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California Limo tragedy reveals significant public safety issue

01:50 PM May 11, 2013

Bachelorette party?

Night of relative bacchanalian fun?

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How about the Junior or Senior Prom?

After Neriza Fojas and four others died in that tragedy on the San Mateo Bridge, I bet everyone is thinking twice before splurging on a stretch limo.

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Exactly what are you getting when you pay to play–luxury ride or glammed-up death trap?

That’s the question investigators are looking at now.

The allure of a stretch limo is always tempting for those “special” events.  Who takes a stretch limo? In truth, not rich people, or celebrities, really.

Stretch limos are for dreamers.

Immigrants? Sure. High-schoolers looking to impress for a special event. My daughter’s friends had one recently. I naively asked them if they wanted to borrow the family van to carry all of their friends.

“Oh no,” my daughter said. “Someone’s mom rented a limo for the night.”

Just think, they could have had my Dodge Caravan, un-stretched, un-glamorous, but ultra-safe.

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I just shrugged and figured a stretch limo might be safer – especially if anyone in the group thought the drinking age was automatically lowered on prom night.

And, of course, a stretch limo would also be a Cinderella experience for the girls. And a Richie Rich experience for the guys.

The image of a chauffeured-driven stretch limo is a nice fantasy.  But on prom night, it’s really more like the dressed up yellow school bus.

But wait, aren’t yellow buses are regulated— and aren’t those humongous stretch limos, too?

Well, they are, sort of.  But it’s taken the tragic deaths of Neriza Fojas and four of her friends to bring the issue front and center.

If you didn’t realize it, in California, the governing body that regulates stretch limos is the Public Utilities Commission.

The state PUC is reportedly looking into whether the stretch limo operator,  Limo Stop, followed all the rules, including proper notification that the  seating capacity was eight or fewer.

The Fojas limo had nine passengers the night of the accident.

One doesn’t expect to find many disparities in the maintenance records, but you never know. Was it an electrical fire? Could it have been prevented?

If there’s any change in laws, it might come in the emergency requirements.

For example, emergency exits are for buses only, not stretch limos. Still, a car that long should at least come with emergency instructions as required on commercial flights.

One other needed change is simple: Require a small on-board fire extinguisher.

Then the question of if there was miscommunication, or whether the driver or the company did enough, might be extinguished were there an extinguisher.

And to think, the late ‘90s model stretch limo probably had a full bar.

As for federal regulation, that’s hit or miss.

A car maker can build a limo then sell it to a customizer, then it’s up to the customizer to certify it with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration before selling or renting it out.

But if someone buys a stretch limo, and then customizes it for his own use, no federal regulatory oversight exists.

Joan Claybrook, a legendary consumer advocate and an auto safety advocate under Carter said the stretch limo industry is poorly regulated because of poor funding.

“I think the oversight is pretty lousy, because the modifications are so individualistic, and there are not that many companies out there that do this. Mostly, they are mom-and-pop operations,” said Claybrook, a former administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in a published report.

US Department of Transportation data shows five people died in three separate stretch limo accidents in 2010, and 21 people died in another three stretch limo accidents in 2011.

Maybe there aren’t enough deaths to make this an urgent safety issue?

Try telling that to the families of Neriza Fojas and the four others who died on the San Mateo Bridge.

Try telling that to the families of Neriza Fojas and the four others who died on the San Mateo Bridge.

Fojas came to America to work and study.

She’s the kind of person who saw in a stretch limo, the height of her ongoing American dream.  She wasn’t a celebrity. She was just a hard-working person in America who was able to celebrate with her friends for one night in style.

A stretch limo certainly was no jeepney.

But the last thing she expected was a rolling death pyre.

[email protected]

www.amok.com

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