Two days after an oversized Ford Excursion limousine careened off a Schoharie highway in early October, killing 20 people, the company’s operator, Nauman Hussain, met with federal and state investigators at a State Police office in Latham. Attendees included investigators who were building a criminal case against 29-year-old Hussain, who has since been charged with homicide for his actions leading up to the nation’s deadliest transportation incident in nearly a decade.
Jonathan B. Nicastro, a chief motor carrier investigator for the state Department of Transportation (DOT) summed up his agency’s repeated dealings with the troubled limo company by saying, “We’ve been treating you with kid gloves,” according to an attendee, who is not authorized to comment and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
A DOT spokesman has since said that Nicastro denied making the comment, which was seemingly a reference to three DOT inspections that led to multiple citations against Hussain’s company. Prestige Limousine continued renting out the ill-fated Ford limousine despite serious mechanical defects, including faulty brakes that were apparently never repaired and that remain a focus of the ongoing crash investigation. For years, the state has failed to impose serious penalties or seek criminal charges against operators who violate the law, including those who ignore directives to take unsafe vehicles off the road.
An analysis of federal transportation safety data, conducted by the Times Union, along with state audits dating back to 2003, seem to indicate the state routinely failed to verify that repairs have been made to commercial vehicles ordered out of service for serious safety violations.
New York’s most recent annual commercial vehicle safety plan acknowledges that its “repair verifications are not being conducted consistently.” The report indicates that in 2017 the agency ordered more than 10,000 vehicles out of service for safety violations but only verified repairs were made in less than 1% of the cases. The state’s goal for 2018, the report said, was to increase that rate to 5%, and “focus primarily on those with the most serious equipment violations.”
“Three notices of violation were issued to Prestige for failure to comply,” DOT spokesman Joseph Morrissey said. “The company neither corrected the problems nor appeared at hearings to dispute the problems. As a result, we fined the company in their absence.”
The condition of the Ford Excursion’s brakes is a critical element of the ongoing criminal investigation. A witness said that moments before the crash, the limousine had pulled to the side of Route 30, and was rolling slowly forward on the shoulder, with its backup lights and audible warning signal both on. The witness continued driving down Route 30 and had stopped at the intersection of Route 30A when the limousine, its motor roaring like a jet engine, descended the hill at a high rate of speed.
The limo driver, Scott T. Lisinicchia, swerved to avoid the witness’ vehicle, and the limo careened across the intersection, striking and killing two bystanders before crashing into a ditch. The 18 people inside the vehicle, including Lisinicchia, were killed from the force of the impact, authorities said.
Lisinicchia had been pulled over by a state trooper in August after he dropped off 11 passengers in Saratoga Springs in the same Ford Excursion. He wasn’t ticketed but received a citation for driving the oversized vehicle without a proper license. Hussain’s company was also cited – the second time since March – for its continued failure to have the vehicle properly registered with the U.S. DOT. The vehicle also lacked at least two required stickers that should have displayed the carrier’s name and U.S. DOT number.
The trooper allowed Lisinicchia to drive the vehicle to a nearby lot on Weibel Avenue where the company often parked its limousines. A State Police report obtained by the Times Unionindicates Martin Duffy, a DOT investigator, showed up at the scene; it’s unclear whether he conducted an additional inspection or took further action that day.
Ten days later, a DOT investigator returned to the Weibel Avenue lot and conducted a “random inspection” of the Ford Excursion. The inspection again documented multiple safety violations, including problems with the brakes, no proof of inspection and defective emergency exits. The September inspection report also cited a “failure to correct defects noted on previous inspection report” in March. The report noted that the Excursion had logged more than 1,200 miles since it had been ordered out of service six months earlier.
The state did not conduct what is known as a compliance review of the company. During such reviews, investigators check a carrier’s drivers’ records and hours of service, examine drug and alcohol testing results and audit vehicle maintenance records.
Criticism of the state’s failure to verify that motor carrier companies have repaired serious mechanical defects is not new. Under federal and state laws, motor carrier companies in New York that receive out-of-service citations for a vehicle deemed unsafe to be on the road must certify within 15 days that the repairs have been made. But in 2014, a state comptroller’s audit that reviewed DOT records from 2008 to 2013 found the agency did not closely monitor whether companies had certified that defects cited during inspections had been fixed. The audit noted that almost 40% of the companies never submitted written certifications to DOT attesting that repairs for out-of-service violations were completed. For companies that did submit the certifications, more than 25% were late. The state audit also found instances when motor carrier operators falsely certified they had made repairs.
Source: Times Union