JANE TYSKA / Oakland Tribune

Investigators examine the scene of a May 4 limousine fire on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in which five people were killed.

Limo fires spur safety bills

Published: Sunday, Jun. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013 - 11:37 am

State lawmakers are proposing new safety requirements for limousines after two recent incidents in which limos in Northern California caught fire.

Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, has introduced legislation to require two doors and two emergency window exits in the rear of all limousines made after Jan. 1, 2015. Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has written a separate bill that would require limousines to carry fire extinguishers.

The San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, which connects the two senators' districts, was the scene of a fatal limousine fire on May 4. A limo carrying nine nurses celebrating the impending wedding of Neriza Fojas burst into flames, and five of the passengers, including Fojas, died as they tried to escape.

Not far away, in Walnut Creek, an idling limousine started burning a week ago. The 10 women inside, some of them in their 90s, got out unharmed after noticing smoke.

Corbett said her decision to pursue legislation stemmed from the deadly fire in May.

"What caught my eye was that the people were not able to escape because there was a fire in the rear of the vehicle where the exit door was," she said. "I wanted to do whatever I could to make sure this tragedy never happens again."

Hill said the fires highlight the need for greater industry regulation. Limousines are produced in two stages, he said. First, a car company such as Ford builds a standard sedan. Then another party "stretches" the car by cutting the sedan in half and inserting a longer seating area.

"There is no certification or inspection after (stretching) is done," Hill said. "You could do it in your garage and then go out for hire." Automakers, however, privately certify companies that adhere to certain standards when modifying their cars.

In California, limousine companies need to obtain permits from the California Public Utilities Commission, which requires that they be financially sound, maintain their vehicles and check the driving records of their employees. But only those vehicles permitted to carry 10 people or more, including the driver, receive inspections from the California Highway Patrol, said PUC spokesman Andrew Kotch.

Hill said there should be inspections for smaller vehicles as well. He said he likely will broaden his bill to add an inspection requirement but first wants to consult with the CHP, which has not finished its investigations into the recent fires.

"A life in a nine-passenger (vehicle) is just as valuable as a life in a 10-passenger," Hill said.

The limousine that caught fire on May 4 was carrying 10 people, including the driver, but was licensed for nine. The limo involved in the most recent fire was licensed for eight people, including the driver, but carried 11.

The senator said he also would like to see inspections of the flammability of seats in the stretched area. He and Corbett both said limousines should have manual emergency exits in case an electrical lock hinders passengers from opening a vehicle's doors.

Since the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge fire, both Corbett and Hill gutted unrelated bills to introduce language addressing limousine safety, since senators cannot introduce new legislation after Feb. 22. Corbett's bill, SB 109, awaits consideration by the Assembly Transportation Committee on Monday. While no one has sponsored her bill yet, she said the California Professional Firefighters would testify in its behalf in committee.

She added, "I'm very happy to work closely with (Hill) in this package of legislation to help improve limousine safety." Corbett, however, said she would focus exclusively on emergency exits at this time, rather than fire extinguishers or inspections.

Hill's bill, SB 338, is on the agenda for Tuesday in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.

An analysis by the staff of the Senate committee suggested the Legislature should hold off acting until the CHP has concluded its investigation. Experts contacted by The Bee agreed.

"It's too soon to suggest any countermeasure that would work because I don't really know all the facts in the cases," said Henry Jasny, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a lobbying group that includes insurance companies, consumer safety advocates and health organizations.

Joan Claybrook, president emeritus of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under President Jimmy Carter, said the value of a fire extinguisher "depends on whether or not it can deal with the kind of fire that occurs. Electrical fires are pretty hard to control. They're pretty quick."

She agreed, however, that "two-stage vehicles" such as limousines lack oversight. For example, they are rarely crash-tested, she said.

"I would focus on having more severe inspections. States have clear authority to do it, and you can set pretty tough standards," Claybrook said.

The Greater California Livery Association, an industry group, held a conference in Sacramento in early June to discuss issues pressing to the industry, including limousine safety. About 75 members attended the event, according to one of the conference sponsors.

"We as an industry will support anything that enhances the safety of vehicles," said Rich Azzolino, vice president of the association.

Azzolino insisted, however, that limousines are safe. "That fire was an anomaly," he said. "We do hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of rides a day, with thousands and thousands of vehicles."

The Associated Press, citing federal data, recently reported that 21 people died nationwide in three separate limousine accidents in 2011 and another five died from three limousine accidents in 2010. The report did not attribute the deaths to fire.

According to the Senate analysis, there are 12,500 limousines permitted to operate in California.

Mark Ravera, owner of Limousine Club in Sacramento since 1987, said 90 percent of the limousines on the road are Lincoln Town Cars. "The Lincoln Town Car is probably the pinnacle of the limousine industry," he said.

The car that caught fire in San Mateo was a 1999 Lincoln Town Car, and the Walnut Creek incident involved a 2009 model. Ravera and two other limo owners interviewed said they believed from news reports that the cause of each fire was different.

Ravera and three other Sacramento-area limo owners interviewed said several of their customers have called with safety concerns since the fires, but business has not dropped.

"People will get limousines whether something happens or not," said Eugene Ivanilov of Coastal Breeze Limousine in Sacramento.

"The first time it happened I got 20 phone calls that day," Ravera said. "Even my dad called me, you know what I mean?"

But, Ravera added, no one canceled their limousine ride.

Call The Bee's Jeffrey Dastin, (916) 321-1037.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Jeffrey Dastin



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