SACRAMENTO — Citing incidents like the 2013 limousine fire that killed five women on the San Mateo Bridge, California’s state auditor said Tuesday that the commission responsible for overseeing passenger carriers has failed to ensure consumer safety.
State Auditor Elaine M. Howle said the main reason for the deficiencies was a lack of effective leadership at the Transportation Enforcement Branch of the California Public Utilities Commission, with current management failing to establish goals or measures to guide its oversight efforts.
The commission’s investigators routinely fail to collect the fees they are entitled to and do not ensure complaints are resolved in an adequate or timely manner, Howle said. They also don’t ensure that carriers have permits, undergo inspections, hold insurance and participate in driver safety programs, she said.
“In May 2013 in the San Francisco Bay Area, a fire killed five women in a limousine, which was a charter carrier regulated by the commission,” the auditor’s report said, referring to the San Mateo Bridge incident.
The fire trapped nine women celebrating a friend’s recent wedding, killing five of them. The limousine’s driver survived, but no criminal charges were filed.
The California Highway Patrol has said the blaze was caused by a catastrophic failure of the rear suspension system. The air suspension failure allowed the spinning driveshaft to contact the floor pan, causing friction that ignited carpets and set the vehicle on fire, authorities have said.
The San Mateo Bridge event “called into question the state’s oversight of passenger carriers,” the auditor’s report said. “Four women who escaped the fire apparently climbed through the limousine’s divider window and out the driver’s section of the vehicle because the rear passenger doors were blocked by smoke.”
After the deaths, a law was passed in January 2014 requiring certain modified limousines to have additional window and door emergency exits that passengers can open from the inside beginning in July 2015.
The commission has acknowledged the auditor’s findings and has said it plans to take action to resolve the problems.