After Paramus Tragedy, Making School Buses Safer, Drivers More Accountable

Carly Sitrin | June 20, 2018 | Education
Lawmakers offer legislation to upgrade seat belts, strengthen training and regulation of drivers, and add to safety of special-needs students

School Bus
Eleven-year-old Peter Caminiti III, a fifth grader at East Brook Middle School in Paramus, was on a school bus traveling on I-80 with his classmates and teachers when his bus was hit by a dump truck.

“I was having a great time with my friends until ‘boom,’ I was knocked out,” he said. Caminiti was taken to the hospital where he was treated for a severe concussion and damaged connection between his inner ear and brainstem. “I asked what happened to the bus. I asked what happened to my friends. I asked if I was going to die.”

The accident raised several issues that stand in the way of children’s safety: What some say are insufficient seat belts, the state board of education’s inability to quickly communicate with local districts on driver competence, and the districts themselves failing to take poor drivers off the road.

Caminiti and his father testified in front of a joint committee hearing in Trenton on Monday to discuss the aftermath of the tragic incident and what could have been done to prevent it. In response to the hearing, lawmakers released a package of three bills from the Assembly transportation committee yesterday that aim to make school buses safer and drivers more accountable.

A-4110 would require school buses be equipped with lap and shoulder seat-belts known as the three-point seat-belt arrangement, A-2436 would require transportation supervisors to complete an eight-class training program at Rutgers University on routing and scheduling, transporting students with disabilities, and employee training, emergency management and laws and regulations. A-1888 would require the presence of a school bus aide for every 15 special-needs students on a school bus.

Police said driver was trying illegal U-turn

According to police reports following the crash on May 17, the bus driver had cut across three lanes of traffic apparently attempting to make an illegal U-turn when the vehicle was struck. More than 40 passengers from East Book Middle School were wounded and 10-year-old Miranda Vargas and teacher Jennifer Williamson, 51, were killed.

Police revealed that the driver, Hudy Muldrow Sr., 77, had been decertified as a bus driver in December and his medical certificate had expired. Nevertheless, he was reinstated as a bus driver in January. Muldrow was charged with two counts of vehicular homicide as a result of the crash.

“This is just the beginning,” bill sponsor Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Mercer) said of the legislation. “We’re going to try and have a package with Senate counterparts in the fall…I’m sure we’ll need to do more.”

Benson has also introduced A-2449, the “School Bus Safety and Child Protection Act” that would require all bus drivers at district and charter schools to undergo extensive and periodic background checks. That bill is still in the education committee.

Safer seat belts

Some of the most obvious targets for new safety legislation are the seat belts in these buses.

The three-point seat-belt harness — the type common in cars — is considered one of the safest and most widely used worldwide. Its “Y” formation extends across the sternum and pelvic bone to absorb and dissipate kinetic energy during a crash. In school buses however, most seat belts run only across the lap, offering little protection from flying forward in a collision.

New Jersey law mandates that school buses be outfitted with seat belts — it’s only one of seven states to do so — but it does not require the three-point system. So far, only California and Nevada require three-point belts. Just days after the Paramus crash, the National Transportation Safety Board released a report following investigations into two 2016 school-bus accidents, recommending that New Jersey amend its statutes to upgrade seat-belt requirements from lap-only belts to lap-and-shoulder belts.

Buses already employ what’s known as “compartmentalization” to protect kids. This method works like an egg carton where bus seats are constructed using an energy-absorbing steel inner skeleton and high, padded seat backs, secured firmly to the floor. While not perfect, the NTSB says compartmentalization can provide a significant amount of protection for kids who aren’t wearing their seat belts, though it adds that seat belts are the best method for preventing injuries and death in a crash.

Legislation requiring the three-point harness seat-belts statewide has met pushback in the past due to funding questions. Cost estimates for outfitting one bus with the new shoulder harness style range from $7,000 to $10,000.

Following the crash, the Paramus school district on Monday announced it would be installing three-point seat belts in all district buses. According to a report, the district will go out for a bid to fund the three-point seat belts on the buses already in operation and will spend an additional $21,300 to install new belts on four new school buses.

Previous efforts have been shot down

State Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Middlesex) has been introducing and sponsoring seat-belt legislation since 2013 following a 2012 school bus crash in Chesterfield that killed an 11-year-old girl. His bills have been shot down or left to languish in committee for years. Now, he thinks his new bill, S-233, has a better chance of success.

“I’ve been trying for four years to pass common-sense legislation to protect students on school buses with three-point seat belts,” Thompson said in a press release. “It appears likely that upcoming legislative hearings on school bus safety will consider my proposal to give kids the same protections on a school bus that they have in their parent’s car. That’s the indication I’ve received from Senate leadership. It’s a welcome development.”

But not everyone’s on board. Jonathan Pushman of the New Jersey School Boards Association said his organization is hesitant to support a three-point seat-belt mandate due to the costs. “School districts are limited in their resources,” Pushman said. He said there is a fear that increased costs might force districts to deploy fewer school buses, meaning fewer kids would be provided with transportation.

Assemblyman Greg McGuckin (R-Ocean) also raised questions about implementation and funding. He abstained from a vote on the package of bills, saying, “I think this needs to be implemented as soon as possible but we need to find a way to fund it.”

Though state dollars have been the obstacle that’s killed seat-belt bills in the past, lawmakers this time around are adamant that funding should not be the deciding factor in keeping students safe. Assemblywoman Patricia Egan-Jones (D-Camden) said she intends to act on Caminiti’s call for three-point harness seat-belts — “hang the cost.”

Out-of-date system

In addition to updating safety restraints, lawmakers are trying to streamline and clarify the system by which bus drivers are trained and evaluated. Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said he believes the Paramus crash is evidence of a breakdown in an out-of-date system of reporting and categorizing drivers. “The systems are in desperate need of an upgrade,” Repollet said.

According to officials at Monday’s hearing, 400 possible offenses can lead to suspension of a bus driving license — everything from parking tickets to reckless driving and moving violations. Muldrow’s license had been suspended 14 times over four decades and he had previously received eight speeding tickets on separate occasions. What’s more, the Paramus school district had been informed of Muldrow’s suspensions but he was cleared to drive anyway.

Indeed, the hearing revealed several snags in the chain of communication.

Sue Fulton of the Motor Vehicle Commission said her department pulls suspension reports for all school-bus drivers and sends them to the state Board of Education nightly. Those reports contain up-to-date information about drivers whose licenses have been suspended or revoked for any reason. Getting those reports out to every district, however, has proven difficult for the Department of Education to handle. Assistant Education Commissioner Robert Bumpus could not confirm at the hearing that the state BOE has any standard protocol for receiving, sorting, or handling those reports.

“You’re telling me a report could have gone out on Friday night, DOE doesn’t look at it until Monday morning, it doesn’t go to the county until sometime Monday, maybe not Monday, maybe Tuesday afternoon and then my child is taking the bus Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and…no action has been taken and the driver is driving with a suspended license?” Sen. Joseph Lagana (D-Paramus) asked at the hearing.

Time for driver age-limit?

Repollet said breakdowns in the antiquated system of filing and communications account for the mistake and that the board is committed to upgrading the system.

“That needs to stop yesterday,” Lagana said. “I don’t want to hear about technology.”

Another worrying element in the Paramus crash was the driver’s age. Seventy-seven, lawmakers said, may be too old to operate a vehicle like a school bus. “Someone over the age of 75 should not be driving a school bus,” Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-South Plainfield) said at the hearing.

New Jersey has no law setting an age limit on bus drivers. They must have at least a class C commercial driver’s license (CDL) as well as a school bus and a passenger endorsement on their license — that comes with a medical certificate requirement which must be updated every two years to prove they are fit to drive. However, as in the case of Muldrow, those certificates can expire and slip through the cracks.

The pool of eligible bus drivers is traditionally very small and includes many retirees because of the job restrictions: The hours are inconvenient for those working another full-time job and the pay is only slightly above minimum wage ($10 an hour). However, lawmakers have said they think it might be time to consider an age limit.

“I have a major concern about the age of the bus drivers,” Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Paterson) said. The one question I’ll ask is ‘would you want that person to drive your child?’”