Taken for a ride
If you were thinking of hiring a stretch limousine for a special occasion you may check out the cost, the colour and the number of seats.
But, would you think of checking whether it's a safe way to travel? X-Ray investigates stretch limos operating illegally in Wales
The number of stretch limo companies operating in the UK has tripled in the past five years. In Wales alone there are hundreds of them. They're becoming a must for school proms, hen parties, birthdays and in fact any special occasion.
However, the rules which govern the licensing of limousines are a minefield. Different sizes of vehicles are licensed by different authorities which all adds to the confusion.
If a limousine has eight seats or fewer then it's usually licensed in a similar way to a taxi by the local authority. But the latest craze in limousines is large American Imports.
They can have up to 16 seats and because of this, they come under the same licensing category as a bus. Therefore getting a licence for one of these vehicles is far from straightforward.
By law, all limos which seat more than nine people have to pass a test in order to obtain a Certificate of Initial Fitness (COIF) to make sure that they're safe.
This is a legal requirement in order to get an Operators Licence. But most American Imports would automatically fail the test as they often don't meet British standards.
When Stephen Hollister imported his limousine from Florida, he knew that it would have to be adapted to comply with the law.
"The headlights had to be changed on the vehicle, all the glass around the vehicle had to be changed, the steering had to go through a greater turning circle and the seatbelts... which means we can now carry for hire and reward.
"On average it cost us about £10,000. We're here to stay, we've spent the money, we're fully licensed we've got nothing to worry about."
Whilst Stephen is now properly licensed, many companies aren't prepared to do the same. People who regulate the industry have always warned it would take a major accident before many limousine owners took safety seriously.
Back in April last year, a girls' night out almost ended in tragedy. Student Sian Barnett from Bristol was one of 13 passengers in a limousine, owned by Caldicot based company Go Stretch.
"We started to notice smoke coming out from inside the limo. So we decided to get out because it started to smell really bad.
"Because the smoke was so dense and thick we couldn't see where we were going, we had to lie down on the floor in order to breathe. You could hear the windows smashing and the tyres popping."
The fire was even more dangerous because the vehicle was fuelled with liquefied petroleum gas making an explosion more likely. This meant that when the fire brigade arrived they had to let the fire burn out.
Sian says: "To realise you could have potentially been killed on what was supposed to be a fun night out is really scary."
Go Stretch owners Scott and Julie Demaret already had a string of convictions for not having the correct licences. Last month the company was fined £5,000 in the magistrates court.
The driver was also fined almost £2,000 for, among other things, carrying too many passengers. Go Stretch is now operating under new ownership.
Sadly, there are many more companies out there operating illegally, hiring out limos which haven't met safety standards.
X-Ray spent a Friday night on the streets of Swansea with the Vehicle Operator Services Agency and South Wales Police as they tracked limos all over the city in a search and sting operation.
PC Gareth Owen & VOSA examiner Wayne Price found a vehicle which gave them cause for concern. A large pink limousine was pulled over and was carrying passengers including seven children.
Their findings revealed the vehicle was un-roadworthy: the tyre of the car was worn down to the cords and the front passenger seat was loose and not fully attached to the vehicle.
The police also discovered the limo did not have an operators licence or a COIF. But, they were unable to prosecute the owners on this matter because no-one who'd hired it was prepared to give evidence in court.
PC Gareth Owen is concerned about the increasing popularity in American Imports.
"They're designed for American roads not for UK roads like where we are this evening. We've seen the vehicle go up over the kerb tonight because it can't turn a corner and these are immense problems that come out of it."
In Swansea city centre PC Phil David pulled over another limousine. Part of his routine checks are to make searches on the Police National Database where he discovered that the vehicle had no insurance.
The vehicle was seized with immediate effect. Both officers have filed their findings for prosecution.
Even though many limousine companies get fined thousands for operating illegally they still carry on. In Wales, Traffic Commissioner Nick Jones admits the current laws aren't working effectively.
"The penalties for illegal operating result in fines, and sometimes the fines are quite high by the standards of the lay public, because they can be thousands of pounds. But that's merely a form of taxation.
"There's one particular company, not in my area, that's been prosecuted on eight separate occasions, but is still continuing to operate. Well that indicates that there are commercial benefits in continuing the illegal operation."
Until now, limo companies caught breaking the rules usually pay a fine and many continue to operate. But, a new law means that could soon change.
From October, limos without a COIF could be impounded or even crushed. But, until the new law comes into force, there may be many vehicles still operating outside of the law.
If you want to hire a stretch limousine then there are many legitimate operators out there. However, it's not always easy to find them especially if you're booking online or over the phone.
The best thing to do is ask if you can see the vehicle in person. This way you can check it has the appropriate licences.
If it is a Public Service Vehicle (nine seats or more) then there will be a disc on the windscreen with a licence number.
If it is a Public Hire Vehicle (eight seats or fewer) then there will be a traditional plate on the vehicle or alternatively a disc in the windscreen showing it is a private hire. If neither of the above applies then VOSA guidance is that the public should not use the vehicle.
The Traffic Commissioner has identified many ways in which illegal operators to try and get around the law. These include:
- Companies advertising in the Yellow Pages / Local Directories and on the internet often describe their vehicles in 'glowing' terms suggesting that they are safe. Often that is not the case.
- A common ruse utilised by operators is to claim that vehicles comply with Section 6 or Schedule 6. The Traffic Commissioner states that the use of references to Section 6 or Schedule 6 doesn't guarantee safety.
- Another ploy is to suggest that the operator is not in fact operating a limousine business but is hiring out the limousine to the public for use and is acting in the same way as any ordinary hire or self-drive company.
If you think an operator is acting illegally then you can call VOSA on: 0300 123 9000 or go to your local trading standards, or police, or VOSA office to complain.