Just after midnight on July 29, a 22-year-old Michigan man fell from a party bus on Lower Broadway, sustaining serious injuries. This is a traumatic wakeup call for Nashville.
These vehicles — tractor-drawn wagons, pedal taverns, party buses and the like — have little to no regulation governing what they can and can’t do. Metro Councilmember Freddie O’Connell has said, “There are effectively no rules.” If they can obtain a license to operate, they are free to do so with essentially no safety oversight.
Recently, Tennessee and Nashville suffered some hard blows to our reputation for entertainment and live music. Because Tennessee’s vaccination rates are among the nation’s lowest and state officials fired our leading vaccination official, Tennessee lawmakers have been the butt of late-night jokes from talk-show hosts like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon. The jokes at the expense of our state and city could easily deter tourism, just as our local economy is back on the mend. Now we’ve made national news again due to this party-bus accident.
The young man’s accident was not fatal, and we should all be grateful for that. But it should be a lesson to our leaders, lest something truly tragic happens. What’s more, lawsuits could result from incidents like these. Interestingly, Texas blogger and “wrongful death and serious injury” attorney Michael Grossman wrote about this incident. He uses the situation as a teaching tool, but also poses some viable questions in his post. He writes: “Obviously someone sitting on the railing of a moving bus is dangerous. But is that a danger the bus driver or their employer could have reasonably foreseen or prevented? Was there a worker on the top level who was supposed to stop this kind of behavior? Are there rules on the bus to avoid this kind of behavior and, perhaps more importantly, methods to enforce these rules?”
Apparently, the lack of oversight is even troubling the owners of some of these businesses. Nick Lyon, the owner of Nashville party bus company Hell on Wheels, recently told WREG-TV in Memphis he couldn’t picture our city without these rolling venues — and that “when done right and thoughtfully, it’s special to help people celebrate.” To his credit, Lyon is asking the community of party transportation businesses to put together some self-imposed regulations. Lyon adds, “The vast majority of us that operate responsibly are for regulations done the right way.” According to Lyon, regulations that might aid in safety include having the vehicles off the road by 11 p.m., not letting visibly intoxicated people ride, and removing riders who become overly intoxicated.
To a large extent, state law prevents local regulation — and for that reason, many in the community have long raised concerns about these vehicles, with just cause. According to Michael Winter, president of the Nashville Transpotainment Association, there are common-sense ways to keep people safe. He does tell NewsChannel 5, however, that though the city has been collaborative as much as they can be in trying to “build regulations that makes sense for all involved,” that the city itself is limited — saying that “anything over 15 passengers falls under the authority of the state.”
Safety is a concern for Mayor John Cooper — he wants to ensure everyone has a good time, but that they remain safe. Cooper said in a statement last year that he would be “working with the state … to ensure that downtown Nashville remains a fun, world-class tourist destination while implementing commonsense policies that prevent traffic jams and disturbances to local residents and businesses.” As Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp CEO Butch Spyridon said when discussing last month’s accident, “As goes public safety, so goes Nashville’s reputation.”
Last year, Senate Bill 2513 — a bill addressing regulation of passenger vehicles for hire — added “transpotainment” to the list of vehicles Davidson and Shelby counties could be empowered to regulate. The bill stalled amid last year’s COVID-impacted legislative session, but I know I’m not the only one hoping an effort like this one succeeds.
In the meantime, the city will have to rely on the business owners and the state to step it up a notch and help keep everyone safe. As Lyon noted, “It just comes down to people being properly trained and caring. … Let’s be thoughtful and just smart and use common sense about keeping people safe.”
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.