News 3 Investigates who’s behind the wheel of Wisconsin limousines

News 3 Investigates who’s behind the wheel of Wisconsin limousines

A little more than a month after a tragic limousine crash near Chicago killed a Monona woman and seriously injured two others, federal investigators said the driver shouldn’t have been driving and the company didn’t have any insurance.

News 3 looked into what consumers need to know before booking a limo and how to ensure the company driving you for some of life’s biggest events is safe and reputable.

Wisconsin State Patrol officials said there has been an increase in recent years of limo companies flying under the radar.

Sgt. Mark Abrahamson, of the Motor Carrier Enforcement Investigation Unit, said the limo crash near Chicago in March immediately got his attention.

“When I did see the news footage of that crash, obviously my heart dropped,” Abrahamson said.

The Illinois State Police said the limo was carrying six passengers when it overturned on the highway near O’Hare airport. The limo driver reported being blinded by the sun.

Terri Schmidt of Monona, a successful businesswoman, was killed in the crash and two other passengers were seriously injured.

“I had to ask myself, ‘Did I do everything that I can, did the state do everything it can to try to educate individuals and educate the carriers on safety?” Abrahamson said.

Lyons Limousine, the company carrying the group from Madison to O’Hare, didn’t have insurance or even an active corporate filing with the state.

The driver, 20-year-old Aaron Nash, had a driving record that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said should have kept him off the road. The FMCSA issued an “Imminent Hazard” order for Lyons in April.

Abrahamson said the company was still operating because it was never reported or observed violating a law.

“Had we had some intervention, just some intervention whether it be a roadside inspection, a complaint or other knowledge this individual was operating in that manner and we would have intervened,” Abrahamson said.

Limo companies, or so-called “passenger carriers,” must meet a number of requirements. Operators need “motor carrier authority” to cross state lines and “passenger carrier authority” to drive within Wisconsin borders.

Operators are also required to carry a minimum amount of commercial insurance, $1.5 million for vehicles carrying less than 16 passengers and $5 million for vehicles above 16 passengers.

All companies are given a federal DOT number, which is searchable online at SAFER web and on an app called SAFER bus. Results show whether a company is allowed to drive across state lines and whether it’s had any safety or maintenance violations.

The site can be a resource for a company’s history, but the trouble is that it doesn’t show whether a company can operate in Wisconsin.

Take Abracadabra Limousine out of Albany. Its SUV limo took a group of Columbus students to the Capitol Square last year for prom. When they got to the square, the students in the back reported the vehicle getting hot, and ultimately the engine started on fire, with smoke that could be seen for miles.

After an investigation by the FMCSA, on SAFER web the company is listed as “out of service” after some $30,000 in fines for safety violations. But Abrahamson confirms the company still has authority to drive in Wisconsin.

“In the state of Wisconsin, the company does have the minimum insurance requirements for our state and they do have our intrastate operating authority called PC authority,” Abrahamson said. “So if they have those items, we allow them to continue to operate unless they eventually evince certain unsafe practices or unsafe operation.”

How could you as a consumer confirm that? News 3 finds that you can’t. There is no database or place to search companies in Wisconsin that have authority to carry passengers solely for intrastate trips.

Gallant Knight Limousine owner Larry Epstein said in 20 years of operation, he’s found consumers don’t ask many questions when booking their limo.

“I’ll have people say to me, ‘I’ve never done this before’ when they call and I say, ‘We’ll help you through it,'” Epstein said.

Epstein suggests running that DOT number on SAFER Web, but also ask how long a company has been in business, how old their vehicles are and ask to see their proof of insurance.

Consumers can also ask who the driver will be and check their driving record in circuit court records. The State Patrol recommends checking reviews on Facebook or the Better Business Bureau.

But you may be asking why you need to do all this work. The federal government requires compliance reviews, so why is the state not doing the same finding any violators?

“The way that they come to our attention is through a complaint or an accident or roadside activity,” Abrahamson said.

Until a few months ago, the DOT didn’t have the authority to do proactive policing of passenger carriers. Wisconsin Act 135 was signed by Gov. Scott Walker in February, giving the State Patrol more control over the regulation of in-state carriers.

“Without that oversight, many of them felt like they didn’t have to comply until someone knocks on their door and requires them to comply,” Abrahamson said. “And that tool now is in place and we can be proactive.”

Until that effort ramps up, though, the best way to stay safe may be to ask questions and do research.

News 3 spoke to the owner of Abracadabra Limousine Monday. He said he’s taken steps to remedy his safety issues and is in the process of re-applying for federal motor carrier authority.

Lyons Limousine owners did not respond to our request for comment.