Of the 2,309-page H.R. 2 infrastructure bill the U.S. House of Representatives passed this month, only three pages mattered to Joevanny Vargas.
Detailed in about 300 words in the $1.5 trillion plan is a proposal for three-point seat belts that cover laps and shoulders on new school buses — an effort championed by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-Wyckoff, N.J., and Vargas, whose 10-year-old daughter Miranda Vargas died in a bus crash in Mount Olive two years ago.
After fighting for two years for what Vargas calls "common-sense" legislation, he said he is happy, but disappointed it has taken so long to get this far.
"I honestly thought that this would fly through legislation in the House, fly through the Senate and here we are. And don’t misunderstand me, I’m very happy that it took place, but now we have to wait," he said. "The reason I’m doing this is because it’s what my daughter would have wanted. It's the least that I could do."
The bill, however, stops short of requiring the seat belts, instead saying a study should be conducted first to determine the benefits of a three-point belt and then it should be required in newly purchased school buses.
"If a bus flips over, someone could come out from underneath a seat belt and hit their head, and under this legislation it would require that you actually have what’s called three-point belts," Gottheimer said.
Members of the Vargas family joined Gottheimer in Washington, D.C., last summer to meet with members of Congress and talk about the importance of strengthening bus safety measures, including the seat belt provision.
That visit, Gottheimer said, helped push this issue forward.
"We went from this not being in the conversation to being in the bill, and that’s the kind of momentum we need to build in order for a piece of legislation like this to pass," he said.
Gottheimer said he hopes that future legislation can include additional bus safety provisions in a bill named "Miranda's Law" that would, for example, create a real-time notification system to alert school districts or private school bus companies when drivers receive infractions beyond a parking ticket.
The crash involving Vargas' daughter occurred after the driver, then-77-year-old Hudy Muldrow, missed an exit on Route 80 en route to a field trip and crossed three lanes of traffic to make an illegal U-turn.
In the process, the bus collided with a dump truck. The crash left the yellow school bus mangled and detached from its chassis, resting on its side on the highway. Some passengers were left hanging upside down from their seat belts. A teacher, 51-year-old Jennifer Williamson, was ejected from the bus and died. About 40 other passengers were injured.
Muldrow, who was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, was cited for reckless driving less than two months before the crash. His license had been suspended 14 times since 1975, most recently in December 2017, according to state driving records. Although the most recent suspension and five others were for unpaid parking tickets, Muldrow also received eight speeding tickets, one ticket for careless driving and a summons for unsafe operation of a motor vehicle.
The fate of the infrastructure legislation that includes the seat belt provision now rests with the Senate. If it passes, it would need a signature from President Donald Trump to become federal law.
Colleen Wilson covers the Port Authority and NJ Transit for NorthJersey.com.