Following October’s deadly limousine crash that left 20 dead in Schoharie, N.Y., Gov. Andrew Cuomo has laid out several proposals aimed at improving safety in the industry.
Chad Arnold, Staff Writer
ALBANY, N.Y. – Last year’s deadly limo crash in upstate New York may be a watershed moment for the industry as it continues to face scrutiny over the safety of its vehicles.
New York has vowed to pass a new round of regulations in the hopes of preventing another tragedy.
And the crash, which killed 20 people, has raised new questions over whether consumers should rely on regulators to ensure the limos they ride in are being properly inspected – particularly as the season nears for proms, wedding and wine tours.
A review by the USA TODAY Network New York found a scattershot system of oversight across the country. States often develop their own rules with limited enforcement over limos that are cut and “stretched” aftermarket and lack the same safety features as passenger vehicles.
“When it comes to stretch limousine construction and oversight, there is an element of Frankenstein involved,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit in Illinois, and a former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The cause of the October crash that killed 17 passengers, its driver and two pedestrians outside a popular country store in Schoharie, a small town outside of Albany, remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
It was the most deadly transportation crash in the U.S. in nearly a decade.
Safety advocates are now warning riders to take extra precautions before they use limos, and businesses that benefit from the trips, such as tourist spots and wineries, are hopeful any backlash won’t hurt their number of visitors.
The crash is on consumers’ minds. Sangita Patel, a parent in Brighton, said she still thinks a limo is a good option for her daughter, Aarya, heading to the senior prom this year.
But the Schoharie crash has her thinking more about the limo company she chooses.
“Before I think we took limos for granted,” she said. “We thought, ‘Oh, they’re a limo driver, they’re a professional driver, and that’s the safest option.’ But I think the crash last year made you think, ‘We just have to do a little more due diligence.’ ”
What caused the crash?
In the Oct. 6 crash, the vehicle – a modified 2001 Ford Excursion – had failed multiple state inspections in the months leading up to the crash, and its driver did not have the proper certification to drive the automobile.
The vehicle’s operator, Nauman Hussain of Prestige Limousine in Saratoga County, has been charged with criminally negligent homicide. A criminal investigation is ongoing, as is a probe by the NTSB into the reason for the crash.
Now New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature are looking at a series of new laws as part of the state budget for the fiscal year that starts April 1.
“This crash was a horrific tragedy that shocked this state to its very core,” Cuomo said Jan. 15.
“We are advancing reforms that will give aggressive new powers that will allow authorities to take dangerous vehicles off the roads without delay, hold unscrupulous businesses accountable and increase public safety in every corner of New York,” he said.
Chief among them was Cuomo’s call for a ban on all stretch limousines from being registered in the state.
But the proposal was scaled back last month amid questions over whether it was legal and concerns that it would bankrupt the limo industry in New York.
Robert Palencar, owner of Uptown Limousine Service in Binghamton, called it a “major knee-jerk reaction to a major incident.”
“It’s unfair to many. How would we feel about paying taxes and employing people and now being outcast and banned – that’s unfair.”
Instead, Cuomo now hopes to ban limousines that do not comply with federal standards and impose hefty fines and felony charges against operators who skirt the state’s inspection laws.
“This proposal has been and continues to be focused on increasing public safety – and that has not changed,” Jason Conwall, a Cuomo spokesman, said.
‘An element of Frankenstein’
Stretch limousines have a different set of safety standards than regular passenger vehicles, said Raul Arbelaez, an engineering expert with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a Virginia-based group funded by the auto-insurance industry.
The vehicles, he said, aren’t required to meet the same front and side crash protection standards as regular passenger cars and do not have to undergo any crash testing.
That’s because the vehicles are not constructed as stand-alone units.
They begin as regular vehicles that are essentially cut in half and extended.
Original equipment seats are removed, and new seating is added that typically changes passenger orientation from front-facing to side-facing.
The Schoharie limo began its life with seating for nine. When it crashed, it could accommodate 18.
In the modification process, the side rollover pillars, airbags and other features required in passenger cars to help absorb impact forces and protect interior occupants are frequently removed and not replaced.
“Even though they’re roadworthy, it doesn’t mean they offer the same crash-worthiness protection as the non-modified vehicle,” Arbelaez said.
Some manufacturers, including Ford and General Motors, have strict programs that ensure vehicles are modified according to the standards of the original manufacturers.
But there are no laws mandating that limousines meet those specifications, and most coach builders make custom vehicles based on customer preferences, according to the trade group Luxury Coach and Transportation.
Critically, the Schoharie limo was missing its Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard tag listing the name of the company that modified the original vehicle, records show.
While there has so far been no indication that structural failure was a factor in the deadly October crash, federal rules passed in 2005 say that coach builders are legally responsible for certifying their vehicles to meet federal safety standards.
Additionally, limos often aren’t required to have safety features mandated for other large vehicles, such as emergency exits or fire extinguishers.
The Schoharie crash has changed the perspective of how the industry is viewed, at least in New York – which already had among the strictest standards in the nation.
Limousines in New York must undergo safety inspections from the state’s Department of Transportation every six months.
A failed inspection can be triggered by anything from a broken tail light to faulty brakes. Depending on the severity of the defect, an out-of-service sticker is placed on the windshield and the vehicle is prohibited from use until a repair can be made and the vehicle passes inspection.
But therein lies the rub.
The limo involved in the Schoharie crash had an out-of-service sticker, but it was later removed and put back on the road without being properly inspected.
Gary Buffo, president of the National Limousine Association, questioned why the vehicle was never impounded – a criticism the state transportation department has faced in the months since the crash.
“That vehicle should have never been on the road,” Buffo said.
The Department of Transportation said in a statement the department took “aggressive action” to remove the vehicle from service, but its operator purposefully broke the law.
“The owners of Prestige knowingly and willfully operated this vehicle in violation of state law. Period,” the statement read.
It is unclear how the transportation department currently ensures a vehicle that has failed inspection remains off the road.
The agency declined to comment, citing an ongoing criminal investigation into the crash. There is also at least one civil lawsuit from a victim’s family.
Nevertheless, Cuomo wants to seize the license plate of any vehicle deemed unsafe by the agency and increase the fine for operating a vehicle that has not passed inspection to $25,000.
He also wants to make it a felony to remove an out-of-service sticker from a vehicle.
All that would either need to be approved in the budget by the Legislature, or as a standalone bill.
The industry reacts
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the limo involved in the fatal crash in upstate New York failed inspection and shouldn’t have been on the road.
Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
The new proposals have been received more kindly by industry insiders than Cuomo’s initial call for an outright ban.
But they also have faced pushback from state lawmakers. The budget proposals by the Senate and Assembly stripped most of the measures sought by Cuomo.
Many industry leaders said they want greater enforcement to crack down on operators seeking to circumvent the industry’s regulations.
“The best outcome that can come out of this accident is for the state to come down and just hammer these operators that want to skirt the rules and regulations,” Buffo said.
From a statistical standpoint, limos are generally safe, records show.
Just 93 limousines – 11 in New York – have been involved in fatal crashes between 1994 and 2016, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
More than 40,000 passenger cars and light trucks were involved in similar incidents across the U.S. in 2016 alone, the latest year NHTSA data is available.
And 31 golf carts were involved in fatal crashes that same year, according to data.
“We’ve been a safe industry since I’ve been in the industry – very little accidents, very little incidents that happen, very little passengers that have been injured,” Buffo said.
New York State Police Superintendent George Beach briefs the media on the arrest of Nauman Hussain, the son of the owner of Presitge Limo.
Jon Campbell, firstname.lastname@example.org
Passengers in limousines are currently not required to wear seat belts under federal law.
In fact, there is no requirement that such equipment even be installed in the vehicles.
Cuomo is seeking to change that, proposing all passengers, regardless of vehicle, wear seat belts.
It’s a point that the limousine owner’s lawyers tried to make this month in its response to the civil suit, arguing that “the plaintiffs’ injuries, if any, were increased or caused by plaintiffs’ failure to use or wear seat belts at the time of the occurrence.”
Requiring seat belts to be worn in all vehicles, including limos, has been backed by AAA, the Insurance Institute on Highway Safety and the National Safety Council.
“The seat belt is the No. 1 life-saving device in the vehicle,” Arbelaez, the IIHS engineer, said.
But enforcing the proposal is easier said than done, Arbelaez said.
Seat-belt use across the country is at 90 percent, an all-time high, but a majority of passengers in limousines and ride-share vehicles don’t buckle up, even if a seat belt is available.
Cuomo also is seeking to ban limousines from making U-Turns, an idea that has the backing of AAA.
Good for business
Wineries in the mid-Hudson Valley and elsewhere in New York said the business that comes from the limo industry is invaluable to their success. And they fear any new laws or stigma against the industry could trickle down to their operations.
David Bova, the general manager of Millbrook Vineyards & Winery, said in the summer and fall seasons the winery will see limos most weekends.
Many different groups, from bachelorette parties to couples parties, take a limo to the Dutchess County winery to avoid anyone drinking and driving, he said.
He said parties with limousines have gotten a bad rap because of a separate deadly crash on Long Island in 2015 and the Schoharie crash.
“It’s good business,” he said of limousines. “We need all the business we can get.”
But customers have been more cautious of the vehicles in the wake of the crash, said Linda Smith, the owner of Your Day Your Way Wedding Planning in East Greenbush, a suburb outside Albany.
“I wouldn’t say they’re more concerned and hesitant, they’re just asking more questions,” she said. “They’re being more proactive.”
Smith is proactive herself, referring customers only to a handful of local limousine services she has personally checked out.
“Most of the couples realize that the tragedy that took place in October was from a company that took short cuts and tried getting around the laws,” she said.
What to look for
Consumers should be on the lookout to ensure they are getting into a safe vehicle, said Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA in New York.
“I would look for the year, make and model of the vehicle,” he said. “I think the newer the better.”
Customers also should check the safety record of the company and inspect it to see whether the vehicle is equipped with seat belts.
Another thing to look for: a sunroof, which could provide an alternative exit in the event of an emergency.
“Look at any and everything that affects safety as it relates to these vehicles,” Sinclair said.
Contributing: Joseph Spector, USA TODAY Network Albany (N.Y.) Bureau; Meaghan McDermott and Sarah Taddeo, Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle; Matthew Steecker, Ithaca (N.Y.) Journal; and Jack Howland, Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal. Follow Chad Arnold on Twitter: @ChadGArnold
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