Twenty people were killed recently when a limousine barreled through a stop sign and crashed in upstate New York. It was the deadliest transportation crash in the United States since 2009, and an extraordinary number of deaths for a land motor vehicle case. Numbers that high usually come from aircraft or train crashes.

The 20 people killed consisted of 17 limo passengers, along with the limo driver and two pedestrians. The specific cause of the crash is still being investigated.

The 17 passengers apparently arranged for transportation so they could visit a brewery and celebrate a birthday. They were, as many have already pointed out, doing the right thing by having a designated driver instead of drinking and driving.

Many people decide to hire a transportation company and a driver with a commercial license because their services come with certain safeguards. Commercial drivers have additional training and are supposed to drive with greater skill. Transportation companies are supposed to have regular vehicle inspections and regular maintenance. Many states require transportation companies to carry large insurance policies to cover the services they provide.

Unfortunately, the decision to use a commercial transportation company did not prevent a tragedy in New York. The transportation company, Prestige Limousine, has a troubling safety record. It’s been reported that the limo driver did not have the proper license; that the limo involved in the crash had failed an inspection last month and shouldn’t have been on the road; and that Prestige had multiple failed vehicle inspections in the past. If these reports are true, then Prestige was gravely irresponsible and its owners could face criminal charges.

People might reasonably wonder how this could happen when there are so many rules in place to prevent it. The sad reality is that there is only so much that regulators or law enforcement officers can do. Companies which fail safety inspections can be cited or penalized, but officials have to follow specific criteria before shutting down a company completely. The “death penalty” is generally reserved for the most serious and repeated violations.

There are even some companies which defy the directives they do receive. While an inspection may put a vehicle “out of service,” police don’t have the manpower to watch and prevent every vehicle from going back out on the road. To some extent, they have to rely on the good faith of transportation companies to obey lawful orders. A company which flouts the law may get away with it – for a while. The risk of being caught and seriously punished might not outweigh the temptation to put a dangerous vehicle back on the road for profits.

Let’s hope this terrible New York crash triggers a renewed emphasis on safety. Some crashes will always happen, but there’s reason to believe that stricter enforcement can prevent deaths and injuries. In the meantime, people who use transportation services should not be under any illusions. There are indeed some bad apples out there, and as the old saying goes, buyers should beware.

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