Fighting back tears, the father of fifth grader Miranda Vargas, who was tragically killed in the Mount Olive school bus crash on Route 80 in May, called for immediate action.
“Why has it taken so long to change these laws? Why did my daughter have to lose her life for someone to realize the obvious?” asked Joevanny Vargas.
The Miranda Vargas School Bus Driver Red Flag Act, or Miranda’s Law, is named in her honor. It’s aimed at keeping dangerous drivers off the roads and from behind the wheel of a school bus.
“When a school bus driver has any driving infraction beyond a parking ticket, the school or school bus company will receive an alert about the infraction from the Department of Transportation within 24 hours,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer said.
Gottheimer is introducing the legislation. It requires real-time alerts for every school district across the country and triggers infractions to go to a database monitored by the federal Department of Transportation.
“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 or reckless driving or a license suspension, it could be up to 364 days before a school district or motor carrier obtains that information,” Gottheimer said.
“How did the Board of Education and state fail to realize you had a 77-year-old man with so many infractions transporting kids? For God’s sake, his last suspension was in December 2017. Unacceptable,” Vargas said.
Ten-year-old Vargas and her 51-year-old teacher Jennifer Williamson were killed when a school bus driver crossed multiple lanes to make an illegal U-turn, colliding with a dump truck. Investigators found the bus driver had a long history of license suspensions.
“Research has shown that only 50 percent to 80 percent of school bus drivers, including school bus drivers, actually self-report violations. That is a serious safety risk because suspended drivers have a crash rate 14 times higher than other drivers,” Gottheimer said.
Miranda’s Law builds off a federal DOT pilot program. States would apply for federal aid and highway funds to pay for it. Add that to another piece of legislation calling for better safety belts, and sponsors say they hope it will save lives. Thursday would have been Miranda’s 11th birthday.
“We spent it at the cemetery yesterday,” her father said. “I brought her her favorite cupcake.”
Bergen County is already working to retrofit all 51 buses in its fleet with the three-point safety belt harnesses, saying they expect to have it done in time for the new school year. Meanwhile this week the state Legislature this week passed a statewide bill calling for the same. That bill awaits Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature.