Miranda’s Law: Schools Need Real-Time Red Flags for School Bus Driver Violations

Jun 29, 2018

Gottheimer’s New Bipartisan Legislation Would Implement Automatic 24-Hour Notification Services

The bipartisan Miranda Vargas School Bus Driver Red Flag Act – or “Miranda’s Law” – will 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.

  • Building on the SECURES Act, which will make lap-and-shoulder seat belts the nationwide standard, Miranda’s Law addresses another glaring gap in school bus safety: inadequate school bus driver oversight.
  • A CBS News investigation found that, on average, at least once a week a school bus driver is arrested for charges including driving under the influence. Every day, 60 school bus drivers get into accidents—that’s roughly 22,000 bus crashes per year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently reported that 301 school-age children were killed in school transportation-related crashes over the prior ten-year period; countless more were injured.
  • The recent Paramus East Brook Middle School bus crash, which tragically killed ten-year-old Miranda Vargas and teacher Jennifer Williamson-Kennedy, shined a spotlight on flaws in our system of school bus driver oversight. This is not only a New Jersey problem. The National Transportation Safety Board also found a lack of driver oversight caused fatal school bus crashes in Maryland and Tennessee.
  • Miranda’s Law, co-sponsored by Congressman John Faso (NY-19), will implement the best practices for recognizing and reporting red flags in real time if a school bus driver operates a motor vehicle unsafely.

Miranda’s Law requires the Department of Transportation’s FMCSA agency to implement a nationwide employer notification service (ENS) for buses.

  • Under current federal regulations, employers of school bus drivers are required to check their employees’ driving history records annually. 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.
  • Research has shown that only 50 to 80 percent of commercial drivers actually self-report violations. That’s a serious safety risk, because across all vehicle types, suspended drivers have a crash rate 14 times higher than other drivers.
  • An employer notification service gives 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.

Miranda’s Law builds off a Department of Transportation (DOT) pilot program to implement a robust nationwide employer notification service, with each state required to use the service. It’s cost-effective.

  • Following a feasibility study demonstrating that ENS would pay back at 15:1 and pay for itself in less than a year, DOT ran a pilot program in Colorado and Minnesota, which demonstrated that “a nationwide employer notification service was needed and could have significant safety and monetary benefits for motor carriers.”
  • Miranda’s Law would require states to use the ENS to qualify for federal-aid highway funds.

Miranda’s Law makes the employer notification service mandatory for all school bus drivers across the nation. Once ENS is implemented, this bill would require any employer of school bus drivers to participate in the service.

New Jersey has no law right now like Miranda’s Law.

  • Only 17 states have a voluntary form of the employer notification service currently in place.
  • The NJ Assembly and Senate recently passed legislation requiring lap-and-shoulder belts in all school busses, similar to the SECURES Act.

Below: Gottheimer’s remarks as prepared for delivery.

Today, we are here to honor Miranda Vargas with concrete action — by ensuring that schools know who is driving their buses and strengthening the background check system. Those who aren’t qualified to drive our children, must not be behind the wheel of a school bus. The Miranda Vargas School Bus Driver Red Flag Act, or what will be known as 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.

After that accident in Mt. Olive – and after we heard reports of the drivers’ record – I received countless calls from people who wanted to know how was that possible. How could someone with fourteen license suspensions be allowed to get behind the wheel and drive children? As a father 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?

Well, we got to work in my office, chasing a key question: Were are our laws behind the times? And are there steps we could be taking 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 seat belts in our school buses – and I’ll talk more about that in a minute. The other, the background of 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 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. Yes, 364 days that the school bus driver is behind the wheel with our children.

Research has shown that only 50 to 80 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, the law enforcement investigation is ongoing – but, I’ll say this: If you have your license suspended 14 times, you should not be driving schoolchildren.

Here is another stunning fact: 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.

In 2013, New Jersey drivers with up to 64 license suspensions and multiple DUI convictions were able to get licenses to operate school buses. 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.

Miranda’s Law will make sure that schools see red flags in real-time – within 24 hours — to help remove dangerous school bus drivers from the road – immediately. It will require real-time, automatic notifications of driver violations to school districts and other employers of school bus drivers, so they can take immediate action to keep unsafe drivers off the road. This way, school districts and school bus companies won’t be left in the dark, when it comes to the driving qualifications of their employees.

Here’s how: Miranda’s Law directs the Department of Transportation’s to build on its already successful pilot program, and implement a nationwide employer notification service system. When a driver’s home state motor vehicle administration receives notice of a triggering infraction, it is sent electronically into a national data base. From there, within 24 hours, an alert goes out a school or school bus company.

Through their pilot program, the federal Department of Transportation found that by reducing convictions, injuries, and fatalities, these alerts would pay back at 15:1 and pay for setting it up in less than a year.

Miranda’s Law will save lives and saves dollars. And there’s nothing partisan about it. It’s not a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s a mom and dad issue. And, speaking of bipartisanship, I want to thank my Republican co-sponsor of this legislation, John Faso from New York.

Admittedly, Miranda’s Law won’t fix everything that caused this horrific accident. We still must do more on areas like ongoing training for our drivers. But it’s clear that school districts need these red flags raised to them as soon as possible, and as clearly as possible. It won’t suffice for an agency to send an ambiguous letter, or to rely on school bus drivers to report accidents, reckless driving or a DUI themselves. In fact, only 17 states even use a voluntary form of employer notification services, and New Jersey is not one of them.

That’s why need a cutting-edge, integrated, notification system. It’s been a glaring hole that I found as I dug into our nation’s patchwork background check system.

We are way behind the ball when it comes to knowing who’s driving our children. It’s time we catch up. As I said about a month ago, we also need to catch up on seat belts, the other glaring issue that came to the forefront after the Paramus tragedy – and I wanted to give you a quick update on our progress there.

Right now, only eight states, including New Jersey, require seat belts on large school buses. Only one state, California, requires lap and shoulder belts – the belts we all wear in our cars, SUVs, and trucks. It amazes me how careful we are with our children in our own cars – we want every car seat, booster, air bag, seat belt, and safety bell and whistle to protect our families. Yet, we send so many kids in buses every day with nearly zero safety protection.

In May, building on what the safety experts at the NTSB formally recommended just last month, we introduced the SECURES Act that will require every school bus in America to have lap-and-shoulder seat belts.

The facts couldn’t have been clearer: lap-and-shoulder seat belts in school buses save lives. In the NTSB report on a fatal 2016 rollover bus crash that killed six young children, the NTSB found that the lack of three-point belts contributed to the severity of the crash. In a 2014, bus crash in Anaheim, California, nine students and the driver were injured, and thankfully no one died. This was the first crash in the nation involving a school bus that was equipped with three-point belts in all seating positions. The NTSB looked at what might have happened if the two most seriously injured students were wearing only lap belts, and found that the outcome would have been much worse.

And after we introduced the SECURES Act, we worked closely with the state, particularly Senator Lagana, Assemblyman Tully, and Assemblywoman Swain, and others to get lap and shoulder belts on school buses here in New Jersey. And the good news is that the legislation just passed both chambers, the Assembly and Senate – and is off to the Governor’s desk. County Executive Tedesco also announced that county-owned school buses will be retrofitted with lap and shoulder belts, too. Several towns have also called about retrofitting their school buses.

I’m looking forward to working closely with the state legislature, including hopeful that Mr. Tully, Ms. Swain, and Mr. Lagana to take this same kind of fast action when it comes to helping implement Miranda’s Law.

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 this law 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.

As the sun shines down on us, let’s continue to honor the lives of these two fallen angels, 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 live in the greatest country in the world, and, together, we will ensure that our best days will always be ahead of us.

Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

Now, I’d like to introduce Miranda’s father, Joevanny Vargas.

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