A bill to be introduced in the U.S. Congress by Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., John Faso, R-N.Y., aims to make it harder for individuals with motor vehicle violations to drive school buses.
The legislation is being introduced as a result of the fatal May 17 Paramus, N.J. school bus crash that killed teacher Jennifer Williamson and 10-year-old student Miranda Vargas. Investigators determined that 77-year-old school bus driver Hudy Muldrow caused the crash by attempting an illegal U-turn on Highway 80 in front of a dump truck. Muldrow was later reported to have 14 suspensions on his personal driver’s license.
“After that accident in Mt. Olive—and after we heard reports of the driver's record—I received countless calls from people who wanted to know how was that possible. How could someone with 14 license suspensions be allowed to get behind the wheel and drive children?” Gottheimer said during a June 29 press conference. “As a father of a nine- and six-year-old, and as a member of Congress, I asked myself the same question.”
In response, Gottheimer announced, he is introducing the bipartisan Miranda Vargas School Bus Driver Red Flag Act. It would require the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to implement a nationwide employer notification service (ENS) that all school bus drivers and their employers across the country would be mandated to use. States would have to participate in the system, in order to receive federal highway funding.
The ENS would provide “employers real-time, automatic notifications when a bus driver’s license status changes because of a moving violation conviction, crash, license suspension, or other triggering event” beyond a parking ticket.
A spokesman at Gottheimer’s office told School Transportation News that the bill was expected to be read in the House as early as next week.
Gottheimer said that a U.S. Department of Transportation pilot program conducted in Colorado and Minnesota found that such a service would pay for itself within one year and “was needed and could have significant safety and monetary benefits for motor carriers.”
The American School Bus Council reports that federal regulations require school bus drivers be subjected to “frequent” driver record checks, to ensure their license is not suspended. Many states allow no more than four points on a school bus driver’s license.
School districts and bus contractors are required by the FMCSA to check their employees’ driving records only once a year. However, Gottheimer said research showed that only 50 percent to 80 percent of commercial drivers self-report violations, while drivers with suspended licenses were found to have a crash rate 14 times higher than other drivers. And only 17 states, not including New Jersey, use a form of voluntary ENS.
“So, if a driver fails to self-report a traffic violation or license suspension, it could be up to 364 days before a school district or school bus company receives that information,” he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board, he added, found a lack of proper driver oversight to have contributed to the fatal Baltimore and Chattanooga school bus crashes in November 2016.
Gottheimer also cited a CBS News study that claimed school bus drivers get into 60 accidents every week, while at least one driver is arrested every day for infractions as serious as driving under the influence. That report was contradicted by industry experts, who pointed out that even if CBS’s numbers were accurate, such arrests would amount to only 0.01 percent of the over 480,000 school bus drivers nationwide. Additionally, any crash that involves a school bus is classified by police reports as a “school bus-related crash,” even if it was caused by another motorist.
In a position paper published in May, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) underscored the necessity of trained and properly performing school bus drivers to the daily activities of millions of families across the U.S.
“In the unfortunate event that any alleged or proven illegal action by a school bus driver occurs, it must be investigated thoroughly, and legally authorized consequences must be imposed,” the paper read. Incidents of school bus drivers behaving unsafely or illegally on the job “are tragic in their own right, but also do disproportionate damage to the public perception of school bus drivers, the vast majority of whom behave properly and perform their jobs admirably.”
Gottheimer also cited statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which found that 301 school-age children had been killed in school transportation-related crashes between 2006 and 2015. However, 9 percent of that number, or 54 students, were occupants of a school bus or vehicle that was functioning as a school bus. The rest were pedestrians, occupants of another vehicle, or riding a bicycle.
The most recent such study from NHTSA, released in January, found that 281 school-age children died in school bus crashes from 2007 to 2016, with 58 being occupants of school transportation vehicles.
“Although four to six school-age children die each year on school transportation vehicles, that’s less than one percent of all traffic fatalities nationwide,” NHTSA reminded.
Meanwhile, the National School Bus Loading and Unloading Survey conducted by the Kansas State Department of Education, in partnership with NASDPTS, found that an average of about nine students per year have been killed at bus stops over the past decade.
‘Miranda’s Law’ builds on H.R. 5984, also known as the “Secure Every Child Under the Right Equipment Standards Act of 2018,” or the SECURES Act. It was also introduced by Gottheimer and Faso in May, and would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to order an update of federal standards to include lap/shoulder belts on all school buses.
“Requiring lap-and-shoulder seat belts and keeping reckless drivers away from the wheel is just common sense,” Gottheimer declared.
“When schools or other organizations are making decisions that impact the lives and well-being of our children, they need to have all the available information,” Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco also stated at the press conference last month.
Joevanny Vargas, Miranda’s father, talked about his daughter and expressed support for the bill, as well as for lap/shoulder seat belts.
“This [crash] could have been avoided. By definition, an accident is something that was unavoidable. This was no accident,” he stated.