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The Schoharie Limousine Tragedy – Was Government Part of the Problem?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Hamilton
November 2, 2018

On October 6, 2018, the news was punctuated with the shocking revelation that a limousine had crashed killing 20 people. The vehicle, filled with family and friends on their way to a birthday celebration, had run off the road after failing to stop at a controlled intersection at the bottom of a long hill, according to media reports. Suddenly, the small village of Schoharie in upstate New York was known around the world as news of the fatality spread. All of the passengers, along with the driver, had died along with two unfortunate bystanders. The magnitude of the catastrophe was stunning.

Source: spectrumlocalnews.com

In the immediate aftermath, the operator of the limousine company has been charged while ongoing investigations are conducted by the State and Federal authorities. But questions remain: the safety of limousines, the regulation of limousines and their drivers and the design of the intersection where the accident occurred. Based on what is currently known, there are implications for various levels of government based on the inevitable question – how could this have happened?

According to timesunion.com in an article posted on October 22, 2018, a Suffolk County grand jury had investigated a previous limousine crash in the state of New York which killed four passengers in 2015. Their extensive 156-page report contained four pages of recommendations. “But many of its prescriptions, including calling on Governor Cuomo to convene a task force on stretch limousine regulations, were never enacted. At least two of the recommendations would have directly impacted the modified 2001 Ford Excursion that crashed in Schoharie County on Oct 6.” One of the recommendations proposed requiring all limousine passengers to be wearing seat belts. “Occupants in the back of a limousine or any vehicle, without seat belts on, are just projectiles like anything else,” a state Department of Transportation official told the grand jury according to the report. Reconfirming that tragic analysis, State Police last week said all 20 of the Schoharie victims died of blunt force trauma.”  When asked why the task force had not been created, a spokesperson for the Governor’s office referenced an earlier comment that indicated responsibility for limousines “fall under the bus regulatory system, which is a federal system.”

Issues related to the overall integrity of the vehicle and its driver emerged. As cbsnews.com reported on October 10, 2018, “the limousine that ran the stop sign was cited for code violations on September 4 including a problem with the anti-lock brakes malfunctioning indicator system. State Department of Transportation spokesman Joseph Morrissey said a sticker was placed on the vehicle after the September inspection declaring it ‘unserviceable’.” In addition, questions have emerged about the validity of the license held by the driver. According to democratandchronicle.co, the driver “didn’t have the appropriate ‘passenger clearance’ on his commercial driver’s license to operate a vehicle with capacity to carry more than 15 passengers.”

Finally, shortly after the accident, issues surfaced related to long-standing concerns about the safety of the intersection where the accident occurred. In an article published the day following the tragedy, dailygazette.com quoted a long-time Schoharie resident who lives near the intersection in question. “I thought it would be here, because this is where most of the accidents do happen.” The article described the intersection where two state highways meet at a T- route 30 joins route 30A with an approach that follows a long-steep incline to where the crash occurred. In a subsequent article posted on October 9, democrat&chronicle.com revealed that efforts to fix the troubled intersection had been made in the past. According to a Schoharie Town Supervisor, “there were some modifications 10 to 12 years ago to make it more direct, a T. It was a Y intersection before.” Apparently the changes were done by the State Department of Transportation since they are state roads. In addition, about four years ago, tractor-trailers were banned from that route because they were “losing their brakes on that hill.”

At this stage, with an ongoing investigation progressing, there are numerous areas of responsibility that have yet to be clarified. But after presenting this concise overview of the events and comments, valid questions emerge about the value of government if lessons are to be learned from this tragedy. First, from what is currently known today, the county, state and federal levels of government were involved in either making recommendations or creating policies to ensure the public’s safety while riding in limousines. Why were the recommendations of the Suffolk County grand jury ignored by the political office of the governor and why, if it was a federal government’s responsibility, were they not asked to become involved? Second, since the vehicle in question was “unserviceable,” why was it not impounded? Finally, although the road was of interest to the local township, the design of the intersection was left to the state government to adjust. Who was responsible for ongoing concerns at the intersection that were apparently well known by its local citizens? In addition, if brake failure was a concern for large trucks, why was it not deemed to be an issue for all other vehicles?

Although this series of articles has presented the theme that government is the solution, these types of traumatic incidents beg the counter question of what happens when government or perhaps more accurately, governments are the problem? According to the last Census of Governments of 2012, there are 90,056 local governments, 50 state governments and one federal government totaling 90,107 entities all committed to serving the public. But within this vast array, who ensures that they are working in a coordinated effort to serve and protect the public? When they hire a licensed limousine or travel public roadways, they should be confident of their safety without having to worrying about which level of government is responsible.

Author: Dr. David Hamilton is a strategic leader experienced in managing county and city governments. He holds a Doctorate in Public Administration degree from Hamline University focused on the administrative challenges created by rapid-growth in Edge Counties and metropolitan areas.  He heads his own consulting firm guiding governments and organizations in community visioning, strategic planning and capacity building and serves on the Executive Council of the Suncoast Chapter of ASPA, based in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. Contact: [email protected]

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