New Safety Questions About 'Topless' Hollywood Tour Vans - NBC Southern California
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New Safety Questions About 'Topless' Hollywood Tour Vans

    Hollywood tour industry insiders and auto experts raise concerns over "topless" tour vans. I-Team's Jenna Susko investigates for the NBC4 News at 11 on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016. (Published Monday, Aug. 22, 2016)

    They appear to be unique to Southern California: convertible passenger vans that carry thousands of tourists every week to see the notable landmarks and celebrity homes of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Now tour industry insiders, automotive experts and state officials are raising concerns that riding in those vehicles could be putting riders' safety in jeopardy.

    More than 20 Hollywood tour operators now use the open vans, which have soared in popularity over the past decade among visitors and residents eager to take in the sights while enjoying the warm breeze and California sunshine.

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    An NBCLA investigation exposed how many tour guides lie about celebrity home locations, leading to some homeowners being stalked by crazed fans. Our undercover cameras also caught the guides, who also serve as drivers, navigate recklessly through the streets and winding canyons, breaking speed and weight limit laws, using their cellphones behind the wheel, and running stop signs and stop lights.

    After riding more than 20 tour vans, our I-Team also had questions about the safety of the unusually customized vehicles themselves.

    Bryan Thompson, a car designer with nearly two decades' experience developing vehicles for Subaru, Volvo, Nissan and Ford, agreed to join us for a ride with H & B Tours headquartered on Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea.

    Thompson was shocked by what he observed.

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    "There's no seat belt, they've cut the seat belt," he said, pointing to a stump on the floor where the factory-installed seat belt had apparently been removed.

    He also noted that the way the van had been transformed into a convertible poses serious safety questions.

    "When you modify a vehicle from the way it was intended to be used, you're affecting the structure of the car," he said. "You're affecting the way it behaves in traffic."

    "If you take away certain parts of the car, like the roof, you no longer have rollover protection for your head," Thompson continued.

    With the top of the vehicle removed, "the walls of the van, because there's no cross support anymore, they flex and they move," he said. "It [would take] just a small turn or a small crash and you could really be in some serious danger."

    H & B Tours declined to comment.

    Two miles away, on Santa Monica Boulevard, the I-Team found Rudy's Custom Tops, the auto shop where, according to industry insiders, many tour operators pay to have their vans transformed into convertibles.

    Owner Pedro Rodriguez says his first client was "Starline," the biggest tour company in Hollywood.

    A Starline spokeswoman told NBCLA the company has not used Rudy's "in at least 15 years," adding that "our custom vans comply with all licensing and regulations."

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    "We remove the seat belts," said Rodriguez. "You remove the ones that cross over your body...and just leave the ones going in [sic] your waist."

    When asked if the structural integrity still exists once the top of the van is removed, he said "it's safe...I reinforce it so it's not a regular van inside."

    Rodriguez told the I-Team he charges about $8,000 to turn the vans into convertibles. He also said he could install roll bars on the vans, but says tour operators have been reluctant to spend the addition $3,000 cost to install them.

    And what would happen if an open van without a roll bar rolled over in a crash?

    "It's a problem," said Rodriguez. "If they turn over, it's 'hasta la vista, baby.'"

    Most of the modified tour vans the I-Team rode and observed in Hollywood are originally manufactured by Ford Motors.

    Contacted by the I-Team for comment, a Ford spokeswoman said it's the first the company has heard of its vehicles being customized in this way, and added that the mechanic or auto shop that did the modifications would be responsible for adhering to all safety standards.

    Ford added that Rudy's Custom Tops is not one of the company's "approved [vehicle] upfitters," or modifiers.

    The California Public Utilities Commission has regulatory and safety oversight over for-hire passenger carriers, which include the celebrity tour buses and vans on Hollywood Boulevard. But the Commission says vehicle safety standards are determined by the California Highway Patrol.

    The CHP conducts several planned and surprise inspections of the tour vans annually, but "open top" tour vans aren't raising a red flag.

    An insider who has worked for several Hollywood tour van operators told the I-Team, on the condition of anonymity, that he would not want his friends or family members riding many of the vans in operation.

    "What I envision, God forbid, is...one of these tour buses...just flying off a cliff, bodies flying everywhere," he said. "That will be a very bad day."

    California State Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian, 46th District, says he's determined to prevent that kind of tragedy.

    "[The I-Team investigation is] finally bringing to light something that has been going on not just a few years, but as the industry has grown," Nazarian said.

    He plans to introduce new legislation regarding tour van safety when the Assembly reconvenes in January 2017.

    "This is a priority," Nazarian said. "Not only does [this industry] have a major impact on the lives of a portion of my constituents, but it's also the experience that individuals are coming into Hollywood. You want those you are entertaining to also walk away with a sense of comfort, and wanting to come back again.