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BC Government is "looking into options to tighten Limo and Party Buses licence requirements to promote safety.01 Jan 2001

A Maple Ridge mother whose daughter died after an evening on a "party bus" five years ago is asking the provincial transportation minister to explain why the government has not strengthened rules governing the industry after promising to take action.

A Maple Ridge mother whose daughter died after an evening on a "party bus" five years ago is asking the provincial transportation minister to explain why the government has not strengthened rules governing the industry after promising to take action nearly nine months ago.

"I felt something was going to happen in March, but here I sit today still with nothing and other incidents have happened that have jeopardized the safety of people on those buses," Julie Raymond, whose 16-year-old daughter Shannon died in 2008, said in a recent interview.

Raymond, who is concerned that young people may drink on party buses on New Year's Eve, wrote a letter to Transportation Minister Todd Stone earlier this month demanding answers.

"(Former Transportation Minister Mary) Polak had made a public commitment that she would make changes to the industry, even making such a bold statement if the industry was even necessary," Raymond's letter said.

She asked to meet with Stone to discuss "changes to regulations so no other mother ... will have that same nightmare unfold at their front door like it did for me."

The Sun requested an interview with Stone or a deputy minister to discuss the party bus industry, but the transportation ministry said no one was available.

Instead, the ministry emailed brief answers to some of The Sun's questions.

The government is "looking into options to tighten licence requirements to promote safety," the email states, but provided no specifics.
Raymond is not alone in asking for changes to party bus rules, after several young people have died or fallen into medical distress after riding on - and usually drinking in - the large, fancy limousines.

Tommy Cuscito, longtime owner of Vancouver Party Buses and Limousines, also has written to Stone, asking him to tighten the rules to weed out some of the new, unsafe operators who have given his industry a bad name in recent years. "At least 50 per cent are not playing by the rules. The unfortunate reality is it is so easy now to obtain a general authorization licence to operate a limo or bus. It is practically turnkey. There are no background checks," Cuscito said.

"Government right now has their blinders on. I think they should open their eyes and realize these challenges aren't going to go away."
It is against the law in B.C. to have open liquor in a vehicle.

Cuscito puts a chaperon on party buses when the clientele is younger than 19 to try to ensure the passengers are not drinking alcohol they have snuck on. Clearly, Cuscito said, not all companies are doing that, especially some smaller operations that often don't have office space but park their few buses in driveways.

Cuscito also would like B.C. to follow in the footsteps of Saskatchewan to allow law-abiding companies to apply for liquor licences for trips with adult patrons.

The reality is, he said, most adults want to drink when they rent these vehicles, and this way it would be sanctioned.

According to Saskatchewan's liquor laws, a limo or party bus can apply for a "special use" liquor permit but must not serve alcohol outside provincial borders and cannot make alcohol sales its primary business. The B.C. government email, however, kiboshed following Saskatchewan's lead.

"The B.C. government is not considering licensing party buses to include alcohol as part of their service," states an email from Lisanne Bowness, a transportation ministry spokeswoman.

Polak, the former transportation minister, raised Raymond's hopes in February, when she talked tough about changes to the party bus industry after 16-year-old passenger Ernest Azoadam was found dying at a Surrey gas station.

Ernest's death sparked wide debate about underage drinking on these luxury vehicles. Even though the coroner eventually ruled Ernest's death was not linked to alcohol or drug use, Surrey RCMP said there had been evidence of alcohol on the bus and issued some motor-vehicle infractions against the company, Favori Limousine Services Inc.

Following the death, Polak organized a meeting between her staff and about a dozen industry representatives, but little change has occurred since then. The government email states staff at the meeting emphasized liquor and transportation rules, and "and the seriousness of non-compliance."

Bowness's email also states the registrar of the passenger transportation branch met with Favori officials Dec. 3 after another incident on one of its buses "to review the company's practices."

The investigation continues into that case, involving MacKenzie Gortva, 17, of Surrey, she wrote.

On Nov. 9, Gortva said she was invited onto a party bus and served free liquor, seriously assaulted by a passenger and abandoned by the bus driver at an Abbotsford truck stop. A customer had rented the bus and its driver from Favori, which had no business
licence at the time.

Other recent incidents involving party buses include: Feb. 22, 2013: A teen was taken to the hospital with a "dangerously high level of intoxication" after riding a party bus in Port Moody. Police found alcohol in the vehicle.

January 2012: A 15-year-old boy was left at the side of a Kelowna street after getting drunk on a party bus. The bus's owner was charged with motor vehicle violations after the RCMP found open liquor.

Sept. 14, 2012: A fight erupted on a party bus in Delta after one of the passengers sprayed others with bear spray. An ambulance crew and Delta firefighters helped those hit by the spray.

July 18, 2012: Five teens were sent to hospital when some of the 50 Surrey high school graduates on a party bus got into a brawl in a Cloverdale gas station parking lot.

March 3, 2012: Several Langley teens were treated for minor injuries after riders on two party buses got into a fight at a strip mall. One person was taken to hospital suffering from excessive alcohol consumption.

Jan. 21, 2012: Kelowna police stopped a party bus that contained a dance floor, a stripper pole and people drinking "copious amounts" of alcohol.

Todd Curley, general manager of Phat Cat Limousine, which opened in 2001, said the industry has been "spiralling out of control" for about three years. He blames that on the Liberal government deregulating the industry in 2004, making it easier for people with just one bus to rent it to customers.

In recent years, Curley said, the number of limo companies in B.C. has grown to 400 from roughly 100.

Both he and Cuscito say business sales, especially since Ernest's death in February, have dropped by half because people believe the entire industry is unsafe.

Curley sent an email last week to Stone, asking him to toughen up licensing rules.

"We need help here. The bottom line here is safety and we need this expedited," said Curley, who is on the executive of the new B.C. Limousine Association. "We want this dealt with before someone else gets hurt."

Curley also would like to see other changes, such as passengers being fined when they are caught drinking on a party bus, instead of the drivers.

Right now, he said, some drivers are hesitant to phone police when passengers won't stop drinking because the law says the driver is legally responsible.

Since MacKenzie Gortva was abandoned by a party bus in Abbotsford last month, police in that city have made a checklist to remind patrol officers of party bus rules: no dancing or excessive walking about when the vehicle is moving; a licence must be displayed on the front window; no open liquor; and no over-crowding.

The document also advises officers what to do for each type of violation, said spokesman Const. Ian MacDonald. Danielle Raymond has joined her mother Julie in a crusade to try to reduce drinking on buses, especially involving young people, since her sister Shannon died in 2008 after taking ecstasy for the first time on a party bus.

She pointed out the website of one local company, Vancouver LX Limo, advertises that all its party buses have "full size bars" with ice buckets, wine glasses and champagne flutes. The fine print on the website adds: "Law prohibits complimentary alcohol - passengers are welcome to bring their choice of beverages."

Danielle Raymond also challenges some of the marketing used by the industry, arguing that party buses are not a safe ride home from a night out drinking as they typically take passengers back to a central meeting spot, not directly to their houses.
The recent case involving MacKenzie Gortva, Danielle said, should put pressure on the government to crack down on those companies not following industry rules.

She also hopes young people, in particular, will make good choices this New Year's Eve if they decide to celebrate on a party bus.
"There is always a huge pressure to party on new year's, and when you have a bunch of underage kids, you can have something really disastrous happen."

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