Limo dangers: Who's behind the wheel?

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Limo rides are especially popular this time of year as students head to prom, but there's something parents should know before booking the ride.

Close calls and deadly crashes reveal the potential danger about who may be behind the wheel.

Luxury and safety are what most people expect when they book a limousine; after all, you're getting a professional driver. But not all companies obey regulations and it can take a tragedy to find that out.

The 2013 Oswego East Prom was supposed to be a magical night. But Carly Pasteris and dozens of her friends nearly didn't survive it.

"Relieved, I would say. Very relieved because we could have easily flipped the bus a couple times," Pasteris says.

Their party bus driver showed up late, Pasteris says, with no GPS or directions and after turning out of a Plainfield park, plowed over a median jolting everyone on board.

The bus then almost hit a couple cars, she says, while merging onto I-55. The drive wove in and out of lanes, apparently disoriented.

"Bloodshot eyes, slurring of words, not able to hold a conversation very well," she recalls.

Richard Madison would later plead guilty to a DUI charge. His blood alcohol level was nearly triple the legal limit.

"Professional drivers can show up drunk. Professional drivers can be on drugs. Professional drivers may not be licensed," transportation attorney Jeff Kroll said.

Kroll says not all limousine companies comply with regulations. In March, an O'Hare-bound stretch limo flipped over on I-90, killing one passenger and injuring others.

Officials say the 20-year-old driver had a suspended license and the Wisconsin-based company had no insurance.

"It doesn't take much for someone to buy a limo and hold themselves out as a limo company, a limo driver," Kroll said.

In fact, a search of Craigslist turned up dozens of limos for sale in the Chicago area.

Arthur Rento is owner of Pontarelli Limos, one of Chicago's oldest operators. He says companies often add less-experienced, seasonal drivers to meet prom demand. Pontarelli, by contrast, employs only year-round drivers.

"You need to have a safe, reliable driver. And people that drive every day for a living have history," Rento said.

Rento says to beware of operators that try to overload a stretch limo, and check near the rear door for a label showing capacity. And, look for a middle door which can allow for escape in a crash.

Last summer, a fatal T-bone collision near New York raised safety concerns about limos, which unlike standard vehicles, have never been thoroughly crash-tested.

Limos are made by cutting a vehicle in half, extending the framework and building out the middle. The structure has been modified, so there are going to be differences in front, side, and even rollover crashes," said Raul Arbelaez of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That modification is generally not done by the automaker but by a limo manufacturer. It can void the original warranty.

"Stretch limousines are a lot different than cars. You're taking a car that's designed to have a specific amount of weight. You're stretching it. You're adding bodies to it. They just don't hold up as long," Rento said.

Rento says do your homework before booking. Ask how long the company's been in business and for proof of insurance. You might also request a list of corporate clients. The Illinois Limousine Association website has a list of companies that meet the highest standards.

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