May 31, 2018

Gottheimer pushes for school bus safety measures

In the wake of a devastating school bus accident that left a teacher and a 10-year-old student dead, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-5th Dist., introduced legislation on Tuesday that, if approved, would require all school buses to have three-point lap-and-shoulder seat belts.

The bipartisan Secure Every Child Under the Right Equipment Standards (SECURES) Act of 2018, co-led by Rep. John Faso, R-N.Y., would also encourage innovative measures to ensure that students are actually wearing their seat belts while on school buses.

Hudy Muldrow Sr., the driver of a school bus that collided with a dump truck while transporting students from East Brook Middle School in Paramus to Waterloo Village in Byram on May 17, was released on his own recognizance from a detention hearing held in Morristown on Wednesday.

“My kids could have been on that bus,” Gottheimer said, speaking at the Fair Lawn Board of Education Transportation Depot on Tuesday. “I can’t imagine what those families are going through.”

New Jersey is currently one of only eight states to require large school buses to have seat belts — though not three-point belts. The state passed its lapbelt law in 1992.

“A few hours after the heartbreaking accident, one parent called me and asked if the bus had seat belts and if the children were wearing them,” Gottheimer said. “I immediately checked with the school. I was told that, indeed, the children were buckled up.”

Still, Gottheimer said, “there are more arrows in our quiver than we are currently putting into action.”

“I couldn’t believe that, in this day and age, when car safety has come so far, that we haven’t implemented three-point seat belts or other safety and technology measures for our children in buses,” Gottheimer said.

Companion legislation was also introduced Tuesday in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

“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,” Menendez said, also speaking from Fair Lawn. “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.”

On May 22, based on the findings of an investigation report on school bus crashes in Maryland and Tennessee, the National Transportation Safety Board for the first time formally recommended that all new school buses be equipped with lap and shoulder belts.

“Properly worn lap/shoulder belts provide the highest level of protection for school bus passengers in all crash scenarios, including frontal, side, and rear impacts — and rollovers,” the NTSB concluded in its findings.

“This bill would require (the Department of Transportation) to include NTSB’s recommendations in the federal rule-making process so that children in every U.S. state are as safe as humanly possible when riding a school bus,” Gottheimer said.

As to whether or not the legislation would call for a retrofitting of buses already in operation, Gottheimer said, “The SECURES Act leaves implementation to the discretion of the DOT.”

“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,” Gottheimer said. “That decision is left to the individual states. The SECURES Act would direct the Department of Transportation to update the nationwide standard.”

In addition, Gottheimer said, buses should be equipped with the same type of alert systems that come standard in modern cars.

“Three-point seat belts are effective in protecting kids during a crash only if they are being worn properly,” he said. “That’s why my bill also encourages the DOT to consider any innovative approaches to seat belt detection, seat belt reminder systems, and seat belt violation alert systems that could be incorporated into school bus designs.”

To date, the cost of outfitting new buses with better technology and seat belts has not yet been determined.

To build on the foundation laid by the SECURES Act, Gottheimer said he planned to work with state and federal transportation officials at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission “asking them to study and take immediate action to ensure that all bus drivers are qualified to drive our children.”

“Of course, today’s action is only the first step,” Gottheimer said. “I plan to work closely with experts in and out of government in the weeks and months ahead to study other measures we can take to keep our kids safe on their way to school.”