Eight young women out on a tour of Long Island wineries had both safety and comfort in mind when they booked a stretch limousine for their pre-wedding celebration in the summer of 2015. But four of them died and two were severely injured when the driver attempted a U-turn on a busy county highway and the long limousine was broadsided in traffic.
A grand jury investigation has found, beyond driver error, the victims suffered grievously from gaping omissions in auto safety regulations that essentially exempt stretch limousines from standard requirements like side-panel airbags, lap-and-shoulder seat belts and rollover pillars.
“Without sufficient safety standards in place, it is nothing but a fine line between a stretch limousine and a hearse,” Thomas Spota, the Suffolk County district attorney, declared when he released the grand jury report this month and called for remedial safety laws.
Powerful words. But also scarily true.
Automakers do produce models of stretch limousines that are safer and more crash resistant than the vehicle
that was carrying the young women, though. But far too many stretch limos now on the road are jerry-built creations in which a standard limousine is cut in half and lengthened by about 10 feet of added panels, bolts and welding, without benefit of state inspection. Owners and operators can also take advantage of federal exemptions intended for vehicles like airport shuttle buses that allow them to forgo seat belts and side-panel airbags.
With the proliferation of stretch limos as celebrity-style vehicles for proms, weddings and private parties, both federal and state laws are needed to protect the public from “a vehicle whose design was untested, unregulated and potentially deadly,” in the words of the district attorney. The report proposed an absolute ban on drivers of stretch limos making cumbersome U-turns, noting that even after the tragedy limousine drivers on Long Island continued to make the same risky move.
California enacted tighter regulations in 2013 after five women died in a fire inside a stretch limousine whose doors could not be opened from the inside. At least two doors must now be operable by the passengers. Escape windows are also mandated, along with annual safety inspections of limousines by state regulators.
The Long Island crash shows that federal safety loopholes need to be closed, while New York State needs to create stronger inspection and safety standards of its own. Without them, the Suffolk grand jury warned, another tragedy is bound to happen.