Passengers riding in the back of the limo that crashed in Schoharie, New York last year, killing 20 people, may have had a greater chance at survival had their vehicle’s seatbelts been more easily accessible, according to a new report released by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The report, released Wednesday, found that the modified 2001 Ford Excursion — which ran a stop sign, crossed a T-intersection, and slammed into an SUV on Oct. 6, 2018 — received severe damage to its front end, but that rear portions, where many of the 17 passengers were seated, stayed relatively intact, with enough “space for the occupants to survive.”
The vehicle had been modified into a stretch limo years earlier, with the limo company adding multiple seats to the back. Though those altered seats did have seatbelts — some lap belts, and some lap/shoulder belts — the report said that they were not well-designed, and were “invisible” to passengers, who would have had to remove the bench seats in order to gain access to them.
“Evidence from first responders and post-crash examinations of victims indicated that none of the passengers were wearing the passenger lap or lap/shoulder belts at the time of the crash,” the report read.
The limo’s driver, 53-year-old Scott Lisinicchia, was wearing a seatbelt, but his section of the vehicle was damaged past the point of survival, the NTSB said.
The report claimed that the limo’s seatbelts in the passenger section, specifically in the seats that were added during alterations, were “not properly designed for occupant crash protection,” and did not even align correctly with the seat positions.
As part of the report, the NTSB issued several recommendations moving forward, including that lap/shoulder belts be available for all passengers instead of just lap belts, and that New York should enact legislation that would implement a mandatory seat belt use law for all vehicle seating positions equipped with a passenger restraint system.
The NTSB encouraged the National Limousine Association to ensure the seatbelts were more easily accessible, and to urge passengers to use them.
It also recommended that the required inspections limos must undergo twice a year include a seat belt examination, as they currently do not.
The crash, which the NTSB said was the deadliest transportation accident in the United States since a 2009 plane crash, killed all 18 people riding in the limo, as well as two pedestrians. All but the pedestrians and the driver were celebrating the 30th birthday of passenger Amy Steenburg.
The NTSB said a final report identifying the probable cause of the crash is still to come.
Nauman Hussain, the operator of Prestige Limo, which rented out the limo that crashed, was indicted in April on 20 felony counts of second-degree manslaughter and 20 felony counts of criminally negligent homicide.
He was initially arrested in October, with State Police Superintendent George Beach II telling reporters at the time that Hussain was aware of multiple problems with the limo, including the fact that it should’ve been taken off the road in September and that its driver was not properly licensed and should not have been operating the vehicle.
Hussain has pleaded not guilty, and his trial is scheduled for January, according to the Associated Press.
Wednesday’s report drew various reactions from New York officials, including Rep. Paul Tonko, who said he was “encouraged” to see progress come from tragedy.
“As we revisit our most painful memories of that night, I am encouraged to see this measure of progress in bringing to light the causes that contributed to this unspeakable tragedy,” the Democrat said in a statement.
He continued, “Today’s preliminary findings by the NTSB confirm what many of us have long-believed: the 20 souls lost to this tragedy were victims of a profoundly broken system that failed to establish or uphold even the most basic safety standards.”
New York State Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez issued a statement as well, though she argued that report’s claims that seatbelts are not part of vehicle’s biannual inspections and said they have been since the early 1990s.
“The seatbelt requirement has been a top priority of this administration to ensure safety on our roads,” she wrote. “This past January … Governor Cuomo put forth strong legislation requiring that all occupants of all vehicles wear seatbelts — the third year in a row in which he called for strengthening the state’s seatbelt laws.”
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