You probably associate renting a stretch limousine with joyous occasions — from prom nights to bachelorette parties — but a series of deadly accidents suggests you should take special precautions if you decide to splurge on one of these rides.

In July, four young women celebrating an upcoming wedding were killed and four other passengers suffered serious injuries when a pick-up truck collided with their limousine during a bachelorette party on Long Island. The stretch limousine had just left a winery and was making a U-turn when it was struck.

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Due to a loophole in road safety regulations, the stretch limo — like others with seats that face inward or have fewer than eight forward-facing seats — did not have the lifesaving lap and torso seat belts and side-curtain air bags required for other types of vehicles.

Often stretch limos lack enough emergency exits as well. In California, five nurses riding in a limo — including a young bride — died on San Francisco Bay Area’s San Mateo Bridge in 2013 on the way to a wedding celebration. The driver and four other women escaped, but the remaining five were trapped in the back of the limo without an exit after a mechanical problem caused the vehicle to catch fire.

The problem is that when vehicles are cut and “stretched” to create stretch limos, they can forgo side air bags, lap and torso seat belts and the kind of safety exits required in regular vehicles, according to an exemption granted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2013. Often vehicles are converted into limos in home garages with no engineers present, and if they carry fewer than 10 people, they are not even required to be inspected, according to a story published in the San Jose Mercury News.

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The Long Island crash was the most recent in a number of limo tragedies that has led Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to call on the federal government to create new federal safety regulations for stretch limos.

“Altered stretch limos are not held to high enough safety standards, leaving countless prom-goers, wedding participants and other customers unwittingly at risk,” said Schumer in a press release. “All too often they lack enough side impact air bags, rollover bars, appropriate exits and more.”

Some states have also implemented tighter safety regulations. In California, a law that goes into effect July 2016 requires limousine inspections and for the vehicles to have fully charged fire extinguishers and two additional exits, including a knock-out window at the rear of the vehicle.

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What you can do

In the meantime, you can take some steps to protect yourself. California’s Public Utilities Commission (which regulates the limos in the state) and consumer advocates suggest the following tips if you’re thinking of hiring a limo:

  • Shop around, check online reviews and the Better Business Bureau.
  • Make sure the limousine operator is licensed in your state and has liability insurance.
  • Ask the limousine company to show you the specific vehicle you will be renting. If it doesn’t have seat belts, air bags, a fire extinguisher and safety exits, you’ll likely want to keep shopping.
  • Check the charter-party carrier (TCP) number on the vehicle and verify with your state regulator that the vehicle is registered.
  • Get a written agreement that includes the type of limousine requested and services expected. 
  • Don't hire a driver who offers to take more people than permitted.

If you’re unable to find a stretch limo with adequate safety features, look for another way to get where you (or your teen) wants to go. This will help ensure that the celebration of a lifetime remains just that.

Daniel S. Levine is an award-winning journalist who heads the Levine Media Group and hosts The Bio Report and RARECast podcasts. He was an editor of The Burrill Report and worked for the Oakland Tribune, Adweek, the San Francisco Business Times and other publications.