New York disaster raises questions about limousine safety

(CNN) – These kinds of limos have worried safety experts for years: regular SUVs that have been jacked up, stretched out and converted into limousines.

A limo like that — a converted 2001 Ford Excursion — crashed in upstate New York over the weekend, killing 20 people.

It’s unclear whether the limo’s modification or some other factor contributed to the mass tragedy. In a statement Monday, Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service, which operated the vehicle, said it is “performing a detailed internal investigation to determine the cause of the accident and the steps we can take in order to prevent future accidents.”

Still, officials say it’s time to examine whether regulations on limousines are sufficient.

“This does need to be a wake-up call,” said Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “Here we have 20 lives that have been lost. … We do need to learn from this.”

Sumwalt said the NTSB will look into whether regulations on limousines are adequate.

Converted limos that started out as smaller vehicles do pose some risks, former NTSB managing director Peter Goelz said.

“It’s been a source of concern to the NTSB for years,” he said. “The after-market adjustments that they make to these cars — lengthening them, raising them — often affects the structural integrity and the safety.”

Regardless of whether a limo had been modified, there is a prevailing concern among some safety experts: rear passengers in limos are not required to wear seat belts.

“That’s going to be revisited,” Goelz said. “This accident — it is such a horrific (death) toll. I would say this is going to be a watershed event for the limousine industry. There are seat belts in the back — they’re required to be — but you’re not required to wear them. … So the rule may very well change in the near future.”

But it’s still too early to blame any single factor for the 20 deaths in New York.

“There’s going to be two main areas of this investigation. One is the human side, the driver. Was he certified to drive this kind of vehicle? Was he under any kind of impairment — drug, alcohol or even fatigue? And was he in a rush?” Goelz said.

“And then they’re going to look at the vehicle. Was the interior of the vehicle designed in such a way that cause(s) injury? There’s a lot to unpack in this investigation.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the type of limousine involved. The vehicle was a Ford Excursion.

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