Tougher laws and increased enforcement are crucial to get unsafe and illegal party buses off Missouri and Kansas roads, legislators and police said this week.
The Kansas Senate should hold a hearing on the issue when it convenes next year, one lawmaker said. Missouri needs to examine the problem as well, said the leader of the House Transportation Committee.
Police, meanwhile, say they need help from lawmakers and prosecutors if they’re going to shut down companies that repeatedly defy state and federal regulations.
The calls for action came in response to a Kansas City Star investigation into the party bus industry. In the Kansas City area alone, more than half — perhaps as many as two-thirds — of party bus companies fail to follow state and federal rules designed to keep the public safe, the newspaper found. Such companies, along with legitimate operators, regularly transport revelers to sporting events, proms, weddings and celebrations at restaurants and bars.
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Although any legislative measures could take months, the public should act right away by refusing to hire unscrupulous companies, several readers said.
“The article helps to bring out the reason why we should be concerned,” said Sen. Pat Pettey, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat who represents the district where a young mother tumbled to her death from a party bus on Interstate 35 four years ago. “I definitely think that this should be something that’s on the Senate Transportation Committee next year to have a hearing about.”
On the Missouri side, the House Transportation Committee chairman said he wanted to learn more about party buses.
“This is something that would be very interesting for us to take a look at,” said Rep. Bill Reiboldt, a Neosho Republican whose committee includes four Kansas City-area lawmakers.
Many party bus companies ignore key rules and laws, The Star found. Some hire unqualified drivers. Others send their buses on the road without insurance coverage that would protect riders and the public if something goes wrong. Many companies operate without taking critical steps needed to obtain state and federal permission to haul passengers. And some buses have so many mechanical issues that police are appalled to find them carrying passengers.
It’s a national problem, and one that can have deadly consequences. As recently as June, a University of Missouri graduate fell out the doors of an Illinois party bus and died when an SUV struck him on the Tri-State Tollway.
Since The Star’s stories appeared, one illegal company — HC’s Transportation, with two buses called Luxor — and one broker that booked customers for illegal companies have shut down their websites. Owners of legitimate companies say they’re receiving calls from potential customers asking if they have insurance and permission to operate.
Some readers recounted horror stories. One sent a photo from his bachelor party of a Kool Rides bus — one of the companies The Star featured as operating without authority or insurance — that ran into a brick wall in a Lenexa subdivision after the brakes failed in 2013.
The Star’s investigation surprised some in the industry who for years have wanted someone — anyone — to tackle the problem.
“I would be embarrassed if I was a regulator, and you all did that (investigation) and they hadn’t,” said Diane Forgy, owner of Overland Chauffeured Services and past president of the National Limousine Association. “This has been going on for years. ... These people who can fly under the radar, they need to be discouraged from doing this somehow.”
Industry experts and a national transportation consultant say the federal regulations are adequate, but enforcement is not.
Illegal party buses have become a serious public safety concern, said a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
“This goes beyond state lines, but it is a local problem,” said Jim Hall, a transportation consultant who led the NTSB from 1994 to 2001. “And it is the local responsibility of law enforcement to keep the highways and streets safe.”
One Missouri lawmaker, Sen. Dave Schatz, a Sullivan Republican who heads the Senate Transportation Committee, said it would be great to have model legislation to study.
Washington state passed legislation two years ago that allowed regulators to target illegal party buses and issue hefty fines for companies that refuse to get legal. The action came in response to the death of an 11-year-old girl who fell out an emergency window of a party bus in neighboring Oregon.
Some point to Chicago as a model.
In response to party bus-related violence, the city passed an ordinance requiring registration of every vehicle and allowing police to impound illegal buses they catch on the roads. After a recent sweep, the city sent cease and desist orders to 16 unlicensed party bus operators.
The new ordinance allows police to stop “them in their tracks before they can further put Chicagoans in harm’s way,” Anthony Riccio, head of the Police Department’s organized crime unit, said at a news conference this week. “We do see a lot of problems and violence that stems from the fact that they were completely unregulated.”
In Kansas City, Sgt. Kevin Murray would love for lawmakers to provide more ways for his motor carrier enforcement unit to shut down bad companies. He would like legislators to enact laws that would allow criminal charges to be filed against the most egregious companies. That also would get prosecutors involved, he said.
And he likes some of what Chicago has done.
“Impounding the buses would definitely be a help,” Murray said. “You could hold it until the company is compliant. I think that would make a huge difference.”
Chicago also implored the public to pay attention and stop hiring unsafe and illegal party buses.
“Consumers need to know that they are putting themselves and others at risk when they do business with unlicensed operators,” said Rosa Escareno, the city’s commissioner for business affairs and consumer protection. “If you are contracting services with an unlicensed operator, your trip will be shut down.”
That’s advice Kansans should heed, too, Pettey said.
“I think we, as consumers, just make assumptions and don’t ask the questions — are you legal, are your drivers licensed to drive this, and do you have your approval to be able to do this?” she said. “So many times we just go about things blindly and think, ‘Oh, it’ll be fine.’ ”
Illegal companies make the industry look bad, said Forgy, a longtime fleet owner. They’re also a public hazard.
“The last thing anyone wants is to be a passenger in the back of any type of vehicle with a driver that shouldn’t be driving and a company that shouldn’t be in business and may not have insurance,” she said. “I can’t think of anything scarier.”
Checking out party buses
Educating the public may be the best way to put disreputable party bus companies out of business, authorities say.
Potential customers should look up safety and insurance records in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration database, a free online source. The agency also offers a free Safer Bus app that includes some of the same information.
In Kansas, check the Kansas Corporation Commission website to see if the company has been fined for violating regulations. In Missouri, those records are closed.
Be wary of websites run by brokers. These sites require renters to provide their name, email, phone number and event date before revealing rates or other booking information. The sites often contain generic party bus photos, not ones from actual companies, making it difficult to know the company being booked.
Renters also should ask companies for insurance information and driver credentials. They can ask to tour a bus before booking. And they can check online reviews.