SCHOHARIE – Federal legislators are again pushing for Congressional action on limousine safety, after a U.S. Department of Transportation agency last month declined to adopt new seatbelt and seat strength regulations in response to the 2018 Schoharie crash that claimed 20 lives.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration concluded that there wasn’t sufficient evidence that seat belt or seat strength improvements would have made a difference in the outcome of the devastating Oct. 6, 2018, crash at the intersection of state Routes 30 and 30A.
That has prompted U.S. Rep. Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, and the state’s two U.S. senators to renew calls for Congress to pass three bipartisan limousine safety bills they introduced in 2019, but which have not moved forward,
“If the NHTSA is unable or unwilling to respond to protect the public from critical safety deficiencies, Congress must act,” said Tonko, whose 20th Congressional District was home to most of the young adults killed in the crash, who were taking a Columbus Day birthday celebration trip from Amsterdam to Cooperstown.
U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand urged the NHTSA to reverse its decision, noting that there is a “loophole” in seatbelt regulations for multi-passenger vehicles weighing between 10,000 pounds and 26,000 pounds — a category that included the 13,000-pound 2001 Ford Excursion involved in the Schoharie crash. Vehicles in that weight category, which the federal government considers “mid-size buses,” are not required to have a seat belt for each passenger.
“NHTSA’s decision not to address this ‘limo loophole’ is baffling and dangerous to limousine passengers,” the senators wrote in a letter Tuesday to NHTSA Acting Administrator James C. Owens.
“I am working with my colleagues in the New York delegation to pass legislation in Congress to require NHTSA to implement these lifesaving recommendations,” Gilli-brand said in a separate statement.
The calls for Congressional action come after Owens, in a March 10 letter to the National Transportation Safety Board, said there was insufficient justification for the seatbelt and seat strength changes the NTSB recommended last October, in a preliminary report on the Schoharie crash.
Owens noted the NTSB report didn’t address the cause of the high-impact crash, which a state police criminal investigation determined was likely due to brake failure while coming down a long hill, with the failure stemming from poor vehicle maintenance.
Limo company owner Nauman Hussain faces second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges in Schoharie County Court; pre-trial proceedings there are on hold because the novel coronavirus pandemic has shut down most state courts.
“The Schoharie bus was equipped with the belts that the recommendation seeks to require of such vehicles,” Owens wrote. “Regrettably, no passengers were wearing the seat belts, and the non-use of the belts would not have been corrected by adopting the recommendation.”
There are also concerns about whether lap-shoulder belts are effective in vehicles with side seating, as is found in many limousines, Owens noted.
“The Safety Recommendation does not show that belt use would have caused the passengers to survive such a high-severity crash,” Owens wrote.
In response to a similar, earlier limousine seat belt recommendation unrelated to the Schoharie crash, in 2019 the NHTSA concluded that requiring seat belts in stretch limousines “may not be cost effective at likely belt use rates,” Owens noted.
Whether vehicle occupants are required to wear a seat belt has historically been an issue left to states rather than the federal government, and New York state has a new limousine seat belt law.
A package of laws in response to the Schoharie crash, approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in January, address the seat belt requirement in New York state, and will also require that passengers riding in a limousine wear their seat belts, starting next January, so a federal regulation change would not have a direct impact in New York state.
The NTHSA also rejected an NTSB recommendation to strengthen seating support in limousines. The seats in the Schoharie limo crash broke away from the floor, according to the NTSB investigation, and that may have contributed to the death toll, since the investigation found most of the passenger space itself did not sustain catastrophic damage.
Owens, however, concluded that the NTSB findings “are not sufficient to establish that there is an unmet safety need related to seat strength of passenger seats in medium-size buses or side-facing passenger seats.” Owens also noted that there are a relatively small number of stretch limousines on the road, and their involvement in serious crashes is low.
“Based on the available information, NHTSA has decided not to pursue the requested seating system requirements at this time,” Owens wrote.
The NTSB still has another chance to respond to the letter, which was sent to NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt III.
“It’s disheartening to learn that some passenger vehicles are legally on the road that don’t offer passengers well-designed seats and seat belts,’’ Sumwalt said when the NTSB recommendation was released last October. “All vehicle occupants should have the same level of protection, wherever they are seated. And everyone should use seat belts whenever they are available.”
The Schoharie crash killed the driver, all 17 passengers in the limousine, and two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store, which is directly across Route 30A from the Route 30 intersection.
Reach staff writer Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.