The fatal October crash of a stretch limousine in New York has produced an enforcement crackdown on all passenger carriers, a tug-of-war between state and federal investigators and a governor’s proposals to drastically increase passenger carrier regulations and, of course, fees.
A stretched 2001 Ford Excursion raced through a stop sign, seemingly out of control, in Schoharie, New York, on Oct. 6. The limousine struck and killed two people in a parking lot and continued into a wooded area, where the driver and 17 passengers were killed.
The Excursion was owned by Prestige Limousine company of Saratoga Springs, New York. and had been hired to carry a birthday party to a brewery. New York State Police have not revealed possible causes for the crash.
Preliminary investigations by the New York State Police determined that Prestige had not obtained operating authority from the state and somehow had obtained inspection stickers without submitting the vehicle to required New York Department of Transportation semi-annual inspections for large passenger vehicles.
Police also reported that the limo had twice been ordered out of service last year during roadside inspections. The inspector said he placed “out of service vehicle” stickers on the windshield on both occasions after finding problems with the brakes and an emergency exit. The Excursion also was missing the required manufacturer’s tag from the company that had stretched it 200 inches.
The driver at the time of the crash was not properly licensed.
The accident prompted an enforcement crackdown on passenger carriers in New York, said Camilla Morris, president of the Bus Association of New York and manager of the Oneonta Division of Hale Transportation.
“All of a sudden the New York DOT went wild. The blame was placed federally, the blame was placed statewide. The DOT started to become very stringent in its regulations,” Morris said during the State Association Summit at Motorcoach EXPO 2019 in Orlando.
She said one of her association members was told to turn in the license plates for a motorcoach that had been involved in a collision but not repaired and resubmitted for inspection within 15 days.
“He was told his registration was null and void. Nobody had ever really heard of that going into effect before,” Morris said.
The dilemma was brought up during an association meeting with a state official. “We said it can take up to 30 days to get a motorcoach up and running again. Right there in the room we were told that there could be an extension to 30 days as long as we work with our local inspector. But nothing was put in writing.”
She advised fellow operators, “If you operate in New York state, be aware that things are changing on a daily basis because of this accident. Things are changing but aren’t being put into writing at this point.”
National Transportation Safety Board investigators were not given access to the limo for four months because the Schoharie County district attorney claimed the need to protect evidence for a criminal trial of the limousine company’s manager. Nauman Hussain is charged with criminally negligent homicide.
As the limousine remained parked under a tent at a state police post, the NTSB intervened with a Schoharie County Court judge in efforts to study the limo before evidence could be tainted. The judge encouraged the parties to work on a collaborative solution. During a conference call, District Attorney Susan Mallery reportedly hung up the phone on NTSB officials and an attorney for Prestige Limousine
In a letter to the court, Mallery accused NTSB of attempting to interfere with law enforcement. “While law enforcement and the defense proceeded to conduct and complete necessary inspections of the limousine, the NTSB unfortunately engaged in an extensive press campaign, seeking to coerce law enforcement to provide virtually unlimited access to the limousine. We simply cannot allow evidence to be tainted.”
According to the Albany Times-Union, NTSB General Counsel Kathleen Silbaugh responded in a letter to the court. “The NTSB is routinely granted access to necessary evidence from an accident and has a long history of working cooperatively with state and local authorities to accomplish our parallel missions without judicial intervention.”
Local media reported that NTSB apparently gained access to the Excursion on Feb. 5.
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo presented his annual budget and policy goals on Jan. 15, he called for a ban on stretched limousines.
“Other proposed measures included higher inspection fees; tougher fines; more power for state regulators to suspend operators and seize plates and vehicles; and new penalties for any inspection stations and vehicle operators who scam the system,” reported the Middletown Times Herald-Record.
State police said Prestige Limousine obtained inspection stickers from two repair shops that are not authorized to inspect such passenger vehicles.
Cuomo proposed that limousine and bus companies be charged $120 for each required semi-annual vehicle inspection. The state DOT does not currently charge for the inspections.