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Are teens safe on Vancouver’s party buses?

Danielle Raymond, left, and her mom Julie hold a photo of Shannon, who died after taking ecstasy on a B.C. party bus in 2008. They are shown at their home in Maple Ridge, Feb. 26, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Two weekends ago, paramedics found Ernest Azoadam, 16, dying at a Chevron station in Surrey after riding on a party bus. Friends surrounded him as efforts were made to save his life. He was rushed to hospital and later pronounced dead.

RCMP say drugs or alcohol might have been a factor in his death, as open liquor was found on the vehicle, which had stopped at the station.

The 16-year-old's death is raising questions about whether party bus owners and legislators are doing enough to ensure the safety of underage passengers.

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The industry is largely unregulated, and policies requiring adult supervision on buses differ from one company to the next. Limousine companies ban alcohol and drugs, but there is no standard set of procedures for screening for them, or first-aid training for the chaperones sometimes required to be on board, or for the drivers.

Roger Medor, owner of Favori Limousine Services, which owns the bus that Ernest was on the night he died, said his company advised passengers they were not allowed to bring alcohol or drugs on board.

"We have an agreement with people that they have no right to bring any alcohol on the party bus or the limo or any drugs on the party bus or limo," he said.

Party buses – often large stretch SUVs or coach buses turned into a dance club on wheels – are often used for weddings, proms, birthdays and stag parties. Sometimes they take passengers from destination to destination. Other times, passengers simply dance and party on them for several hours.

Ernest's death was the latest example of what can go wrong.

In July, 2012, six people were sent to hospital after a fight involving high-school graduates on a party bus and another motorist, an incident police say was fuelled by alcohol.

In 2010, two teenaged girls fell out the side door of a party bus in Langley. One was knocked unconscious. RCMP officers found alcohol on that bus as well.

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In July, 2008, Julie Raymond's 16-year-old daughter, Shannon, died after riding on a party bus. According to court documents from a court case related to the incident, Shannon boarded a party bus at a friend's house with a group of teenagers after ingesting ecstasy (MDMA) and drinking rum. The bus was rented by her friend's mother, and because the group was underage, Shannon's friend arranged for an adult to be on the bus: a 19-year-old who was a friend of one of the invited teens.

Despite a no-alcohol policy on the bus, the group continued to drink, and the 19-year-old chaperone and the bus driver allowed it, the documents said. On the bus, Shannon took another ecstasy pill. Just after 6 o'clock the next morning, Shannon died. Her autopsy revealed she died of an acute MDMA intoxication.

"I had assumed the woman that rented the bus would be on the bus, but a 19-year-old was in charge of 30 16-year-old kids," Ms. Raymond said. "How can a 19-year-old be responsible for that many people – kids on a bus? It's not reasonable."

Ms. Raymond says legislation is urgently needed that requires the person who rents the bus – often a parent when it is a group of minors – to be on the vehicle.

Some in the Vancouver limousine industry estimate that as many as 100 companies rent out party buses in the Lower Mainland.

The Globe and Mail contacted a dozen companies who rent party buses in and around Vancouver, and all said they have a no-alcohol policies – in line with the Motor Vehicle Act. However, they had different policies on adult supervision.

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Several limousine companies said they do not require an adult to accompany minors.

Tommy Cuscito, owner of Vancouver Party Buses and Limousines, said his company requires a chaperone for all trips on which only minors are on board. At least two other companies also require chaperones for minors.

All the companies The Globe and Mail contacted said they rigorously screened for alcohol and drugs, with procedures ranging from physical pat-downs to banning back packs to placing personal belongs in bins stored out of the reach of passengers.

The registrar and director of the Passenger Transportation Branch, the body that licenses limousines, including party buses, says no legislation requires adult supervision on party buses or chaperones to have a particular level of training to deal with medical issues and large groups of minors.

Municipalities issue chauffeur licenses, and while Vancouver and Surrey, for example, require party bus drivers to have chauffeur permits, neither jurisdiction requires first-aid training, according to the VPD and Surrey RCMP.

"Government is always concerned when untimely deaths, or injuries occur," B.C. Minister of Transportation Mary Polak said Tuesday evening in a statement, adding that police are investigating the recent incident. She said that, before deciding whether further regulation is required, "we need to know what the coroner's investigation finds out, and what, if any, recommendations are made."

Todd Curley, the general manager of Phat Cat Limousine, says the industry is too crowded and should be regulated. "I think that people that govern our licensing are allowing way too many people to build party buses and put them on the street and they're not educated," he said, adding that "we need rules to govern us."

Mr. Curley said he thinks training should be standardized to deal with things like handling impairment.

Mr. Cuscito of Vancouver Party Buses said his company employs chaperones for parties of minors.

"I think there should be regulations where chaperones and security should be mandatory," he said, adding that chaperones and drivers should be required to receive a certain level of training. "I've alleviated nightmares because I have the staffing that can do it."

Ernest's father, Timothy Azoadam, says the government needs to step in urgently.

"I want to see that this issue is taken seriously," he said. "Ernest was 16 years old. How can a 16-year-old child be on bus where there is alcohol on it? We don't need to wait until another child dies to know this is important."

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News reporter

Daniel Bitonti is a Vancouver-based reporter with The Globe and Mail. Before joining the bureau, Daniel spent six months on the copy desk in the Globe’s Toronto newsroom after completing a journalism degree at Carleton University. More

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