Is Houston’s Limousine Oversight Adequate?

by Terry Bryant

After the horrific limousine accident in New York in early October, legitimate questions are being raised all over the country about the stretch limos cruising our roads, how safe they are, and how safe the entire “for hire” ride industry is in general. In the terrible upstate New York limo crash, which killed 20 people, investigators discovered the vehicle had failed recent inspections and the driver was not yet fully certified to drive the vehicle. It also raised questions about the aftermarket modification of standard-wheelbase vehicles into “super-sized stretch limos.”

Unless a limo crosses state lines, it cannot be regulated by the federal government. So licensing and oversight is left to the individual states. In Texas, that responsibility is kicked down to individual municipalities. In the Houston area, just about all of the surrounding communities defer to the City of Houston to inspect and certify limousines.

The New York tragedy is also causing Houston residents to ask some very pointed questions when they are looking to hire a limousine, such as:

  • Is the limousine currently licensed by the City of Houston?
  • Has it passed a City inspection?
  • Is the company which owns and operates it licensed and in good standing with the City?
  • How old is the limousine which will transport me/us?

There are over 2,000 licensed, inspected, and certified limousines for hire in the Houston area. State law allows some “stretch” limos to carry up to 15 passengers, and their permits are supposed to be displayed on the windshield. The same general regulations apply to privately-owned buses which transport for hire.

Not every limo operation which offers “luxury rides” online (websites, Facebook, etc.) is fully licensed; nor do they have all required city permits. This subjects them to fines of up to $500 per incident, per day. And these “gypsy” limo companies have a poor chance of being properly insured because they must be fully permitted if they hope to qualify for legitimate liability coverage.

The City of Houston requires every for-hire limo within its city limits to pass an inspection before going into service and repeat that annually for as long as it operates as a for-hire vehicle. It was recently revealed that almost 50 limos have failed at least one inspection in Houston in the past two years.  Some of the reasons for those failed inspections included:

The City also limits a limo’s operating life span to 10 years from its make and model date.

City inspectors use a 20-point annual inspection checklist to ensure passenger safety and road worthiness of limousines for hire. If an inspector finds a problem with even one item on the list, the vehicle automatically fails its inspection and cannot operate as a “for hire” vehicle until the problem is fixed and the vehicle passes a complete re-inspection.

So, how do you know the limo – and the company which you are about to hire – is fully licensed, with vehicles which are fully permitted and safe?  You won’t find it on the City of Houston’s website, although, in light of the New York tragedy, the City plans to put some records on its website sometime in 2019, according to the City’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department.

Until then, the best way to know about the company is to ask it whether the limo it plans to send has current City of Houston permits. And then, don’t get in until you check for a current limousine permit and inspection sticker on the vehicle. It should be a big blue sticker, and underneath that is an inspection sticker which tells you the date the City of Houston actually inspected and checked your limo for safety. Limo inspection stickers change color every year so you can easily tell if it’s current. In 2019, City of Houston limo inspection stickers’ color will change to yellow.