Deadly N.Y. Crash Spotlights Safety Loopholes for Big Limousines

(Bloomberg) -- A limousine crash over the weekend that killed 20 people has focused attention on rules governing the ungainly vehicles, which can be as long as 30 feet and are exempt from the crash standards that apply to new cars and trucks.

The white stretch Ford Excursion limo lost control Saturday, barreled through a stop sign and slammed into an unoccupied SUV in Schoharie, New York, about 40 miles west of Albany. Among the dead were four sisters, two brothers and at least three young couples.

The driver wasn’t properly licensed to drive that many passengers and the limo had failed a recent safety inspection last month, State Police Major Robert Patnaude said at a briefing Monday afternoon. Following the crash, the State Police executed a search warrant at the company, Prestige Limousine in Gansevoort, New York, and seized three other vehicles, Patnaude said.

“That company and that vehicle have been under scrutiny” in the past for safety violations, Patnaude said, declining to be more specific. He called the probe a “criminal investigation.”

The National Transportation Safety Board will examine federal oversight of the limousine industry as part of its investigation into the crash, which is the deadliest American transportation accident since 2009, according to Robert Sumwalt, the safety board’s chairman.

“I think the fact that we have 20 fatalities in a single vehicle crash -- 18 plus two pedestrians -- that in itself is enough to certainly get the attention of the National Transportation Safety Board,” Sumwalt said Monday in an interview.

There were no apparent skid marks on the roadway, Sumwalt said. Because the weather was drizzly, investigators haven’t yet determined whether the driver failed to apply the brakes, he added.

Stretch limousines are often converted cars or SUVs. Lengthening the vehicles and adding new seating configurations can undercut the federally mandated safety features designed by the original manufacturer, according to crash-worthiness experts.

“Once you start modifying the vehicle, you pretty much undo all of that,” said Raul Arbelaez, vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s vehicle research center in Virginia. “When a vehicle is stretched, the main thing that’s taken into account is to make sure that it is structurally stable and roadworthy in order to carry the occupants and handle the load and be durable, not necessarily to withstand any crash forces.”

‘Frankenstein’ Vehicles

The addition of several thousand pounds of additional frame and sheet metal from the longer body and the added weight of carrying more than a dozen passengers also puts far greater strain on a stretch vehicle’s brakes and tires than they were originally designed for, he said.

“There’s a bit of a Frankenstein approach, where a vehicle is chopped up and put back together with parts that were not originally designed for that vehicle,” said Deborah Hersman, president of the National Safety Council advocacy group and a former NTSB chairwoman. “It’s clear that they don’t have the same safety design standards as those same vehicles had before they’re stretched or modified.”

The accident in upstate New York highlights a number of shortcomings in such vehicles, including crash worthiness, seat belt use and the patchwork of state and federal regulations that provide inadequate oversight, Hersman said.

“This is an area where we clearly have a gap that needs to be addressed and it’s incumbent upon state policy makers and the feds to work together and address this,” she said.

Seat Belts

The crash occurred at the Apple Barrel Country Store off a T-junction where two highways meet. A manager of the store said the limo was coming down the hill at “probably” 60 miles per hour, the New York Times reported.

The badly mangled vehicle has made it difficult for investigators to determine whether any passengers were wearing seat belts and whether the seats held up under the “high-energy impact,” Sumwalt said in a briefing Monday afternoon.

At least some of the seats were equipped with belts, he said. However, one of the issues the NTSB will be looking at is the lack of a requirement in New York State that limo passengers wear them, he said.

After four women died and two others were seriously injured in a limo crash on Long Island in 2015, a Suffolk County grand jury found there was a lack of regulation over stretch limousine construction.

After that accident, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York called for an investigation into federal safety standards.

Schumer, a Democrat, said in a statement on Monday that he was hopeful the current NTSB probe would identify “more stringent safety regulations.”

A similar safety issue arose in the 2014 crash that injured comic Tracy Morgan and killed his friend comedian James McNair: the luxury limo van had been modified to block exit doors, which made it difficult to reach the victims.

Morgan was returning from a show on June 7, 2014, when a truck struck the limo from behind. It took emergency workers more than 30 minutes to remove the injured passengers, according to the NTSB.

There was only one side door in that limo’s passenger compartment, the NTSB found, and there were no regulations to prevent such modifications. The NTSB in 2015 called on the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to adopt new regulations requiring at least two exits on such limos.

NHTSA is still evaluating the recommendation, according to correspondence on the issue on NTSB’s website.

The last transportation accident in the U.S. with this many deaths was the 2009 crash of a Colgan Air commuter plane that killed 50 near Buffalo, New York. A bus fire in 2005 in Texas killed 23 senior citizens fleeing a hurricane.

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