SCHOHARIE -- Stretch limousines do not need to comply with the same federal safety regulations that apply to conventional vehicles and may lack standard safety features, according to researchers.
The process by which a vehicle is "stretched," like the 2001 Ford Excursion that crashed and killed 20 people in Schoharie on Saturday, is done by after-market companies that are not regulated by the federal government, said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Insititute for Highway Safety in Washington D.C.
In stretching, a conventional vehicle is usually cut in two and new center sections are added to increase the number of people they can hold.
"They are engineered to be longer and carry more people," Rader said. "That engineering may weaken the crash-worthiness features that are engineered into a stock vehicle."
That leaves regulation up to individual states. In New York, stretched or modified limousines are subject to twice-a-year inspections by the state Department of Transportation. Buses and limousines that carry 11 or more people are inspected under the program, in addition to being subject to random commercial vehicle inspections.
The vehicle involved in Saturday's crash failed inspections in both March and September, the latter time for hydraulic brake problems. DOT officials and state police said the limo should have been taken out of service.
"That vehicle should not have been on the road," state police Superintendent George Beach said.
On Wednesday, state police arrested Prestige Limousine operator Nauman Hussain, 28, of Cohoes, on a felony charge of criminally negligent homicide, alleging that he knew the limousine was unsafe and should not have allowed it on the road. Hussain pleaded not guilty and was freed on $150,000 bond.
Hussain's lawyer, Lee Kindlon of Albany, said repairs were made to the vehicle, though state officials dispute that. Kindlon also said conditions on the Route 30 hill leading down to the stop sign where the accident occurred are responsible for the crash. The limousine driver went through the stop sign before striking a parked car and killing two pedestrians in a store parking lot. The vehicle then landed in a ditch, killing all 18 occupants. DOT had banned commercial trucks from the route in 2015 because of the dangerous intersection.
Police also said limo driver, Scott Lisinicchia, 53, of Lake George, didn't have the proper license to drive the vehicle; he had a commercial license, but not the passenger or bus endorsement needed to carry 17 passengers. Lisinicchia was among those killed in the crash.
For undetermined reasons, the limousine sped through the stop sign at the intersection of state routes 30 and 30A after coming down the long hill at about 2 p.m. on Saturday.
It was unknown whether the limousine's design contributed to the high death toll. That is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, which, in addition to determining what caused the crash, could make recommendations to improve limo safety.
Saturday's tragedy resulted in more deaths than all limousine accidents in the United States between 2012 and 2016, according to the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System. That system reported 12 deaths in limousine crashes over those four years, including four on Long Island in 2015 when a limousine taking a party on a winery tour collided with a pickup truck.
A Suffolk County grand jury investigated the Long Island crash and faulted the lack of regulation over limousine safety.
"The grand jury found that the largely unregulated side-impact safety features of stretch limousines were insufficient to protect passengers, and companies involved in each stage of building a stretch limo ... believed that 'someone else' was undertaking relevant crash testing of newly-built stretch limousines," the report found.
The Prestige Limo Ford Excursion was rated to seat nine or 10 people when it was manufactured. After modifications, it had 19 seats, according to Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which was at the crash scene Sunday and Monday. Such modifications typically include installing side-mounted seats, which are less safe in a crash than forward-mounted seats, even if seat belts are in use, Rader said.
Such vehicles typically have fewer side airbags and less rollover protection than stock vehicles. Many also have couch seating installed, and even a bar.
"The alteration of the vehicle cannot help but impact its structural integrity -- and therefore, the likelihood of the vehicle performing as originally designed, in its unaltered condition, is very low," said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "From a regulatory standpoint, the most that is required is the entity self-certifies that the limo remains compliant with safety standards."
Whether any of the passengers were using seat belts at the time of the crash is still being investigated, but statistics show rear-seat passengers in all vehicles, including limos, are less likely to use seat belts. People who aren't wearing seat belts in a crash are far more likely to die than those wearing seat belts, studies show.
"Many rear-seat passengers don't think belts are necessary because they perceive the back seat to be safer than the front," states an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report from August 2017. "This shows a clear misunderstanding about the importance of safety belts, no matter where a person sits in a vehicle."
The institute is an independent highway safety research organization funded by the insurance industry.
The 2017 report found that people are also less likely to use a seat belt in the rear of a ride-hailing vehicle or taxi, and Rader said he suspects that also applies to limousine parties.
"When people are out celebrating and having a good time, they're not thinking about the worst-case scenario in a crash," Rader said.
"In the big scheme of things, the risk is very low, and choosing a limousine for a celebration is a better choice than people driving their own private vehicles and imbibing alcohol, but people need to be aware that it does not have to meet the same safety standards," Rader said.
He suggested people research limousine companies and their reputations before booking.
The Center for Auto Safety, a non-profit group co-founded in 1970 by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, believes more regulation is needed.
"At a minimum, federal regulators (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) should require some evidence these vehicles, once stretched, are roadworthy and crashworthy. If the industry cannot demonstrate that, perhaps they shouldn’t be on the road," Levine said.