ALBANY -- The Oct. 6 limousine crash in Schoharie that left 20 people dead has led to a state crackdown on limousines that don't comply with state Department of Transportation regulations.
State police confirmed Monday that after the tragic stretch limousine crash, they seized the license plates of 59 vehicles owned by limousine companies that had their registrations suspended for violations. The crackdown was first reported by the Times Union.
"Last year, the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles notified state police to seize the license plates of 59 vehicles owned by limousine companies with suspended registrations due to non-compliance with New York State Department of Transportation regulations. Troopers subsequently seized the plates of all 59 vehicles," state police said in a released statement on Monday.
Plate seizures took place statewide, but state police would not say where they took place.
The state's action came as it was publicly revealed that the limo company involved in the one-vehicle crash had repeatedly skirted or violated regulations.
"As it has done previously in the wake of tragic incidents involving irresponsible businesses that flout the law, the state is acting affirmatively to crack down on bad actors who put innocent New Yorkers in danger," said DOT spokesman Joseph Morrissey. "There’s an ongoing criminal investigation into the Schoharie crash and one of the owners of the vehicle has already been charged with criminally negligent homicide -- in light of this investigation it would be inappropriate to comment further."
The crash occurred when a 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limousine owned by Prestige Limousine of Wilton ran through a stop sign at routes 30 and 30A north of Schoharie, crossed through the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store and into a shallow ravine. The Columbus Day weekend crash killed 17 adults headed for a birthday celebration, the driver, and two pedestrians in the Apple Barrel parking lot.
Prestige Limo operator Nauman Hussain, 29, of Cohoes, has been arrested and charged with one count of criminally negligent homicide. State police say Hussain was aware the vehicle had failed DOT commercial inspections, and that driver Scott Lisinicchia of Queensbury did not have the proper driver's license to transport so many people.
All three vehicles owned by Prestige were taken off the road after the crash and are in state police custody.
The state police investigation continues pending further action by a grand jury in Scoharie County.
The National Transportation Safety Board is also conducting a safety investigation, but that investigation is currently stymied by the partial federal government shutdown, which has closed all non-essential work by the federal Department of Transportation.
The limousine involved in the crash had been cited in DOT inspections in March and September for deficiencies, including faulty brakes. It was ordered taken out of service, but its plates weren't taken, and state police said the Hussains removed an "out of service" sticker and kept the vehicle on the road until the crash.
Sometime after the crash, amid questions about how the vehicle was allowed to remain on the road, DMV asked state police to take the plates from non-compliant vehicles.
"In New York we have zero tolerance for any business that willfully puts its customers in danger," DMV spokesman Tim O'Brien said in a released statement. "That is why, even as the investigation into the horrific Schoharie crash continues, we have taken immediate action -- as we have done many times in the past -- to do everything in our power to keep people safe."
Most limousine companies that promote themselves online put some emphasis on their safety record, and some owners contacted Monday support the state's actions.
A state crackdown will hurt small limo companies the most, said David Brown, owner of Premiere Transportation in Albany, which has a fleet of more than 60 vehicles.
"The legitimate operators like myself, I'd say 99 times out of 100 there's no issue with DOT," Brown said. "We have three mechanics full-time. Our vehicles are inspected every single day. This is going to effect the mom-and-pops, we call them weekend warriors, their vehicles are older."
Brown said Premiere stopped using stretched SUVs out of safety concerns in 2009. He said those vehicles typically were being stretched in length, and their potential weights increased, without modifications to the original brakes. Premiere has stretch limousines in its fleet, he said, but they are purchased from vehicle modifiers who comply with the manufacturer's specifications for such alterations.
Brown said he met with state Assembly members John McDonald and Patricia Fahy shortly after the Schoharie crash to discuss limousine safety, and he expects that federal and state legislators will take action once the NTSB makes new stretch limousine safety recommendations. "Whatever the NTSB recommendations are will be the basis for what [legislators] adopt," he said.
The owner of one small-fleet limo company in Saratoga Springs was leery to talk about the increased enforcement, but said he supports it.
"I don't think the enforcement is what it could be," said the man, who wouldn't provide his full name. "I like that they're following up and confiscating plates. It's common sense, you've got to be safe. You start cutting corners, you're done."