N.J. School Bus Crash Kills One Child, Leaves Many Legal Questions
By Dean I Weitzman, Esq. on February 17th, 2012
In one horrific moment, a family with triplet 11-year-old daughters had its whole world turned upside down this week when the school bus the girls were riding in was struck by a dump truck in an intersection in Chesterfield, N.J., just south of Trenton.
One of the girls died at the scene following the crash and one of the other two girls remains in critical condition in a hospital, according to an Associated Press (AP) story. The third sister has been upgraded to stable condition, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. One other student was also seriously injured and remains in critical condition, while another 14 suffered mostly minor injuries, the AP reported.
The crash, which happened at Route 528 and Old York Road in Chesterfield, in Chesterfield, is still being investigated by police. The father of the girls is a New Jersey State Police Trooper, Sgt. Anthony Tezsla, according to reports.
While all the details of the crash have not yet been determined, and while no charges have yet been filed against either driver of the vehicles, the incident raises several topical legal issues that should be meaningful to us all, including the safety of the school buses our children ride in to and from school.
“The accident occurred as the dump truck was traveling on Route 528 through an amber blinking light at the intersection with Old York Road, police said,” according to a story in The Trenton Times. “The bus was crossing the intersection on Old York Road, which has a stop sign and red blinking light in both directions.”
The truck then struck the right driver’s side rear of the bus, causing it to spin into a utility pole that supports the blinking traffic light for the intersection, the newspaper reported. “The pole became embedded in the side of the bus near the left rear tires.”
In New Jersey, new school buses are required to have seatbelts. According to the AP, most “students on the bus said they were wearing their seatbelts.”
Township Police Chief Kyle Wilson told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he did not know how many of the children on the bus were buckled up.
Dr. Alan Ross, the president of the National Coalition for School Bus Safety in Torrington, Ct., said the accident and the injuries that occurred are a reminder that as a nation we still have more to do to improve school bus safety for our children. There are more than 500,000 dedicated school buses carrying our students daily across the nation, he said.
New Jersey is one of only a few states in the U.S. that requires seatbelts on school buses, Ross said in an interview. Only about seven percent of the half-million school buses across the country are equipped with belts.
The New Jersey law was passed in 1993, but it grandfathered in older buses that don’t have seatbelts, he said. About two-thirds of the state’s school buses do have the belts, but they are usually lap belts and not safer three-point seatbelts, Ross said.
At this point, it’s not known what kind of seatbelts were in the bus involved in the Chesterfield crash.
What is known universally, Ross said, is that seatbelts will always help in a school bus crash. Meanwhile, there is “lots of room for improvement in the school bus industry” in terms of safety features, he said.
Another school bus safety issue is improving sight lines for bus drivers so they can see the students better as they enter and exit the buses, Ross said. Many accidents involving students and school buses today involve children who are accidentally struck by their own buses when they are in blind spots that are missed by drivers.
Money is an issue in both cases, as seatbelts add to the cost of the buses, he said. A $400 microwave sensor could also be included in all buses to warn drivers of students in blind spots, but with hundreds or thousands of buses, the costs can get unwieldy for school districts.
Improved school bus safety could also mean the eventual inclusion of safety features seen today in cars and SUVs, including traction control, automatic four-wheel-drive and anti-lock brakes, but those also raise the costs of such vehicles, Ross said. “The yellow bus is quite clearly a dinosaur” because they are big, harder to drive and lack the latest safety features, he said.
An average of six school-age occupants of school transportation vehicles and 13 pedestrians are killed in school transportation-related traffic crashes each year, according to the latest 2009 figures from the National Highway Transportation Safety Board (NHTSB) in the U.S. Department of Transportation.
School bus accidents leading to fatalities are still very rare compared to all motor vehicle accidents in the U.S., according to the government statistics. “Since 2000 there were 371,104 fatal motor vehicle traffic crashes. Of those, 1,245 (0.34 percent) were classified as school transportation-related.” That includes about 139 fatalities annually.
Of the 1,386 people who have died in school transportation-related crashes since 2000, only eight percent were occupants of the buses. Another 20 percent were pedestrians or bicyclists who died in accidents with buses. Most of the people who lost their lives in these crashes (72 percent) were occupants of other vehicles involved, the government statistics said.
In the aftermath of the tragic crash in New Jersey this week, it’s wise to remind ourselves of the importance of school bus safety, including the use of seatbelts and other critical safety equipment, to protect our children.
If you or someone you love is ever injured in this kind of accident, you should be sure to obtain professional, caring and skilled legal help as you navigate the legal system to protect your rights and potential claims.
Our sincere thoughts and prayers go out to the Tezsla family and to the families of the other injured students as they cope with the aftermath of this terrible crash.