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Officials renew push for rear seat belt law after New York limousine crash

October 13, 2018

After a limousine crash outside Albany, N.Y., left 20 people dead Oct. 6, AAA of Greater Hartford will push even harder for legislation requiring seat belts for all vehicle passengers.

Per media reports, the super-stretch Ford Excursion, owned by Prestige Limousine, blew a stop sign and plowed into another car before landing in the woods.

New York state inspectors had deemed the Excursion unserviceable in September for issues including a problem with its antilock brakes, the Associated Press reported, and the driver, who died in the crash, wasn’t licensed to drive it.

Prestige Limousine operator Nauman Hussain was charged Wednesday with criminally negligent homicide in the wreck, which remains under investigation.

“We don’t yet actually know the cause of the crash or the deaths ... however, this certainly brings to the forefront the conversation about seat belts and rear seat belts,” AAA of Greater Hartford spokeswoman Amy Parmenter said.

Although the Connecticut Department of Transportation requires livery services to make seat belts available for all passengers in stretched vehicles, state law only requires front-seat occupants to wear seat belts.

New York also only requires belts for front-seat occupants.

A bill requiring seat belts for all passengers unanimously cleared Connecticut’s Public Health Committee this spring but never was called for a vote on the state House floor.

In testimony on the bill, Dr. Bella Dinh-Zarr of the National Transportation Safety Board said her agency has been recommending seat belts for all “for decades.”

She said 90.1 percent of Americans use seat belts, but of those who died in crashes in 2016, 48 percent were unrestrained.

“The NTSB believes that a significant number of lives can be saved and injuries prevented if Connecticut closes this loophole in its occupant restraint law,” Dinh-Zarr said.

Inspections and enforcement

Because there are so few limousines operating in Connecticut, officials with the UConn Crash Data Repository said they don’t collect information on crashes involving those vehicles, so the number of such crashes in the state couldn’t quickly be determined.

One prominent case involved a Mohegan Sun limousine, driven by William Clarke of Norwich, that struck another vehicle on Interstate 95 in Norwalk in 2011. Of the four occupants of the limo, three suffered minor injuries but the fourth sustained severe back injuries; additionally, the two occupants of the vehicle that the limo struck also were severely injured.

DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick, however, said his agency doesn’t have many issues with livery services that use limousines.

A person can only operate a stretched vehicle for livery service in Connecticut if the vehicle is, one, certified to be stretched by its original manufacturer and, two, stretched by a factory-certified shop.

“Otherwise, it’s illegal and will not be given certification,” said Nursick, who said the same holds true for stretched vehicles that are based in other states but wish to provide services in Connecticut.

Nursick said certain types of vehicles not authorized to be stretched are popular for events like prom, and some people will look out of state to find them. He said it’s common for the state Department of Motor Vehicles, whose inspectors have law enforcement capabilities, to launch stings around that time.

To operate an uncertified stretched vehicle for livery services is a Class B misdemeanor, Nursick said.

“But generally speaking, the industry is good about policing itself,” he said. “There are many good companies operating in Connecticut that don’t want the bad ones giving them a bad name. When they see something wrong, they notify the appropriate authorities.”

Nursick said DOT inspects all vehicles that are not regular sedans before issuing permits for livery service. From there, each vehicle that carries more than eight passengers is inspected every six months.

Nursick said the “vast majority” of inspected vehicles pass without issue. The ones that don’t pass typically have only a minor violation rather than a mechanical deficiency, he said.

DOT, for example, requires the vehicles to have emergency kits, three orange triangles to set up in case of a breakdown and devices to ensure luggage will stay in place. A vehicle missing any of those elements would fail the test and have to correct the issue before trying again.

“These companies know what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re not bringing in garbage vehicles that barely squeak by.”

Companies whose limousines carry at least nine people and are used to pick up out-of-state passengers — even if from a local airport — also must register with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA.

FMCSA keeps track of driver records and subjects companies to random inspections, the results of which it posts online.

l.boyle@theday.com

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