Apparently I'm not the only one who decided to venture into the storm chasing tour arena last year. I've been pretty amazed at the remarkable number of new tour startups this season. I genuinely wish everyone success in their ventures, however I wanted to put a few words of warning to fellow chasers who have or are considering entering into this sub-faction of the chasing economy. I did my due diligence in researching the rules, regulations and legalities surrounding operating a tour business, and so I pass on the following advice based on my findings. I would urge any current or potential tour operator to consider these points - and personally check and double-check with the proper government agencies and insurance companies to verify that the operation is fully legal and fully insured.
Driving tour customers in either your vehicle or a vehicle you have control over is legally defined as carrying "passengers for hire" by state government, federal government and all insurance companies. Taxis, limos, buses and shuttle vans fall under this category as well. If you cross state lines while carrying paying passengers, you are defined by the US Department of Transportation as an "interstate motor carrier". These facts are what govern what regulations and requirements a chase tour operator must comply with.
The big issue and expense in operating a chase tour is one of insurance. You must have a commercial "passenger for hire" policy - if you don't, you have no coverage during your chase trips - simple as that! If you don't have the proper coverage for your operation, you're only kidding yourself and wasting your money on your premiums. All indications I've encountered suggest that properly insuring an interstate "passenger for hire" operation is extremely expensive and one that is out of reach of any realistic business plan of most operations, particularly smaller ones. If you run a small tour operation and your insurance premiums are affordable, I would be skeptical that you actually have the proper coverage. Check and double-check it with your agent!
This is not something you want to gloss over or play games with. My advice to any potential tour operator is to sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with your insurance agent. Be 100 percent truthful about what you intend to do. Withholding facts or misrepresenting your operation will result in the wrong type and/or inadequate coverage as a result! If you don't have the proper coverage, you might as well cancel your policy and put the premiums into a money market account. When you have an accident and your claim is denied due to improper coverage, the end result will be the same!
I'll say it again - you just can't play games with insurance. It doesn't matter how you feel about insurance companies. If you are dishonest with them, it's only going to hurt you in the end, not them. Make sure that you have the proper liability coverage for a commercial interstate passenger-for-hire operation. If not, then you, in reality, have no insurance - your claim will be denied if you are in an accident!
Any passenger vehicle (including small cars and SUVs) must have a state permit to operate in a commercial passenger-for-hire manner, for each and every state you plan to operate in. These permits are what taxis, limousine and shuttle drivers must obtain. For a chase tour operation, this involves obtaining a permit in every state you might possibly expect to be chasing in. At a minimum, this would realistically include Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, Iowa, Missouri, Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Arkansas, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. If you don't have a permit in a state, you cannot legally operate in it.
Under federal law, any vehicle capable of carrying 9 or more passengers (regardless of how many actual passengers are in the vehicle) falls under USDOT commercial interstate motor carrier regulations. This includes 15-passenger vans, shuttle buses, and full-size buses. You'll need a CDL (commercial driver's license) to operate this type of vehicle in this manner, and get registered with a USDOT ID number that must be displayed prominently on the vehicle. You'll also need to keep a log of operating hours, be subject to daily consecutive-hours limits, fitness checkups and commercial inspections - just like a semi driver or bus driver does.
In Conclusion: Do it right - or don't do it!
So, in a nutshell, running a chase tour in which you are the driver opens up a huge challenge and expense of red tape that must be complied with to make sure that the operation is legal and that you and your guests are fully covered. Skimping on any of the above items is putting yourself at great risk of lifelong financial peril should an accident occur.
For me, I did not see any way to make the numbers work as a fully-legit driver-operated chase tour business. I wasn't interested in going 'big time' with 15 passenger vans, I was just looking to fill a seat or two in my own car. But the numbers just won't work if you do it right. In addition to the hassles of being in full compliance of the law and being fully insured, the rates would have to be astronomical to cover costs and a modest profit. A few other smaller operators have discovered the same. The hassles alone would take all the fun out of operating a tour, in my opinion. Chasing is supposed to be enjoyable, and I'm not going to do anything that would make it 'real work'.
The only option I found as viable is operating as a passenger 'guide', riding along instead of driving. As soon as I remove myself from the driver's seat and relinquish control of the vehicle to the guest, all of the above issues go away. It's also much safer for me to be dedicated to running the laptop as a passenger, rather than trying to do that as a driver.
So, I don't have a problem with anyone starting a tour business - but I urge those who do to make sure that they have all of the legal and insurance issues taken care of properly. If you can't afford or just don't have the time to do it legitimately, don't do it! It's just too much of a risk in today's society not to have yourself protected in every way, shape and form.