A driver without a proper license, a souped-up limousine that had failed inspection and didn’t have proper certification, and a troublesome intersection proved to be a tragic combination in upstate New York this weekend.
And now, in the nation’s deadliest transportation accident since 2009, 20 people are dead, including 17 passengers of a stretch limousine that was hired to safely transport them to a birthday celebration.
The horrific accident echoes the July 2015 Cutchogue crash in which four young women were killed when a stretch limousine making a U-turn was hit by a pickup truck. Then, the women were heading to North Fork wineries. This time, this group was going to a Cooperstown brewery. In both cases, young adults trying to be safe by not drinking and driving met death for their efforts.
The tragedy again puts a spotlight on stretch limos, which are often modified after they leave the factory, but inexplicably no longer have to meet the same state and federal vehicle standards for unmodified limousines. After the 2015 crash, the state improved some inspection laws and required the driver and front-seat passenger to wear seat belts. But the holes in the standards remain bigger than the limos themselves.
Federal law, for instance, doesn’t require large limousines to have seat belts for those who don’t face forward, and most seats do not. Such stretch limos often don’t have side air bags, either. Earlier this year, state lawmakers proposed a set of bills that contained additional limo safety measures. They never made it out of committee, in part due to insurance industry pushback.
After the 2015 accident, a Suffolk County grand jury made 24 recommendations, including improvements to the intersection in Cutchogue, as well as asking town, county and state lawmakers, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, for better regulation of the limousine industry. Among the recommendations were changes to civil and criminal laws and tougher standards for drivers. One request was for Cuomo to create a task force to study the safety of stretch limos. On Monday, we couldn’t find any information on whether that task force was ever convened.
The limousine involved in Saturday’s crash apparently didn’t even meet existing standards. Eighty percent of the cars at Prestige Limousine, the company involved, failed inspections. Federal safety inspectors are continuing their investigation, which could include findings of criminal negligence. But we’ve learned enough already to know that the limo industry must be better regulated when it comes to seat belts, air bags and vehicle structural integrity.
Among the victims of this weekend’s tragedy are many who weren’t in the limo — five children, as young as 16 months, who will have to live without one or both of their parents, and parents who will have to live without their children. That includes the staggering loss of four daughters and three sons-in-law in one family.
What more will it take before something changes?
— The editorial board