SCHOHARIE — Backers of congressional action to close the limousine seat belt “loophole” reported progress on Wednesday, with language closing the loophole expected to be included in a proposed $500 billion surface transportation bill.
The National Transportation Safety Board, meanwhile, is standing by its recommendation that new national standards for limousine seat belts be developed in the wake of the 2018 Schoharie limousine crash that killed 20 people.
NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt III, in a May 26 letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, urged the NHTSA to move toward implementing earlier recommendations the NTSB issued in October 2019, including requiring seat belts for all passengers in stretch-limousine-size vehicles.
The “loophole” in federal seat belt regulations involves 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.
However, the stretched Excursion involved in the crash was equipped with seat belts, but none of them was being used by the 17 passengers, who were going to a birthday celebration in Cooperstown. The crash also killed the driver and two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store.
The seat belt loophole could be closed by Congress, and a bipartisan group of Capital Region federal legislators — U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam; U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Saratoga; and U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck — has proposed doing just that. That and other measures to improve limousine safety are now moving forward in the House, Tonko and Delgado said Wednesday.
The measures are included in the text of the nearly $500 billion, five-year surface transportation funding bill introduced Wednesday in the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure. The bill, being called the INVEST in America Act, will go through committee markup on June 17. The current federal transportation bill expires Sept. 30.
“This set of common-sense limousine safety reforms is long overdue,” Tonko said.
“I’m glad to see the End the Limousine Loophole Act included in this important infrastructure bill,” Delgado said, in a joint statement with Tonko.
Another measure endorsed by Tonko, Delgado and Stefanik and included in the bill would promote funding to support states’ efforts to impound or immobilize vehicles that fail inspection for critical safety reasons, as the Schoharie vehicle had.
The fate of the new surface transportation bill will remain uncertain until the House passes it and the Senate takes it up.
In the meantime, the NHTSA has the power to close the loophole through administrative rule-making, as the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended — but has so far resisted.
The NHTSA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation, 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.
In March, NHTSA Acting Administrator James C. Owens rejected the recommendations, saying, in part, that the Schoharie crash was so severe that improved seat belts would not have made in a difference in anyone surviving the crash.
In his new letter, Sumwalt urged Owens to reconsider. The letter was released late Tuesday by Tonko, who represented many of those who died in the crash, most of whom were from the Amsterdam area.
“We are disappointed that you chose not to pursue research to determine the safety benefits of enhanced limousine safety systems,” Sumwalt concluded his letter to the NHTSA. “We urge you to reconsider your position and to work to implement the recommended requirement before more lives are lost unnecessarily.”
Owens has said that given the cost, requiring seat belts might not make sense. “The Schoharie bus was equipped with the belts that the recommendation seeks to require of such vehicles,” Owens wrote in the March 10 letter. “Regrettably, no passengers were wearing the seat belts, and the non-use of the belts would not have been corrected by adopting the recommendation.”
In New York state, the loophole has already been closed, as part of a package of laws in response to the Schoharie crash passed and signed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in January. Those reforms include a new seat belt requirement for limousines operating in the state, and require that passengers use the seat belts. Those laws go into effect in January 2021.
The Excursion involved in the crash was equipped with seat belts, but none of them was being used by the 17 passengers, who were going to a birthday celebration in Cooperstown. The crash also killed the driver and two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store.
NTSB has yet to issue a final report on the high-impact crash, which a state police criminal investigation determined was likely due to brake failure while the vehicle was 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, in a proceeding delayed because the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down state courts for months. A number of civil lawsuits also have been filed over the crash.