CAPITOL -- The state Senate Transportation Committee on Monday approved a package of bills intended to increase limousine safety in the wake of the 2018 Schoharie limo crash that killed 20 people, including one that allows the state to impound unsafe vehicles.
The legislation, which could come to the Senate floor as soon as Tuesday, includes provisions that will allow the state Department of Transportation to impound or immobilize limousines that have uncorrected safety violations. Another bill would set up a task force to take a more in-depth look at issues surrounding the commercial use of stretched and other high-capacity limousines.
Committee Chairman Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, credited the advocacy by families of the people killed in the Schoharie crash, as well as the families of four young women killed in a 2015 crash involving a stretch limousine on Long Island. Families from both crashes testified at a Senate hearing last May in Albany.
"I believe these regulations we will hopefully pass today, and in the very near future in both the Senate and the Assembly, and then for the governor's signature, will act as a model for the rest of the nation and create the strongest limousine safety laws in the entire country," Kennedy said prior to the votes.
The state Assembly could also act as soon as Tuesday, sending the package to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for his expected approval.
"I cannot impress upon you enough the importance the families played in this process, and the hundreds of hours of work that was done over many months behind the scenes and in public, really the work they did to take that extremely difficult loss and transform it into positive, productive energy," Kennedy said.
An agreement on bill language between the two transportation committees was reached last Thursday, following the Legislature's inability to agree on a substantive set of changes at the end of the 2019 legislative session, the first in the wake of the October 2018 stretch limousine crash in Schoharie.
Much of the legislation was drafted in response to conclusions reached by a state police investigation into the aging limousine involved in the Schoharie crash, which found that the vehicle was on the road with unaddressed safety issues and after it had failed DOT commercial vehicle inspections.
Nauman Hussain, 29, owner of Prestige Limousine of Saratoga Springs, faces trial on 20 charges each of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, based on allegations he took a series of measures to hide the failed inspections and mechanical problems with the limousine, a 2001 Ford Excursion stretched after manufacturing. His trial in Schoharie County Court is scheduled for March.
The vehicle, which as modified could carry 18 passengers, was coming down a long hill on state Route 30 on Oct. 6, 2018, when it went through the intersection with Route 30A and crashed, killing all 17 passengers, the driver, and two pedestrians. Prosecutors said the vehicle likely suffered a catastrophic brake failure.
Most of the passengers who were killed were from Amsterdam, or had close ties to the Amsterdam area.
The impoundment bill would let the state DOT order immobilization of stretch limousines that aren't repaired and are kept on the road after failing a safety inspection, as was allegedly the case with the Schoharie limousine.
Other bills approved on the Transportation Committee would establish a smartphone reporting system for passengers who may have safety concerns while riding in a limousine, set new drug and alcohol use and testing requirements for drivers, and a requirement that for-hire limousines seating nine people or more use commercial GPS systems -- systems that offer more information about road and bridge limitations that standard GPS systems. Drivers would also be required to have a passenger endorsement on their commercial drivers' licenses.
A bill that responds to the circumstances of the Long Island crash would increase penalties for making an illegal U-turn when a stretch limousine is involved.
All limousines, regardless of when manufactured, would be required within two years after next Jan. 1 to be equipped with seatbelts if not already equipped with them, and there would be a new law -- one advocated last week by Cuomo -- requiring all passengers in a stretch limousine to wear seatbelts while riding.
None of the passengers in the Schoharie crash was wearing a seatbelt, though federal investigators said seating broke away on impact, making it questionable whether seatbelt use in that instance would have saved anyone.