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Lesson of fatal crash: Require stretch limos to be safer

From left, Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park,

From left, Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park, and Lauren Baruch, 24, of Smithtown, died Saturday, July 18, 2015, after their limo collided with a truck driven by a suspected drunken driver in Cutchogue. Credit: Family photos / Randee Daddona

The four young women who died in a ghastly collision between a pickup truck and a limousine on the North Fork in July 2015 tried to be safe and responsible. The group, which also included four women who were injured but survived, hired a stretch limousine to ferry them on a winery tour. While it let them avoid drinking and driving, that decision also subjected them to other risks that shouldn’t have existed, and which must be eliminated.

A special grand jury report released Tuesday by Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota called for changes to help prevent such crashes. They include making it illegal for limousines to make U-turns, redesigning intersections on Route 48 to prevent left turns in front of oncoming high-speed traffic, and stricter licensing of limo drivers.

These changes ought to be made, but the change that could save the most lives, by addressing the most important problem cited in the report, will be the hardest to enact. When limousines are stretched by aftermarket manufacturers, federal and state laws must require that they meet the highest possible safety standards. This is not the case today.

Spota’s report said an intrusion bar in the crash limousine, which is supposed to protect passengers, was weak and far too low. And stretch limousines often lack side air bags and enough exits. Sen. Chuck Schumer called on the National Transportation Safety Board to begin investigating limousine accidents after the Cutchogue crash, and it is now doing so, but more urgency is needed in assessing those investigations and writing new rules.

Limousines are often hired by people trying to be careful. State and federal laws ought to demand that the vehicles meet safety standards just as strict after they are modified as when they were manufactured.

— The editorial board