Lawmakers probe jitney-related concerns in wake of fatality

HOBOKEN – A jitney-related fatality earlier this year brought state lawmakers to this riverside city Monday to weigh the issues of passenger and pedestrian safety as well as the ability of a small industry to survive.

Members of the Assembly Transportation Committee said they did not want to make it difficult for these small businesses to operate, but said that they need to consider further measures to protect the safety of people in the aftermath of the death of an 8-month-old girl who died in West New York after she was struck by a light poll that had been hit by a driver allegedly using a cell phone.

What became clear to lawmakers as they compiled testimony at the Stevens Institute of Technology here was that there is a dizzying patchwork of rules for a variety of vehicles carrying different numbers of passengers, some of which travel out of state, and sometimes employing – as one lawmaker phrased it –  a “wild West’’ mentality in the pursuit of passengers.

Under A3993 – which was not voted on today – the amount of insurance that a jitney must carry would increase from $10,000 for bodily injury or death suffered by one person and $100,000 on account of bodily injury or death suffered by more than one person to a blanket policy requirement of $1.5 million. 

The bill also would require that a driver of an autobus possess a commercial drivers license and undergo a drug test, at the driver’s expense, prior to beginning employment.

“A young child lost her life as a result of our inadequate regulation of jitney service,’’ said committee Chair Assemblyman John Wisniewski.  Insurance levels and regulations, for instance, are not consistent among regions of the state, leading to a patchwork of rules, he said.

“They provide a valuable service to those of us who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get to work,’’ he said of autobuses. But he added, “This wasn’t even a passenger.  This was somebody on the street.  Every single one of us is at risk.’’

But Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula and others raised a concern: How would the mere existence of more regulations industrywide prevent the reality of a single driver who uses a cell phone and becomes distracted.

Assemblyman Brian Rumpf said that “I don’t know if this bill alone gets to the root of the problem” of reckless driving.

Assemblymen John Amodeo and Rumpf said that in Atlantic City stricter regulations have helped to prevent the problems that other parts of the state have experienced.

But Assemlyman Ruben Ramos of Hudson County said that is almost an apples to oranges comparison, because his “corridor’’ of the state experiences 300,000 passengers a day using such vehicles in contrast with the 10,000 a day Atlantic City sees.

Lack of consistent routes, for example, is one such problem he said Northern New Jersey contends with as jitney drivers sometimes use a “wild West’’ approach in their search for passengers.

Mary Beth Callahan, who runs A & C Bus Co. in Jersey City, pleaded with the lawmakers and seconded Ramos’ “wild West’’ terminology.

“After the tragedy of that family,’’ she said, “something must be done.  My drivers come into the office, sometimes they are so frustrated with tears in their eyes, (telling me) I almost had an accident, a jitney cut me off.”

Another concern? “They don’t all go into New York City,’’ Wisniewski said, “but they all say they do.’’

Jitneys crossing state lines fall under federal jurisdiction, the Interstate Commerce Commission, the committee was told.

But an official of the U.S. Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Christopher Rotondo, said that merely crossing a state line does not mean a driver is free from compliance with New Jersey law.

“Passenger and transportation safety is paramount,” he said, adding, “There is a significant difference between the southern portion of this state to the northern region where it is highly urban, (with) daily commuters in the millions into and out of New York City.”

But after hearing Rotondo talk about what should be done compared with what is being done, Mainor said, “The first thing we have to do is change the definition of jitney, because if we don’t do that the drivers who are trying to do the right thing will be left out.”

Lawmakers probe jitney-related concerns in wake of fatality