Party's over for big limos

They're ubiquitous on Britain's streets – and many may be running illegally. But as a crackdown looms, legitimate operators fear they'll be driven out of business. By Jerome Taylor and Nigel Morris

They are the behemoths of bling: lumbering metal status symbols gloriously pimped, filled with flashing lights, neon bars, heavy bass beats and screaming revellers who can now arrive in the kind of style that was once available only to Hollywood stars and the superrich.

Whether it's the chrome-covered Hummers of hip-hop lore that take your fancy or gaudy pink stretch Chryslers, limousines are as much a feature of the average British city centre on a Friday night as the hordes of partygoers who increasingly choose to travel in them.

Time could be running out, though, for the thousands of stretches that cruise through towns packed to the rafters with clubbers, stags, hens and excitable teenagers for as little as £200 a night. Council chiefs are preparing a crackdown on the giant vehicles amid fears that many do not comply with road safety legislation. The Local Government Association (LGA) estimates that 40 per cent of the 11,000 limousines on Britain's roads, particularly those vehicles built to hold more than eight people, are unlicensed and operating illegally.

In what some limo companies fear will become a damaging development, the LGA announced yesterday that councils will link up with police to increase roadside spot checks and haul the illegal limousines off the road – raising the prospect of some alcohol-fuelled revellers being decanted on to the pavement some distance from their next watering hole.

Legitimate operators warn that the majority of limousines will end up being classified as illegal because the legislation makes it all but impossible for many vehicles to comply.

They have vowed to begin protesting against what they believe is unfair treatment of an otherwise flourishing industry. At Ascot on Thursday, after ferrying thousands of racegoers to Ladies Day, more than 500 limo drivers will take a short break from chauffeuring to hold a summit outside the famous racecourse to discuss how they can lobby the Government. There are fledgling plans to hold a "go slow" protest by driving en masse into London, similar to the demonstration by lorry drivers last month.

The remarkable rise in popularity of the giant American-style stretch limos over the past 10 years has caused concern in government circles that the largely unregulated industry has got out of hand, with many companies allowing more passengers into their cars than is legal and safe.

Police have warned of the danger of youngsters hanging out of the windows of vehicles. There also are fears that a small but growing number of illegally run limo companies are operated by criminal gangs that simply ignore safety legislation, fail to pay insurance and in some instances simply weld together previously written-off cars to turn unsafe vehicles into "luxury" people carriers.

With up to 11,000 stretch limos operating in Britain their popularity shows

no signs of waning and about 5,000 new cars are expected to join the national fleet by the end of next year.

Under current British law any car which carries fewer than eight people, including a limousine, can be licensed by the local council as a taxi. But problems begin with the much larger American-style vehicles that are usually shipped in from abroad and have become by far the most popular style of limousine on the roads, particularly for teenagers.

As these larger limousines have the capability to carry more than eight people – some of the largest have space for 30 revellers – the Government's Vehicle & Operator Services Agency (Vosa) treats them as passenger carrying vehicles and, like a bus, they require a special licence and a certificate that proves they are safe. Assessment criteria includes adequate turning circles and headroom, as well as access to fire escapes and fire extinguishers, which only a small number of the most recent models incorporate.

"The party is over for illegally operated stretched limos," declared David Sparks, the LGA's transport spokesman, yesterday. "While many limousine operators conduct their business in a safe fashion, we will crack down on the reckless minority who put passengers and pedestrians in serious danger.

"Our message to parents is: don't swap style for safety when you book a stylish limo for your son or daughter's prom." Over the past two years Vosa inspectors have begun carrying out random spot checks to ensure that the rules are being followed, while the number of prosecutions against limousine operators is increasing.

Those caught face heavy fines. In August last year, a Bradford businessman, Muhammad Saleem Nawaz, was fined £14,200 and given 31 points on his licence. Chauffeurs were found to be driving without insurance, using fraudulent registration plates, most of which did not have the relevant certification to be used as a limousine.

A quick check of limousine companies online reveals how the majority openly advertise enormous vehicles.

One online limousine company, Style Limos, advertises among its fleet two 16-passenger Hummer H2 limousines and a larger 18-seater Hummerzine, a model undergoing tests to see whether or not it can apply for the required safety certificate.

Those legitimate operators who believe that they are being victimised by the Government are angry that vehicles they have spent large amounts of money legally importing into the country may now be deemed illegal and impounded. They say operators like Mr Nawaz are in the minority and that most companies are desperately trying to find a way to comply with safety legislation without resorting to selling off all their larger American limousines.

Dan Rosemeyer, a limo operator from South Wales, has spent more than £500,000 in two years on his fleet of seven cars, all of which can carry more than eight people. He believes the Government should never have allowed him to import the cars.

"The whole thing has got way out of proportion," he says. "When I imported my cars the DVLA registered the vehicles when they came into the country, they took VAT and import duty and I paid for the MOT. Now they want to take them off the road completely, it's absurd."

He added: "We've all been tarnished with the same brush – that we're all drug dealers and criminals. I'm not saying there aren't a few rogue operators out there but most us just want to make a legal living. We want to be regulated and licensed but we just keep getting told our vehicles don't comply. If we don't start fighting for this industry it will disappear altogether."

Another limousine owner who works in Birmingham but preferred to remain anonymous said: "I spent £10,000 recently on upgrading one of my cars so that it complied with all the safety legislation and was still pulled over and told it didn't meet the requirements.

"The cowboy operators wouldn't have even bothered with any of the necessary upgrades and yet it's the honest drivers like me that are taking a hammering. None of us are going to complain if the Government goes after the real crooks but don't close down honest businesses who are just trying to make a living."

Limousine operators are so worried about the future of their industry that they have began forming organisations to lobby the Government for clearer guidelines.

Earlier this year a petition was handed into Downing Street signed by more than 200 companies calling on the Government to work "with this industry instead of against" it. Meanwhile, membership of the National Limousine and Chauffeur Association, the official trade body, has almost tripled in the past three years.

Bill Bowling, the association's licensing officer, said: "We make sure our drivers are Criminal Record Bureau-checked, vehicles are properly licensed and that limos have checks every 10 weeks. There has not been a passenger fatality in a limousine in the UK to date, however, what we all wish to achieve is more, better and specific legislation for limousines."

Paul Gibson, the owner of the industry's trade publication, Chauffeur magazine, believes the Government needs to provide clearer laws to govern the limousine industry.

"The problem is that there is no consistent black-and-white law to say what's legal and what isn't," he says. "We've come across loads of cases recently where cars have been taken off the road and impounded and then when the operator took them in for safety checks they were found to be completely compliant. We would support any legal crackdown on truly illegal activity but most drivers are happy to comply with the rules and actively want to do so."

Next stop: Ascot.

Taking a long drive

There are 11,000 limousines operating in the UK with an extra 5,000 expected over the next 12 months.

The Government says that up to 40 per cent of all limousines are illegal, the majority will be those that carry more than eight people.

The largest classic American stretch limos, usually based on a Lincoln or Cadillac, carry up to 16 people. The newer generation of stretched off-roaders such as Lincoln Navigators – and Hummers – can take up to 30 passengers.

A spot check of London limousines by police in 2004 found that half were breaking the law.

A similar investigation by police in Southampton in 2006 forced a quarter of the entire city's limousine fleet off the road while 70 per cent of the drivers were committing some sort of driving offence.

In October last year, more than 100 limousines gathered in Blackpool to set the Guinness World Record for the longest limousine convoy.

An American Hummer H2 limo will cost between £80,000 and £100,000 to buy, £20,000 to import to the UK and about £6,000 a year to insure.

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