After Fatalities Nationwide, Washington Regulators Target Party Buses

Apr 7, 2014

Prom season is coming up. That means tuxes, gowns and limousines. But these days an old-fashioned stretch limo can look a bit stodgy. The new rage is party buses. They carry more people and you can even stand up, dance and drink as you cruise down the road. But these parties on wheels can come at a price. Nationwide there have been nearly two dozen fatalities on these buses  including one here in the Northwest.

Now regulators in Washington state are getting ready to crack down on the industry.

Party bus owner William Prigmore says his industry helps keep drunk drivers off the road. But state regulators point to nearly two dozen fatalities around the country as evidence the industry needs more regulation.
Credit Austin Jenkins

If you’ve never been on a party bus before, let me take you inside one.

“I’m William. This is my party bus.”

William Prigmore is showing me his converted 1998 Ford shuttle bus. Picture neon lights, wrap-around leather seats and the center aisle converted into a narrow, wood dance floor.

“Got a nice stereo system with a PlayStation II, 37-inch flat screen TV, exotic pole,” says Prigmore.

Yes, this bus even has a brass pole – and no, it’s not for holding onto around corners. I ask Prigmore what’s the point of a party bus?

“The general concept is that people are paying a driver to drive them around so they can get intoxicated,” says Prigmore.

Sometimes the clients are going clubbing or it’s an event like a bachelorette party. And then there are the kids.

“We do proms and graduations. Of course those kids don’t drink,” says Prigmore with a smile.

Actually, Prigmore tells me he’s canceled a trip before because of underage drinking. But there’s also a saying in this business: what happens on the party bus, stays on the party bus. Prigmore says these parties on wheels have replaced the limo as the vehicle of choice for nights on the town. But as the industry gains popularity, regulators are scrambling to catch up.

Dave Danner chairs Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission. This state agency regulates in-state bus companies.

“You’ve got a mix of alcohol, strobe lights, thumping party music, smoke machines, four tons of metal going down the road at 60 miles per hour. That’s a cocktail for problems,” says Danner.

Danner says there’s no way he would allow his own teenage daughter to ride a party bus.

“I would say ‘no.’ I don’t want her on a party bus.”

Jenkins: “And why is that?”

“Because I’m not convinced they’re safe,” says Danner.

Danner notes the term “party bus company” doesn’t even appear in Washington law. And there are loopholes companies can exploit to avoid regulation.

“The fact of the matter is we don’t know the universe of operators out there,” says Danner.

So far, Washington has been spared the types of party bus tragedies that have happened elsewhere in the country.

Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission reports that over the past four years there have been 21 fatalities nationwide. CJ Saraceno from Watertown, Conn., was one of those fatalities. The graduate of Tufts University died in Los Angeles while celebrating a friend’s birthday. According to police reports, CJ was standing up in the front of the bus when it suddenly shifted. He fell against the passenger door, it opened and he tumbled out. CJ’s father is Christopher Saraceno.

“He was holding on for dear life as he’s being dragged down the road in a jackknifed position hanging out the door. And the next thing you know he got sucked under the tires and you know the rest of the story. I’d rather not think of it,” says Saraceno.

An investigation found the door wasn’t working properly and the bus shouldn’t have even been on the road that night. Another of those 21 deaths hit closer to home. Eleven-year-old Angie Hernandez from Portland died when an emergency exit window popped open.

“Angie Hernandez fell out of the bus and was run over by the rear wheels of the bus,” says Frank Langfitt.  He’s the Portland attorney who represented the Hernandez family. He says the investigation found the bus was in poor mechanical condition. And the driver and the bus company were not properly licensed.

“There’s a desperate need for regulation to protect the public especially if you’re going to have children on these buses,” says Langfitt.

The city of Portland did step-up enforcement and inspections of party buses following the death of Angie Hernandez.

But Portland is unique. Officials in Seattle and Boise told us party bus regulation is up to the state, not the city. Even at the state level, enforcement is a patchwork. For instance, Washington’s Utilities and Exchange Commission conducts biennial inspections of registered intrastate buses. But the Oregon Department of Transportation does not do this even though it issues permits to operate. Both states do require carriers to follow federal safety rules. Those rules cover the driver and the vehicle and include requirements for drug and alcohol testing and a limit on the number of hours a driver is behind the wheel.

California appears to be the only state with a specific party bus statute. Jim Hall is the former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. He says regulators nationwide need to pay attention to this growing industry.

“There’s been enough accidents and fatalities especially to young people that there’s plenty of grounds for local and state government to take appropriate action,” says Hall.

Here in Washington, the Utilities and Transportation Commission just produced a 17-page report on party bus safety. The recommendations include a ban on double-decker party buses and a requirement that paid chaperones supervise any party bus with riders under 21. Back on board William Prigmore’s bus, he expresses dismay his industry is getting a bad rap.

“This is keeping a lot of drunk drivers off the road. These party buses. This is something very positive,” says Prigmore.

Ultimately Prigmore believes customers have to take some responsibility too: first to check they’re booking a properly licensed party bus. And to behave in a safe manner once they’re on board. To date, regulators in Washington have shut down two party bus companies and identified five others that were operating without a permit.

Copyright 2014 Northwest News Network