News-Sentinel Editorial: Limousines and drivers need to meet higher safety standards

Stretch limos offer a unique ride for proms, weddings, parties and other celebrations, and Fort Wayne has many limousine services to choose from. But don’t just choose one because it’s cheap.

In the wake of the deadly limo crash in New York State last weekend, it would be wise to do some careful study before deciding which one to employ.

An SUV limo on its way to a 30th birthday party Saturday blew through a stop sign at the end of a highway and slammed into a parked SUV outside a store in Schoharie, killing all 18 people in the limo and two pedestrians — the worst transportation accident in nearly a decade.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday the limousine failed an inspection last month, and the driver did not have the proper commercial license to drive it.

Stretch limousines have a dismal safety record. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is investigating the crash, said there were 12 wrecks and 12 deaths across the country between 2012 and 2016 involving large limos.

Five women out for a bachelorette party were killed in 2013, when their stretch limo caught fire in Northern California. Another New York crash in 2015 killed four women when their limo was T-boned. 

A special grand jury then asked Gov. Cuomo to examine the safety of such vehicles, but nearly three years after the grand jury’s recommendation, it is still unclear whether anything was done in response.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., asked the NTSB to investigate accidents involving limos nationwide, but not much has changed.

The fact is, stretch limousines are not held to the same standards as standard automobiles.

Federal law, for example, only requires passengers to wear seat belts in the front seats of a limo carrying 10 passengers or more. Investigators have not yet said whether any of Saturday’s victims were wearing seat belts.

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, according to Zac Palmer of AutoBlog. The result, he wrote, “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.”

There are few federal regulations governing limos that have been modified after leaving the factory, and those often vary among state and local governments.

New York actually has some of the most stringent regulations in the country when it comes to vehicles carrying 10 or more passengers. Kevin Barwall,  president of the Limousine, Bus and Taxi Operators of Upstate New York, told The Associated Press vehicles that cross state or country borders 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.

In Michigan, limousines must pass a yearly inspection by a state-licensed mechanic, according to the Limousine, Taxicab and Transportation Network Company Act.

“It certainly is the Wild West out there when it comes to limousines and stretch vehicles,” National Safety Council CEO Deborah A.P. Hersman told the AP. She would like to see uniform state limousine regulations across the country.

Fly-by-night operators are common in the industry, said Jeffrey J. Kroll, a Chicago attorney who has successfully litigated two personal injury lawsuits involving limousine crashes, according to USA Today. That’s why it is important for consumers to ask the right questions, and not opt for the least expensive ride, he said.

And that’s why we encourage our state legislators to examine Indiana’s regulations on limousines and make sure both vehicles and drivers are held to high standards of safety in the future.