John Cichowski North Jersey Record
Published 9:20 p.m. UTC Aug 31, 2018
For many drivers, New Jersey’s vehicle-inspection process is a ritual that’s easily forgotten because it’s required so seldom – after five years for new cars and biannually thereafter for most used cars. In any case, tthe only mandate is a passing score on a vehicle-emissions test.
But the state’s 23,400 yellow buses that serve public schools, charter schools and parochial schools don’t get away so easy, as reporters learned — or re-learned — this week in Orange where nearly all the buses in the school board’s entire fleet were inspected for no less than 180 mechanical issues such as lights, brakes and tires.
“This is nothing new,” said Sue Fulton, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administrator of the state Motor Vehicle Commission, which conducts the inspections. “We do this every year for all the state’s school buses.”
But coming after a teacher and a student were killed and scores of others were injured aboard a Paramus school bus that crashed on Route 80 in Mount Olive last May, the yearly school-bus ritual — with journalists in tow — seemed much less forgettable than in years past. This year, besides twice-a-year inspections for every school bus, some 600 spot inspections throughout the year, and a “report card” that covers every bus and school district at njmvc.gov, New Jersey is considering even more regulations.
Under a law signed a week ago, the Garden State became only the third state after California and Nevada to mandate school-bus shoulder harnesses in addition to lap belts. That initiative has already been carried out voluntarily in Paramus and a few other districts while it’s being phased in over a 15-year period for the others. At the same time, Trenton is considering several other reforms such as enhanced driver training and medical reviews.
“We’ve had an ongoing collaboration… [with] the Department of Education,” said Fulton, explaining that the task force “is hashing out… over 17 real recommendations that we’re trying to hone down… that will make the most difference to improve the safety of our kids.”
The new motor-vehicles chief didn’t specifically name all the recommendations. But are they all necessary?
After all, despite recent tragedies, the big, bright-yellow behemoths that brought officials and journalists together on a hot, blistering Wednesday have long been regarded the safest vehicles on the road – by far – although it went unmentioned.
But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which keeps careful track of every kind of road fatality, plasters this statistic prominently on the school-bus portion of its website:
“Students are about 70 times more likely to get to school safely when taking a bus instead of traveling by car… because school buses are the most regulated vehicles on the road.”
“Listen, we have two jobs at Motor Vehicles, and that’s safety and customer service,” Fulton said, “but when it comes to our kids, this is very personal to every one of us. We take this very seriously.”
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Fulton’s job is not an easy one.
She acknowledged that regulatory oversight can be a slippery exercise. For example, although the license of the driver charged with manslaughter in the Mount Olive crash had been suspended in the past, the suspension was not based on moving violations.
So, although changing bus-driver requirements solely based on license suspensions might not be valid, that assessment did not necessarily negate any effort to improve the current bus-driver test.
“I’m sure… nearly all our drivers could pass our driving test,” she said.
In addition, although some districts are retrofitting their buses with lap-and-shoulder harnesses, the law requires only new buses to meet this requirement. So, based on the 15-year, maximum mandated age for retiring a school bus, a complete roll-out won’t be completed until 2033.
The cost of retrofitting a bus is so expensive that it resembles the cost of purchasing a new bus, Fulton explained.
But the unlikely prospect of speedy retrofitting isn’t the only prickly problem. In response to a question, Fulton acknowledged an issue that’s seldom addressed: the ability of drivers to ensure that every child in a 54-seat bus remains belted. Both parents and drivers often complain that kids, especially in middle school, prefer to move around aboard a moving bus.
“We have to look at the practicality of that,” Fulton replied. “But the idea being: How is that we make sure that that the bus doesn’t move until every child is buckled in? And we are looking at changes for that. We’ll see how that develops.”
“Practicality” often means “financial considerations,” such as hiring aides to ride with kids.
For that reason, gaining support for road legislation is rarely a simple matter in a heavily taxed, densely populated state that relies largely on its road and highway network to get anything done. It took nearly three decades to increase the motor-fuels tax to pay for needed highway maintenance. Tolls remained unchanged on the Garden State Parkway for more than four decades.
While road crashes, injuries and deaths were declining seven years ago, the Legislature reduced expenses by abandoning the Motor Vehicle Commission’s role in inspecting passenger vehicles for mechanical issues such as lights, brakes and some of the other issues that now remain common for school buses and commercial vehicles.
Despite a four-year increase in road deaths, privately owned cars are now tested regularly only for vehicle emissions. Now that the state is ramping up school-bus inspections in the aftermath of tragedy, is it time for the Legislature to revisit a more robust inspection program for all of New Jersey’s nearly 7 million registered vehicles?
The question was put to Assemblyman Tom Giblin of Clifton, who also attended Wednesday’s news conference. Like Fulton, the veteran Democrat, whose 34th district includes Orange, cited practicality.
“it’s a case of economics,” he said. “The optimum idea would be to inspect them all on an annual basis, but I think overall the safety record has been fairly decent as far as other states are concerned.”
Even if complete inspections saved just one or two lives a year?
“A lot of times in government, things are balanced,” Giblin said, “between doing the job that benefits the public and at the same time trying to keep it at a reasonable cost.“
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