NJ School Bus Accidents Stir Safety Concerns Among Parents and Authorities
The May 17 school bus crash on I-80 in Morris County, which killed a 10-year-old student and a 51-year-old teacher and injured 40 others, has brought the issue of school bus safety to the fore here in the Garden State. Foremost on the minds of parents and legislators are two key issues: the safety of the buses themselves and the qualifications of drivers. The June 7 crash of a school bus that overturned on the New Jersey Turnpike near exit 13 in Elizabeth, injuring two adults and two children, is sure to escalate the discussion.
We should begin by noting that school buses are a provenly safe mode of transportation for students of all ages. In fact, school buses have been shown to be safer for students than passenger cars, especially when those cars are driven by newly licensed, high school drivers. However, the recent accidents indicate there is much room for improvement, particularly on field trips where buses spend additional time on major high-speed arteries.
As attorneys who represent victims of motor vehicle accidents throughout the state, we are passionate about promoting safety measures that reduce the carnage we see too often on New Jersey roadways, especially when the victims are so young. Here are the areas of concern as we see them:
Lack of safety restraints — Statistics clearly show that seat belts save lives and reduce the seriousness of injuries. As patch.com reports, the Paramus school district has decided to install three-point safety belts on all existing school district buses and four new buses the district is set to purchase. The price-tag to outfit the new buses is $21,300. The Paramus bus in the May crash had lap belts, but Peter Caminiti, III, a student on the bus, expressed his opinion that these were inadequate. His father, Peter Caminiti, Jr. urged that “Bus drivers should always check to make sure their passengers are buckled, because a lot of students had faulty seat belts. As soon as they would latch, they were loose.” Whether his statement means the belts were too loose to restrain the kids or the latches had become undone is unclear. Either way, the belts would have been ineffective, and an adult’s oversight could have been helpful.
Studies have shown that three-point restraint belts are safer than lap belts, but the restraint must be fitted to the child. School bus riders come in a variety of sizes, so belts would constantly have to be adjusted. Children are likely to either not bother tightening a loose-fitting belt or go without a belt that’s too tight. Asking the driver to adjust the belts for each student would cause delays to service, especially on the way to school when the bus makes innumerable stops. And, even if all the kids are properly belted at the outset of a trip home, there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t unlatch the belts to squirm and face their friends behind them or across the aisle. Asking the bus driver to micro-monitor 40 students while paying attention to the road is not terribly realistic, nor would it be safe. Educating the children about proper safety belt protocols would be a necessity.
Driver qualifications — On the other hand, hiring qualified drivers who are committed to passenger safety should be an easier fix. Many eyebrows were raised when the Paramus school bus driver’s record was revealed to the public. According to a report in the New York Times, 77-year-old Hudy Muldrow had had his license suspended 14 times and as late as 2017. He had also been involved in five accidents. However, only one of the suspensions was for a moving violation, an illegal turn, so somehow the school superintendent decide Muldrow was qualified. Then on May 17, Muldrow apparently made an improper U-turn exposing the bus to a collision with a dump truck. Now the father of 10 has been arraigned on two counts of vehicular homicide. If convicted, he faces five to 10 years in prison for each of the charges.
In addition to Mr. Muldrow’s spotty record, his age has to be an issue. A recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that, from 2007 to 2016, accidents for drivers in the general population increased seven percent, but accidents for drivers 65 years and older increased 30 percent. And, although the accident rate for drivers holds steady from age 30 to 74, that rate starts to tick upward again at 75 and beyond. Experts site impairments in vision, cognition and motor function as the reason for higher crash rates for older drivers. Older drivers are advised to make adjustments to their driving habits for safety’s sake. We cannot recommend driving a busload of boisterous elementary school students as a way to counteract declining skills.
Certainly, school districts must be meticulous when vetting school bus drivers. After all, driver error is the leading cause of any type of motor vehicle accident. Districts needn’t fear accusations of ageism in hiring bus drivers, since the data are clear about declining skills among elderly drivers.
Brach Eichler Trial Lawyers represents victims of motor vehicle accidents throughout New Jersey. To speak to an experienced personal injury attorney at our firm, call us at 973-364-8300 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.