WASHINGTON — The National Safety Transportation Board identified an “egregious disregard for safety” by the company the operated a stretch limousine that was involved in a deadly 2018 crash as the probable cause of the accident in New York that killed 20 people.
The agency, following its previous findings and probable cause, recommended seat belt requirements for altered vehicles to protect passengers and for regulators to change the definition of a bus to include passenger vehicles with a seating capacity of 10 or more to ensure that stretch limousines are covered.
The Oct. 6, 2018 crash in Schoharie, New York, of a vehicle operated by Prestige Limousine prompted debate about the lack of regulation of the stretch limousine industry. It also revealed problems with lax state oversight and loopholes in federal rules that allowed altered vehicles to avoid commercial vehicle regulations.
The crash, about 40 miles west of Albany, was the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in nearly a decade. It occurred when the rented Ford Excursion SUV that had been stretched by 12 feet barreled through a stop sign and slammed into a parked SUV, killing the limo driver, all 17 passengers and two pedestrians.
This is about callous irresponsibility,” safety board member Thomas Chapman said during a hearing on Tuesday. “It’s about knowingly operating a vehicle in poor mechanical condition. It is about operating a vehicle that had recently been placed out of service for safety deficiencies. And it is about exploiting gaps resulting from ineffective government regulation and enforcements.”
The driver wasn’t properly licensed to drive that many passengers and the limo had failed a safety inspection a month prior, according to New York state police. The crash occurred at the Apple Barrel Country Store off a T-junction where two highways meet.
The passengers had rented the limousine from the Wilton, N.Y.-based limo service for a birthday celebration at a brewery in Cooperstown, N.Y.
A law firm that has been reported to represent the owner of Prestige Limousine didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The owner has pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide and his attorney has said he had repaired the vehicle as ordered prior to the accident, according to the Associated Press.
Stretch limos are usually classified as personal vehicles that are altered to add capacity. Safety advocates have implored Congress to address the loophole in federal regulations and provide the same type of protection that motorcoach passengers have.
“This tragedy was a result of a series of systematic failures from the local level failing to ensure consequences for failing inspections to the federal level failing to close loopholes when it comes to limousine construction and safety,” said Jason Levine, executive director of Center for Auto Safety, in an interview ahead of the Tuesday hearing.
“Hopefully, this time, NTSB’s recommendations will be taken more seriously, and recent House activity designed to make limousine passengers safer will get a full hearing in the Senate,” Levine continued. “Celebrations should not end in tragedy.”
The NTSB has previously recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration require lap and shoulder seat belts for each passenger seat in all new vehicles that are modified to be used as limousines. The agency also has suggested a federal mandate requiring seating systems in these vehicles to meet minimum performance standards to ensure their integrity during a crash.
The NTSB is chiefly an investigative body that cannot issue regulations, a job left to NHTSA and other regulatory agencies.
The U.S. House approved legislation introduced by New York lawmakers that would amend the definition of a commercial motor vehicle in federal law to ensure that it covers all vehicles used to transport more than nine people, including the driver. But the measure, designed to ensure U.S. safety rules, such as driver qualifications, apply to stretch limousines, is still pending in the Senate.
Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, urged Congress to take heed of the NTSB’s recommendations and finish the pending legislation.
“Requiring lap and shoulder belts for all passengers and ensuring that seating arrangements in limos meet minimum performance standards during a crash are common sense steps that must be taken to prevent these types of tragedies,” Chase said in a statement.
“Limousine rides are commonly associated with some of the most wonderful events in one’s life,” Chase said. “Sadly, due to unacceptably weak standards and oversight identified by the NTSB, a crash involving a limousine can turn someone’s happiest day into their worst nightmare.”