It’s always the next tragedy that will be prevented by the new laws. Those laws always come too late for the victims of the incident that prompted lawmakers to act.
So while it’s OK to cheer the state Legislature for finally passing legislation to tighten up safety measures on limousines, the passage of the bills is also a sad reminder that these measures weren’t in place to prevent the deaths of the 20 people killed in the October 2018 Schoharie crash.
The celebration is also tempered by the fact that despite the unspeakable tragedy and the fact that many contributing factors were obvious even without a final report on its causes, lawmakers weren’t able to agree on the package of bills until more than 15 months after the crash.
Still, the bills they finally did pass — with the promise of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature coming soon — do represent a marked safety improvement over what was in place before the crash.
Among the bills passed by both houses of the Legislature as they began the current legislative session are a bill to get uninspected vehicles and vehicles with safety issues off the road as quickly as possible. This bill gives the state Department of Transportation the authority to impound or immobilize vehicles that fail safety inspections for serious defects. It also creates a process for owners to be notified and gives them time to make repairs.
The limo involved in the Schoharie crash was not properly inspected and had serious safety issues, but was allowed to remain on the road while the owner allegedly ignored the issues. This legislation is designed to ensure that dangerous vehicles are removed from the road until their safety issues have been addressed. Other legislation included in the package makes it easier for people to report safety issues with limos to a new hotline and website and sets up a passenger safety task force to study and recommend safety improvements for limos such as bars on the sides and roof, emergency exits and improved coordination between state agencies.
Frankly, some of these safety measures are basic and should be required now, without waiting for a task force to study them.
Another bill requires pre-employment and random drug and alcohol testing in large for-hire vehicles to ensure that drivers don’t have a record of driving under the influence and that they can be stopped if someone suspects they’re under the influence.
Lawmakers also agreed to up the standards for which a person can qualify to drive a limo. The state will now require drivers to have a commercial license with a P (passenger) rating so that drivers have the proper training and qualifications to operate these vehicles. The driver in the Schoharie crash didn’t have such a license.
Another of the bills increases penalties for limo drivers who make illegal U-turns, which expose the difficult-to-manuever vehicles to T-bone type collisions with other vehicles. From now on, vehicles must have seatbelts available for all passengers and all passengers under age 16 are required to wear them. The seatbelts in the Schoharie crash were inaccessible to the passengers, a factor that might have contributed to the death toll.
All of these long-overdue safety measures will make limousine travel safer for passengers. They come in time to prevent future tragedies, but not soon enough to prevent the first one.