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Stretch-limo industry remains stuck in regulatory black hole

"Absolutely nothing has changed" more than three years after deadly North Fork limo crash, says Penny Casey, Long Island Limousine Association president.

Scene of the deadly limousine crash on the

Scene of the deadly limousine crash on the North Fork on 2015. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

More than three years after a North Fork limousine crash killed four young women, the safety and oversight of the supersized luxury vehicles remain dangerously lax despite calls for action, transportation advocates and industry experts say.

Critics of the stretch-limo industry contend the vehicles, which can carry 15 to 20 passengers, operate in a regulatory black hole, with no requirements dictating the use of seat belts in the rear compartment or the installation of side air bags as well as other safety features such as additional rear exits.

The safety of stretch limousines is under scrutiny again after 18 people in a limo and two pedestrians were killed Oct. 6 when their modified 2001 Ford Excursion, packed with friends and family celebrating a 30th birthday, crashed in upstate Schoharie in the most deadly U.S. transportation accident in nearly a decade.

The upstate crash had familiar echoes to many Long Islanders.

On July 18, 2015, a stretch limo heading east on Route 48 in Cutchogue during a winery tour made a U-turn and collided with a pickup truck. Lauren Baruch, 24, of Smithtown; Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack; Brittany Schulman, 23, of Smithtown; and Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park, were killed and four others injured.

A Suffolk County grand jury investigating the crash found “the deaths were entirely preventable, caused by driver failure, improper limousine construction and inadequate regulatory oversight.”

Despite recommendations by the grand jury, including calls for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to assemble a task force on limousine safety, little was done to reform the industry, limousine company officials said. A Cuomo spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

“Absolutely nothing has changed as a result of the 2015 crash,” said Penny Casey, president of the Long Island Limousine Association, which represents 70 area limo companies. “It seems to have fallen through the cracks.”

After the crash the victims’ families created an online petition called LABS — the first names of the four women killed — to bring attention to the dangers of stretch limousines. More than three years later, family members said they feel let down by regulators and elected officials who promised change.

“How many more accidents need to happen before people realize these vehicles are not safe?” said Nancy DiMonte of Elwood, whose daughter, Joelle, was seriously injured in the crash of the modified Lincoln Town Car. “Last weekend’s crash was preventable. And that’s the most frustrating part.”

Gaps in safety

The Ford Excursion was a 17-year-old stretch limousine with a history of state and federal safety violations when it ran a stop sign at a T-intersection of two rural highways, ran over two pedestrians, killing them, and struck an unoccupied parked car, killing all 18 in the limo, police said.

On Wednesday, Nauman Hussain, operator of Saratoga County-based Prestige Limousine, which owned the Ford Excursion, was charged with criminally negligent homicide. State Police said Hussain put the limo on the road, even after it failed a safety inspection and allowed the driver, who was killed in the crash, to operate even though he lacked proper licensing and certification.

Hussain’s defense attorney, Lee Kindlon, said the company asserts the limo had passed inspection and was authorized to be on the road and that a more complete investigation would have shown all records were in order. Hussain pleaded not guilty and was released on bail, which had been set at $50,000 cash and $150,000 bond.

State Police said it is not yet clear if the victims of last week’s crash were wearing seat belts.

Under federal and state law, large limousines are not required to have seat belts for passengers who don’t face forward — a configuration common in stretch limousines, which have occupants facing to the rear of the vehicle and in bench seats along the sides.

The only legislation passed in response to the Suffolk crash would have done little to prevent it or other similar crashes, advocates said.

In 2017, state lawmakers passed a bill requiring the operators of taxis, liveries, buses and large limos have seat belts for passengers younger than 16 when they sit in the front seat. These vehicles had previously been exempted.

“New York State owes it to those 20 victims and their loved ones to learn from this tragedy,” said state Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn), the sponsor of the bill who plans to push for enhanced seat belt usage.

Raul Arbelaez, vice president of the vehicle research center at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said during a limo crash the rear occupants become “projectiles” that are hurled across the vehicle at high rates of speed.

But with stretch-limousine occupants often celebrating proms, weddings or birthdays, getting passengers to wear safety belts is a challenge. An Institute survey found nearly 30 percent of occupants in for-hire vehicles don’t regularly wear seat belts in the back seat.

“The law should require everyone to wear a seat belt,” said Jack Byrnes, a part-time limousine driver from East Northport. “But the question is, ‘Can you get them to use them?’ The answer is ‘unlikely.’”

'Frankenstein' limos

To make a stretch limousine, builders, known as “upfitters,” literally saw in half vehicles such as Lincoln Town Cars. During the modification process, plates and steel bars are installed to extend the roof, floor, windows and suspension system, and the vehicle is welded back together.

The end result is a “Frankenstein” system of vehicle reconstruction, said Deborah Hersman, president and chief executive of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit road safety group.

“When they chop up these vehicles, they remove key safety features like seat belts and air bags that undermine the safety of these vehicles,” Hersman said.

While limousines must meet strict federal safety standards when first manufactured, there is little regulatory oversight when they are modified.

“Once they start stretching, the vehicles don’t fall within Department of Transportation regulations,” Casey said. “Everything changes.”

DiMonte wants legislation mandating manufacturers build stretch limousines from scratch, with all of the safety and crash tests associated with other factory vehicles.

“We need stronger engineered vehicles on the road,” she said. “They can’t be stretched so that they’re paper-thin on the side.”

Few regulations

According to limousine industry figures, one in four accidents are side impacting, but side air bags are not included during a vehicle’s secondary alteration. Vehicle designers told the Suffolk grand jury it is difficult to determine the best locations for an air-bag system without knowing how the vehicle would be altered and where passengers will be seated.

The grand jury also found that while side-impact crash tests are performed on the base car, they rarely occur after the vehicle is modified.

To protect passengers from side-impact collisions, manufacturers install anti-intrusion bars inside a vehicle’s doors and side panels. But the bar was little help to the passengers in the North Fork crash as investigators found it was placed so low — 21 inches off the ground — that the pickup truck went over it, rather than into it.

“Regulation regarding the placement of the intrusion bar is absolutely nonexistent,” former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said during a 2016 news conference.

A limo constructor told the grand jury that steel beams found in the doors of most modern vehicles are not as strong in limos because the added weight would make the vehicles too heavy to meet federal safety standards.

The federal and state government does not regulate standards for side-impact anti-intrusion beams on stretch limousines. New York also does not require additional exits, apart from the two rear doors with manual handle releases.

Oversight lacking

Critics say the stretch-limousine industry is in need of oversight.

“There remains huge gaps in the oversight and regulation of vehicles for hire,” Hersman said. “Consumers deserve to know the safety of the vehicles and of the operators they are contracting with.”

The federal and state transportation departments did not respond to requests for comment regarding their oversight of the stretch-limousine industry. The state classifies stretch or modified vehicles seating 10 or more passengers as buses that are regulated exclusively by the Department of Transportation.

Limo operators contend New York has among the toughest standards nationwide for vehicle and driver safety. The state inspects limos carrying 10 or more passengers every six months, including brakes, tires and lighting, while drivers are subject to background checks, safety training and random drug testing.

Following the North Fork crash, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) successfully pushed the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate limousine accidents. But three years later, Schumer said not enough has changed.

“I think this crash will force the NTSB to promulgate some changes to the industry,” said Schumer, who wants stretch limousines to have side-impact air bags, reinforced rollover protection bars, and structurally sound frames. “We can’t wait any longer.”

With Michael Gormley

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