SCHOHARIE – Just days before the first anniversary of the Schoharie limousine crash that killed 20 people, the National Transportation Safety Board released initial recommendations that included higher seatbelt standards for limousines and a suggestion that New York state law require rear passengers to wear seat belts.
None of the 17 passengers in the stretched 2001 Ford Excursion, all of whom died, were wearing seatbelts, the federal safety agency found — but the lap belt systems in the vehicle were not properly designed, were inaccessible to the passengers, and were inadequate.
“The passenger seat belt systems in the Schoharie crash limousine were poorly designed and would not have provided adequate protection,” the NTSB stated in the report issued Wednesday morning.
“The Schoharie crash shows that a comprehensive solution is required to address the multiple occupant protection problems associated with seating systems in limousines that have been modified from other types of vehicles,” the report states. “Federal standards could provide such a solution. Therefore, the NTSB recommends that the (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration) 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 Excursion involved in the crash had been stretched after manufacturing to carry up to 18 passengers.
The crash on Oct. 6, 2018, occurred at the intersection of state routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie. Prosecutors believe the limo suffered catastrophic brake failure coming down the Route 30 hill and ran through a stop sign, crossing Route 30A and crashing into a ravine near the Apple Barrel Country store. The crash killed all 17 passengers, the driver, and two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel. The passengers were young adults, most from the Amsterdam area, on their way to a birthday party in Cooperstown.
The operator of the limousine company, Nauman Hussain, 29, of Cohoes, faces 20 counts of second-degree manslaughter and 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide, with a trial pending early next year in Scoharie County Court.
While Hussain is accused of allowing the vehicle on the road despite it having failed state inspections for issues including faulty brakes, the report makes clear that there are structural safety problems with many limousines.
The NTSB recommendations are interim findings. A final report on the tragic crash is still months away.
Among the recommendations released on Wednesday:
– The NHTSA should require lap/shoulder belts for all passenger positions on new vehicles modified into limousines. It says minimum performance standards should also be established for those belts.
– The National Limousine Association should educate its members on proper seat belt use, develop methods to ensure seat belts are accessible, and educate passengers on the importance of their use.
– The state Department of Transportation should add seat belts to the list of things they examine during the twice-annual mandated limousine inspections. While the crash limousine had failed state DOT inspections due to other issues, seat belts are currently part of the inspections.
– The state Legislature should adopt a law requiring rear passengers in New York state to wear seat belts. (State law requires only those under age 16 to wear belts if in the back seat.)
“It is disheartening to learn that some passenger vehicles are legally on the road that don’t offer passengers well-designed seats and seat belts,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt. “All vehicle occupants should have the same level of protection, wherever they are seated. Any everyone should use seatbelts whenever they are available.”
Local federal and state legislators all called for action based on the recommendations.
U.S. Rep. Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, who represented many of those who died, said he was encouraged to see progress “in bringing to light the causes that contributed to this unspeakable tragedy.”
“Today’s preliminary findings by the NTSB confirm what many of us have long-believed: the 20 souls lost to this tragedy were victims of a profoundly broken system that failed to establish or uphold even the most basic safety standards,” Tonko said. “Making matters worse, these findings show in heart-breaking fashion that incidents like this will continue to happen until we deal with America’s broken limousine safety standards and respond with clear, enforceable standards.”
“These findings by the National Transportation Safety Board only begin to describe the systematic failures that occurred on October 6, 2018 and the necessary work ahead to better protect our communities,” said U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, in whose district the crash occurred.
The state’s U.S. senators, Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, each urged action based on the recommendations.
“The NTSB’s new safety recommendations have shown us that we can, and absolutely must, do more to close the fatal gaps in limo-safety standards that contributed decisively to this tragedy,” said Schumer. “I’m inspired by the families of these victims who have, in the midst of their unimaginable suffering, made in their mission to increase the safety of these vehicles before more lives are lost, and am going to stand by their side every step of the way.”
In a statement, state DOT Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez said DOT and Gov. Andrew Cuomo strongly support seat belt use. She said inspection of the seat belts is already part of the DOT limousine inspections, and has been since the early 1990s.
“The seat belt requirement has been a top priority of this administration to ensure safety on our roads,” Dominguez said. “This past January, as part of the state budget, Governor Cuomo put forth strong legislation requiring that all occupants of all vehicles wear seat belts – the third year in a row in which he has called for strengthening the state’s seat belt laws.”
“The NYSDOT looks forward to working with the NTSB as we continue to fight for stronger vehicle safety protections for all New Yorkers,” she concluded.
Of the crash itself, the NTSB report found that went through the stop sign “considerably in excess of the posted limit,” which was 50 mph. In the crash, the limousine sustained severe damage to its front end, and driver Scott Lisinicchia could not have survived, but those further back might have. “Despite the severe damage and intrusion, rear portions of the passenger compartment remained relatively intact, maintaining space for the occupants to survive,” it said.
The Excursion itself was manufactured by Ford with standard safety features, and in early 2001 modified by 21st Century Coachworks of Springfield, Missouri. The factory frame was cut open and an additional 144 inches of frame rail installed to lengthen the vehicle and increase seating capacity from about 10 to 18 people.
The modifications included installing side- and rear-facing benches, a small table, and a refreshments bar. Some of the benches had lap seat belts, but not shoulder-lap belts, and they weren’t properly aligned to the seats – and under a loophole in federal law, stretched vehicles aren’t required to have standard shoulder-lap belts.
The investigators also found that the bench seats were attached to the floor only with screws, and the bench seats broke from the floor and flew toward the passengers due to the impact of the crash.
“Even in severe collisions such as this one, properly designed seats and seat belt systems have the potential to mitigate injuries and improve the chance of survival when occupant survival space is retained,” the report said.
“Injuries to occupants within the passenger compartment might have been mitigated by a combination of adequate seat integrity, well designed passenger lap/shoulder belts, and proper seat belt use,” the report stated. “These were not available in the crash limousine.”
The state Legislature this year was unable to agree on a number of limousine safety bills, though the issue is expected to come up again in January.
“Today’s release of the federal NTSB report on the horrific Schoharie limo crash last year and its recommendation for seat belts in all passenger positions in limousines is bittersweet and should be a wake-up call to the Senate and Assembly majorities to iron out their differences ASAP and get this legislation and other limo safety bills passed to protect the public and prevent further loss of life,” said state Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, introduced a number of limo safety bills last year, and said the NTSB report shows the need for immediate action. “This report is a wake–up call for how important this issue is,” he said. “It isn’t just a New York state issue, it’s a national issue.”
Up to now, Santabarbara said the problem has been the failure of the Assembly and Senate transportation committees to agree on bills that could pass both houses.
“We really need action right now,” he said.
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.
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