Earlier this month, on the three-year anniversary of a notorious 2018 limo crash in New York that resulted in the death of 20 people, the state announced the appointees to the Stretch Limousine Passenger Safety Task Force. And this particular safety initiative is part of a more widespread focus on transportation safety and limo regulations.
What Happened in New York?
Though it was determined by a judge the operator of a limousine company does not deserve prison time; the operator was sentenced to five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service. He plead guilty to 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide. The operator went on trial for his alleged “egregious disregard for safety,” according to the National Safety Transportation Board.
The Schoharie accident was the deadliest U.S. transportation disaster in a decade, killing 17 passengers, two bystanders, and the limo driver. It happened because the limo experienced brake failure on a downhill stretch of state Route 30 and consequently ran into a ravine going more than 100 mph. The crash occurred despite the state sending several notices to the company about safety infractions and below-standard repairs. New York police have stated that the vehicle should have been dis-serviced due to brake faults reported in an inspection done one month prior.
But the NTSB also blamed poor state oversight as a contributing factor in the tragic limo accident. It may have been prevented if the proper measures had been enforced. The limo operator had changed the number of passenger seats multiple times to get around safety regulations. The DoT failed to act on the operator’s out-of-service violations and lack of operating authority. The party bus (2001 Ford Excursion limousine) was not properly registered with the DMV… All of these issues have led the state of New York to create the limousine safety task force.
What Types of Safety Standards Are Being Reviewed?
The safety task force is made up of lawmakers, representatives from the departments of motor vehicles and transportation, as well as the state police. It’s charged with developing recommendations for improving oversight of the luxury transportation industry in NY state.
Nine bills passed in New York have already gone into effect for stretch limousines, black cars, buses, and other for-hire vehicles operating in the state. With the goal of increasing safety for passengers, drivers, and other cars on the road, the new laws require:
- Commercial driver’s licenses with a passenger endorsement, which certifies drivers on the vehicles they will operate.
- Random drug and alcohol testing for drivers;
- Seatbelts for each designated seating position in every vehicle carrying 9 or more passengers;
- Adherence to federal standards for seat assembly;
- Updated safety features, such as commercial GPS, anti-intrusion bars, and push-out escape windows;
- Compliance for vehicles that are modified or stretched after-market;
- Compliance with federal safety standards for used vehicles that have been modified into stretch versions;
- Higher minimum liability insurance requirements for for-hire vehicles carrying 8 or more passengers.
In particular, the group will be reviewing how new, more stringent requirements can be effectively enforced. Recommendations are likely to included higher fines and penalties for drivers who violate traffic laws, in addition to steeper requirements for licensing and insurance. The SAFE Limos Act also calls for direct authorization of the DoT to impound vehicles that are deemed unsafe.
It also closes a regulatory loophole that enabled used vehicles to be stretched into limousines without meeting current safety standards. This will be done by updating the definition of “Commercial Motor Vehicle” to include vehicles modified to seat nine or more people even after purchase.
Will this Affect Limo Operations in Other States?
It’s possible that changes will soon be coming down the pipeline for limo operators in all states. Five prominent politicians from New York are now pushing beyond the state level. The goal is to reform limo safety legislation on the national level through the Transportation Oversight committees in the House and Senate.
A package of bills has already been proposed to address after-market stretched vehicles, while some state lawmakers are considering tightening industry standards about licensing, safety inspections, and seat belt requirements. In addition, the NTSB issued a final report last year that recommended the federal government work with states to improve enforcement of safety-related “out of service” citations.
Is Oversight Really the Problem?
But business owners say that the industry is already over-regulated and strapped with costly licensing and insurance requirements. There is little faith that stronger regulations will actually improve safety. Because, they wonder, ‘what is the point of making stronger laws if nobody knows who is supposed to enforce them or in what manner?’
Poor or nonexistent communication between agencies that have jurisdiction over limousine operators has only led to higher operating costs and confusion about safety standards. Lawmakers might be better off focusing on these loopholes and inconsistencies rather than placing more of the burden on businesses.
“Ninety-nine percent of the apples out there, they’re good companies. They want to do the right thing. You have one or two bad apples and no matter what they’re going to try to skirt the law…Buyer beware.”– David Brown, appointee to the New York safety task force and president of Premiere Transportation.
Brown says that the fallout of the Schoharie crash, including the new limo laws, has cut his limousine fleet down to one vehicle. And warns that more laws may simply regulate limos out of existence. This is a good point, especially considering that TNCs and ridesharing operators share the roads and are virtually unregulated.
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