Be careful how your company presents and implements a “Zero Tolerance” policy.
CHICAGO – What, exactly, is a party bus? That depends on where you are.
In most cities, party buses are small limo-style buses that transport revelers on club crawls, allowing them to drink alcohol along the way. Some are rolling nightclubs complete with entertainment poles, strobe lights, and blaring music.
But in Chicago, charter buses transporting senior groups to museums or conventioneers from the airport to their hotels also are considered by authorities to be party buses subject to strict city regulations. And that is causing problems for motorcoach operators.
“It has had a tremendous impact on our industry,” said Ibro Torlo, vice president of Signature Transportation in Arlington Heights, Ill. “Chicago has turned all buses into party buses.”
It started more than a year ago when, in response to a rash of shootings on party buses, the Chicago City Council passed an aggressive ordinance designed to crack down on illegal party buses and increase safety requirements for licensed bus operators.
But one provision of the law effectively turned charter and tour buses with teetotaling passengers into party buses. The provision requires all buses with 15 or more passengers to have cameras and licensed security guards if passengers are drinking alcohol onboard, or if the buses stop at locations that serve alcohol.
Because everything from museums and theaters to ballparks and hotels — regular destinations for charter and tour buses — serve alcohol, buses dropping off passengers at those locations are subject to the party bus law, even if their passengers aren’t drinking. Failure to abide by the ordinance can result in fines as high as $10,000.
“If I’m driving a knitting club with 81-year-old ladies to a Cubs game, I have to have a security guard onboard,” said Torlo, whose company sends about 30 charter buses a day into Chicago.
Since the ordinance officially took effect in June 2017, the motorcoach industry has been trying to convince city officials to revise the law to exempt charter and tour buses that don’t serve alcohol onboard. They say hiring a security guard can add $200 or more a day to the cost of a charter, which has to be passed on to their customers. If a tour was booked before the ordinance took effect but was taken afterward, the operator had to eat the added cost of the guard.
“We explained (to city officials) that we got caught in the middle,” said Cherie Hime, executive director of the Midwest Bus & Motorcoach Association. “I don’t think they realized it.”
Even so, city officials are sticking by the ordinance, saying it has succeeded in reducing party bus violence. They said in a March news release that since the ordinance went into effect, police have made 11 illegal weapons and narcotics arrests under the new rules. At the same time, gun violence and drug crimes related to party buses dropped throughout the city. Incidents involving shootings on buses dropped from six in 2016 to one in 2018, the release stated, and police issued 260 tickets to 37 companies resulting in $130,650 in fines.
While members of the motorcoach industry say they support regulations to crack down on illegal party bus operators, they contend their industry has suffered collateral damage from the Chicago ordinance. They further argue the gun and drug arrests touted by the city had nothing to do with requiring guards on tour and charter buses. They also note when the ordinance was being drafted, the motorcoach industry was not consulted and therefore had no input about the security guard provision.
The Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP), which oversees the party bus ordinance, said in a statement to LCT Magazine the regulations “were put in place for the safety of both passengers and drivers. No one company is being targeted.” The statement also said the ordinance doesn’t require security guards on buses transporting school-age children because they are under the legal drinking age. But some motorcoach operators said police have confronted them for not having guards onboard during student trips.
“One of our buses took a group of high school students to Navy Pier (a popular tourist attraction), and after they got off the bus a police officer asked the driver why he didn’t have a security guard,” Torlo said. “They don’t know party buses from motorcoaches.”
The BACP statement said the department was “working with the charter industry to further clarify school-age kid trips and include this in our FAQs so the industry has a consistent understanding of the requirements.”
Chicago-area motorcoach operators have formed a coalition of more than 40 industry executives to coordinate their challenge to the ordinance and raised funds to hire an attorney to lobby on their behalf. The Midwest Bus & Motorcoach Association, the United Motorcoach Association, and the American Bus Association are backing the coalition.
“We are making some progress,” said coalition member Carl Ekberg, vice president and chief operating officer at Chicago Classic Coach in Mount Prospect, Ill. “We have been meeting with city officials, aldermen, and police commanders.”
Ekberg said some aldermen appear to agree with the coalition’s concerns, but are reluctant to change the ordinance until after the next city election, when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel leaves office. Emanuel, who is not seeking re-election, introduced the party bus ordinance and is its chief supporter.
Hime said the coalition plans to contact mayoral and alderman candidates to make them aware of the industry’s concerns.
Industry officials also are worried the ordinance could encourage other cities to implement similar regulations. Hime said she doesn’t know of any other city or state with such an aggressive law, although some have regulations requiring tour and charter groups to have chaperones on buses when passengers are drinking onboard.
Hime said restaurants, hotels, museums, and other charter bus destinations in Chicago are concerned the ordinance may chase away business. There already are signs operators and tour groups are choosing to pass on Chicago as a destination because of the ordinance.
A recent online survey by the United Motorcoach Association found about 80% of respondents agreed the ordinance would dissuade them from considering Chicago either as a destination or an interim stop on a tour.
One survey respondent reported his company had “stopped booking trips to Chicago.” Another called the ordinance “ludicrous,” saying it treats “all good and upstanding coach companies who do not partake in party bus rentals as automatically guilty parties. Just because we may bring groups to plays, ballgames, and stay overnight in hotels that serve liquor, we are treated as complicit in undesirable behavior.”
While 20% of responding companies said they would not travel to Chicago because of the ordinance, 70% said they would leave it up to the customers after informing them of the extra costs involved. “So far,” one respondent said, “most have decided to go somewhere else.”
Motorcoach operators also complain the ordinance isn’t uniformly enforced and some police officers interpret the law differently than others.
Chicago Classic Coach has been cited five times, but not because it lacked a security guard, Ekberg said. Instead, the tickets were for not having a proper permit, although one was not required, and for not having a sign on the bus indicating it was operating legally, although its USDOT number was prominently displayed. Ekberg successfully challenged all five tickets in court.
Torlo, who also received a bogus ticket that was overturned, said police selectively enforce the ordinance. If there is a major sporting event, such as a baseball playoff game, the ordinance is likely to be strictly enforced, he said, while other times police will not bother charter buses.
“You don’t know when, so you just have to comply all the time,” Torlo said. “Because of the bad apples, the good guys are getting hurt.”
Hal Mattern is the former editor of Bus & Motorcoach News published by the United Motorcoach Association.
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