Crash victims' relatives push for limo safety measures

THE ASSOCIATED PRESSThis file photo from last October shows debris scattered near the site of the fatal limousine crash in Schoharie County. Relatives of the victims say state lawmakers have not done nearly enough to prevent such calamities.

SCHOHARIE -- Nine months after an out-of-control limousine crashed, killing 20 people in one of the worst motor vehicle mishaps in U.S. history, relatives of the victims say state lawmakers have not done nearly enough to prevent such calamities.

“We’re not going away,” said Kevin Cushing of Saratoga Springs, noting he and other family members of those killed Oct. 6 in the Schoharie catastrophe plan to bombard state leaders with requests urging them them to return to the statehouse.

His son, Patrick Cushing, a staffer with the state Senate and member of the Team USA Dodgeball team, and Patrick’s girlfriend, Amanda Halse, 26, were among the 17 passengers in the stretch limousine when it crashed near Route 30 and 30A in Schoharie. All of the passengers, the driver and two pedestrians in a restaurant parking lot who were hit by the vehicle were all killed that day.

In the closing weeks of the legislative session, the Assembly and Senate each passed a separate package of bills to address limo safety, regulatory oversight and insurance requirements. But only one piece of legislation matched up, leaving the other bills in limbo.

Kevin Cushing, whose son was 31 years old when he was killed, said the problem appears to be a lack of effective communication between the two legislative houses.

Several lawmakers agree that a special session is needed to deal with limousine legislation. However, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not signaled that he wants the members of the Senate and Assembly to return to the Capitol to deal with the unfinished agenda.

Joining the relatives of those killed in the Schoharie catastrophe in advocating for more stringent oversight of the limousine industry have been family members of four people who lost their lives in a horrific crash on Long Island in 2015. That calamity happened when a limo making a U-turn on a highway was rammed by a truck.

“We have 24 dead people now, and four more people (from the Long Island crash) who were very hurt emotionally and physically,” Cushing said. “And we think this issue is important enough for our lawmakers to communicate better and agree to bills that we think they can pass.”

He said he and other relatives of the victims were disappointed that the two houses did not reach agreement on measures that would have required drug and alcohol testing for limo drivers, boosted penalties for certain traffic infractions by limo operators, allowed the state to seize vehicles that flunked safety inspections and set up a mechanism for reporting safety concerns.

The lawmakers did embrace legislation authored by Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Albany, that imposed higher insurance liability requirements for limousine companies. “They passed the Breslin bill and then they left town,” Cushing said.

He added that family members view the bills that offer the best chance of getting to Cuomo’s desk as those being shepherded by Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Erie County, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Kennedy’s spokesman, Molly Hirschbeck Acton, said the senator would encourage Cuomo to consider seeking agreement on the nine limo-related bills that the Senate passed in June should a special session be called.

A Cuomo spokesman, Jason Conwall, pointed out that several measures were advanced by the governor in January to address limo safety.

“While it’s disappointing the legislature was unable to pass this legislation, the enacted budget included a number of new regulations that will improve safety across the industry and we will continue to engage with the legislature to adopt additional reforms,” Conwall said.

Tucked into the state budget that passed in March were several measures designed to improve limo safety. They included higher fines for violating state safety regulations and streamlining the process for taking unsafe limos off the road by revoking their registrations

State lawmakers pushing for tighter oversight of the industry acknowledge that the Schoharie disaster came after the limo involved failed two state inspections yet remained on the road despite being in disrepair.

In connection with the deaths, Nauman Hussain of Cohoes, the operator of Prestige Limousine, the company that owned the vehicle, is facing 20 counts of manslaughter and 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is slated to return to Schoharie County Court in October.

As it barreled into the parking lot of the Apple Barrel restaurant that day, the 34-foot Ford Excursion limo left no skidmarks. A subsequent examination of the wreckage indicated the vehicle had experienced catastrophic brake failure, according to court filings in the Hussain case.

The disaster took place in the district of Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, ranking GOP member of the Insurance Committee. Seward said it was “extremely disappointing” that the bills approved by the Senate did not end up getting passed by the Assembly and going to Cuomo for his signature.

“I would certainly return to Albany at any time to take action on meaningful reforms to make limousine passengers safer,” Seward said. “We should not be waiting for another tragedy. Action is needed now.”

Also urging that Albany take action on more limo measures sooner rather than later is Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam. Several relatives of those killed Oct. 6 live in his district.

“Session may have ended, but the Assembly and Senate Transportation Committees still have time to make this right,” Santabarbara said. “They should not wait any longer and come together to get these bills signed into law.”

Lawmakers have felt some pushback on proposed legislation from representatives of the limo industry. At a May legislative hearing, the director of the board overseeing the Limousine Bus Taxi Operators of Upstate New York, David Brown, stated: “I can wholeheartedly tell you that the last thing needed in New York state is more government regulations.”

As lawmakers returned to their home districts two weeks ago, relatives of victims in both the Schoharie and Long Island tragedies issued a statement lamenting the lack of legislative progress and suggesting both legislative chambers have dodged accountability. “Our disappointment now turns to anger as legislators finger-point and play the blame game,” they said.

In response to an inquiry from CNHI regarding the possibility of a special session, a spokeswoman for Speaker Carl Heastie issued an emailed reply, referring a reporter to a June 20 press release in which the Assembly leadership praised the one-house bills that chamber passed but are still snarled at the statehouse. Meanwhile, in Saratoga Springs, Kevin Cushing said he and other relatives of those killed in the Schoharie and Long Island wrecks will keep up the pressure on state leaders to reach consensus on new regulations for the industry.

“A lot of us have regular jobs and have families that we’re still raising,” Cushing said. “But when you have the memories of the children we have lost, the siblings we have lost, a spouse who was lost, we’re just not going to let this go.”

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.