State regulations ensuring passengers are safe in limousines, party buses, nursing home vans and other vehicles for hire have been inconsistently enforced by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, according to the state’s internal watchdog.
The findings detailed in a 56-page analysis by the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) come after a tragic limousine crash in Schoharie, N.Y., killed 20 people in 2018 — one of the nation’s deadliest transportation accidents in more than a decade.
While that crash is still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, its horrific nature raised questions about how the limousine-for-hire industry is regulated across the country. The Star Tribune reported on MnDOT’s lax oversight of limousine safety in February 2019.
The legislative auditor launched a review following the New York tragedy and after receiving “questions about whether MnDOT was fully complying with state laws governing for-hire passenger transportation,” said Joel Alter, the office’s director of Special Reviews.
The report makes several recommendations to improve safety, including more frequent audits of vehicles and driver background checks.
MnDOT spokesman Jacob Loesch said the department takes the legislative auditor’s recommendations seriously and has already begun to implement some of the suggested changes.
“While we understand that the OLA was interested in this topic based on a tragic accident in New York, it is important to note that no such crash has happened in Minnesota,” Loesch added.
The for-hire transportation industry includes tour buses, airport and hotel vans, party buses and limousines. They also transport the elderly and people with disabilities. As of mid-2019, there were 824 carriers authorized to operate in Minnesota.
A key component of MnDOT’s safety toolbox involves an audit checking whether drivers have a criminal background and making sure vehicles are insured properly.
But the report notes the number of audits conducted by MnDOT declined significantly between 2014 and 2018 and in some cases “fell short of what state regulations required.”
For example, there were no audits of limousines in 2018, the analysis notes. Loesch said the Super Bowl made that year unique. To meet increased demand, MnDOT temporarily licensed hundreds of commercial vehicles using a similar method used by other cities hosting the football extravaganza, he said. (In 2019, the number of limos audited increased to 163.)
The legislative auditor’s review also found inconsistencies in the way MnDOT inspects vehicles for hire. For example, nearly half the limos authorized to operate in the state were not inspected in 2018.
“The absence of inspections for some vehicles could have placed passengers at risk if those vehicles had mechanical or other problems,” the report states.
The president of the Minnesota Chauffeured Transportation Association said the group agrees with the report’s findings.
“Inspections have been inconsistent,” said Gus Ortis, who is also the owner-operator of Executive Transportation in Minneapolis.
The industry has been “pushing MnDOT for years” to allow private mechanics to conduct vehicle inspections and for “more verification and enforcement steps.”
Some safety regulations involving vans ferrying the elderly and people with disabilities and school buses were already tightened this legislative session, said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House Transportation and Policy Committee.
Hornstein said there’s bipartisan interest in safety issues at the Capitol. “We will build on the successful work past session,” he said. “It’s on our radar.”
Jane Terry, vice president of government affairs for the National Safety Council, commended the legislative auditor’s work.
“Limousines are often hired to celebrate our happiest occasions, and we need to know they — and their operators — are safe,” she said.