NJ state, federal reps propose new school bus safety rules in wake of Paramus accident

BY Christopher Lang, Correspondent, @topherlang2 | May 30, 2018 | MonroeNow

A federal New Jersey lawmaker is calling for 3-point lap and shoulder seat belts on all school buses following the tragic accident of a Paramus school bus that resulted in two people being killed.

Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer, NJ-5, announced bipartisan legislation called “Secure Every Child Under the Right Equipment Standards Act of 2018” in Fair Lawn on Tuesday. The bill, co-sponsored by Republican Rep. John Faso, N.Y.-19, also encourages innovative measures to ensure students are wearing their seat belts while on a school bus.

“My kids could have been on that bus – and I can’t imagine what those families are going through,” Gottheimer said. “As a parent and as a congressman, I’m announcing the SECURES Act to help ensure that every child in America is as safe as possible when they’re on the road.”

If approved, the bipartisan approach would direct the federal Department of Transportation to “update the nationwide standard, so all students across the country share this basic level of protection that’s on all of our cars,” Gottheimer said.

According the congressman, current federal law requires seat belts on small school buses, those less than 10,000 pounds, “but not the larger school buses, like the ones used to take students on longer field trips.”

On May 17, 38 students and six chaperones from East Brook Middle School in Paramus were headed to Waterloo Village for a field trip when a dump truck hit the vehicle on Route 80. Fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Williamson-Kennedy and fifth-grade student Miranda Vargas were killed. The school bus driver Hudy Muldrow Sr., was arrested and charged with two counts of vehicular homicide.

According to reports, the accident happened when bus reportedly was cutting across multiple lanes on the westbound side of Route 80 in an attempt to make an illegal U-turn.

Muldrow, 77, is scheduled for a detention hearing today in Morristown to determine if he will be released pending a possible trial. According to multiple reports, Muldrow has had 14 license suspensions.

“We need to do everything we can to make sure children are safe, and parents have peace of mind, when they’re on a school bus,” said Sen. Menendez, D-NJ, on Tuesday, who introduced the companion bill in the Senate. “The recent tragedy only underscores why it’s important to review and upgrade safety standards over time. There was a time not too long ago when seat belts weren’t even required in cars, let alone school buses — but we owe it to our constituents to do everything in our power to improve the safety of our roadways. It’s time to make our school buses safer so no family has to ever endure the heartbreak being felt in Paramus.”

State lawmakers are also considering changing regulations for school buses to require the 3-point lap and shoulder seat belts. Current New Jersey law only requires school buses to have lap belts.

“I am proud to co-sponsor this common sense bill to equip our school buses with up-to-date equipment,” said Assemblyman Daniel Benson, D-Middlesex/Mercer. “It’s our moral responsibility to learn from this tragedy and enact measures to make our children safe.”

The state legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Yvonne Lopez, Benson, Lisa Swain and Chris Tully was introduced May 29.

“There is nothing more important to us in the Legislature than protecting the lives of our children and students,” said Tully, D-Bergen/Passaic. “After the crash which claimed the lives of two of my constituents and injured others, we knew we had to act swiftly to ensure that we can prevent further tragedy.”

On May 22, the National Transportation Safety Board released several recommendations following its investigations into school bus accidents in Baltimore and Chattanooga on Nov. 1, 2016 and Nov. 21, 2016. While it made specific recommendations to those states, the NTSB also suggested that all states should require lap/shoulder belts on buses. It also should states should improve vetting and supervision of school bus drivers.

“The school bus is still statistically the safest way to get to school,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt. “This is not about choosing another option. It is about closing gaps in school bus safety. Unsafe drivers are a hazard, unsafe systems allow hazards to persist, and systems cannot be safe without effective oversight.”