A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Deadly accident raises questions about limousine industry’s safety standards

This past week, 20 people were killed in an awful limousine crash in Upstate New York in what investigators are calling one of the “most deadly” transportation accidents in years.

Eighteen of those victims were in the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine when it crashed into a parked SUV in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store in Schoharie, N.Y., and two of the victims were pedestrians, according to New York State Police.

According to a recent New York Times article, the company that provided the limousine had repeatedly failed motor vehicle inspections. And the driver did not have a proper license, according to state officials and federal transportation records.

A friend of one of the victims said she got a text, telling her that a party bus that was supposed to pick up the group of friends to take them to a brewery had broken down on the way there. Instead, the group obtained a stretch limousine, which was in shoddy condition according to a victim’s text message moments before the accident.

Such news leaves many of us wondering: Just how safe is the limousine service industry?

According to an IBIS World report, Limousine & Town Car Services is a $6 billion industry and employs 144,532 people. According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, around 60 percent of the limousine industry is composed of small businesses that have fleets of five or fewer vehicles. About half of the services provided by these operators are corporate reservations during the week. Then 40 percent of the revenues generated by the limousine industry involve parties, high school events, or weddings.

Limousine safety is regulated by the Federal Government through the U.S. Department of Transportation and by various state regulations. Many states have lax or non-existent limousine safety standards.

The state of New York might have some of the nation’s toughest regulations for limousines, but that still did not prevent the country’s worst transportation accident in nearly a decade on Saturday.

Vehicles authorized to carry between nine and 15 passengers must comply with regulations established by the U.S. Department of Transportation. There are specific guidelines dictating how many hours that drivers can be on the job following eight hours of driving.

According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, carriers must file a motor carrier identification report and mark their vehicles with USDOT identification number and the legal name of the operator.

Carriers are subject to safety procedures and new entrant safety assurance procedures. During the initial 18-month period, the new entrant will be monitored.

The new entrant must operate safely, maintain up-to-date records, conduct periodic inspections, perform maintenance on CMVs and pass a safety audit. They must also provide accident register record keeping, while driver qualifications and medical examinations are required.

Operators are required to maintain and update driver qualification files, must comply with maximum driving-time standards, maintain records of duty status and provide records for inspections, repairs, and maintenance.

But the fact is, limousine safety is not regulated effectively in many states. The limousine industry presents several unseen dangers that still happen to go unnoticed.

In the transportation sector, car accidents cause significantly more deaths per year than plane crashes. But most people do not think twice about using a car service for special nights like proms or weddings, but limousines and party buses can be even more dangerous than a typical car.

Common types of accidents involving limousines include rear-end accidents, sideswipes, and parking lot accidents. Not surprisingly, the size of the limousine usually contributes to these accidents, but there are other dangers for riding in a limousine as well.

Regulations in the U.S. require vehicles to have seatbelts as well as side-curtain airbags as safety features, but party buses and stretch limos are exempt from this rule if they have fewer than eight forward-facing seats.

The exemption is aimed at airport shuttles and buses that carry multiple wheelchair spaces, but limo manufacturers use the exemption to avoid the expense of extra seatbelts or airbags. Stretch limos are more susceptible to side collisions, and without these safety features — mixed in with unrestrained passengers — this is often a dangerous combination, even for minor accidents.

Poor construction and mechanical errors are other major sources for concern. Often times during the manufacturing process, stretch limos are taken apart, stretched, and bolted back together. A stretch limo is created by taking an ordinary car, cutting it in half, and placing plates to extend the roof and floor. What’s missing is the normal “structural cage” of the car, or the pillars running from the ceiling and flooring, which protects passengers. Then the seats are reconfigured in a stretch limo, which changes the outcome of a side-impact crash.

When stretched, most forgo side air bags, lap and torso seat belts and the kind of safety exits required in regular vehicles, according to an exemption granted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2013. Often times, these vehicles are converted into limos in home garages with no engineers present, and if they carry fewer than 10 people, they are not even required to be inspected.

This means that the safety of these limos could be compromised during an accident. These modifications can create blind spots for the driver, which is dangerous for the passengers as well as other vehicles on the road.

In 2013, a limo transporting a bachelorette party caught fire because of friction between the car’s drive shaft and rear floorboard. Tragically, five people died in the accident, including the bride-to-be. Then only a month later, a party bus shifted throwing a passenger against a door, which opened and threw him onto a freeway. The doors were supposed to be locked when the bus was in motion, but the mechanical failure cost the passenger his life.

Another major risk of using a limo service is companies that are either unregistered or that they employ unlicensed drivers. A stretch limo is much larger and more difficult to maneuver so an unlicensed driver may not be skilled enough keep passengers safe.

Additionally, when an uninsured limousine is in an accident, it may be hard for the passengers to receive compensation for any medical treatment they may require. Companies that are lenient about employing unlicensed drivers or not insuring their vehicles also tend to be more lax with implementing safety measures including regular maintenance of the limo.

Here are a few safety tips you can use to ensure your safety when booking a limousine:

Limousine Safety Tips

• Check to make sure that the company is registered, the driver is licensed.

• Request a copy of their certificate of insurance and determine if the policy is enforced before you sign a contact.

• Check the company’s status at the Better Business Bureau to see if the limo service has any complaints lodged against it.

• Ask the car service questions about the chauffeur, including his or her track record and driving experience.

• Inspect the limousine prior to signing up. Look for inspection stickers and write down the VIN to ensure the company does not switch vehicles on you.

• Look into the company’s cancellation policy and know your rights to terminate the contract if a red flag appears.

• To ensure a smooth ride, get every detail of the deal in writing.

• Schedule the limousine to arrive early so that you can inspect the vehicle for safety.

Be Safe, My Friends

Keven Moore works in risk management services and is an expert witness. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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