Over the weekend, 20 people died in a limousine crash in the small upstate New York town of Schoharie, the most people to have died in a transportation-related tragedy in almost a decade. There are many details to come, but there is one thing we can almost certainly say: This didn’t have to happen.
In the Schoharie crash, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced on Monday that the limousine failed an inspection last month and, moreover, the driver lacked the proper commercial license that would have permitted him to drive the vehicle. But there is a bigger issue: The dismal safety record of stretch limousines overall is no secret. If you are wondering why the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the deaths in Schoharie, you can thank Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). After a limo crash on Long Island’s North Fork killed four women in 2015, the senator called for the industry to be better regulated. The federal agency agreed to collect data on future limousine crashes. It’s a start, but we need to do much more.
There are massive loopholes in the federal safety regulations governing limousines — loopholes so large you can, well, drive a jumbo stretch limousine through them. While limousines do need to meet strict standards when first manufactured, there’s less regulatory guidance when, as is often the case, the vehicles are altered after sale so they can carry more people than originally intended. The result? The integrity of the vehicles can be damaged, leaving passengers more at risk. The ability to exit the car can be fatally compromised as well. The party or parties stretching the limo also do not need to add seat belts and additional side airbags. State laws are also, for the most part, lagging: In New York, for example, only people riding in the front seat of a limo are legally required to wear seat belts. California offers a rare exception: After a much-publicized fatal limousine accident in 2014, in which five passengers burned to death, the state legislature passed a law demanding limos possess rear exits. Limousine-business interests pushed back, ultimately unsuccessfully. It was a rare defeat for the industry.
For the most part, these accidents happen again and again, yet little changes. It’s part and parcel of the lax regulations surrounding all sorts of aspects of American life — ones we usually pay attention to for a few days after a tragedy before moving on. The result is a horrific carelessness at the heart of key parts of culture and politics, which values our lives less and business and conservative political interests more. Our lack of effective gun control is the premier example: In 2017, more than 15,000 people died from gun-related incidents, not including suicides.
Food safety is also lacking. Just last week, there was a voluntary recall of 6.5 million pounds of beef from a troubled Arizona producer after several dozen people suffered salmonella contamination from eating tainted meat. And when a duck boat sank near Branson, Mo., this past summer, killing 17 people, it emerged that there were decades of warnings about the how these boats carried the potential for tragedy, so much so that the NTSB had made a number of regulatory safety suggestions for the industry in the early 2000s. They were all but filed away and ignored.
The Trump administration, with its wholesale attack against government regulations, is actively making things more dangerous for Americans. Airline seating rules have gotten the most attention, perhaps because our comfort is also involved. Any number of safety and consumer advocates are concerned about the shrinking size of airlines seats, not just because people are not happy about them, but because there is increasing worry that in the event of a crash, passengers will not be able to evacuate the airplane in the legally required 90 seconds. The Federal Aviation Administration recently declined to step in, allowing the airlines to rely on safety test runs that didn’t include the young, the overweight or the elderly — not exactly real-world conditions. Other pending regulations that have been put on ice include one that would require states to annually inspect commercial buses, and another that would mandate that newly manufactured trucks contain technology that can limit their speed.
The result for Americans is “buyer beware,” if we could apply the term to where people are all but powerless. About all we’ve got are advice articles attempting to teach people how to ask, say, stretch limo operators how many push-out windows they contain. That is ridiculous, of course. The idea that the typical consumer, who rents a limousine for such things as prom night, weddings, or parties, would look into the number of push-out windows is absurd, as absurd as to think they should know when a car is on the road illegally, as is the driver. But it feeds a myth that too many people — and more important, too many politicians — want to believe.