As the criminal trial looms later this year for the operator of the limousine company involved in the October 2018 crash in Schoharie that killed 20 people – including 17 passengers on the way to a birthday celebration – state lawmakers are working to make the limousines even safer.
The Democratic leadership in the state Senate on Tuesday passed a package of bills designed to strengthen protocols for the vehicles that we routinely trust to transport us and our loved ones safely to weddings, proms, birthday parties and other special events.
Given the enormity of the Schoharie tragedy, this comprehensive list of changes, on top of limousine safety legislation passed three years ago, is a welcome, if not belated, development.
The package of seven bills, none of which yet have a sponsor in the state Assembly, includes requirements for structural changes to vehicles to make them safer, tougher penalties for keeping limos on the road after failed inspections, limits on how long a limousine may remain on the road, passenger safety checks, and improvements to the safety rating system for limousines.
To protect passengers in the event of a crash, stretch limousines registered in the state would be required to be equipped with rollover protection, cages, pillars and “anti-intrusion” bars to shield passengers from side and rear impacts.
Lawmakers should extend the requirement to any limousine operated in the state, regardless of the state of registration, to take into account interstate travel.
Another structural safety bill would require limousines to be equipped with window-breaking tools and fire extinguishers to help passengers escape in the event of a crash.
Under tougher penalties proposed by the Senate, an operator that continues to operate a limo after a failed inspection would be subject to fines of at least $10,000 and six months in jail, as well as seizure of the vehicle.
Frankly, an A-misdemeanor for allowing an uninspected vehicle to remain on the road in defiance of the law seems like a light punishment given that inspection issues were major factors in the Schoharie crash.
Lawmakers need to do better on that one.
Another bill would get old and overused limos off the road by limiting their use to 10 years or 350,000 miles, whichever comes first. There also are provisions in the bill to ensure the accuracy of odometer readings and for the state to make exceptions to the rule based on special modifications, safety history and compliance.
The new legislation to strengthen limousine safety comes on top of legislation approved in February 2020 that included new seat belt requirements, new laws against dangerous U-turns, new standards for licensing of operators, drug-and-alcohol testing of drivers, and more state authority to remove unsafe vehicles.
Anything the state can do to make these vehicles safer and to discourage operators from violating inspection and reporting requirements is a step closer to preventing the kind of tragedy that happened in Schoharie in 2018.
Let’s hope the Assembly soon follows through with its own legislation so these laws can be put into practice as soon as possible.
Every day without them puts lives at risk.