Limousines that carry 10 passengers or fewer will get annual inspections, two working fire extinguishers and assurances by owners to authorities that the vehicles meet applicable standards under a safety bill that sailed through a key legislative committee yesterday.
The bill authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, was sparked by the May 5 fatal limousine fire on the San Mateo-Hayward bridge that killed five women headed to a Foster City bridal celebration when they couldn’t escape the smoke and flames.
On Friday, the Assembly Appropriations Committee passed Senate Bill 338 on a 12-5 vote with the Republican members dissenting. The committee also amended Hill’s original proposal to let the California Highway Patrol defray the estimated $900,000 annual cost of implementation by collecting a $25 per limo fee from operators. The bill now allows a scaled fee between $25 to $75 depending up on the size of an operator’s fleet.
“It’s really a victory for safety,” Hill said after the vote Friday. “Now, the next big step is getting the governor to sign it which I think will happen because the cost issue has been resolved.”
The full Assembly will consider the bill by the end of session Sept. 14 before heading to the Senate for concurrence.
Headed into the vote, Hill said he was “absolutely concerned” it wouldn’t pass even though he hopes others share his desire to prevent future tragedies.
While larger capacity vehicles are bound by mandates like inspections, smaller limousines like that involved in the bridge fire are not. Hill’s bill specifically requires limos with less than 10 passengers to carry two fire extinguishers and mandate the California Highway Patrol conduct annual safety inspections. The owner of an after-market vehicle modified to increase passenger capacity must also certify to the CHP and California Public Utilities Commission that it meets all applicable federal and state motor vehicle safety standards, according to Hill’s proposed legislation.
The bill is backed by the California State Sheriffs’ Association, California Professional Firefighters, California Fire Chiefs Association and Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety.
An investigation into the May 5 fire concluded the failure of the vehicle’s suspension system started the fire. Friction from contact by the rear driveshaft with the floor pan ignited the carpet and foam padding inside the vehicle where nine passengers were seated on their way to a bridal shower in Foster City. The deaths were ruled accidental but legislators like Hill and Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, quickly moved to introduce bills related to regulations and safety measures like pop-out windows.
When authorities announced the investigation results earlier this month they played 911 tapes in which one of the women tells a dispatcher she cannot open the car’s door.
The CPUC has said the limo company will be fined $7,500 for allowing nine passengers in the vehicle when it was legally only supposed to carry seven. The commission’s head of safety and enforcement also said during the press conference that the commission will work with state legislators on changing regulations for limousines to require the emergency pop-out windows.
But on Friday, Hill said the CPUC has already “proven that safety is not its priority” and should spend more time and energy proactively looking at industries like limousine service to discern lapses like the lack of fire extinguishers.
“They should have noticed this and already developed regulations. They shouldn’t have to wait for an accident to happen,” Hill said.
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