ALBANY, N. Y. — Not yet two weeks after one of the worst roadway crashes in the nation's history claimed 20 lives, New York lawmakers want stricter inspections of stretch limousines.
Proposals include requiring vehicles failing safety checks -- like the one that carried 18 of the victims to their death -- would be plastered with a large Scarlet Letter-type sticker on the passenger side.
A bipartisan bill filed by Democrat Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn and and Republican Sen. Fred Akshar of Binghamton would also mandate operators of stretch limousines remove them from service 10 years after they are first registered.
Safety concerns with oversized limousines are being tackled by officials in both Albany and Washington, D.C., following the Oct. 6 crash that killed all 18 occupants of a stretched 2001 white Ford Excursion and two pedestrians struck by the out-of-control vehicle as it sped through the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store in the small town of Schoharie, located 37 miles west of Albany. It crashed into an embankment behind the store.
Among the limo occupants en route to a birthday party were four sisters and the husbands of three of them, plus 10 friends and the driver.
The length of the Excursion had been modified after it rolled off the Ford assembly line 17 years ago, giving it extra room to accommodate more passengers than it was designed to carry, federal transportation officials said.
It was not yet clear if the suspension and braking systems had been upgraded to help it handle the added weight from expanding its capacity.
"They have fallen through a hole," U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said of stretch limousines and the regulations that cover them.
The cause of the accident is under investigation, though state inspections found the Excursion's brakes were faulty. There were no signs of any skid marks at the accident scene. The vehicle had failed at least one safety inspection in the past and been cited for noncompliance of federal and state regulations, state officials said.
Schumer has requested federal safety officials determine whether regulations are needed to protect limo passengers by requiring that such vehicles be equipped with side airbags.
In Albany, the regulation reform bill — whose prime sponsor is Felder — requires operators of stretch limousines to maintain insurance coverage of no less than $2 million per accident.
The legislation also makes it a felony for a carrier to transport passengers in a limo that has failed safety inspections. And operators of limousines would be required to undergo specialized training under the measure.
The crash occurred inside the legislative district of State Sen. Jim Seward of Milford. He hopes federal investigators come up with a list of recommendations for improving limousine regulations by the time lawmakers return to the statehouse in January.
Seward, who heads the Senate Insurance Committee, said most limousine companies are very reputable but the firm that owned the ill-fated vehicle, Prestige Limousine of Wilton, appears to be a "fly-by-night" operation.
Its manager, Nauman Hussain, 28, is free on $150,000 bail after being arrested on a charge of criminally negligent homicide in connection with the deaths. His lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
The company is owned by Hussain's father, Shahed Hussain, whom law enforcement officials said is in Pakistan. He has been identified in news accounts as a former informant for the Albany FBI office.
State Sen. Betty Little of Queensbury said the limo occupants “were out to enjoy a birthday and did the responsible thing, renting a limo.” She’s eager to get the findings of investigators to "help us understand exactly what went wrong and what must be done to ensure this never happens again."
Joe Mahoney is the CNHI state reporter for New York. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.