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NTSB Report Arrives As Limo Safety Package Stalls In Washington

Senator Charles Schumer and Rep. Paul Tonko speak with a family member of a victim of the Schoharie limo tragedy
Michael Apollo
Senator Charles Schumer and Rep. Paul Tonko speak with a family member of a victim of the Schoharie limo tragedy

The National Transportation Safety Board has finalized its report on the limousine crash in Schoharie that killed 20 people two years ago, but a package of federal limousine safety reforms remains stalled in Congress. 

The NTSB voted unanimously to finalize its report into the October 6, 2018 crash on Tuesday. The government agency blamed rental company Prestige Limousine for its “egregious disregard for safety” in the incident that killed 17 passengers, the driver, and two bystanders.

The vehicle at the center of the accident, a modified 2001 Ford Excursion limo, crashed after traveling down a hill at more than 100 miles per hour, its brakes failing.

But the NTSB also said contributing to the crash was the New York State Department of Transportation’s “ineffective oversight” over Prestige Limousine, and the Department of Motor Vehicles allowing Prestige Limousine to circumvent safety and inspection requirements.

Cynthia LaFave, one of the attorneys representing the families of those killed in the crash in civil and criminal lawsuits, watched the hours-long discussion Tuesday.

She picked up on NTSB’s use of the term “bad actors” to describe the DMV, DOT, Prestige and Mavis Discount Tire. The Mavis shop in Saratoga Springs is accused of falsifying repair records on the vehicle.

“All of them failed to do what their job was, and in so doing, 20 people ended up dead. Most of them young people. Some of them, like my clients, leaving behind children. It was very clear the NTSB was incredibly disturbed by the lack of regard for human life in the acts of the people who were involved in this from all of those entities,” said LaFave.

Nauman Hussain, operator of Prestige Limousine, has pleaded not guilty to 20 counts each of vehicular manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

In a joint statement, the New York State DOT and DMV said they exercised the full authority granted to them under the law and ordered the limo off the road multiple times, but Prestige repeatedly violated state law.

New York state adopted several new limousine safety measures as part of the 2019-2020 state budget, and through a separate package of legislation signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in February. A number of reforms are included ranging from seatbelt and licensing requirements to giving authority to the state to impound or immobilize defective limos.

Democratic State Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara represents Amsterdam, where many of the victims were from. He authored some of the measures adopted by the state legislature, but says more work is needed.

“The need for strengthening these regulations and improving safety standards is very apparent and needed and it’s something that should be done immediately. So we do need the federal government to take action, to follow suit on what we did here at the state level,” said Santabarbara.

The Democrat-led House of Representatives in June passed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill – yet to be voted on by the Senate – that includes a package of bipartisan legislation called the Limousine Safety Action Plan.

The limo safety bills are supported by Democratic Representatives Paul Tonko and Antonio Delgado, Republican Elise Stefanik, and Democratic Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

The bills would provide a federal definition for limousines and include safety and inspection requirements, support state efforts to impound or immobilize unsafe vehicles, and classify vehicles used to transport nine or more passengers as commercial vehicles – closing the so-called “limo loophole.”

Representative Tonko of Amsterdam has worked with the victims’ families in developing the legislation.

“Our effort here is to certainly respect families, to acknowledge the loss – the terrible loss that they have been asked to accept – and to have learned from this so that something like this is never repeated for any family out there,” said Tonko.  

Representatives Delgado and Stefanik are also calling for passage of the bills.

But even though the Limousine Safety Action Plan has the support of New York’s Senators, Tonko is hopeful, but a bit dubious, that the Republican-led Senate will act on the legislation this year. The Democrat pointed to the lack of agreement on the next COVID-19 relief bill to illustrate his point.

“Perhaps what it takes is flipping the Senate and growing the majority in the House and providing real sound leadership that cares about people in the White House,” said Tonko.

There’s more coverage of the NTSB vote finalizing its report at wamc.org.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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