Aug. 17, 2021 – The Tennessean by: Cassandra Stephenson – A 22-year-old Michigan man tumbled from the rail of a roofless party bus on Lower Broadway in July, landing face-first on the road below. The bus drove on, its rear tires running over the man’s legs. For some city leaders, the incident seemed inevitable. Just two weeks before the man’s injury, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. president and CEO Butch Spyridon cautioned, “it’s not if, it’s when, somebody is going to fall from one of the vehicles.”
More than two years ago, then-Metro Council member Jeremy Elrod pushed for safety regulations, warning that intoxicated people could “fall out, injure themselves and get run over by a car.” But state law bars cities from regulating party buses and similar vehicles. Multiple efforts by Metro officials and state legislators to impose safety regulations have so far been unsuccessful.
The incident sparked renewed calls for regulation of the party buses and other entertainment vehicles now synonymous with Nashville’s Honky Tonk Highway. Several state legislators say they plan to push or support legislation that would grant municipalities the authority to regulate entertainment vehicles in the 2022 session.
State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said he intends to resurrect one such bill first introduced in February. “Recent weeks and months have made clear that this is a health and safety issue, not just one of preference or business regulation,” Yarbro said. “This is about giving cities the ability to keep people safe, and that’s the reason that I plan on at least on the Senate side bringing this or other legislation forward in short order.”
The bill’s House version, sponsored by state Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, was deferred in April to the 2022 session to allow stakeholders more opportunity to discuss what oversight could look like, according to state Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville, who co-sponsored the bill.
Meanwhile, cities can’t regulate vehicles that carry 14 or more passengers, according to state law. (Smaller pedal taverns do fall under local rules, though Spyridon and others have expressed concerns that enforcement is lax.) As long as the vehicles have a state license to operate, they’re free to hit the road. The bus that carried the injured tourist had 15 people on board.
“We share the same goals as our neighbors, including entertainment vehicle operators themselves – to put common-sense rules in place and enforce them,” Chris Song, a spokesperson for Mayor John Cooper’s office, wrote in an email. “We have been working with both downtown stakeholders and state legislators to reach a solution as quickly as possible.”
What regulations could ultimately look like remains under debate. “There’s been some back and forth about the correct shape for this legislation and concerns that there might be over-regulation or under-regulation and trying to set the balance for what gets decided at the state level and what can be evaluated best by local governments,” Yarbro said.
Questions over such legislation’s applicability in smaller cities also persist. Rural locations may not have a need for this type of regulatory control, Freeman said. Some party vehicles did venture outside of big city centers like Nashville amid coronavirus restrictions, appearing in smaller neighboring suburbs like Franklin, expanding interest in industry regulation, according to Freeman. “There may be a need for us to band it based on population numbers that would effectively exclude some of the smaller areas,” he said.
State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, said he is researching and reaching out to all parties involved to determine if “statewide guardrails” are necessary. “Sometimes a patchwork approach to regulation is best, and this may very well be one of those instances,” Clemmons wrote in a statement to The Tennessean.
Clemmons, who is a co-sponsor of the House bill, said if state legislators are able to pass regulations, it will be up to local officials to enforce them. He said he appreciates that entrepreneurs and small business owners have made investments in their operations and rely on current regulations or a lack thereof. But he said the party vehicles have “jumped the shark.” “We’ve got to take responsible steps to ensure public safety and protect our city, our reputation and residents’ quality of life,” he said.
Safe Fun Nashville, a coalition of community members and business owners, launched a petition for more safety regulations in August, the latest development in a years-long saga to address persistent safety and reputation concerns with the mobile party barges. The Change.org petition calls for the creation of “common sense safety standards” and tighter enforcement of existing rules by the Nashville Transportation Licensing Commission. As of Aug. 13, 1,180 people signed.
At an Aug. 12 news conference, downtown resident and businessperson Jim Schmitz said injury incidents can very quickly harm Nashville’s reputation, and the Safe Fun Nashville group encourages a collaborative effort to determine regulations that “make sense.” “This is about continuing the party in a safe and fun way,” Schmitz said.
Nashville officials and state lawmakers have attempted to push safety regulations for entertainment vehicles for several years. Cooper announced he was working with state legislators in February 2020 to push legislation that would allow municipalities to regulate entertainment vehicles.
The bill, sponsored by former state Sen. Steve Dickerson, would have allowed cities to enforce safety policies, regulate the presence of industry vehicles on local roads during peak commute times, and regulate loud music during business hours. SB2513 and its House counterpart, HB2381, stalled in early 2020 in committees.
In 2019, Metro unsuccessfully introduced an ordinance that would require entertainment vehicles to meet certain safety standards for non-slip flooring, guard rails and other measures.
Metro officials in 2018 attempted to ban farm tractors that tow trailers packed with party-goers. That effort failed thanks to state law that stipulates that municipalities can’t regulate agriculture vehicles.