After a horrific limousine crash killed 20 people in upstate New York last fall, the Minnesota Department of Transportation assured the public that state regulations protect passengers if they hire a limo for a wedding, prom or other special event.

If a black-and-white MnDOT decal is affixed to a limo’s passenger-side windshield, that vehicle is supposed to have passed an annual safety inspection.

But from spring 2017 through early December last year, MnDOT issued decals to an unknown number of limousine operators, even though their vehicles had not been inspected.

MnDOT also did not audit even one limousine operator last year, according to data obtained by the Star Tribune through a public records request. Those audits focus on driver’s licenses, insurance, criminal history and health issues that could interfere with the safe operation of a vehicle. In 2017, there were just 13 audits for limousines operating throughout the state.

This was due to a “resource issue,” said Ted Coulianos, deputy director of commercial vehicle operations. He said MnDOT did not have enough inspectors to do the work and carriers complained about having to wait.

At no time was the traveling public advised of the agency’s apparent violation of its own policies.

In a primer posted online by the Office of Freight and Commercial Vehicle Operations, new limo drivers are advised, “Your vehicle may not be used to provide limousine service until it has been inspected and displays a valid decal.”

“We’ve just tightened up recently, being a little bit more clear about doing that inspection as early as possible,” Coulianos said. “Now we’re not issuing a decal … until we inspect it.”

For those limo operators who follow the rules, the New York crash and related media attention have proved frustrating.

“We’ve been around 28 years, we’re pretty specific about compliance and maintenance,” said Len Nelson of Valley Limo & Coach in Burnsville. “We typically don’t have the problems of people in the business who don’t have a lot of money to do the maintenance and slip through the cracks.

“We treat people like family,” he said.

Deadliest crash

The Schoharie, N.Y., tragedy was the deadliest transportation accident in the United States since the 2009 Colgan Air plane crash, which killed 50 people near Buffalo, N.Y., according to federal officials.

Investigators in New York determined that the modified supersized limo had failed a safety inspection a month before the crash and shouldn’t have been on the road. In addition, the driver wasn’t properly licensed.

The deadly limo appeared to slip through New York’s regulatory framework, but questions have inevitably surfaced about the myriad state and federal regulations overseeing the limousine-for-hire industry. The crash is still under investigation by the New York State Police and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Coulianos said it’s difficult for state highway departments to track limo operators if they choose to deliberately skirt the law. “Everybody points to the regulatory bodies, saying we don’t do our jobs, but in fact a lot of the time, we’re limited,” he said.

Closer to home, a serious crash involving a limo in Cottage Grove nearly five years ago resulted in eight passengers being injured, three seriously. The Eagan-based carrier did not have a permit with MnDOT, and the driver was not qualified to drive the vehicle.

Some scofflaws could be identified through impromptu roadside checks. MnDOT says it will occasionally partner with the State Patrol to check limo operators out in the field, especially during major events such as the Super Bowl. But Coulianos said, “it’s not something we’re required to do, so it’s not always at the top of our priority list.”

‘Resource issue’

In Minnesota, limousines are defined as vehicles transporting up to 15 people, including the driver. The New York limo, which was ferrying 18 people including the driver, would have been classified in Minnesota as a “motor carrier of passengers.” Those vehicles are generally bigger, and include party buses, motor coaches, larger limos and vans.

Both kinds of vehicles-for-hire must undergo annual inspections and audits by MnDOT. The larger vehicles may be inspected by independent mechanics and the State Patrol.

Once an operator pays $150 for a permit, an inspection involves a review of a vehicle’s braking, exhaust and fuel systems, steering mechanism, suspension and frame.

Annual audits include a check of drivers’ criminal background and proof of insurance, and whether they are cleared medically to operate the vehicle. But there were zero audits of 327 limo companies in 2018, and 31 audits of 325 motor carrier operators.

MnDOT says the “resource issue” dates to 2015 when a new law required inspections of nonemergency medical transportation vehicles. That resulted in 1,681 additional inspections the following year.

The department did not have enough staff to handle the increased workload and “it has taken time to post, hire and train” new inspectors to help out, Coulianos said. Five new inspectors did join MnDOT two years later, but one has since left.

The change in the number of inspections and audits could also be attributed to “the general ebb and flow of business,” Coulianos said.

Nationally, the limousine industry experienced robust growth through the early 2000s, but business plummeted during the Great Recession, according to the Transportation Research Board. Then, ride-sharing firms Uber and Lyft burst onto the local scene in 2012.

Since then, however, the number of limousines registered with MnDOT increased 73 percent, while the number of bigger vehicles remained flat.

Annual inspections?

Laura Roads, a staff attorney at MnDOT, said the department is not legally required to inspect a vehicle before issuing a decal. The wording of the state’s administrative rule is vague, saying the “commissioner shall annually inspect a limousine for which a decal has been issued.”

“It makes sense practically speaking that the decal is good for a year, the inspection is good for a year, so in an ideal world those two things would be matched up at the same time,” Roads said. “But in the past, that wasn’t always the case.”

A violation of MnDOT rules could result in a fine of up to $1,000, and the operator may have a permit suspended or revoked. In the past two years, MnDOT has suspended or revoked 283 permits. MnDOT lists the records of companies on its website.

“We always remind people that they’re paying for the service,” said Jane Terry, senior director of government affairs at the National Safety Council. “If they feel unsafe, they should feel empowered to say something to the driver and the company that operates the limousine, and find a different way to get where they need to go.”