The state Assembly on Tuesday passed a bill, prompted by the poor safety record of a bus company serving two Santa Clarita school districts, to police private firms hired to bus schoolchildren.
The bill by Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) passed the Assembly by a 69-3 vote. It will now go to the state Senate. Katz said he has not yet found a senator to champion the bill.
The legislation would for the first time require private school bus companies to obtain licenses from the California Highway Patrol to operate. The CHP would have the authority to revoke a company's license for safety violations, said Katz, chairman of the Assembly's Transportation Committee. School bus drivers already are required to obtain special driver's licenses from the CHP.
Katz proposed the legislation after his committee held a one-day hearing last November into the operations of Laidlaw Transit in the Newhall School District and William S. Hart Union High School District. Laidlaw, the nation's largest school bus company, was paid more than $1 million annually to transport 3,600 schoolchildren in the two districts.
The hearing showed that the accident rate for private school bus firms was 15.1 mishaps per 1 million miles, according to the CHP. Private and public schools providing their own bus service recorded 9.2 accidents per 1 million miles. Katz said the disparity raised serious questions about the performance of private bus companies.
CHP officials testified that the combined accident rate for the Newhall and Hart districts was 35.2 accidents per 1 million miles. Laidlaw officials later said the figures were inflated because Laidlaw supervisors had reported minor mishaps that are not recorded in other school districts.
Katz has introduced other bills aimed at improving school bus safety but has never directed legislation at private bus firms until now. "Until the hearing last year, we were not aware of the problems that exist," he said. "This legislation is a response to that."
Katz said the hearing also exposed a loophole in state law that allowed a Laidlaw driver convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old girl to retain his bus driver's certificate. Brett Meade, then 19, pleaded no contest to unlawful sex with a minor last July, was fined $1,033 and placed on 36 months probation.
Meade was fired. Under state law, his certificate should have been revoked, but the Department of Motor Vehicles was never notified of his criminal record. Katz's bill would require employers and state courts to notify the DMV if a school bus driver is fired or convicted of a crime.
The DMV already is empowered to revoke or suspend a school bus driver's license, depending on the offense.
Complaints of inefficient service dogged Laidlaw throughout the school year. Last month, the Hart and Newhall trustees hired a new private bus firm, Santa Barbara Transit, to replace Laidlaw.