America’s worst transportation disaster in nearly a decade wasn’t a plane crash or a train crash. Instead, it was as commonplace as they come: the victims died in a high-speed car accident. The only news-making aspect of the stretch limousine that crashed in central New York State over the Columbus Day weekend was the death toll. The smashup claimed 20 souls, rather than the usual one, two, or three people killed in such instances. Otherwise, it was similar to everyday fatal car wrecks—that is, it was preventable, but for the fact that New York, progressive as it is about public health, does not take violent crime by vehicle seriously.
Almost everything that happened in Schoharie, a small town west of Albany, last Saturday afternoon should not have happened. The result of multiple failures of lawmaking and enforcement was tragedy: the stretch limo careened through a stop sign at high speed, killing two pedestrians and then, after hitting a parked car and an embankment, all 18 occupants of the vehicle.
First, consider the vehicle itself. Seventeen of the dead, including four adult sisters, had piled into a modified limousine, passengers on their way to a brewery. The vehicle was originally a Ford SUV, but a third party had modified it after it left the factory. This contraption was nearly two decades old and had failed an inspection just a month ago, when the state declared its brakes and tires unsafe. Violations on these supposedly “luxury” conveyances are particularly serious. Modification to an assembly-line vehicle renders its factory-produced safety systems less useful. Stretching out a truck, for example, makes its crash cage less effective; adding seats, and thus passenger weight, puts extra pressure on the brakes.
Second, the driver: Scott Lisinicchia, killed in the crash, had a checkered driving history. In 2015, he received a $125 ticket for driving a car while talking on a cellphone, a potentially deadly action. He finished a one-day program on distracted driving and pled guilty to a lesser violation. The year before, he had received a ticket for opening a door into traffic—another behavior that’s potentially fatal, especially for nearby cyclists. Over the previous three years, he had racked up three other tickets: for failing to signal while turning, for driving with an obstructed view, and for failing to wear a seatbelt, according to the region’s Post-Star newspaper.
Then, too, Lisinicchia wasn’t properly licensed to drive the stretch limo. This inadequacy isn’t just an administrative oversight, like forgetting to pay an extra registration fee. As Jeffrey J. Kroll, a personal-injury lawyer, told the Poughkeepsie Journal, “the idea that a driver untrained in the unique nature of a stretch-limo handling can climb behind the wheel makes no sense.” The vehicle was more like a truck than a car: difficult to stop and turn.
Third, seatbelts. New York State doesn’t require adult passengers in the back of limos to wear them. Only the driver and front-seat passenger must do so. No safety reason exists for this exemption from general state law. If anything, the fact that limo modification renders the vehicle less able to withstand impact makes the argument for seatbelts even stronger.
We don’t yet know what caused the Schoharie mass-casualty crash. In the wake of the tragedy, the state has already come down hard. Wednesday, state police arrested Nauman Hussain, one of the principals of Prestige Limo, the fly-by-night company that owned the SUV, and charged him with negligent homicide.
But by this point, the state has already fallen down, in both lawmaking and enforcement. After the failed inspection, the SUV should have had a sticker affixed to it indicating that a driver, with no passengers, could operate the vehicle only for the purposes of repairs. If a vehicle is so unsafe that it cannot accommodate passengers, why not impound it until the owner has it towed directly to a repair shop?
Driver Lisinicchia, too, might have refrained from driving illegally if he had risked a bigger penalty for not doing so. Yet unlicensed truck drivers who kill typically face only misdemeanor charges. The Republican State Senate has passed a bill, sponsored by Queens Democratic Michael Gianaris, that would make it a felony. But the Democratic Assembly, worried about the impact on minorities, resists. The State Senate has not been particularly heroic in other traffic matters: it has refused to extend speed cameras, worried, in part, about the impact on police officers’ jobs. Finally, a seatbelt law for limos may have mitigated the crash itself, saving several lives, even if it subdued the party atmosphere inherent to limousine excursions.
Twenty deaths are unusual only because they happened all at once. In April 2017, Streetsblog reported that 24 pedestrians and cyclists had been killed by unlicensed drivers in the previous three years alone. The body count has increased since then. In June, in Brooklyn, unlicensed driver Junior Aguilar killed motorcyclist Lorenzo Fonerin Arias, and unlicensed driver Leonel Ortega-Flores slammed into pedestrian Jose Cardoso, killing him. In Queens, in May, unlicensed driver Agustin Osorio fatally ran over cyclist Aaron Padwee. In March, Dorothy Bruns, having previously racked up eight tickets for dangerous driving, mowed down two children in Park Slope; a third, unborn child died later. A month earlier, in Queens, truck driver Philip Monfoletto, also unlicensed, killed 13-year-old Kevin Flores, who was riding a bicycle.
State law should be clear and consistently enforced: a person driving a vehicle without the proper license should have that vehicle seized. In the hands of the wrong person, a vehicle is a deadly weapon. A person who injures or kills while driving without proper license or inspection should face felony assault or homicide charges. Finally, drivers who rack up speeding or other moving violations repeatedly should lose the privilege of driving.
Because the Schoharie crash is the worst transportation cataclysm since a Continental Airlines flight crashed in Buffalo in February 2009, killing 50, the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. The NTSB is best known for its plane-crash examinations, and for making recommendation to regulators and to Congress so that the nation can learn from such tragedies. The publicly accepted level of annual deaths on commercial airlines, though, is zero. On the roads, it’s 37,133—usually in crashes that, unlike the one in Schoharie, are considered so insignificant that they barely rate a paragraph in the local paper.
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