Nearly seven years ago, an audit by state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s office found the state Department of Transportation wasn’t doing an effective job of getting commercial passenger vehicles off the road when serious safety violations were found.
The 2014 audit received little public attention at the time, but the issues it raised turned out to be critical to how the aging and defective stretch limousine involved in the deadly 2018 Schoharie limo crash remained on the road, despite two DOT inspections earlier that year that placed it “out of service.”
This week, in unveiling its final report on the crash that killed 20 people on Oct. 6, 2018, the National Transportation Safety Board cited that audit, and recommended to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that the “key recommendations” in that audit be adopted.
The state Legislature and Cuomo in January adopted a package of 10 new laws in response to the Schoharie crash and another deadly crash in 2015 on Long Island. While those laws include a number of strict new limousine safety enforcement measures, it was not clear this week whether the issues raised by the audit were addressed in that package.
“The recommendations are under review,” said DOT spokesman Joe Morrissey.
The NTSB 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. It laid principal blame on Prestige Limousine for not properly maintaining the aging vehicle.
But contributing to the crash was the DOT’s “ineffective oversight of Prestige Limousine, even though it knew of Prestige’s multiple out-of-service violations and lack of operating authority.” The state Department of Motor Vehicles, meanwhile, failed to properly register the 18-passenger limousine as a large-capacity “bus,” enabling Prestige to circumvent the state’s safety regulations and more rigorous inspection requirements.
“Knowing this tragedy could have been prevented on numerous occasions, by those who are entrusted to protect us, makes this crash even more heartbreaking,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt, who as an NTSB “Go Team” member came to the scene of the crash. “If our safety recommendations are implemented, they will go a long way toward preventing another Schoharie.”
The comptroller’s audit, which looked at DOT enforcement of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program, covered activity between 2008 and 2013. The audit was primarily focused on commercial freight trucking violations, but the program also applies to passenger buses and limousines.
The audit found that DOT did not monitor whether carriers submit required certifications that violations had been repaired, or whether they were submitted on time. As a result, it found, 39 percent of the certifications for out-of-service violations were not submitted, while 26 percent were submitted late.
The audit also found that DOT did not always impose penalties when it found that carriers were operating out-of-service vehicles prior to repairs.
The audit recommended that DOT actively monitor carrier compliance with repair requirements. It said the department should develop strategies to improve carrier compliance, particularly for those with poor safety histories and out-of-service violations.
In the Schoharie case, Prestige had a poor safety history. It never had “operating authority” to use commercial limousines in New York state, after its applications were rejected as incomplete. DOT placed “out of service” stickers on the limousine twice in 2018 after it failed on-the-spot inspections. The violation stickers were removed, allegedly by Prestige operator Nauman Hussain, and the vehicle was kept on the road until the crash.
The crash 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 on Route 30A. Those riding in the limousine were young adults, most from the Amsterdam area, on their way to a birthday celebration in Cooperstown. Information released by the NTSB on Tuesday included an estimate that the vehicle was travelling at between 101 and 116 mph when it went through the Route 30 stop sign.
The crash and resulting revelations about the limousine’s history of failed regulatory inspections have already resulted in January’s changes to state law, and the Capital Region congressional delegation has pushed to close safety loopholes at the federal level.
In a response the day the NTSB report was released, spokespersons for DOT and Department of Motor Vehicles issued a joint statement: “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. 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.”
The NTSB also recommended that the Department of Motor Vehicles increase its oversight of the private contractors like service stations and auto dealerships that do motor vehicle inspections, and formally remind them that they should not inspect large capacity limousines, which fall under the DOT inspection program.
The new laws adopted in January include provisions requiring all passengers in limousines to wear seat belts; creating new felonies for causing death or injury while knowingly operating a vehicle under suspension or without a DOT operating permit; increasing civil penalties for operating a vehicle that was ordered out of service; authorizing the state to refuse/revoke registrations of vehicles that do not meet federal safety standards; providing explicit authority to immediately suspend the registration and seize license plates of any altered limousine operating in violation of safety requirements; requiring the appropriate commercial driver’s license and drug and alcohol testing for limousine drivers; and authorizing DOT to immobilize or impound any stretched limousine with an “out of service” defect.
Following a state police investigation that initially disclosed the brake maintenance failures, limo company operator Hussain, 30, was indicted on 20 counts each of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in Schoharie County Court. His trial is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with discussions underway about a plea bargain.
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 with the brakes. Mavis, which is not charged criminally but has been named in numerous civil lawsuits, denies responsibility.