NJ legislators hold hearings on bus safety a month after deadly crash

BY Christopher Lang, Correspondent, @topherlang2 | MonroeNow | Jun 19, 2018

TRENTON – State lawmakers on the Assembly and Senate transportation committees on Monday held hearings for improving school bus safety, one month after a Paramus fifth-grader and a teacher were killed in a horrific accident on Interstate 80 in Morris County while they were on a field trip.

Lawmakers said the latest bus accident raised several questions about safety of those vehicles, and heard dramatic testimony from fifth-grader Peter Caminiti, who was injured when driver Hudy Muldrow Sr., 77, is alleged to have attempted an illegal U-turn on I-80 when the bus was hit by a dump truck. Muldrow was charged with two counts of vehicular homicide.

The accident resulted in the deaths of East Brook Middle School teacher Jennifer Williamson, 51, and student Miranda Vargas, 10, and dozens of others injured including Caminiti.

Among issues discussed at the hearing included lawmakers calling for buses to have three-point shoulder seat belts, but the measure has stalled over concerns about who would pay for the upgrades.

The New Jersey School Boards Association, which represents and supports local school boards in a variety of ways including training, reminded legislators that districts have limited funds and that any new regulations should be based on data and cost-benefit analysis.

They also discussed an age limit for bus drivers, which the state does not have. The state education commissioner, Lamont Repollet said his department is talking about a competency test or additional screenings to evaluate a bus driver’s mental capability to drive children as they get older. The department is also looking at upgrading its system to report past suspensions and other issues a bus driver may have. There was also a suggestion to install GPS and cameras on buses to track and assess driver behavior.

According to multiple reports, Muldrow had a history of driving infractions and license suspensions, in part because of parking tickets. Muldrow is currently awaiting trial.

“Clearly changes are needed,” said Assemblyman Daniel Benson, D-14. “But we can’t find those changes and reforms without first hearing from those affected and those that are [the] experts.” Benson is a sponsor of a few Assembly bills tackling safety that will be discussed at 10 a.m. on Tuesday in the Assembly Transportation Committee.

“Sadly, nothing we do here today will change the events of the past, but it is our obligation to ensure that we work towards a better and safer future,” said Assemblywoman Lisa Swain, D-Bergen/Passaic, who is also a sponsor of legislative bills to improve school bus safety. “We must dedicate ourselves to preventing another such accident through better policy.”