The deadly limousine crash Saturday in central New York state claimed more victims than any other U.S. transportation crash in nearly a decade. With safety advancements in cars, an accident like this may seem surprising, but stretch limousines are not held to the same standard new cars are. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, so for now it's unclear exactly how the deaths occurred. But we already know how current regulations, enforcement and the design of these vehicles affect the chances of something like this happening.
For starters: seatbelts. In New York and many other states, passengers are only legally required to wear them in the front of a limo. According to New York law, any vehicle that can accommodate 10 or more passengers must offer seat belts to those in the rear — but if the passengers are over 16 years old, they don't have to wear them. Investigators have not yet said whether any of the victims were wearing seat belts.
New York actually has some of the most stringent regulations in the country when it comes to vehicles carrying 10 or more passengers, according to Kevin Barwall, president of the Limousine, Bus and Taxi Operators of Upstate New York. Vehicles that cross state or country lines are required to be inspected every six months by the state Department of Transportation. That's one of the inspections that the limo in the crash had failed because of brake and suspension problems, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. If a vehicle fails inspection, then it won't get the proper certification sticker on its windshield — something a passenger can look out for when deciding to rent a particular limo (at least in New York). Cars owned by New York residents need to be inspected yearly.
From a basic physics standpoint, driving a stretch limousine is never as safe as a car. Most stretch limos are made by cutting a normal car or SUV in half, then welding in plates to serve as a longer frame and roof between the halves. The result can be far heavier than the original vehicle was designed to handle. Brakes need to be upgraded, the suspension has to be able to withstand the extra weight, and safety features need to be accounted for. Most important, passengers in the middle are more susceptible to injuries from an impact. Traditional cars have pillars forming a structure around passengers that helps tremendously in a heavy impact. Stretch limos typically go without these pillars, making a side impact much worse than it ever would be in a car. An older vehicle like the 2001 Excursion stretch limo did not have side-impact or curtain airbags from the factory, so you can bet there were no airbags for any of the passengers in this horrific crash, either.
Once a vehicle has been modified by a coach builder, it is no longer the manufacturer's problem — government agencies treat it as an entirely different vehicle, hence the inspection process it must pass. For example, in the state of Michigan, limousines in operation must pass a yearly inspection by a mechanic licensed by the state, according to the Limousine, Taxicab, And Transportation Network Company Act. There's a fairly standard list of items to be inspected, similar to New York's inspection process.
At no point do any of these stretch limos have to show how they perform in a crash test.
There are few federal regulations governing limos that have been modified after leaving the factory. Regulations often vary by state and even local governments.
"It certainly is the Wild West out there when it comes to limousines and stretch vehicles," said National Safety Council CEO Deborah A.P. Hersman, who would like to see uniform state limousine regulations across the nation.
There were 12 wrecks — and a dozen crash deaths — involving large limos from 2012 to 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That compares with over 157,000 crashes and over 171,000 deaths involving all types of vehicles during that period.
An accident in New York back in 2015 actually caused everybody to take a second look at limousine safety. Four women were killed in that accident due to a side impact of the passenger compartment of the stretch limo — the weakest part of the car. If we know how unsafe these vehicles are, how do they keep passing inspections then? Well, even after that crash, the state of New York didn't do a whole lot. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., asked the NTSB to investigate limo accidents nationwide, but nothing changed beyond deeper investigations.
Another accident out west spurred on regulation related to limos as well. Five women out for a bachelorette party were killed in 2013 when their stretch limo caught fire in Northern California because of friction between the driveshaft and the rear floorboard.
After a stretch limousine was T-boned and nearly torn in half on New York's Long Island in 2015 — killing four women on a winery tour — a special grand jury implored Gov. Cuomo to examine the safety of such vehicles. It appears the task force was never formed, and nearly three years after the grand jury's recommendation, it was unclear what, if anything, Cuomo's administration did in response.
"I don't know if there was a task force set up," the governor said Monday, while suggesting that Saturday's crash didn't necessarily point to a need for more regulation.
"Sometimes, people just don't follow the law" that already exists, he said. "And that may very well be what happened here."
Cuomo is referring to the revelation that the limo in the crash had failed inspection last month, and its driver did not have the proper license. The inspection turned up several violations, including anti-lock brake malfunction indicators and inoperative or defective windshield wipers. In fact, all three of Prestige Limousine's vehicles had violations when they were inspected last month, records show.
Before the limousine crashed, one of the victims, Erin McGowan, texted a friend that the limousine appeared to have engine trouble, the New York Times reported: "The motor is making everyone deaf," she said. McGowan's aunt, Valerie Abeling, told CNN her niece had texted a friend saying the company had sent the stretch limousine to replace a vehicle that had broken down.
Robert Sumwalt, chief of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), told CNN on Monday that the accident should be "a wake-up call" for limousine safety. But based on recent cases, that seems unlikely.