LODI, NJ – Today, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer, alongside State Senator Joe Lagana, Assemblywoman Lisa Swain, Assemblyman Chris Tully, and Joevanny Vargas, the father of Miranda Vargas, the 10-year-old girl killed in the Paramus bus crash in May, outlined the case for federal and state action on school bus safety. In June, Congressman Gottheimer introduced the bipartisan Miranda Vargas School Bus Driver Red Flag Act – or “Miranda’s Law” – that would require automatic notifications of driver violations to school districts and school bus companies within 24 hours, so they can take immediate action to keep unsafe drivers off the road and away from our children. Today, the state legislators discussed their new legislation for a New Jersey version of Miranda’s Law.
“No parent should be worried about their child’s safety on his or her way to school,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5). “Let’s continue to honor Miranda’s life and recommit ourselves to doing everything we can to make sure our kids, our teachers, and our families are as safe as they can be. We cannot afford to let the safety of our children become a partisan issue. It is a mom and dad issue.”
“We need to prevent people with questionable driving histories from operating our school buses,” said State Senator Joe Lagana, discussing a school bus safety bill currently before the state legislature. “This is just one of a few pieces of legislation we’re working on to keep our children safe. I also want to thank Congressman Gottheimer for taking this fight down to Washington and he really needs all of our support.”
“No family, no parent should ever experience what happened,” said Assemblyman Chris Tully about the Paramus bus accident in May. “I am honored to be working on this legislation with my colleagues to be doing everything that we can to protect our children.”
“The first thing I did this morning when I got in my car was put on my three point seatbelt,” said Assemblywoman Lisa Swain. “I’m so proud to have sponsored this bill and that we are taking steps to make our children safer when they get on the bus.”
“Miranda’s Law is an important step towards making sure school districts across the country have the information they need on their drivers in real time,” said Joevanny Vargas, father of Miranda Vargas. “We need to make sure we hold schools accountable once they have that information so they don’t let bad drivers behind the wheel and put our children in harm’s way.”
Congressman Gottheimer also introduced the SECURES Act in May; a bipartisan bill co-led by Republican John Faso (NY-19) with Senate companion legislation introduced by Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) that would require that all school buses have three-point lap-and-shoulder seat belts and encourage innovative measures to ensure that students are actually wearing their seat belts while on school buses.
Below: Congressman Gottheimer addresses the media on measures that will keep children safer on school buses
Below: Joevanny Vargas, father of Miranda Vargas, shares his experience and why these measures are vital for the safety of our children.
Below are Gottheimer’s remarks as prepared for delivery:
Thank you to Senator Lagana, Assemblyman Tully, and Assemblywoman Lisa Swain for your leadership on this issue and standing up for our children. Thank you also, of course, Joevanny Vargas for joining us today and the inspiration your courage and strength are lending us today and every day as we try to make the world safer for our children.
Today, we are here to honor Miranda Vargas with actionable, common sense solutions that will help all school children — by ensuring that schools have all the facts about who is behind of the wheel of those driving our children to and from school every day. Once passed, Miranda’s Law will strengthen the background check system, and taking a concrete step to help prevent the tragedy that the Vargas family has endured.
After that accident in Mt. Olive – and after we heard reports of the driver’s record – 14 license suspensions — I received countless calls from parents who wanted to know how that was possible. How could someone with fourteen license suspensions be allowed to get behind the wheel and drive children? As a father of a nine- and six-year-old, and a Congressman, I asked myself the same questions:
Who is behind the wheel of my child’s bus? Who is driving them to their next event or field trip? What if the driver got a DUI or was cited for reckless driving, would the school or the school bus company even know?
Well, that got us to a key question: Are our laws out of date? And what steps can we take to help prevent another tragedy?
After all, no parent should be worried about their child’s safety on his or her way to school. We ended up taking on two challenges we wanted to solve: first, the lack of lap-and-shoulder seat belts in our school buses. On the first issue, we now have a law in the state for new buses, thanks to Senator Lagana, which is a good first step, and many towns are already ordering buses with the new three-point belts.
New Jersey is now at the cutting edge of the push for safer school buses, becoming only the third state in the country to require lap-and-shoulder belts on school buses.
I also introduced bipartisan federal legislation, the SECURES Act, to put three point belts into every school bus nationwide. I also introduced bipartisan federal legislation, the SECURES Act, to put three point belts into every school bus nationwide. This is something the National Transportation Safety Board believes, factually, is necessary and would save lives..
The other issue – and the key focus today — the background of our 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 guidelines, employers of school bus drivers are required to check their employees’ driving history records 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 bussing company obtains that information. Yes, that’s up to 364 days that a potentially dangerous school bus driver could be behind the wheel with our children in tow.
Research has shown that as few as 50 percent of commercial drivers, including school bus drivers, actually self-report violations. That’s a serious safety risk, because suspended drivers have a crash rate 14 times higher than other drivers.
The National Transportation Safety Board – or NTSB — found a lack of driver oversight to have caused fatal bus crashes in Chattanooga and Maryland. As for the Paramus crash, I can’t speak for the law enforcement professionals, but I’ll say this: If you have your license suspended 14 times, you should not be driving school children.
According to CBS News, on average, across the nation, at least once a week, a school bus driver is arrested for charges as serious as driving under the influence. That is unacceptable when it comes to the person driving our children to and from school every single day.
In 2013, New Jersey drivers with up to 64 license suspensions and multiple DUI convictions were able to get licenses to operate buses. Just this week, New York City’s top auditor called on the New York Department of Education to review its system for vetting school bus drivers, after an investigator uncovered at least a half-dozen drivers with serious criminal records, including burglary, sex offenses, domestic abuse, and drunk driving convictions. These are the kinds of drivers who make illegal U-turns in the middle of busy highways. No parent should have to worry that their child’s school bus driver has DUIs or reckless driving violations.
Earlier this summer, I introduced, at the federal level, Miranda’s Law, which would require automatic notifications of driver violations to school districts and school bus companies within 24 hours, so they can take immediate action to keep unsafe drivers off the road and away from our children. The law builds off existing, successful pilot programs within the U.S. Department of Transportation, to build a robust, nationwide employer notification system that would pay for itself in less than a year.
Admittedly, Miranda’s Law won’t fix everything that caused this tragic accident. We still must do more on areas like ongoing training for our drivers. But I applaud our state lawmakers for taking this key step today, with our own Miranda’s Law, so New Jersey can be a leader for the rest of the country. Right now, we are way behind the ball when it comes to knowing who’s driving our children. It’s time we catch up.
It’s clear that school districts need these red flags raised to them as soon as possible, and as clearly as possible. It is not enough for an agency to send an ambiguous letter, or to rely on school bus drivers to self-report accidents, reckless driving or a DUI. We need a cutting-edge, integrated notification system with mandatory participation from every school district in the country, which is exactly what Miranda’s Law would do. This has been a glaring hole that I found as I dug into our nation’s insufficient background check system.
I’ve been proud to work closely with our state lawmakers on the critical issue of school bus safety, and I commend them for their continued efforts to close loopholes and strengthen standards for our children’s school bus drivers.
The evidence couldn’t be clearer – seat belts in school buses save lives. Background checks save lives. With advocates like Mr. Vargas and support from both Republicans and Democrats, I know that we can pass these bills and save lives.
Finally, let me address one other point: Some of have said that “New Jersey school buses are almost never in serious crashes.” Tell that to Mr. Vargas and to the parents of every child on that bus. Or to scores of others who are killed or injured every year across our country involving a school bus. Or to the safety experts at the NTSB. Requiring lap-and-shoulder seat belts and keeping reckless drivers away from the wheel is just common sense.
Let’s continue to honor Miranda’s life and recommit ourselves to doing everything we can to make sure our kids, our teachers, and our families are as safe as they can be. We cannot afford to let the safety of our children become a partisan issue. It is a mom and dad issue. We live in the greatest country in the world and our children are our future, and if we come together for them, we will ensure that our best days will always be ahead of us.
And now I’d like to invite Miranda’s father, my dear friend, and a wonderful man, Joevanny Vargas to speak to us.
Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.