The popularity of so-called “party buses” is that they let people have a good time, while not drinking and driving.
But the death of a 20-year-old UNC Charlotte student who fell from a Charlotte Party Charters bus Tuesday night has raised questions about whether the buses should be more closely regulated.
Polly Rogers fell from an emergency exit bus window and was killed by cars on North Tryon Street.
Party buses operate in a gray area where adults are allowed to drink, and often do to excess. Minors aren’t allowed to drink but are allowed on board, even when there is a bus where everyone else is legal to drink and doing so.
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Six year ago, California passed new regulations on party buses after a 19-year-old died who had been drinking on one. After leaving the bus, he drove his car and crashed into a wall.
The California law states that if there are people under 21 on the party bus and alcohol is being served, the group must have a chaperone on board. The law makes the chaperone — and the bus driver, to a lesser extent — responsible for ensuring people under 21 aren’t drinking.
It’s unclear if Charlotte Party Charters had passengers sign a waiver declaring that they would be drinking only if they were at least 21 years old. The company’s website was offline Friday. The company owner, Victor Rabb, couldn’t be reached.
“We would like to see some form of regulation with these party buses,” said Omar Qureshi, a special agent with the state’s Alcohol and Law Enforcement office.
He said his agents have followed party buses, looking for underage drinking. He said agents will monitor social media to find where party buses are collecting and dropping off passengers.
“We may come out to that party and wait for that party bus to show up,” he said. “If the kids get off the bus staggering and we see them getting sick, and if they are visible to us, they should be visible to the driver.”
But he said that drivers are not necessarily criminally responsible for under-age drinking on their buses. If a driver is carrying a high school group that is drinking, they would likely be charged with aiding and abetting a minor. The same would go for a fraternity rush party, where almost all of the passengers would be expected to be 18 or 19 years old.
In those cases, it should be clear to the driver that everyone is underage.
But if there is a 20-year-old drinking among a larger group of older passengers, the driver might not be responsible if the 20-year-old was drinking surreptitiously.
“We have heard these drivers say that it’s not their responsibility to check their age,” Qureshi said. “Criminally maybe not, but civilly maybe they should be checking.”
He said Charlotte Party Charters has been cited for problems in the past, including having expired registration tags or registration tags that didn’t match the right bus. He also said a driver had been cited for having a concealed weapon on the UNC Charlotte campus.
“We are following (the Charlotte police investigation) very closely,” he said. “We know that she was under age. We certainly know there was alcohol on the bus, and in most cases, people on the bus are consuming alcohol. In a lot of cases they are under 21.”
North Carolina allows passengers to drink beer or wine in a “for-hire” vehicle, such as a taxi or limo. In a regular passenger vehicle, no open containers are allowed.
In Charlotte, the city’s passenger vehicle for hire board regulates taxis, limousines and even the Charlotte Pub Trolley, a bike-powered mode of transportation that allows passengers to drink and pedal.
But buses with a capacity of 15 or more people are not subject to city regulations, per state law. They are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the state. That means that Charlotte Party Bus can’t be regulated by the city.
The N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles said the party company is labeled as a “for hire” company. If it carries more than 15 passengers, it is considered a bus and is licensed based on its weight and must carry $5 million in insurance.
A UNC Charlotte fraternity that rented the bus, according to multiple media reports, was suspended by its national organization in wake of the fatal incident.
The fraternity, Kappa Sigma, has been the most disciplined student organization at the school, according to university conduct records dating back to the 2012-2013 academic year.
Kappa Sigma has been cited four times for misconduct in that time span. Two other organizations were cited twice, while 16 other organizations were cited just once, records show.
Examples of Kappa Sigma’s misconduct include a hazing incident in September 2012 and an incident involving fire in April 2014. The organization’s most recent sanctions were completed in July 2015.
A spokesperson for the national Kappa Sigma chapter declined to comment Friday.
A separate investigation by the university is underway to determine if the school’s code of student responsibility was violated, a school spokesperson said Friday. Social events have been halted for the remainder of the semester for the 12 fraternities in the university’s Interfraternity Council, the spokesperson said.
Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs
LaVendrick Smith: @LaVendrickS