ALBANY — On May 2, some of the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers who lost 24 relatives, mostly young adults, in two horrific crashes of limousines on Long Island and in upstate Schoharie County since 2015 entered the State Legislature’s massive hearing room in a fury. Sometimes through tears, they demanded action on stalled bills to make the stretch limo business safer.
The emotional debate roiled Albany for months as few issues have in recent years. The fight was over whether stretch limos are rogue operators making a quick buck by taking short cuts on safety; or whether they are a godsend for limiting drinking and driving at weddings, parties and proms, but were now plagued by the tragic actions of a few “bad actors.”
“No more promises,” testified Susan Arundel of Setauket on May 2, holding a photo of her daughter, Alicia, shortly before the 2015 Cutchogue crash in which Alicia was seriously injured. “What are you going to do?”
Paul Schulman told legislators about how “every day, we walk around like zombies” unable to understand “why things haven’t changed” since the Cutchogue crash.
That day, legislators from both parties, from each chamber, promised action: “Hold our feet to the fire,” said State Sen. James Tedisco (R-Glenville)
Nine months after the upstate crash, and nearly five years after Cutchogue, the legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo enacted some measures, including banning U-turns — a factor in the Cutchogue crash. But the families and legislators who led the fight say the effort still came up short.
“We don’t have lobbyists,” said Nancy DiMonte, whose daughter survived the Long Island crash with serious injuries. “All we have is our injured or deceased children … who is going to be able to feel what we feel?”
The Schoharie County crash, which drew international headlines, reignited the effort by families from the Cutchogue crash to push for tough, new safety standards. The Senate and Assembly introduced more than a dozen bills. Cuomo called for a ban on stretch limos and included several safety bills in his state budget proposal, including creating a Class E felony for operating a limo where the driving causes the death of another person.
The legislature dropped the ban idea, but agreed to several measures on April 1, including the ban on U-turns. The budget deal created a new state inspection fee of $85 for limos, which was a compromise from Cuomo’s proposed $120 fee, authorized the state to remove 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.
The legislature, however, promised to take up more proposals by the scheduled end of the legislative session on June 19, after holding a hearing.
On June 6, the Senate overwhelmingly passed nine bills and sent them to the Assembly for passage. The Senate bills included requiring limo drivers to obtain commercial driver's licenses with a passenger endorsement, installation of seat belts in any stretch limos that can carry nine or more passengers as well as crash support bars and push-out escape windows, the authority to immobilize or impound a limo with a horn defect or violation that is supposed to put the car out of service, a higher minimum insurance liability for limos that can transport eight or more passengers and increased financial and criminal liability for making U-turns.
But the additional bills passed by the Senate in June weren’t the same as the Assembly versions, as required for a floor vote, and most had no Assembly sponsors. Only the bill requiring more insurance passed both houses in June before the legislative session ended, with the families asking why.
Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) said the rush at the end of the session requiring legislators to divide their attention ended up in miscommunications and hard decisions on whether to compromise, or to try for better measures in January, when the legislature is scheduled to reconvene
“I chose to talk to the family members and get guidance from them, and they said they would rather wait for January,” Gaughran said after the session ended. “And we’ll just push, push.”
“We’ve been pretty aggressive, saying we want to talk,” said Kevin Cushing, father of Patrick Cushing of Amsterdam, who died in the Schoharie County crash. “We haven’t heard a peep.”
Cushing added: “We’re not going away.”
“I don’t know if I agree wholeheartedly with the advocates on this,” said Assembly Transportation Committee chairman William Magnarelli (D-Syracuse). “I feel for their losses and I know they are sincere with what they want to do. But on the other hand, we have to take a good look at this.”
The families say, “‘You are in the pockets of the industry’ and that is far from the truth,” Magnarelli said.
State lobbying and campaign contribution records show no influx of money from limo companies or trade groups.
“This is an industry that does good things,” Magnarelli said in an interview. “We’re keeping people safe. So we had a bad actor … do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? Or do we try to make it right?”
He said limo companies supported several bills, including making sure there are more and better safety inspections that could sideline limos until repairs are made.
“They said, ‘Raise all the penalties, throw people in jail,’” Magnarelli said. “That’s the other side of the story that no one hears.”
“For the most part,” Magnarelli said, “from what I’ve seen, this industry acts pretty responsibly … it’s not like we ignored it or that nothing has been done.”
Trade associations didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Tedisco, who called for legislators’ feet to be held to the fire, is now trying to get the legislature to return in a special session to address limo safety. There has been no movement by Cuomo or legislative leaders to do so.
“I come from sports,” Tedisco said in an interview. “You learn if the individual doesn’t care who gets the credit, the group can achieve incredible results … Let’s get this done as soon as possible in memory of the victims and to prevent future tragedies.”