack, he says.
For large prom groups, he hires a guard to supervise. Before the trip begins, the guard presents his badge, lays the ground rules, and checks all bags entering the passenger compartment for contraband. Parents are relieved by the precautions and students typically fall in line. “If from the beginning you’re being straight with the client, there will not be a problem.”
10/19 update: The deepening investigation is going on two weeks as accident examiners work toward a preliminary cause report.
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