Hudy Muldrow, Sr., the New Jersey school bus driver who was allegedly responsible for the crash between his bus and a dump truck that killed a teacher and a student, has been charged with two counts of reckless vehicular homicide, even as seat belt efforts are renewed.
The second-degree charges against Muldrow each carry a 5-10-year prison sentence. They were announced by Morris County Prosecutor Fredric M. Knapp and New Jersey State Police Acting Superintendent Patrick Callahan on May 24, one week after Muldrow tried to make an illegal U-turn on Route 80 and in the process, was struck by the truck. The crash force sheered the bus body from the chassis. Despite the presence of two-point lap belts, as required by state law, numerous students were ejected when the school bus body flipped over onto the highway median.
Muldrow’s school bus was headed along with two others to the historic Waterloo Village in Byram Township for a field trip. The Morris County Prosecutor’s Office said in a press release that all three buses missed their exit and “drove in an effort to correct their route.”
The third bus “detached from the other two buses and arrived safely at Waterloo Village,” while the other two continued. Shortly thereafter, the two other buses were separated, and one reversed its course and also arrived safely at its destination. The press release did not note how those two buses got back on-route.
The last bus, driven by the 77-year-old Muldrow, turned left in “an apparent attempt to gain access to the official-use only access point located between the east and westbound lanes of Route 80.” The school bus ended up “almost perpendicular” to the lanes of traffic and was hit by the dump truck that was travelling in the center lane.
When first responders arrived on scene after receiving the emergency call at about 10:20 a.m. local time, they found the bus lying on its left side in the median. On-site photos showed its front end mangled and almost detached, with its chassis separated from the undercarriage, due to the force. East Brook Middle School teacher Jennifer Williamson and fifth grader Miranda Vargas were killed, while over 40 other students and adults were injured.
“It was just so unexpected,” student rider Tiana Holeviczki later told reporters at the memorial service for the two victims. She sustained cuts and bruises in the crash, and noted, “Everybody was screaming and crying, nobody knew what to do and everyone just started getting out of the bus, and some people were being helped (out). People had blood and bruises everywhere. Some people had blood all over their face and cuts on their heads. It was just really scary to go through.”
The prosecutor’s office said the full extent of the nonfatal injuries had yet to be determined at this report. But it added that those injuries ranged from minor to “multiple serious and potentially life-threatening injuries.”
Several news outlets learned from state motor vehicle records that Muldrow had committed driving violations resulting in 14 suspensions on his personal driver’s license, with infractions ranging from unpaid parking tickets, to careless driving, to eight speeding violations. His CDL, however, reportedly was valid and did not have any points against it.
Paramus Schools Superintendent Dr. Michele Robinson said in a statement that she was “shocked” and “angry” to learn of Muldrow’s driving record.
“Nothing that was provided to the district by the state reflected that the driver had any moving violations,” she said. “In fact, all we were told is that he was a driver in good standing and eligible to operate a school bus.”
Muldrow was kept in the Morris County Correctional Facility until his first appearance in Morris County Court on May 25, when he was formally charged. Local new outlets reported that since New Jersey does not have a bail system, he was released after a hearing on Wednesday, pending his next court date on June 25. He was ordered to surrender his driver’s license and CDL, and refrain from contact with anyone who was on-board the bus he crashed.
At the federal level, Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey expressed surprise that only eight states required seat belts in some way, and he agreed with the recent National Transportation Safety Board recommendation that all states require specifically lap-shoulder belts on their school buses.
He announced on Tuesday the bipartisan Secure Every Child Under the Right Equipment Standards (SECURES) Act, which would “direct the 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 right now,” by making three-point lap/shoulder belts on school buses “a national standard.”
The act also encourages the U.S. Department of Transportation to “consider innovative measures” to make sure students wear the belts. Rep. Gottheimer suggested an audible warning beep telling the driver a student is not buckled in, similiar to systems in personal vehicles.
“We know that seat belts save lives and we know that three-point belts are far more effective than lap belts,” he added.
At the state level, Sen. Samuel Thompson introduced Senate Bill 233 in January that calls for three-point lap/shoulder belts on all newly manufactured school buses, beginning six months from the date of enactment. That bill has spent time in various Senate subcommittees, but at this writing had not been voted on.