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Feds call for mandatory seat belt use in limousines in wake of crashes

ALBANY — The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of an upstate limousine crash last year that killed 20 people recommends that New York enact and aggressively enforce a mandatory seat belt law for limos.

“If seat belts on limousines are not readily accessible to the passengers, they are unlikely to be worn,” states the national board’s report released this week. “Extending New York’s mandatory seat belt use laws with primary enforcement for all limousine passengers in all seating positions would decrease fatalities.” The report further recommended that the state bolster inspections and enforcement to “ensure that seat belts are functional and accessible in all limousines.”

On Oct. 6, a stretch limousine crashed with a sport utility vehicle at a rural intersection in Schoharie County, leaving the driver, all 17 passengers, and two pedestrians dead.

The victims included young couples who had rented the limo to celebrate a friend's birthday and avoid having anyone drink and drive. Rented limos have become increasingly popular for proms, weddings and winery tours.

The Cuomo administration on Tuesday blamed the legislature for failing to include mandatory seat belt use in several laws passed since the Schoharie crash and a fatal 2015 limousine crash in Cutchogue. In the Long Island crash, four young people were killed when their stretch limo attempted a U-turn and was hit by another vehicle. The families of the victims and survivors of both crashes have banded together to seek tougher safety laws, including mandatory seat belt use.

“Lap/shoulder belts should be installed as standard equipment for all passenger seating positions in limousines,” stated the NTSB report, which focused on vehicles that are mechanically “stretched” into longer limousines to carry more passengers. “The non-original equipment manufacturer seats and lap belt systems in the modified portion of the passenger compartment, including their structural anchorage points, were not property designed for occupant crash protection.”

State Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez said Tuesday that the state has included reviews of seat belts in its inspections of limos since the early 1990s. She also said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has sought a law requiring mandatory seat belt use in limousines for three years.

“It is extremely unfortunate these important measures have been repeatedly rejected by the legislature,” she stated. “We urge all lawmakers to join this crucial public safety effort and finally pass the requirement into law during the next session.”

In the state budget agreement in April, Cuomo and the legislature enacted some measures, including banning U-turns, and a requirement that limo companies carry more insurance. They also created a new state inspection fee of $85 for limos, authorized the state to remove the license plates of limos that fail inspections, and toughened criminal penalties for intentionally evading safety measures. The deal also included a plan to develop a more visible sticker that shows if a limo has passed inspections.

Late in the legislative session, however, the Senate and Assembly failed to agree on several additional proposals. They included requiring limo drivers to obtain commercial driver's licenses and be certified to carry passengers, installation of seat belts in any stretch limos that can carry nine or more passengers, and installation of crash support bars and push-out escape windows. The bills also would have given the state the authority to immobilize or impound a limo with defects that are supposed to put the car out of service. 

As part of that late-session debate, the Senate also proposed the mandatory seat belt law for limos.

“We passed a bill last year and we plan on working with the Assembly to pass it again,” said Michael Murphy, spokesman for the Senate’s Democratic majority.

There was no immediate comment from the Assembly’s Democratic majority.

"The bottom line is that we know that seat belts save lives," said Assemb. Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale), who had proposed a mandatory seat belt law for limos. "We should not let another legislative session pass before taking the steps that we know will keep our loved ones safe when riding in a stretch limousine."

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