Sobering changes coming to party bus operators

VICTORIA — There will soon be stricter oversight to the so-called "party bus" services popular among young people attending graduation parties and night clubs.

Provincial Transportation Minister Todd Stone announced Thursday (Feb. 26) that an overhaul of limousine licensing will require companies providing these services to go through an inspection and display a special plate alerting police of their designation.

"This is a positive change that significantly increases safety in British Columbia’s limousine industry by making operators more accountable and by allowing for stronger enforcement," said Stone. "This is about ensuring the regulations are more effecting in protecting the travelling public."

The party bus industry has come under scrutiny in recent years not only due to its growing popularity among groups looking for a safe way to drink without driving, but because two young people died while using the service.

Sixteen-year-old Maple Ridge teen Shannon Raymond died in 2008 after drinking alcohol and then boarding a party bus, where she took a fatal dose of the street drug MDMA, commonly known as Ecstasy.

And only two years ago another 16-year-old boy, Ernest Azah Azoadam, collapsed on board a party bus in Surrey. He died of "undetermined causes" although toxicology tests found ethyl alcohol in his blood and evidence of prior use of marijuana.

In an Oct. 30, 2014 B.C. Supreme Court decision surrounding a "bloody and senseless" Cloverdale brawl involving severely intoxicated teenagers, the Crown argued the incident "screams" for greater regulation and oversight of the industry.

A charter bus carrying about 50 young people during an after-grad celebration made a pit stop at a Husky Station late on July 18, 2012, when a violent confrontation took place with a 22-year-old Surrey motorist.

"This case is a tragic example of what can happen when underaged teens are allowed to get drunk on ‘party buses,’" Crown prosecutor Winston Sayson said at the time.

Tommy Cuscito, owner and operator of Vancouver Party Bus, with 13 vehicles in his fleet serving all of Metro Vancouver including Surrey, said the changes will likely "weed out" businesses with poor oversight.

He said the license will create a more "level playing field," adding his prices were competitively disadvantaged because he pays more money to ensure underage clients are safe.

"That was one of my Achilles Heels, because I was one of the more expensive party buses because I provide chaperones and make sure things meet and exceed what the government has asked us to do," he said.

Cuscito’s company provides male and female chaperones for underage clients to make sure they’re not bringing anything illegal into the party bus or limo.

While he acknowledged the changes to licensing were likely due to the deaths of young people, Cuscito was quick to defend his service.

"Those two deaths that occurred on the party buses had nothing to do with the party bus. Those two deaths could have happened at a movie theatre. They could happen at a roller rink, ice rink, that could happen right in the middle of someone’s living room."

Cuscito said the incidents were "isolated" and have nothing to do with the party bus industry or operators who "work hard trying to make it safe and fun" for clients.

Companies who are currently allowed to operate limousines or party buses now have until May 1 to get a "Special Authorization" license from the province’s Passenger Transportation Board. Cuscito said the one-month time frame is short considering the number of vehicles and companies that will suddenly need these new license plates.

"Hopefully they’re on board and they try to help us here. Because if we put in an application they could take weeks to do one."

Stone said the changes eliminate the competitive advantage limousine operators had previously, which allowed them to set rates, work anywhere in the province and add vehicles to their fleet at any time. The new license will require rates, areas of operation and fleet size to be regulated by the board and applicants will be subject to a review process prior to approval.

— files from Tom Zytaruk

amacnair@thenownewpaper.com 

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