The National Transportation Safety Board has released new recommendations as it continues to investigate the October 2018 limousine crash in Schoharie, New York that killed 20 people.
The NTSB released its latest report Wednesday on last year’s crash in Schoharie, when a modified 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limousine came down a steep hill and crashed into an unoccupied vehicle and came to rest in a ravine. The driver, all 17 passengers, and two pedestrians were killed.
The agency determined that the front of the vehicle was so damaged that there was no chance for the driver, who was wearing a seatbelt at the time, to survive.
The passengers were not wearing seatbelts, according to the NTSB. The seats and after-market restraints that were present in the vehicle were deemed inadequate.
“The takeaways for this would be that we need three things," said Robert Sumwalt, chair of the NTSB. "We need good seat integrity, which includes the anchorages; we need well-designed restraint systems such as lap/shoulder belts; and we know that seatbelts do you no good at all if you’re not wearing them, so we need proper seatbelt usage.”
The report makes recommendations to the National Highway Safety Administration, the New York State Department of Transportation and the National Limousine Association, an industry group, to require adequate seating and restraints for all passengers and encourage passengers to use seatbelts.
Rep. Paul Tonko, a Democrat from Amsterdam, where several of the victims were from, says he’s been working with the families over the last year to ensure such an incident doesn’t happen again.
“I, in a small town, can’t help but come across their path," Tonko said, "and it’s been…it’s been a difficult year for these families members and the friends of the people who perished. It’s…it’s inspired me to do the very best that we can do in public policy reform and also to just be there as a fellow community resident.”
Following the crash last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed several limo safety measures in the state budget. A proposal to ban stretch limousines was walked back after outcry from industry groups.
Some items were passed, including new criminal penalties for operating an unsafe vehicle, allowing the state DOT to seize license plates from vehicles that are deemed unsafe, prohibiting the Department of Motor Vehicles from registering vehicles that do not meet federal safety standards, and requiring owners and operators to display vehicle and inspection information and driver qualifications.
Additional packages of safety reforms, including seatbelt requirements, were not enacted by the end of session when the state Senate and Assembly could not reach agreement.
In a statement Wednesday, New York State Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez said that inspecting seatbelt functionaility and accessibility has been “standard protocol” since the early '90s.
She said Governor Cuomo has been calling for legislation to require passengers to wear seatbelts for the last three sessions and added “it is extremely unfortunate these important measures have been repeatedly rejected by the legislature.”
In 2015, a limousine crash on Long Island that killed four prompted calls for safety reforms, including at the federal level from New York U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.
Schumer issued a statement Wednesday saying the new safety recommendations show that “we can, and absolutely must, do more to close the fatal gaps in limo-safety standards that contributed decisively to this tragedy.”
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a fellow Democrat, called the industry “dangerously unregulated.”
National Limousine Association President Gary Buffo pointed out that the Schoharie limo, which had failed a New York state safety inspection, was dangerous and being illegally operated by a non-LMA member. In a statement, Buffo said in part that the NLA “will continue to push for a recognized operating procedure throughout the country when it comes to safety.”
Nauman Hussain, operator of the company in question, Prestige Limousine, faces 20 counts each of criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter. Also Wednesday, a new trial date was set for Hussain for March 9.
Meantime, additional lawsuits are piling up, and NTSB has yet to issue a final report on the Schoharie crash, which Sumwalt blamed on a 9-month delay in receiving access to the vehicle.
“We have prioritized completion of the investigation and we will get it done as soon as we possibly can," Sumwalt said. "We want to make sure that our work is comprehensive and addresses issues that will improve safety nationwide of limousines.”