House members send letter to NHTSA

AMSTERDAM —The three U.S. House representatives whose districts include portions of Fulton and Montgomery counties have all signed a letter sent to the acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration questioning the agency’s decision to decline adoption of limousine related safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board in the wake of the fatal 2018 limo crash in Schoharie.

Representatives Paul D. Tonko, Antonio Delgado and Elise Stefanik sent a joint letter to NHTSA Administrator James Owens expressing their concern about the NHTSA administration’s refusal to adopt what they see as critical limousine safety recommendations produced by the NTSB in the wake of the Schoharie limousine crash that took the lives of 20.

Their letter follows a united effort in the House and Senate pushing for limo safety standards to be signed into federal law.

The limo in question was a 2001 Ford Excursion XLT, from the Gansevoort-based Prestige Limousine & Chauffeur Service, that had been altered to make it a stretch limo.

State police said the limo had been traveling downhill on Oct. 6, 2018 toward the intersection of Route 30 and 30A in the town of Schoharie. Troopers said the stretch limo failed to stop, crossed the highway and hit an unoccupied SUV in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store, and two pedestrians nearby. The limo then crashed into a shallow ravine. The crash killed all 17 passengers on board, the limo’s driver and the two pedestrians in the parking lot.

The letter states the vehicle was altered by the limo manufacturer by cutting the factory frame and welding on an additional 144 inches of frame to “stretch” the vehicle. This change moved the vehicle into the ‘midsized bus’ category, meaning it did not need to meet the seat belt system design and performance requirements that apply to passenger vehicles and larger motor coaches, the letter stated.

According to the letter, the seat belt system may not have had sufficient strength to withstand crash loads. The NTSB recommended that NHTSA require seat belts for each passenger seating position on new limousines.

The NTSB also found that the side-facing seats installed in the limousine’s passenger compartment failed during the crash. The correspondence states that when altering the vehicle, the limousine manufacturer added two rows of side-facing seats, which were not required by law to meet safety standards. According to the letter, without minimum safety standards in place, the anchorage failed as the side-facing seats detached from the floor during the collision. The five forward-facing seats in the passenger compartment, which were required to meet minimum safety standards, remained structurally intact and attached to the floor.

The NTSB is recommending that NHTSA apply minimum safety standards to side-facing seats in new limousines.

According to the representatives letter, in March the NHTSA sent a letter to NTSB declining to act on these safety recommendations.

“NHTSA’s mission is to save lives and prevent injuries,” their letter states. “But rather than proactively seeking to investigate and address clear limousine safety hazards endangering the public, NHTSA continues to justify inaction. Sadly, this is not the first deadly limo accident. Devastating limousine crashes have occurred in [Long Island; Elgin, Ill.; Cranbury, NJ; and San Francisco, Calif.] NTSB has investigated and issued recommendations in several of these cases, demonstrating a clear safety gap that NHTSA refuses to close. Rather than look for reasons not to take decisive action, the agency should work with its partners to find reasonable actions that will save lives.”

The three representatives say they have worked alongside the family members and loved ones of the Schoharie victims to reform limo safety standards. Last year, on the anniversary of the Schoharie crash, Tonko, Delgado and Stefanik, along with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, introduced three pieces of legislation they say would increase the safety of stretch limousines for those who ride in them: the Safety, Accountability, and Federal Enforcement of Limos Act (SAFE Limos Act), the Take Unsafe Limos Off the Road Act, and the End the Limo Loophole Act. This bipartisan, bicameral legislation would set a full slate of new federal stretch limousine safety rules and standards, help get unsafe vehicles off the road and close federal safety loopholes, officials said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

By Kerry Minor

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