Schoharie County

NTSB faults limo company’s ‘egregious’ safety violations in Schoharie crash; State also blamed

A man walks around the Schoharie limo crash memorial site Tuesday. ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

A man walks around the Schoharie limo crash memorial site Tuesday. ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News, Saratoga County

The two-year federal investigation into the deadly Schoharie limousine crash found fault primarily with the limo service for “egregious” safety violations, but also blamed the state departments of transportation and Motor Vehicles for allowing the vehicle to be on the road.

The National Safety Transportation Board on Tuesday released its final report and recommendations on the Oct. 6, 2018 crash in Schoharie that killed 20 people.

The report found the specific cause of the crash at the intersection of state routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie was that badly maintained brakes on the stretched 2001 Ford Excursion failed, and it laid blame on Prestige Limousine for not properly maintaining the aging vehicle.

But it also faulted the state departments of Transportation and DMV, saying the Excursion remained on the road despite a history of failed DOT commercial vehicle inspections, and two different DMV inspection stations having inspected and passed the vehicle even though they weren’t authorized to inspect large-capacity commercial vehicles.

“Each layer of protection designed to stop Prestige and stop this from happening failed,” says NTSB board member Michael Graham.

The “probable cause” of the crash was found to be Prestige’s “egregious disregard for safety,” leading to brake failure while descending a long hill — but the ineffective supervision by DMV of its inspection stations and DOT’s failure to take the vehicle off the road, despite a long history of trouble with Prestige, were also considered contributing factors.

An NTSB simulation determined that the limousine could have come down the hill and stopped safely if the brakes had been properly maintained.

Prestige never had “operating authority” to use commercial limousines in New York state after it had its applications rejected as incomplete. DOT had placed “out of service” stickers on the limousine on two different occasions after it failed on-the-spot inspections, but the DOT inspector didn’t take its license plates or in any way disable the vehicle, which the NTSB concluded he had the authority to do. The violation stickers were removed, allegedly by Prestige operator Nauman Hussain, and the vehicle was kept on the road until the crash.

“You can threaten them all you want, but until you take action, you really haven’t served what your primary responsibility is,” said NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Lansburg, who was also in Schoharie after the crash.

Even if inspectors didn’t realize it, the NTSB concluded DOT had the authority to confiscate the vehicle — something DOT did with 59 “out of service” vehicles around the state shortly after the Schoharie crash, after the crash drew attention to the issue.

The virtual meeting Tuesday in Washington, D.C., came just a week short of the second anniversary of the crash, which killed 17 passengers and the driver in the stretch limousine, as well as two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store.

Those riding in the limousine were young adults, most from the Amsterdam area, on their way to a birthday celebration in Cooperstown. Information released for the first time on Tuesday included an estimate that the vehicle was travelling at between 101 and 116 mph at the time of the crash.

The crash and resulting revelations about the limousine and its history of failed regulatory inspections have already resulted in changes to state law to tighten regulations, and the Capital Region congressional delegation has pushed for changes at the federal level.

The final report approved by the five-member board Tuesday included six recommendations:

– The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration work with states on developing best practices for how to enforce “out of service” orders and prevent limousines taken out of service from being operated as the Prestige limousine was;

 – State DOT implement previous state comptroller’s recommendations to strength commercial vehicle inspections;

 – DMV and DOT adopt a single definition of what is a “bus” to avoid miscommunication. An 18-passenger limousine is considered a “bus” for regulatory purposes.

 – DMV should strengthen procedures to make sure privately run DMV inspection stations don’t inspect commercial vehicles.

 – DMV should send a letter to all inspection stations reminding them not to inspect stretch limousines.

 – A letter should be sent to the National Limousine Association saying members should ensure any stretch limousines they operate are certified as meeting federal safety standards.

 The Excursion did not comply with the standards, but the rules were not written until 2002, the year after it was manufactured and then stretched by 144 inches by a non-certified vehicle altering company. The stretching increased the vehicle capacity from 10 passengers to 18 passengers, but without the brakes being strengthened.

The NTSB issued an interim report in October 2019 that recommended new limousine seatbelt standards. Those changes have yet to be adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation, leading to an ongoing dispute between the NTSB and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In a response Tuesday, spokespersons for the state DOT and DMV noted that laws adopted since the crash have clarified DOT’s authority to seize limousines that fail inspections, require limousine passengers to wear seat belts, and increase other enforcement and insurance provisions in state law.

 “The findings clearly demonstrate the shocking extremes to which the owners of Prestige went to break the law and falsify state and federal compliance records,” their statement said. “We exercised the full authority granted to us under the law and ordered that vehicle off the road multiple times, but as NTSB’s own reports on this crash reaffirm, Prestige repeatedly violated New York state law and was never authorized at any time to operate for-hire commercial passenger vehicle service in the state.”

“New York has since enacted the nation’s most aggressive laws governing commercial vehicle safety. These new laws provide for increased passenger protections, heightened civil and criminal penalties, and strengthened enforcement provisions,” the joint statement concluded.

Following a state police investigation that initially disclosed the brake maintenance failures, limo company operator Nauman Hussain, 30, was indicted on 20 counts each of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in Schoharie County Court.

 The defense maintains Hussain relied on the Mavis Discount Tire store in Saratoga Springs to service the vehicle, and Hussain was unaware of any shortcomings. Mavis, which is not charged criminally but has been named in numerous civil lawsuits, denies responsibility.

Hussain’s trial is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with discussions underway about a possible plea bargain.

“This does nothing to change our approach to defending Mr. Hussain,” defense attorney Lee Kindlon said in email after the NTSB meeting. “Most, if not all, of the factors discussed today were already known within the confines of the criminal case. We anticipate getting back into court soon and moving this case forward.”

Numerous civil lawsuits have been filed by the families of those who were killed in the crash, naming Prestige Limousine and its owners, Mavis Discount Tire, whose Saratoga Springs shop inspected the vehicle in 2018 despite not having authority to do commercial vehicle inspections, and the state agencies.

 “I think that the NTSB is angry that so many people allowed so many things to go wrong here, and because of that 20 people died,” said Cynthia LaFave of Guilderland, an attorney representing some of the families. “These were young people, some of them married and with children, and no one took responsibility. It could have been stopped by so many different people … There were a lot of bad actors who allowed this to happen.”

U.S. Rep. Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said the findings strengthen the case for legislation closing federal regulatory loopholes that was included in a larger House transportation funding bill, but which has yet to be taken up by the U.S. Senate.

“While the report and recommendations cannot change the past, they provide more answers on what happened and in turn what we must do to ensure it is never allowed to happen again,” Tonko said in a new release. “In Congress we will carry the mantle to require that the (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) take these necessary actions to ensure that unsafe limos are taken off the road. I urge the Senate to take up this life-saving legislation without further delay.”

The NTSB investigation did not find any fault with the intersection’s design or signage, though heavy trucks had been banned from that section of Route 30 due to previous incidents with vehicles coming down the hill.

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