NTSB calls for stronger limo safety measures

The Associated PressIn this Oct. 7, 2018 file photo, a New York state trooper and members of the National Transportation Safety Board view the scene of a fatal crash that killed 20 people in Schoharie, N.Y. The National Transportation Safety Board called Wednesday for new seat belt requirements for limousines almost a year after a Ford Excursion SUV that had been modified into a huge stretch limo blew through a T-intersection in rural Schoharie and went into the woods. 

ALBANY -- The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday if New York had a stronger seatbelt requirement for limousines, some passengers might have been spared in the horrific crash that took 20 lives nearly a year ago in the upstate town of Schoharie.

The NTSB, while still investigating the cause of the Oct. 6, 2018 one-vehicle crash, also called for new national requirements for both seating and seatbelt systems installed on limousines. The safety watchdog cited evidence culled not only from the Schoharie crash but also limousine accidents in Illinois and New Jersey.

The Schoharie crash involved a 2006 Ford Excursion that had been stretched to boost its passenger capacity. State officials have said the vehicle, carrying a party of 17 people who were headed to Brewery Ommegang near Cooperstown, ran off the road and careened into the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store, due to catastrophic brake failure.

Two pedestrians were also killed, as was the vehicle's 53-year-old driver.

The report noted that most seat belts in the limo were "under the bench seats and invisible to passengers."

The NTSB is expected to make an independent determination of the cause of the crash at a later point, Christopher O'Brien, an NTSB spokesman in Washington, said.

The long-awaited federal study into passenger safety said the state Department of Transportation, an agency under the control of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, should begin including seat functionality in the inspection protocol for limousines.

The report was issued on a day when relatives of the passengers killed were preparing for Saturday, the somber one-year anniversary of one of the nation's worst highway calamities in history.

Kevin Cushing of Saratoga Springs, whose son, Patrick Cushing, was among those killed, said he is eager to see state lawmakers tighten up regulations to address deficiencies that have been identified with limousine safety.

"We're trying to be patient, although we would like to see this happen sooner, because we never want to see this happen again," Cushing told CNHI.

Dramatically illustrating the role of belts in keeping passengers fastened into vehicles during crashes, the NTSB report highlighted the fact that "a large portion of the limousine’s passenger compartment was not compromised by intrusion and retained survival space."

Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, said he's pushing for a more stringent inspection process for limousines operating in New York as well as an expansion of lap and shoulder belt mandates for passengers, suggesting the safety devices could have saved lives.

"It's imperative that we take definitive action to prevent future tragedies," he said.

None of the passengers were wearing lap/shoulder belts at the time of the crash, the NTSB reported.

The federal investigation also determined side- and rear-facing bench seats added to the limousine when it was stretched "failed in the direction of the crash forces," with their anchorages "inadequate" to hold them in place.

However, the original Ford factory passenger seats in the rear of the vehicle remained intact, and were still attached to the floor when it was examined, the report noted.

The NTSB urged the National Limousine Association, a trade group, to educate its members on the benefits of seat belts and recommended they find ways to ensure belts are functional and accessible to passengers.

"The bottom line is that we know that seat belts save lives," said Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale. She noted she pushed for legislation this year that would require limousines to be equipped and accessible to all passengers in the vehicles, along with signs urging passengers to fasten the devices.

The manager of the limousine company that owned the vehicle, Nauman Hussain, has been charged with criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter in connection with the deaths.

Hussain, 29, had been slated to go on trial January 6. But the trial date was rescheduled Wednesday by Schoharie County Judge George Bartlett III. He directed it begin March 9 instead.

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

Recommended for you