Schenectady

NTSB pushes limo safety database in final report on Schoharie crash

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SCHOHARIE — The National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday released its final report on the 2018 stretch limousine crash in Schoharie that killed 20 people, including an addendum urging development of a system to warn consumers about bad operators.

Release of the 103-page report, which concludes a two-year federal investigation into the deadly crash, reflects the conclusions that members of the independent federal safety board reached at a meeting in September, and marks the end of the investigation.

The report finds fault primarily with limo service Prestige Limousine of Wilton for numerous “egregious” safety violations on the stretched 2001 Ford Excursion, but said the state departments of Transportation and Motor Vehicles are also to blame for allowing the vehicle to be on the road despite a long and documented list of safety violations.

The Oct. 6, 2018 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. The company had been booked by phone just that morning after another limo rental fell through.

In an Oct. 4 statement newly released as part of the report, NTSB Chairman Robert Robert Sumwalt urged development of a safety notification system that would allow consumers to learn if they are hiring a limousine company with a poor safety record.

“What the caller didn’t realize was that the operator he just contracted with had numerous warnings and Notices of Violation by the State of New York Department of Transportation,” Sumwalt wrote. “He didn’t know that the vehicle he had just rented was officially placed out-of-service by the State of New York due to safety deficiencies and violations. He wasn’t aware that Prestige Limo did not have an effective maintenance program in place to ensure the safety of its passenger-carrying vehicles.”

“The bottom line is that consumers who charter vehicles have the right to know what they are getting. Much more needs to be done in this regard,” Sumwalt wrote in the statement, with the other four NTSB members concurring.

Since the crash New York has adopted a safety notification system, but Sumwalt said more needs to be done either nationally or by other states.

The report found the specific cause of the crash at the intersection of state routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie was that corroded and failing brakes on the stretched 2001 Ford Excursion gave out on the 1.8-mile-long Route 30 hill. The vehicle is believed to have been traveling more than 100 mph at the time of impact, though swerving around another vehicle indicated driver Scott Lisinicchia had some control over the vehicle. Investigators couldn’t determine if he tried to downshift, steer off the road, or take other emergency measures to stop the vehicle.

The report notes that 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.

“Contributing to the crash was the New York State Department of Transportation’s ineffective oversight of Prestige Limousine, despite its knowledge of the carrier’s multiple out-of-service violations and lack of operating authority, as well as the department’s inadequate repair verification process,” the report found.

It continued, “Further contributing to the crash was the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles’ inadequate oversight of state-licensed inspection stations and its failure to properly register the limousine, which enabled Prestige Limousine to circumvent the state’s safety regulations and more rigorous inspection requirements.”

The “probable cause” of the crash was found to be Prestige’s “egregious disregard for safety,” leading to brake failure — 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.

Prestige never had “operating authority” to use commercial limousines in New York state, despite applying at least twice. DOT had placed “out of service” stickers on the limousine on two different occasions after spot inspections, but the DOT inspector didn’t take its license plates or in any way disable the vehicle, the report found. The violation stickers were removed and the vehicle was kept on the road until 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.

Those riding in the limousine were young adults, most from the Amsterdam area and several of them siblings, on their way to a birthday celebration in Cooperstown.

Their families have filed numerous civil lawsuits against the limousine company, state agencies and Mavis Discount Tire, whose Saratoga Springs shop is accused of doing inadequate work and issuing an improper state inspection sticker.

The limousine had undergone proper semi-annual DOT inspections between 2001 and 2015, under different owners. After Prestige acquired it in 2016, it had only annual DMV inspections, the report found. A DOT inspector saw the limousine at the Mavis shop in June 2017, resulting in the first of three notices of violation DOT issued over the next 15 months, none of which resulted in proper inspections or the vehicle being taken off the road.

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 includes six recommendations:

– The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration should work with states on developing best practices for how to enforce “out of service” orders;

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

 – DMV and DOT should adopt a single definition of what is a “bus” to avoid miscommunication. Under current law, an 18-passenger limo is considered a “bus”;

 – DMV should strengthen procedures to ensure 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;

 – The National Limousine Association should ask members to ensure any stretch limousines they operate are certified as meeting federal safety standards.

The 2001 Excursion did not comply with those standards, but the rules were not written until 2002, two years after it was manufactured. It was manufactured in October 2000, then stretched by 144 inches by a non-certified vehicle altering company in Missouri in January 2001. The stretching increased the vehicle capacity from 10 passengers to 18 passengers, but without the brakes being strengthened, the NTSB found.

The NTSB issued an separate 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 over whether the changes are needed.

In an earlier response, 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.

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 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 an email after the NTSB meeting in September. “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.”

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