ALBANY — Mothers and fathers from Long Island and upstate who lost their children in limousine crashes since 2015 pushed state senators Thursday to enact safety measures that could include seat belts, escape hatches, consumer reports on the car and driver, and criminal charges for unscrupulous limo operators.
Meanwhile, limousine operators said the industry is already over-regulated, and that the fault lies with state regulators who allow the worst operators to fail repeated inspections while remaining on the road.
The parents came to Albany to testify because they said avoiding another horrific limo crash this prom and graduation season is one of the things that keeps them going as they continue to be gripped in tragedy.
“Every day, we walk around like zombies, not understanding … why things haven’t changed,” said Paul Schulman. His daughter Brittney, 23, and three other young women died in a Cutchogue crash in July 2015. Four other people were injured.
“If things were done then, we would not be here today,” said Janet Steenburg. Her sons, Axel and Rich, and Axel’s wife, Amy, where among 20 people who died in a Schoharie County crash last fall. “October 6 is our nightmare. Without action, the next nightmare might be yours.”
Senate Transportation Committee chairman Timothy Kennedy (D-Buffalo) said the State Legislature will focus on bills that would require seat belts, air bags, escape hatches and windows that open inward, along with more support frames.
State Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) said additional measures could include requiring all limo drivers to earn commercial driver’s licenses, automatic “booting” of limos that fail inspections so they can’t be driven, and a report on the background of the car and driver provided to customers.
Kennedy said the Senate “will advance legislation as quickly as possible this legislative session.”
“We’ve had some tragic incidents,” Gaughran said. “We need to get this right, we need to fix this, so this tragedy doesn’t happen again … we need to move quickly.”
“Hold our feet to the fire,” said State Sen. James Tedisco (R-Glenville) to the families. “None of us can understand the impact or the horror.”
Limousine operators, however, urged legislators to avoid a “knee-jerk reaction” to further regulate what they say is already a heavily regulated industry. The operators cited the limo in Schoharie County crash; state officials have said it had previously failed several inspections.
“New York State had to, right there and then, pull the plates off that SUV and did not,” said David Brown, president of Premiere Transportation and a board director of the Limousine, Bus, Taxi Operators of Upstate New York. “This was six months before that Schoharie accident … nothing was done.”
The state Department of Transportation, which regulates limousines, denied blame. “The state of New York took action that was appropriate under current law at the time,” said Executive Deputy Commissioner Ron Epstein. He said the operator “went around the law.”
A criminal case continues that could determine fault, Epstein said.
The department is already working on requiring seat belts in all limos and an improved website for consumers to evaluate companies. Epstein also noted that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature adopted several measures in the new state budget, including more stringent criminal measures for noncompliance on safety issues, requiring more liability insurance, and banning limos from making U-turns, which contributed the Cutchogue crash.
Susan Arundel of Setauket placed in front of legislators an 8-by-10-inch framed photo of her daughter, Alicia, and her friends, all laughing at an event they attended not long before the Cutchogue crash in which Alicia was seriously injured.
“Four lives that were lost, four lives forever changed,” she said. “But that’s not really true because it is not just the four lives, but the lives of those left behind who will never be the same.”
“No more promises,” she said. “So what are you going to do?”