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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

After Fatalities Nationwide, Washington Regulators Target Party Buses

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Party bus owner William Prigmore says his industry helps keep drunk drivers off the road.

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’ve 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.

Vehicle of choice for nights on the town

If you’ve never been on a party bus before, William Prigmore will give you a tour of his.

It's a converted 1998 Ford shuttle bus complete with neon lights, wrap-around leather seats and the center aisle converted into a narrow, wood dance floor.

Prigmore points out "a nice stereo system with a PlayStation II, 37-inch flat screen TV, exotic pole.”

Yes, this bus even has a brass pole – and no, it’s not for holding onto around corners.

So what is 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 ” Prigmore says with a smile.

But Prigmore says he has cancelled 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.

"I'm not convinced they're safe"

“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," says Dave Danner, chairman of Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission -- the state agency regulates in-state bus companies.

"That’s a cocktail for problems.”

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 ... because I’m not convinced they’re safe.”

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.”

21 fatalities

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, Connecticut 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.

“He was holding on for dear life as he’s being dragged down the road in a jackknifed position hanging out the door," says CJ’s father, Christopher Saraceno. "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.”

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, a 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.

Patchwork enforcement 

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 Transportation 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, former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, 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.”

In Washington state, 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 to require that paid chaperones supervise any party bus with riders under 21.

"Keeping a lot of drunk drivers off the road"

William Prigmore 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.”

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.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."