and Joshua Melvin
SAN FRANCISCO -- In the wake of last weekend's limousine fire that killed five women, California Public Utilities Commission members on Thursday called for tighter safety regulations, including annual inspections and rules governing how stretch limos are built.
"This terrible accident has made me aware that there seems to be a gap here in coverage that is a significant concern," commission President Michael Peevey said at a PUC meeting.
This newspaper reported Wednesday that the state doesn't perform safety inspections for smaller limousines the way it does for buses and for-hire vans. It also has no rules specifying how regular-sized cars can be turned into stretch limos in private garages, where they are cut in half and lengthened with a long passenger cabin -- a process safety experts say adds stress to critical components such as fuel lines and electrical wiring.
The Saturday night fire in a 1999 Lincoln Town Car on the San Mateo Bridge near Foster City remains under investigation by the PUC and California Highway Patrol, authorities said Thursday. No cause of the blaze, which appeared to start in the rear of the car owned by Limo Stop Inc. of San Francisco and San Jose, has been made public.
The five women killed were part of a bachelorette party. The driver and four women, two of whom suffered severe injuries, were able to escape.
The conversion of popular luxury models like Lincoln Town Cars and Cadillacs into stretch limos creates the "potential for additional risk and (the vehicles are) not inspected by anyone," Commissioner Mark Ferron said.
Commissioner Catherine Sandoval said that if "inspections would be helpful" the Legislature should give the PUC "the authority and the resources" to do them.
The comments came the day after state lawmakers continued to rip the PUC for a lax attitude on safety, and commission Executive Director Paul Clanon admitted at a Sacramento hearing that he didn't know if stretch limos were inspected after being converted. They aren't.
The CHP performs annual inspections on limos designed to take 10 or more passengers -- vehicles that state regulations technically consider to be buses.
Clanon told commissioners on Thursday that any regulatory changes should wait until the cause of Saturday night's inferno is known. "We don't know yet what caused this fire, and a proper risk analysis depends on knowing the facts first," he said.
On Thursday, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, a commission critic, said the PUC provides only "negligible oversight" over the limousine business. Hill is likely to introduce legislation Friday to require fire extinguishers in limos, and Hill said he will probably add other safety provisions to the legislation.
Like the deadly 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion, it takes a "disaster to show" the commission's regulatory shortcomings, Hill said.
In an interview Thursday, former CHP Commissioner Spike Helmick also called for numerous measures to make limos safer, including annual safety inspections.
"There is no reason not to do it," said Helmick, who led the CHP from 1995 to 2004. "There shouldn't be a magic number of passengers" to trigger inspections because limos "are for-hire vehicles just like buses."
Helmick said he would endorse other safety measures that transportation experts say may have helped the women in the limo, including a third door at the front of the passenger compartment, an intercom to reach the driver, mandatory fire extinguishers and an alarm system.
"I mean, what if you are having a heart attack back there," Helmick said.
The driver of the limo said earlier this week that when the women yelled to him over loud music that there was smoke in the passenger compartment that he thought they were asking if it was OK to smoke cigarettes, so he didn't immediately stop.
The vice president of a state limousine-owner association said Thursday that the industry would welcome reforms.
"We would back any new regulations that concern safety," said Rich Azzolino, vice president of the Greater California Livery Association.