AMSTERDAM, N.Y. — New federal legislation that would impose nationwide standards for stretch limousine safety and provide states with financial incentives to impound unsafe vehicles was proposed Thursday by U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Flanked by relatives of victims of the Oct. 6, 2018, deadly crash of a stretch limousine in Schoharie County, Schumer said a measure called the Safe Limos Act of 2019 would close federal law loopholes that allow limos with a weight rating of more than 8,500 pounds to get around requirements to have lap/shoulder belts for every seat.
The measure would require all new limousines to meet safety requirements for seat strength and integrity. Another proposal would streamline the ability of inspectors to get unsafe limos off the roads and provide grants to states to beef up inspections.
A total of 20 people were killed in the crash — all 17 passengers, the driver for the limo company and two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store near state Routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie.
Also expressing support for that bill and several others designed to enhance the safety of limo passengers were U.S. Reps. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck; Elise Stefanik, R-North Country; and Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam.
Tonko, noting he has been a personal friend for years of several of the families who lost loved ones in the calamity, fought back tears as he said: "The anger we all feel about this is justified and we need to take action."
The proposed steps aimed at improving the safety of limousine passengers echoed some of the recommendations made by a Long Island grand jury in 2016 following a limo wreck that claimed the lives of four women. That grand jury urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to set up a task force that could strengthen safety regulations pertaining to the industry.
A task force was never created, however, and following the Schoharie crash, Cuomo told reporters that limousine regulation is the federal government's responsibility.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded in a report this week that new seatbelt and seating regulations are needed to enhance the safety of limo passengers.
A lawyer for one of the families that has mounted civil litigation in response to the tragedy has said state regulators were aware the vehicle had failed state inspections prior to the tragedy and their response was inadequate.
Schumer deflected a question about the role of the state government in the oversight of stretch limousines, noting it was a "solemn day."
"Were mistakes made in the past by federal agencies, state agencies? Yes" the senator acknowledged. "But we're moving forward in trying to get this done in the name of the people who were lost."
He said he was optimistic the package of legislation would be approved by both houses of Congress and sent to the desk of President Donald Trump.
"I don't know who is going to oppose us, but whoever it is we will fight them until we win," Schumer said.
The NTSB said in its report that "injuries to occupants within the passenger compartment might have been mitigated by a combination of adequate seat integrity, well-designed passenger lap/shoulder belts, and proper seatbelt use."
Speaking on behalf of the families who lost loved ones in the crash, Kevin Cushing of Saratoga Springs, whose 31-year-old son, Patrick, was among those killed, suggested prospective limo customers research the companies and choose operators based on safety records, not just the price.
Cushing voiced strong support for the new federal legislation, pointing out the families are not out to cripple the limousine industry and are instead advocating for needed measures that will address "the bad apples" with unsafe vehicles on the roads.
Nauman Hussain, the manager of Prestige Limousine, which owned the 18-year-old Ford Excursion limo involved in the crash, is slated to go on trial in March on multiple charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org