State officials here in Washington say they checked and the limousine company involved in a fatal accident in New York state does not operate here.
It turns out party buses and limos have a pretty good record in this state. Still, the state has levied nearly $300,000 in fines to limo and party bus companies since it started regulating them in 2015.
And those who operate these party limos or buses say no one wants what happened in New York to happen here.
It cuts an impressive figure, this Hummer limo that seats 18 people, on the outside, inside, too. It is one of three party vehicles Gary DeRouchie drives for Jimmy’s Fantasy Limousine Service based in Lacey. And he is well aware of the perils of navigating a vehicle this size.
“Thirty-two feet long,” he said of his limo. “And the turning radius is not all that great because as you can see the wheels are in the very rear. Whereas a school bus is a little more upfront. It’s easier for them to turn than it is for me, especially in Seattle.”
So news of the deadly party limousine ride in New York state is personal for him. In fact, he grew up not far from the crash scene near Albany.
“I don’t really know the area,” he said, when asked if he knows of any conditions that might make driving there more hazardous. “I don’t know the road. I heard they did work a little bit on the renovation of it, try to make it safer from previous occasions of vehicles being in accidents on that particular road.”
The investigation into the fatal accident is early yet. But New York’s governor says the stretch-limo owned by Prestige Limousine had been improperly rebuilt. And the driver did not have the appropriate license.
“We did check that company and make sure they do not operate in Washington, which they do not,” said Amanda Maxwell of the Utilities and Transportation Commission.
What happened in New York is of particular interest to the UTC. They started regulating party buses and limousines just three years ago.
“Our chairman saw several accidents in the country and the Pacific Northwest that concerned him,” said Maxwell. “And he asked our staff to investigate the industry and identify safety gaps.”
The UTC staff found that by 2014 there had been 22 serious party ride accidents in the U.S. and Canada. In all but four of the accidents, someone died, including here in Washington state. A party bus driver was struck and killed by a drunken driver Labor Day weekend in 2009. He was repairing his bus on the side of I-5 near Tukwila.
Now Maxwell says UTC has strict regulations.
“Alcohol use was related to many of the incidents we’ve seen across the country,” Maxwell said. “And so in Washington state, if you rent a party bus, you also need to get a liquor permit from the (state) Liquor and Cannabis board. And if you have minors on your party bus, you also use it as in your chaperone to ensure that minors aren’t drinking alcohol.”
She recommends before hiring a party bus, check the party bus operators has a valid charter permit from the UTC. They are required to meet minimum insurance standards, pass regular safety inspections, and drug and alcohol test their drivers.
Just last month, UTC ordered slapped JJ Limousine Service of Redmond with a $15,000 fine and ordered its owners to shut down.
All of it resonates with Gary DeRouchie, especially given the tragedy in New York state.
“I do know that they said that he didn’t have the proper credentials,” said DeRouchie. “We do, to the max.”
He says the state requires a commercial driver’s license, a current medical certificate, and, one more thing.
“If your vehicle isn’t prepared to go out on the road, it doesn’t go,” he said. “And that was the misfortunate thing that happened in upstate New York, because I heard it wasn’t properly inspected.”
Still state officials say they remain vigilant. After all, UTC regulates nearly 200 passenger carriers that operate in Washington state.