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Deadly Limousine Crash In New York Brings Fresh Attention To Safety Regulation Loophole


The deadly limousine crash in New York that killed 20 people last weekend is raising questions about safety regulations. Limo makers do not have to prove that their vehicles meet the same safety standards as other cars on the road, and they never have. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Any ordinary passenger car sold in the U.S. has to meet federal safety requirements. Small buses have different safety rules. Here's where the limousine loophole comes in. If you take a car and modify it, stretching it out to fit as many people as a bus, you don't have to prove it meets either set of standards.

JASON LEVINE: Limousines are treated almost uniquely when we think about motor vehicles.

DOMONOSKE: Jason Levine is the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. He says limos should have their own standards because they're neither cars nor buses.

LEVINE: Regulators have tried to jam it in between the two of them and have come up with nothing.

DOMONOSKE: Limos are regulated by a patchwork of state and local rules. For instance, a law just came into effect in California. It requires additional rear exits on stretch limousines. A few years ago, a bride and four of her friends died when they were trapped in the back of a limo that caught on fire. The local limo industry fought hard against the bill. Cruz Infante is the CEO of DrivenLux, a limo company in Southern California. He says the cost of the new law was difficult for operators, especially those using older Lincoln Town Car stretches.

CRUZ INFANTE: The retrofit of these modified limousines to add the exits can be anywhere from a few thousand dollars up to $10,000, $12,000. That amount is sometimes the value of some of those limousines.

DOMONOSKE: But Infante also says he personally would support more safety regulation.

INFANTE: There should be a nationwide certain type of regulations that make sure that these vehicles are up to date and safe to a certain point.

DOMONOSKE: Some stretch limos are safer than others, he says. Companies can do pull tests where a powerful machine yanks on seats to see if they budge.

INFANTE: If you hit something, the force of the impact - it can rip the seats out of the floor if they're not properly installed to a certain plates underneath the vehicle and on the interior of the vehicle.

DOMONOSKE: But not every company does those tests. There are other risks, safety experts say. Limos often lack side impact reinforcement, and they don't always have to have enough seatbelts for every passenger. You can look for a safer limo, Infante says.

INFANTE: Some of the public seems not to care about the safety first. They seem to care about the price.

DOMONOSKE: Rosemary Shahan is the president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety. She says the onus shouldn't be on customers to figure out if a limo is safe.

ROSEMARY SHAHAN: I think it's just really grossly unfair. People - of course they always care about safety. I just think most people assume that if they're in the business, that there are minimum requirements that they have to meet.

DOMONOSKE: On the federal level, there's never been a major push toward regulating limo safety. In 2015, there was a deadly limo crash on Long Island. Afterward, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York issued a call for a federal agency to investigate such crashes. The agency came up with recommendations, but the National Limousine Association says it never even heard about them. Levine of the Center for Auto Safety says federal standards would be ideal for the sake of consistency.

LEVINE: But if we're going to continue to see a lack of movement out of D.C., having states lead the way wouldn't be terrible.

DOMONOSKE: Investigators are still working out exactly what happened in New York last weekend when a 2001 Ford stretch limousine crashed and killed 20 people. But they already know that limo had failed inspection, and the driver wasn't properly licensed. Camila Domonoske, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.