TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Shirley K. Turner (D – Mercer, Hunterdon) that would criminalize operating a school bus with a suspended license cleared the Senate Transportation Committee yesterday. Turner introduced the bill in response to a rash of school bus accidents that occurred in New Jersey this year, including a May incident in Manalapan where a school bus carrying 37 students slid off the road and hit a lamp post and tree. No students were injured; however, the school bus driver was driving with a suspended license.
“Our school buses are only as safe as the driver behind the wheel,” said Turner. “Drivers with suspended licenses are not privileged to be on the road, and they especially have no business transporting our children. Our school buses are carrying young precious lives, and we need to better ensure parents that the drivers responsible for delivering their children to and from school meet the highest qualifications throughout the school year.”
The bill, S2127, would make it a fourth degree crime for bus drivers to operate a school bus with students knowing that their driving privileges have been suspended. A crime of the fourth degree is punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to 18 months or a fine of up to $10,000 or both. A bus driver with a suspended license who is involved in an accident that causes bodily injury would be charged with a third degree crime. A third degree crime is punishable by a term of imprisonment of three to five years or a fine of up to $15,000 or both. In addition to the standard penalties for fourth and third degree crimes, the bus driver’s passenger and school bus endorsements would be suspended permanently.
“New Jersey, with one of the most rigorous bus safety policies in the country, is serious about ensuring the safety of children who are being bussed to and from school,” said Turner. “Most parents, with their hectic work schedules, do not have the option to drive their children to school themselves. Parents that rely on bussing want the peace of mind that the driver takes his or her responsibility seriously. Bus drivers that do not take their responsibility seriously must be held fully accountable.”
Bus drivers who are disqualified as bus drivers are notified by the Department of Education’s (DOE) Criminal Review Unit. Every evening, the Motor Vehicle Commission sends an electronic file to the DOE listing the bus drivers who have become disqualified. The following day, the DOE reviews the list and sends notices to the school district or bus contractor and the bus driver. The school district or bus contractor is required to take appropriate action. Turner’s bill would hold the bus driver accountable for disregarding the disqualification notice.
The bill now heads to the Senate for a vote.