Adequate seats and belts may have saved lives in Schoharie limo crash

Many of the 17 passengers killed in a fatal limousine crash last year may have survived if they were wearing seatbelts and occupying seats that met safety standards applied to other classes of passenger vehicles, the National Transportation Safety Board has reported.

Most of the passengers occupied bench seats assembled from steel tubing that were torn apart by crash forces, even though people sitting on them were unbelted and hurled to the front of the passenger compartment.

The 17 passengers, the limo driver and two pedestrians were killed on Oct. 6, 2018, when the stretched 2001 Ford Excursion sped through a stop sign in Schoharie, New York, went through a parking lot and crashed in a wooded area.

The left front corner of the stretched Ford Excursion was pushed back 60 inches, leaving no survivable space for the driver, NTSB found. He was wearing his safety belts.

However, “Despite the severe damage and intrusion, rear portions of the passenger compartment remained relatively intact, maintaining space for occupants to survive,” according to the NTSB Safety Recommendation issued Sept. 13.

While five seats in the rear passenger compartment were original equipment that met federal safety standards, 14 seating positions added when the vehicle was stretched 144 inches did not meet federal standards. Because the lengthened Excursion weighed 13,080 pounds, it entered the category of mid-size buses, which is not as strictly regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Passenger vehicles that weigh 10,001 to 26,000 pounds “are not subject to some vehicle safety occupant, seat and safety belt standards that apply to other classes of vehicles, including occupant protection for rear passenger seats,” NTSB stated.

The Excursion was modified in 2001 by 21st Century Coachworks of Springfield, Missouri, according to NTSB.

Three bench seats in the limo were constructed of welded steel tubing and attached to the floor with screws, NTSB investigators found. During the crash, “The seat cushions separated from the seat frames, and the seat frames separated from their anchorage points, collapsed, and were displaced forward toward the passengers and the privacy divider.

“The mounting holes in the seat frame anchor straps were elongated, which released the screws that anchored the seat straps to the floor. Therefore, the strength of the non-OEM side- and rear-facing bench seats and their anchorages was inadequate to keep them secured to the floor during the collision, even without the additional loading that would have occurred with belted passengers.”

Meanwhile, the original-equipment rear seats that were installed at the Ford factory “remained attached to the floor and intact, despite experiencing some damage.”

The non-original seat belts installed during the stretch also were inadequate, the safety board reported.

“Post-crash examination of the non-OEM lap belts found that they were installed so that they did not line up appropriately with the seat positions to create adequate occupant loading geometry in the event of a crash. In some locations, the spacing between the anchorage points was extremely narrow, which would result in improper passenger positioning for seat belt effectiveness as well as interfere with the seating of adjacent occupants.

“For one lap belt, the space between the anchorage points was only 5.75 inches. When worn by occupants in a crash, lap belts with insufficient spacing between anchorage points can cause injuries to the user’s pelvis and abdomen.”

Seats and belts meeting the motor vehicle safety standards applied to smaller and larger vehicles may have protected many of the passengers killed at Schoharie, NTSB wrote.

“Because survival space was maintained in a portion of the passenger compartment and the passengers may have had an opportunity to ride-down the crash forces in the Schoharie crash, injuries to occupants within the passenger compartment might have been mitigated.

“NTSB concludes that the non-OEM seats and lap belt systems in the modified portion of the passenger compartment, including their structural anchorage points, were not properly designed for occupant crash protection.”

NTSB repeated recommendations made following previous fatal accidents involving limousines and mid-size buses.

“The Schoharie crash shows that a comprehensive solution is required to address the multiple occupant protection problems associated with seating systems on limousines that have been modified from other types of vehicles. Federal standards could provide such a solution. The NTSB recommends that NHTSA require that seating systems installed in new vehicles modified to be used as limousines meet minimum performance standards to ensure their integrity during a crash.”

The preliminary report also called upon New York state to enact legislation that provides primary enforcement for mandatory seat belt usage for all passenger positions equipped with belts.

Nauman Hussain, 28, manager of Prestige Limousine of Saratoga Springs, has pleaded not guilty to 20 counts of second-degree manslaughter and 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide for the crash. Hussain’s trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 6, 2020.

NTSB has not issued its findings on causation of the accident, but New York State Police blamed brake defects at all four wheels and reported that the limo had twice been ordered out of service last year during roadside inspections. Police found no tire skid marks at the crash scene, where the speed limit was 55 mph.

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