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Home | Police and Fire | Breaking News | Suffolk grand jury: July 2015 limo crash deaths and injuries ‘entirely preventable’

Suffolk grand jury: July 2015 limo crash deaths and injuries ‘entirely preventable’

A special grand jury investigating last summer’s deadly limousine crash on Route 48 has concluded the deaths and injuries resulting from that accident were “entirely preventable” and were caused by “driver failure, improper limousine construction, and inadequate regulatory oversight.”

Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota today released the grand jury report and recommendations, including a protected left-turn signal at the intersection of Route 48 and Depot Lane, a county-wide ban on U-turns by commercial vehicles and more rigorous regulations for stretch limousines and their drivers.

Four young women were killed and four others were seriously injured in the July 2015 crash after their limousine attempted to make a U-turn on Route 48 and was struck by a pick-up truck. The victims, all between the ages of 23 and 25, had been celebrating a friend’s upcoming wedding with an afternoon visiting several North Fork wineries.

The grand jury investigation found that the fatal U-turn could not possibly be made legally by a stretch limo.

Suffolk DA Thomas Spota at a March press conference with a graphic showing how the limo driver could not have seen oncoming traffic as he attempted to make a U-turn. File photo: Peter Blasl.

In order to execute a U-turn in a stretch limousine at that intersection, an eastbound limo would block other eastbound traffic while swinging wide to complete the turn, according to the report. The limousine would also end up blocking westbound traffic as it circled back into the westbound lanes.

“The intersection is not configured to allow for stretch limousines to make proper U-turns,” the report said, “but stretch limousines continue to attempt – and fail – to execute U-turns at the intersection, partially due to its placement at the eastern end of many wine tours.”

A grand jury in March indicted the limo driver Carlos Pino of Bethpage on four counts of criminally negligent homicide, four counts of assault for injuring the surviving passengers of the limousine, making an illegal U-turn and other charges. But a judge in October dismissed all criminal charges against him — a ruling the district attorney announced he would appeal

A traffic signal installed shortly after the accident has also done nothing to improve the intersection for limousines attempting U-turns, according to the report, and in some ways is even worse than the flashing yellow lights that were at the intersection at the time of the crash.

“Instead of flashing yellow lights in each direction, at least advertising caution, now both eastbound and westbound traffic can face green lights while the stretch limousines attempt their dangerous maneuvers,” the report said. “The green lights actually encourage oncoming traffic to proceed through the intersection at the very moment when the danger is the greatest.”

SoutholdLOCAL file photo

The grand jury also found that limousines that carry fewer than 11 passengers – like the one involved in the July 2015 crash – should be subject to state regulations that already apply to limousines that carry 11 or more passengers. The July 2015 crash was casued by “failures on the part of the limousine driver,” the report said, and more enhanced driver certification requirements “might have prevented the crash.”

Drivers of smaller limousines should be certified under the same “rigorous” bus driver certification program that drivers of larger limos go through, which include biennial road tests on the driver’s specific vehicle type, annual defensive driving observations and written tests.

The report also advocates regular inspections of modified limousines to ensure their structural integrity. Currently, modified limousines that carry fewer than 11 occupants do not qualify as buses and do not require semi-annual inspections.

In addition, the grand jury’s 156-page report made the following recommendations to prevent another tragedy at the Route 48 intersection and on other roadways in the county:

Legislative
• The New York State Legislature should modify the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law to prohibit modified or stretch limousines, with total occupancy capacities of nine or more including the driver, from making U-turns on all of the roadways of the State.
• The Suffolk County Legislature should prohibit U-turns by modified or stretch limousines within the County’s borders or, in the alternative, on the County’s roads.
• The Suffolk County Legislature should prohibit U-turns by all commercial vehicles on the roadways of Suffolk County.
• The Southold Town Board should prohibit U-turns by modified or stretch limousines within the Town’s borders or, in the alternative, on the Town’s roads.
• The New York State Legislature should modify New York State Department of Transportation Bus & Passenger Vehicle Regulations, Title 17, Parts 720 et seq., to include stretch or modified limousines, with occupancy capacities of nine or more including the driver, to fall under the definition of “bus.”
• The New York State Legislature should modify Article 19-A of the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law to extend all driver certification requirements, including vehicle-specific road tests, to stretch or modified limousine drivers who operate vehicles with total occupant capacities of nine or more.
• The Suffolk County Legislature should create a statutory scheme to make the Suffolk County Taxi and Limousine Commission an independent entity within the Suffolk County government, rather than a part of the Suffolk County Department of Labor, Licensing, and Consumer Affairs.
• The Suffolk County Legislature should appropriate monies to ensure the independence and operation of the Suffolk County Taxi and Limousine Commission, enabling the Commission to employ investigators and expand its regulatory reach.
• The New York State Legislature should modify the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law to require all passengers in the rear compartment of a stretch or modified limousine to fasten their seatbelts and keep them fastened while the vehicle is in motion.
• The New York State Legislature should modify New York State Penal Law Section 15.05(4), the definition of “Criminal Negligence,” to expressly apply to professional drivers, who, in the course of their for-hire activities, cause fatalities in motor vehicle crashes where the professional driver is at fault.
• The New York State Legislature should modify the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law with respect to holders of commercial driver licenses actively engaged in for-hire activities by holding the drivers strictly liable for the personal injury, serious physical injury, or death of the drivers’ passengers resulting from the drivers’ negligent operation of such a vehicle. Such negligence would expressly include unreasonable speed, failure to yield right of way, improper U-turns, failure to obey traffic control devices, and/or the operation of a motor vehicle in violation of New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1212.
• The New York State Legislature should modify the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law to raise the minimum age of a Class E driver license holder to 25.

Executive
I. The Governor of the State of New York should introduce legislation consistent with the legislative recommendations in this report or, in the alternative, he should support legislation introduced by others. The Governor should commit appropriate budgetary resources necessary to implement the legislative recommendations including appropriating additional resources to law enforcement.
II. The Suffolk County Executive should introduce legislation consistent with the legislative recommendations in this report or, in the alternative, he should support legislation introduced by others. The County Executive should commit appropriate budgetary resources necessary to implement the legislative recommendations including appropriating additional resources to law enforcement.
III. The Southold Town Supervisor should introduce legislation consistent with the legislative recommendations in this report or, in the alternative, he should support legislation introduced by others. The Town Supervisor should commit appropriate budgetary resources necessary to implement the legislative recommendations including appropriating additional resources to law enforcement.
IV. The Governor of the State of New York should create a task force in conjunction with limousine industry officials and community groups to study the safety of stretch limousines, including the feasibility of requiring multiple anti-intrusion bars in stretch limousine side panels, and report its findings to the National Transportation Safety Board.
V. The Suffolk County Executive should create a task force in conjunction with limousine industry officials and community groups to study the safety of stretch limousines, including the feasibility of requiring multiple anti-intrusion bars in stretch limousine side panels, and report its findings to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Administrative
I. State and local agencies affected by the changes implied in the legislative recommendations should be given the necessary authority to adopt administrative rules and regulations necessary for the effective implementation and execution of the legislative recommendations.
II. The Suffolk County Department of Public Works should conduct a priority study of intersections where there have occurred motor vehicle crashes involving high-occupancy vehicles and multiple fatalities.
III. The Suffolk County Department of Public Works should modify the existing traffic light at County Road 48 and Depot Lane to include a protected left turn (green arrow with a red phase) for both eastbound and westbound traffic.
IV. The Suffolk County Taxi and Limousine Commission should require owners of registered stretch limousines to report the name of the company that modified the vehicles to the Commission.
V. The Suffolk County Taxi and Limousine Commission should require evidence of an in-house driver training program when registering more than one stretch limousine for a particular owner or company.
VI. The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles should complete all administrative actions necessary to support the raising of the minimum age of a Class E driver license holder to 25.
VII. The Suffolk County Taxi and Limousine Commission should raise the minimum age of its TLC driver license holders to 25.