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Lawmakers calling for increased limo safety following fatal crash

May 16, 2019 11:23 PM

ALBANY, N.Y. (WHEC) -- Last fall, 20 people were killed near Albany when a limousine came barreling down a hill, through a stop sign and the parking lot of a country store and crashed into a ravine.

It was the worst transportation disaster in New York state in a decade. Since then, lawmakers have been talking about sweeping changes to the limo industry.

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In the Finger Lakes region, wine tours are a big business. So, News10NBC wanted to see how some of those changes could impact you the next time you book a chauffeur and what you can do right now to look up the safety record of a company before you get onboard.  

It was a normal fall afternoon in early October when a group of family members and friends had rented a limousine to take a brewery tour to celebrate a birthday. Within hours, all 17 of them, the man who was driving and two pedestrians were dead.

Among the victims of limo crash in Schoharie were four sisters and two recently married couples. Since that day, family members of the victims have made it their mission to try and prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from happening again. 

"October 6, 2018, was our nightmare. Without these laws being adjusted the next nightmare may very well be yours," Jill Richardson-Perez said at a recent state Senate hearing in Albany.

Richardson-Perez's son died in the Schoharie limo crash. Police say the limousine had failed two recent state inspections, it was certified for 10 seats but had 18 installed and the driver wasn't properly licensed.

"This guy was riding around with vice grips on his break lines and nobody pulled the car off, if you ask me... New York state dropped the ball on this numerous times," Janet Steenburg, the mother of two other men who died in the crash added at the hearing.

Gov. Cuomo, in the days following the crash, said that inspectors with the NYS Department of Transportation had ordered the limo be taken out of service but the order was ignored by the owner of the company.

Limo operators News10NBC spoke with in Western New York and the Finger Lakes are still baffled by that.

"I don't really understand why that vehicle was allowed to drive away. I have heard of many instances where a vehicle didn't have DOT authority or it had an issue and that vehicle was automatically stopped and they had to get a tow truck to pull it back, so I don't know why they allowed this particular vehicle to drive away," wonders Kevin Barwell, president of Limousine Bus Taxi Operators of Upstate NY.  

A spokesman for DOT would not comment on the matter saying the crash investigation is still ongoing.  

Since the crash, a number of state lawmakers have called for a review of the inspection process for limo companies, greater public transparency of safety records, a ban on certain models and even a requirement to add seatbelts and airbags to all limos. But Barwell says the limo industry is already highly regulated in New York state.

"You have to go through a rigorous inspection twice a year," he says of every single vehicle that carries more than nine people in a fleet, "everything from the mechanics to the motor train to the breaks to the interiors, operations, belts, everything you name it, they (DOT) go over it." If a vehicle doesn't pass inspection, it's not supposed to move until it's fixed and re-inspected.  

Barwell admits that there are occasional bad players who operate vehicles without following the proper protocols but says customers can normally spot them a mile away if they're offering a price that is way lower than other quotes. 

"At the time, when you're thinking about it going wow... this is great, we can all go out and go in this vehicle [for that price] but after the fact, you would have paid a million dollars to have a safe vehicle," he says, adding, "if it does not have a diamond sticker on the side, then that vehicle is not DOT approved and that's when you should have concern." Investigators say the limo that crashed in Schoharie did not have the sticker. 

Any reputable limousine company will be able to present inspection information, proof of insurance and driver background information if asked. Those who want to book a limo can also look up the safety history of a company on the New York State Department of Transportation's website.

News10NBC reviewed dozens of pages of safety documents that show the name of each operator in our region, the number of vehicles they drive, the number of inspections conducted and the number of vehicles taken out of service for safety issues. There is also a list of what DOT classifies as "unacceptable operators."

In a statement to News10NBC, NYSDOT Sspokesman Joe Morrissey says, "New York state has been and remains a national leader in ensuring the safety of regulated for-hire commercial vehicles. Gov. Cuomo proposed landmark legislation, enacted as part of the revenue budget, to provide enhanced protections for consumers of regulated for-hire passenger vehicles and heightened criminal and civil penalties for operators and drivers that violate state law."

The new protections include: extending the Class E felony to any person knowingly operating a vehicle in a manner that causes the death of another person; higher fines for operating a regulated for-hire vehicle without DOT operating authority or in violating DOT safety regulations; explicit authority for State Police and/or an agent of DOT to retrieve vehicle license plates for non-compliance with safety directive; extending misdemeanor for any owner/operator found to have tampered with or otherwise altered a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard tag; increased minimum insurance requirements for commercial vehicles with a seating capacity of eight or more passengers; and the conspicuous display of operator information in-vehicle.  

The new law also requires DOT to implement a new website that will provide near real-time information on the number of operator vehicle inspections, inspection history and out of service rate. This website is currently in development and will be launched soon according to Morrissey.  

NYS Assemblyman Angelo Santabaraba represents the district where many of the Schoharie victims lived. He says those changes are a good start but thinks even more needs to be done.

He admits that he's not a transportation expert but says that's why he wants a task-force put together to discuss changes that can be made not just by the limo companies but by the state of New York too.

"There needs to be more coordination between DMV and DOT, each department has information that's important, they need to be able to share that information," he tells News10NBC. 

Click here to search DOT's safety database [provides information on vehicles driven by NYS operators.]

Click here to dearch the FMCSA safety database [provides information on vehicles and drivers that cross state lines.]

Credits

Jennifer Lewke

Copyright 2019 - WHEC-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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