PARAMUS, NJ – One year ago this week a tragic school bus crash on Route 80 claimed the lives of fifth grade teacher Jennifer Williamson and 10-year-old student Miranda Vargas, both traveling from East Brook Middle School in Paramus to Waterloo Village for a field trip.
Spurred by the anniversary of the horrific accident, U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer announced that a pair of bills aimed at making school buses safer for children across the country will be reintroduced again in Washington, D.C.
“While it still pains Paramus and so many of us – we are here to help turn tragedy into hope for other children and families,” the congressman said at a press event Tuesday in Westwood. “Hope that no one will have to live through what the Vargas and Williamson families have had to live through this past year.”
The bills, SECURES Act and the Miranda Vargas School Bus Driver Red Flag Act, wiould, Gottheimer said:
- Require seatbelts on all school buses, makes three point lap-and-shoulder seatbelts the national standard and encourages measures to ensure students wear their seat belts while on school buses.
- Require real-time background checks so that when a school bus driver has any driving infraction beyond a parking ticket, the school or school bus company will receive an alert about it within 24 hours from the Department of Transportation.
“This is not a New Jersey problem," Joevanny Varga, Miranda's father said as he joined Gottheimer in announing the renewed push to advance the legislation. "This is a national problem that needs to be addressed before we’re confronted with another tragedy. This is common sense legislation – it’s not about Republicans or Democrats. It’s about moms and dads.”
Between 2000 and 2014, there have been an average of 115 fatal crashes involving school buses each year, however only eight states – now including New Jersey - have seat belt requirements in place, according to Gottheimer.
“Every day, nearly 600,000 school buses carry more than 25 million students to and from school, activities and class trips. We don’t allow children to ride without their seatbelts when they’re in our cars. Yet, in buses they could?” he said.
Gottheimer also stressed the need to strengthen background checks on school bus drivers.
“Right now, a bus driver can get a license and then go months without their employers receiving updates on their background. Under current federal regulations, employers of school bus drivers are required to check their employees’ driving history records only annually. So, if a driver fails to self-report a DUI, reckless driving, or a license suspension, it could be up to 364 days before a school district or motor carrier obtains that information,” he said.
“Ninety-nine percent of school bus drivers are trained and qualified. They are good people who work hard and watch after our children like their own. But not Miranda’s,” he said. “Miranda’s Law will make sure that when a school bus driver has any driving infraction beyond a parking ticket, the school or school bus company will receive an alert about that infraction from the Department of Transportation within 24 hours.”
Last month, 77-year-old Hudy Muldrow, Sr., who, despite having his license suspended at least 14 times, was the driver of the bus carrying the victims, was indicted on two counts of reckless vehicular homicide and 41 counts of assault by auto in connection with the crash.
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