Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, 13th District, introduced a motion on Sept. 16 to crack down on tour bus companies in Hollywood after allegations surfaced about reckless driving, missing or non-functioning seatbelts and other safety violations.
O’Farrell called for the city to look into regulating tour bus operators, which are currently overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The motion was partly prompted by an NBC4 report in August in which undercover reporters rode on tour buses and witnessed the alleged violations, said Tony Arranaga, communications director for O’Farrell. The safety violations primarily pertain to smaller tour vehicles that often line Hollywood Boulevard such as vans altered by having the roof cut off. The motion is one of many efforts O’Farrell is making to curb the “circus-like atmosphere” on Hollywood Boulevard, Arranaga added.
“Los Angeles is a global destination. While we welcome visitors from across the world, it’s important that the city maintain its priority to provide a positive quality of life for its residents,” O’Farrell said. “When it comes to sightseeing bus operators, commonly found in Hollywood, a lack of local control is creating a dangerous situation for those who live and visit this part of the 13th District and our neighboring communities.”
The motion will next be heard by a council’s transportation committee and a report is expected in 60 days. Councilman David Ryu, 4th District, has also been working on better regulating tour bus companies and seconded O’Farrell’s motion, said Estevan Montemayor, communications director for Ryu.
“It’s become very clear to our office and constituents that there are some rogue tour bus companies who could care less about the safety of passengers and those around them, and that is absolutely unacceptable,” Montemayor said.
The PUC oversees tour companies operating in the state and works with the California Highway Patrol to conduct annual vehicle inspections, said Constance Gordon, information officer for the PUC. The PUC and CHP also investigate allegations of safety violations, but it is primarily complaint-driven, Gordon added.
Calls and emails to the CHP requesting information were not returned. The councilmen and local residents contend the checks are not conducted frequently enough.
Det. Olin Osborne, with the Los Angeles Police Department’s West Traffic Division, said officers monitor tour buses for violations, but must defer to the CHP and PUC for inspections and investigations. The LAPD issues citations when violations are found, and officers frequently check to make sure the vehicles have permits and the drivers are licensed for commercial vehicles. He said there is a potential for serious problems, particularly if seatbelts are not available or functioning.
“Even at slower speeds, if you have someone stand up to take a picture or something and they hit the brakes, someone can easily get ejected out of the vehicle,” Osborne said. “Some folks hate regulations, but without them, it’s chaos out there.”
Anastasia Mann, president of the Hollywood Hills Neighborhood Council, agreed with Osborne. She has been trying for three years to get stronger regulations for tour bus companies who frequently drive the narrow roads in the Hollywood Hills and cause congestion.
In addition to a lack of seatbelts, the allegations against some tour companies include vehicles driving on roads on which they are prohibited because of weight restrictions, speeding and failure to obey other traffic laws. Mann also said issues have arisen because tour bus drivers falsely point out homes as belonging to celebrities. There have been reports about people loitering and breaking into residences in the Hollywood Hills because they have been falsely told by a tour bus driver that a celebrity lives there.
“There are all kinds of problems. The vehicles have no safety controls, and we don’t know how many are insured,” Mann said. “People’s lives are at risk.”
Bob Mansell, a Mulholland Drive resident for 21 years, said he frequently witnesses tour bus drivers stopping on the side of the road and allowing passengers to get out to take photographs at scenic outlooks along Mullholland Drive.
“To me, the biggest problem is the safety of the tourists,” Mansell said. “These tour buses go up and drop passengers off. I see four- and five-year-old kids crossing Mulholland behind their parents. It’s just an accident waiting to happen. There needs to be more regulation. Just the sheer number of vans that come up on a weekend day is amazing.”
Mann and Mansell said they are pushing state and federal legislators to pass new laws to rein in tour companies. The National Transportation Safety Administration recently mailed letters to tour bus companies in Hollywood alerting them that they can be subject to fines if they do not comply with safety regulations.
Some tour bus operators in Hollywood said they welcome more regulations. They include Starline Tours, which requires passengers to wear seatbelts on its buses.
“I am so happy to hear [about calls for regulations] because there are some mavericks out there,” said Farid Hatami, human relations manager for Starline Tours. “We do have a variety of tours and different types of vehicles, and have a stringent protocol on safety. All the buses have seatbelts. The trouble you see is with the smaller vans.”
Jeff Napshin, owner of Star Track Tours said his company uses Ford vans converted into “open air” vehicles, but there is a permanent canopy on top to protect guests from the elements and provide added safety in case of a collision. Star Track Tours began operating in 2014 and has three vans. The NBC report singled out Star Track Tours for a lack of permitting and safety violations.
“Every tour van seat has a working seatbelt and we encourage our guests to use them on every tour. Because of the congested driving conditions in Hollywood and Los Angeles, seatbelt safety is critically important,” Napshin said. “Star Track Tours meets all state licensing requirements and has a spotless safety record. We believe the current regulations are adequate for the safety of our guests. However, the annual CHP inspection required of all tour vehicles is the time and place where any problems can be discovered and fixed. We believe this should be the focus of any new regulations.”
O’Farrell is calling for the city to examine “best practices” used by tour companies in other cities, and consideration of whether more local, state or federal regulations will better protect the public.
“[The councilman] wants to explore what would have to happen for the city to take over enforcement of tour buses,” Arranaga said. “There is a potential for problems, especially when the van doesn’t have a roof and there are no seatbelts.”