A year after a deadly fire focused new scrutiny on limousine safety, a scathing new state audit found the California Public Utility Commission fails to enforce state safety laws, lacks properly trained investigators and issues skimpy fines to transportation companies that it sometimes doesn't even bother to collect.
Its safety inspectors sometimes base investigations solely on telephone calls with bus and limousine companies without ever visiting them or looking at their vehicles, Tuesday's audit revealed. And auditors found an investigator even failed to take action after witnessing a "clear safety hazard" -- a driver boarding 13 passengers, including two children riding on adults' laps, in a van licensed for 11 people.
The report raises serious questions whether the commission can handle new, tough safety rules for limos and buses enacted after the gruesome limousine fire on the San Mateo Bridge in May 2013 killed five women on their way to a bridal party.
"I really didn't think it was going to be this bad, that we'd find such a lack of oversight and so many safety concerns," said state Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, who requested the audit. "People aren't doing their jobs."
The PUC's Transportation Enforcement Branch lacks professional standards and properly trained investigators and seems incapable of correcting its deficiencies, the audit states.
The transportation branch lacks an "effective program leadership," state Auditor Elaine Howle said in a statement.
PUC Executive Director Paul Clanon and President Michael Peevey were not available for interviews Tuesday, a spokeswoman said. But Clanon wrote in a response to the audit: "We largely agree with the audit's individual findings. We respectfully disagree with the over-arching conclusion that PUC fails to adequately ensure consumers' transportation safety." The agency's efforts "have not been trivial, nor a failure."
While the audit focused on the PUC's oversight of limos, buses and passenger vans, the agency doesn't inspect smaller limousines licensed to carry no more than seven passengers, like the Lincoln Town Car in last year's fire. This newspaper reported days after the fire that no state agency performs safety inspections for smaller limousines and has no rules governing the conversion of regular-size cars into stretch limos, which often occurs in private garages where they are cut in half and lengthened with a long passenger cabin.
In light of the audit, Corbett questioned whether the PUC could enforce a bill she sponsored last year in response to the bridge fire that requires all limousines to have emergency exits, including older model cars that require retrofits. The bodies of the women who died in the burning limo were found crowded around the front of the car's passenger compartment trying to follow four survivors who crawled one-by-one through the only exit: a small rectangular opening to the driver's seat.
"I am worried that if on-site visits aren't being conducted, we might not have the oversight to enforce these important regulations," Corbett said. "I am going to be watching the PUC very closely."
She also questioned whether the commission could handle regulating cars-for-hire through Internet sites like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar.
The president of the Greater California Livery Association, Rich Azzolino, who opposed Corbett's safety bill, did not return phone calls Tuesday.
Auditors also found that the PUC often fails to complete investigations and issue fines in a timely way, averaging a 46-day wait to begin investigations after receiving a rider complaint and taking 238 days on average to complete it. Eight of 40 cases that were audited took more than a year to complete.
The audit also found fines are not issued on a timely basis and are often less than the maximum amount allowed. In one instance, a $12,000 fine was issued for a fatal van accident when a $20,000 fine could have been levied. In other cases, no fines were issued even through safety violations were found to have occurred.
After the limo fire, the PUC fined San Jose-based Limo Stop $7,500 because the limo was carrying nine passengers -- two beyond its limit. Investigators blamed the fire on "catastrophic failure of the rear suspension system" that caused the car to drop onto its drive shaft. The resulting friction ignited carpeting in the passenger compartment, which quickly filled with black smoke. No criminal charges were filed. It could not be immediately determined Tuesday if the PUC fine has been collected.
Follow Thomas Peele at Twitter.com/Thomas_Peele.