SCHOHARIE — Three Capital Region members of Congress on Tuesday proposed legislation that would close a loophole in federal regulations on stretch limousines.
The bipartisan Limousine Safety Modernization Act, proposed by U.S. Reps. John Faso, Paul Tonko and Elise Stefanik, would pertain to the type of vehicle involved in the horrendous Oct. 6 crash in Schoharie that resulted in the deaths of 20 people: 17 passengers, the driver, and two pedestrians.
That limousine, owned by Prestige Limousine of Wilton, was a 2001 Ford Excursion that was stretched — after it was built — to hold up to 19 people. It repeatedly failed state commercial inspections, but it was exempt from federal manufacturing safety checks.
The lawmakers' proposal would amend the law to clarify that after-market stretch vehicles are subject to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration limousine regulations.
"It's vital that vehicles which are significantly modified undergo a strict amount of scrutiny," said Faso, R-Kinderhook, who represents the 19th Congressional District, which includes Schoharie. "The recent tragedy in Schoharie, which took the lives of 20 people, must move the Congress to address this loophole and enact stricter rules on modified vehicles."
For undetermined reasons, the limousine sped through the stop sign at the intersection of state routes 30 and 30A after coming down a long hill around 2 p.m. on the Saturday of Columbus Day weekend. It went through the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store and into a small ravine; all involved, including two pedestrians in the parking lot, died of impact trauma, according to state police.
Federal and state police investigations of the crash continue. The limousine company's operator, Nauman Hussain, of Cohoes, has been charged with criminally negligent homicide for allowing the limousine to be on the road, operated by a driver without the correct license to transport so many people. The case is awaiting action by a grand jury.
The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation is also continuing, though its completion has been delayed because state police have the limousine and are strictly controlling access, due to their criminal investigation.
"Working on all other aspects of the investigation while awaiting access to the limo," NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said in an email Tuesday. "Preliminary report is being drafted — release date (to be determined)."
On Monday, an attorney for the estate of crash victim Amanda Rifenburg filed an initial claim against New York state, saying the intersection of routes 30 and 30A, where the crash occurred, was a known dangerous intersection that state transportation officials had not addressed.
Since 2008, the state has reduced weight limits on the Route 30 hill leading south to the intersection, based on concerns about trucks, and in 2015, the state banned commercial trucks from coming down the hill.
"It made no reference to stretch limos, which are practically trucks. It is a poorly constructed, poorly designed road intersection," said Sal Ferlazzo, the attorney representing Rifenburg's estate, on Thursday. "This was a foreseeable situation."
More lawsuits are expected, as executors and administrators are named for more of the victims' estates, Ferlazzo said.
The loophole in federal safety rules came to public attention soon after the crash, but attention has since shifted to the criminal investigation against Nauman Hussain and his father, Shahad Hussain, who owns Prestige Limo — and to questions about the state's inspections of the vehicle.
"While there are certainly other factors surrounding this crash which are the subject of federal and state investigation, as well as a criminal prosecution, making sure modified vehicles are safer is a critical step," Faso said.
But under current federal rules, a vehicle that is lengthened after it is sold by the manufacturer — most often to increase its passenger-carrying capacity — is not subject to the federal safety standards required of a new vehicle. The law proposed by Faso, Tonko and Stefanik would change that.
"We have a duty to the victims of the Schoharie limousine crash to help ensure this deadly outcome cannot be repeated," said Tonko, D-Amsterdam. "Holding every vehicle of this kind to the same basic safety standards is not just common sense, it could save lives and restore public confidence in an industry shaken by this painful tragedy."
Many of the passengers in the limousine were from Amsterdam or had connections to the city. They were friends on their way to Cooperstown to celebrate a birthday.
Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, also had constituents of her North Country 21st Congressional District lost in the crash.
"Our community was devastated by the loss of our friends and neighbors in the accident, and it's critical that lawmakers work to strengthen public safety in the wake of tragedy," Stefanik said in a statement.
The loophole was known to auto safety advocates even before the deadly crash and was noted when a grand jury probed a 2014 Long Island crash that killed four women riding in a stretch limo.
"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," Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., said in October. "From a regulatory standpoint, the most that is required is the entity self-certifies that the limo remains compliant with safety standards."