CAPITAL REGION — A bipartisan group of three Capital Region members of Congress on Tuesday questioned the National Highway Transportation Administration’s failure to adopt new seat belt and seat strength guidelines in the wake of the deadly 2018 Schoharie limousine crash.
“NHTSA’s mission is to save lives and prevent injuries,” the representatives wrote in a letter to NHTSA acting Administrator James C. Owens. “But rather than proactively seeking to investigate and address clear limousine safety hazards endangering the public, NHTSA continues to justify inaction.”
The letter was signed by U.S. Reps. Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, and Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville.
While Tonko and Delgado have been an opposite ends of the ideological spectrum from Stefanik, the three have been working together in response to the Oct. 6, 2018 limousine crash at the intersection of routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie that claimed 20 lives.
The letter also puts Delgado and Stefanik on record as questioning the NHTSA’s refusal to adopt new seat belt and seat safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board in response to the crash, the deadliest transportation accident in the United States in nearly a decade. All three have co-sponsored a package of limousine safety legislation that was introduced last fall, but has yet to move forward in Congress.
Last week, Tonko and U.S. Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand spoke out after a letter from Owens to the NTSB, saying the findings would not be adopted, became public.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration preliminarily concluded that there wasn’t sufficient evidence that seat belt or seat strength improvements would have made a difference in the outcome of the crash.
In what the legislators call a “loophole” in federal seatbelt regulations, 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 — are not required to have a seat belt for each passenger.
Owens, in a March 10 letter to the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, said there was insufficient justification for the seat belt and seat strength changes the NTSB recommended last October, in a preliminary report on the Schoharie crash.
The NTSB is an independent federal transportation safety investigation agency, while the NHTSA is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Owens noted that 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.”
“The Safety Recommendation does not show that belt use would have caused the passengers to survive such a high-severity crash,” Owens wrote.
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.”
On Tuesday, an NHTSA statement in response to a Daily Gazette inquiry said an investigation is on-going.
“The Schoharie crash of the 2001 Fort Excursion stretch limousine crash was a horrific, high-speed crash that tragically killed 20 people, including the driver. NHTSA welcomes NTSB’s analysis of this tragedy, and continues to pursue its own Special Crash Investigation of this crash and will determine if any necessary actions are required upon the completion of our investigation and analysis,” the agency said.
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.