Two years ago last week, the brakes on a limousine carrying 17 passengers celebrating a 30th birthday failed. The vehicle, which had been chopped in half, extended, and rewelded together, careened down a hill and across a parking lot in upstate Schoharie at more than 100 mph. The driver, Scott Lisniccia, was killed, along with all passengers and two pedestrians.
It was the nation’s deadliest transportation accident since 2009, and subsequent investigations uncovered startling transgressions on the part of the driver, the limousine company and the industry that should have barred any party trip piloted by Lisniccia in that limo.
The driver was not licensed to operate vehicles carrying so many passengers, and had so many traffic tickets that only a clerical error allowed him to keep his license. The vehicle was repeatedly cited as defective by state officials, with the brakes failing inspections more than once, and it had its insurance coverage revoked six times in the year before the accident.
On Long Island, a 2015 limousine accident in Cutchogue killed four young women and spurred calls for changes which went mostly unanswered. The Schoharie deaths reopened those wounds and renewed efforts at tougher regulations.
On the state level, those changes were mostly delivered in January. Now in New York:
- Passengers in limousines must wear seat belts, and causing death or injury while operating a vehicle under suspension or without proper permitting is a felony
- The state can revoke registrations of vehicles that don’t meet safety standards and seize license plates of any altered limousine in violation of safety requirements
- Limousine drivers must have an appropriate commercial driver’s license and pass drug and alcohol testing and the state Department of Transportation can seize any stretched limousine with an "out of service" defect
But attempts at legislating a federal crackdown failed, thanks largely to a White House and GOP focused on eliminating, not adding, regulations.
Federal standards are crucial to properly oversee the largely unregulated business of extending limousines, often done without adding stability bars to the sides of the vehicles, reinforcing brake systems, and installing enough proper safety belts.
A National Transportation Safety Board review one year after the Schoharie accident called on the state and federal government for new laws and better oversight. But another follow-up report by the NTSB this month faulted the state, which has made changes, and gave a pass to the federal government, which has not.
While new laws were needed, the laws in place in 2018 were strict enough to prevent these casualties. But on both the state and federal level, audits show there is scarcely any follow-up after drivers and limousine companies are cited, and authorities rarely confirm that requested repairs are made or that vehicles ordered off the road stay parked.
Some new laws were needed. Some still are. But enforcing laws, while often harder than passing them, is the real key to cleaning up this industry and saving lives.
— The editorial board