Building on the SECURES ACT, Congressman Gottheimer is writing to state and federal transportation officials at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, asking them to study and take immediate action to ensure that all bus drivers are qualified to drive our children.
“My kids could have been on that bus – and I can’t imagine what those families are going through. As a parent and as a Congressman, I’m announcing the SECURES Act to help ensure that every child in America is as safe as possible when they’re on the road,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5).
“We need to do everything we can to make sure children are safe, and parents have peace of mind, when they’re on a school bus,” said Sen. Menendez. “The recent tragedy only underscores why it’s important to review and upgrade safety standards over time. There was a time not too long ago when seat belts weren’t even required in cars, let alone school buses—but we owe it to our constituents to do everything in our power to improve the safety of our roadways. It’s time to make our school buses safer so no family has to ever endure the heartbreak being felt in Paramus.”Gottheimer’s remarks as prepared for delivery are below:
Thank you for joining me today as we come together in the wake of this month’s tragedy to discuss ways to protect our students, our families, and our community. I’m here today as a Congressman and as a parent of two public school children.
These leaders — and those from across northern New Jersey — are working tirelessly to do everything we can to help the Paramus community – and our broader community.
A few hours after the heart-breaking accident, one parent called me and asked if the bus had seat belts and if the children were wearing them. I immediately checked with the school. I was told that indeed the children were buckled up, as required by New Jersey law. In fact, New Jersey is only one of eight states in the country where large school buses must have seat belts – though not three-point belts – and where children must wear them. The law passed in 1992.
I couldn’t believe that – only eight states require any type of seat belts. Every day, nearly 600,000 school buses carry more than 25 million students to and from school, activities, and class trips. Our school buses carry our children more than 5.7 billion miles every single year. And yet we allow millions of kids to ride on school buses without belts?
Last year, the GAO found that, from 2000 to 2014, there were an average of 115 fatal crashes involving school buses each year. On average, six passengers die each year in school bus crashes. There were 301 children killed in school bus crashes between 2006 and 2015.
We know that seat belts save lives and we know that three-point belts are far more effective than lap belts. The Department of Transportation found that between 1960 and 2012, seat belts saved more than 320,000 lives — more than any other vehicle technology, even airbags. And since three-point seat belts became the global standard in the 1960s, more than a million lives have been saved globally. IMMI, one of the leading providers of seatbelts in school buses, says its research shows that, in general, lap-shoulder seatbelts can reduce injury and death by 50 percent.
How is it possible that forty-two states allow children as young as kindergarteners to board buses every morning, across our country, with nothing keeping them in their seats – if, God forbid, there is an accident? It’s unconscionable. We must do more to keep our kids safe in the event of the unthinkable.
I also couldn’t believe that, in this day and age, when car safety has come so far, that we haven’t implemented three-point seat belts or other safety and technology measures for our children in buses. New Jersey has long been a leader, but is there more we could be doing here?
As a parent of a six-year-old boy and eight-year-old girl, and as your Congressman, after this horrific bus accident, I wanted to know if more could be done to ensure that all of our children, regardless of where they live, are as safe as they could be on our school buses?
So, we went to work. Our research has shown us that, as a state and as a country, there are more arrows in our quiver that we are currently putting into action.
The evidence couldn’t be clearer – seat belts in school buses save lives. In the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) report on a fatal 2016 rollover bus crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee 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, as required by California law. 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.
Building on this evidence, I am here today to announce a new tool to help safeguard our children — the Secure Every Child Under the Right Equipment Standards (SECURES) Act. This bipartisan bill, the SECURES Act of 2018, has three central components.
First, the SECURES Act requires seat belts on all school buses.
Current federal law requires seat belts on small school buses—those less than 10,000 pounds—but not the larger school buses, like the ones used to take students on longer field trips. That decision is left to the individual states, and, as I noted earlier, only eight states require them. The SECURES Act would direct the Department of Transportation (DOT) to update the nationwide standard, so all students across the country share this basic level of protection that’s on all of our cars.
Second, the SECURES Act would make three-point lap-and-shoulder seat belts the national standard.
Just last week, on May 22nd, in a special investigation report on school bus crashes in Maryland and Tennessee, the NTSB, for the first time, formally recommended that all new school buses be equipped with lap-and-shoulder belts.
According to the NTSB, “Properly worn lap-and-shoulder belts provide the highest level of protection for school bus passengers in all crash scenarios, including frontal, side, and rear impacts—and rollovers.” Research shows that while school bus designs are generally effective in protecting occupants in frontal- and rear-impact crashes, they are less effective in protecting from side-impact or rollover crashes.
Right now, New Jersey only requires lap belts on our school buses, instead of three-point lap-and-shoulder belts. I’m hopeful that we take steps here at the state level to remedy that.
NTSB specifically recommended that New Jersey and three other states that currently only require lap belts upgrade their requirements to lap-and-shoulder belts. The SECURES Act would require the DOT to include NTSB’s recommendations in its Federal rulemaking process, so that children in every U.S. state are as safe as humanly possible when riding a school bus.
Third, the SECURES Act will encourage innovative measures to ensure that students are actually wearing their seat belts while on school buses.
Three-point seat belts are effective in protecting kids during a crash only if they are being worn properly. That’s why my bill also encourages the DOT to consider any innovative approaches to seat belt detection, seat belt reminder systems, and seat belt violation alert systems that could be incorporated into school bus designs. It works to harness the power of technology and innovation—which for so long has remained untapped when it comes to school bus safety—to secure our kids. In my own car, if the passenger hasn’t buckled up, it alerts me. Why can’t we have alerts on a bus when a child isn’t wearing a seatbelt?
In this day and age, my credit card company alerts me within seconds if there’s a suspicious charge on my account. Ours cars have lane-changing alerts and even airbags on our seatbelts. Yet, in this age when we have an app for everything, when I look at the school buses transporting my kids, they look no different than the ones I rode when I was their age. That’s unacceptable.
Finally, building on the SECURES ACT, I am writing to state and federal transportation officials at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, asking them to study and take immediate action to ensure that all bus drivers are qualified to drive our children. These agencies are in charge of setting the standards for our school bus drivers. The nation deserves to know the appropriate safety background and testing requirements for all school bus drivers, because every horrific school bus incident forces the question: Was the bus driver qualified to drive our children? Did they pass every background and skills test — and what’s in those tests? Were there any red flags? Is a driver’s record flagged in real time to a school district for a serious violation?
Several states, although not ours, rightly require ongoing training and testing for school bus drivers. For example, in Pennsylvania, every four years a driver must complete a minimum of ten hours of refresher training, including at least seven hours of classroom time and three hours of in-bus training. They must also pass road and knowledge tests. Connecticut has similar laws. I know that our state officials here today – including Senator Lagana, Assemblyman Tully and Asseblywoman Swain – are already at work to address these issues.
When it’s law, the SECURES Act will update federal standards for school buses to help ensure that every child in America is as safe as possible when they’re on the road. I’m proud that this bill is bipartisan, co-sponsored by New York Republican John Faso, and Senator Menendez is leading the effort in the Senate. I think we’d all agree — there is nothing partisan about our children’s safety.
Of course, today’s action is only the first step. I plan to work closely with experts in and out of government in the weeks and months ahead to study other measures we can take to keep our kids safe on their way to school.
On May 17th, a day when students from East Brook Middle School in Paramus should have been enjoying a class trip, they instead experienced every parent’s worst nightmare. The accident took the lives of ten-year-old fifth grader Miranda Vargas and beloved teacher Jennifer Williamson-Kennedy, and injured forty-three others. My kids could have been on that bus too – and I can’t imagine what those families are going through. That day has left an indelible stain of sorrow and reminded us that, as it’s said in Scripture, we see through a glass darkly.
Like everyone here, I have been inspired by all that I learned about Miranda and Jennifer, and moved by how the community has come together.
It is tragedies like these that remind us how resilient we can be here in New Jersey and how strong we must remain in the continued face of senseless tragedy.
As the sun shines down on us, we honor the lives of these two fallen angels, and recommit ourselves to doing everything we can to make sure our kids 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.