Published 10:00 PM EDT Oct 14, 2018
Seventeen friends and relatives headed to a brewery in Cooperstown, New York, for a birthday party and beer tasting. They did everything to make their celebration safe, even hiring a small bus to ensure that no one would get behind the wheel drunk.
Everything went wrong anyway. The bus broke down and was replaced by a stretch limousine that had failed a safety inspection. The driver didn’t have the right "clearance" to operate with so many passengers. The route to the brewery crossed a notoriously dangerous intersection.
When the limo blew through a stop sign and crashed into a parked car, all 17 friends, including four sisters, the driver and two pedestrians were killed. It was the deadliest transportation accident since a 2009 plane crash killed 50.
While New York state police and the National Transportation Safety Board continue to investigate the accident's cause, the operator of the company that rented out the shoddy 2001 Ford Excursion SUV has been charged with criminally negligent homicide.
The loss of so many lives in a single accident drew much needed attention to an industry that serves millions of consumers but falls into a regulatory no man's land. Limousines that don't travel across state lines, for example, are not subject to federal regulations, leaving safety supervision to a patchwork of state laws.
OTHER VIEWS: Do we really need stretch limos?
And stretch limos, even ones that haven't failed a safety inspection, come with more risks: They are converted after manufacture by cutting a luxury sedan or SUV in half, adding room for long seats on the sides and putting it together again. The process can undermine federal safety performance standards required of new cars, according to engineers with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Life-saving innovations, such as side curtain air bags that deploy automatically in a crash, are generally missing. And under federal regulations, safety belts are not even required on seats along the sides of the giant vehicles.
When belts are installed, many state laws, including New York's, don’t require rear passengers to buckle up. After a 2014 crash of a limo van in New Jersey, in which comedian Tracy Morgan was injured and another man was killed, the safety board called on the National Limousine Association to develop guidelines urging operators to direct passengers to use seat belts. But the trade association says it never got the NTSB letter and wants to see it now.
Previous accidents, often involving an appalling loss of life, have briefly put a spotlight on the industry, but without much effect.
In 2013, five friends, including a new bride, died in a stretch limousine on a bridge in the San Francisco Bay area when they could not find a way to escape the burning vehicle. A California law, which took effect this year, requires certain limos to have pop-out windows or rooftop hatches for emergency escape. It is a rare example of action.
After another New York crash in which four women leaving a Long Island winery were killed, a Suffolk County grand jury issued a scathing report in 2016 citing many safety gaps in converted stretch limos. Less than two years later, 20 more lives have been lost.
Unsuspecting consumers often turn to limos as a safe way to celebrate during weddings, proms and other occasions. Before more celebrations turn deadly, federal and state authorities should do what’s needed to ensure the vehicles live up to the confidence people place in them.
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