Usually, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office handles high-profile crimes like murder, kidnapping, and robbery. It’s not every day that you find investigators worrying about the conditions of the vast number of commuter vans that are spotted shuttling passengers all over the county.
However, according to Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio, the office’s random inspections of commuter vans and jitneys have become a regular occurrence, mainly from an insurance fraud aspect.
“We’ve been engaged in a number of these inspections throughout the county, in conjunction with the state Department of Transportation and the local police,” DeFazio said. “Our focus has been with insurance fraud and safety issues.”
Recently, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office conducted a random inspection of 16 such commuter vans that were picking up passengers on the streets of North Bergen, either along Kennedy Boulevard or Boulevard East.
The result was staggering. Of the 16 commuter vehicles inspected, 10 were found to have a total of 64 violations, forcing those vehicles off the street immediately. Those vehicles were towed away.
“Unfortunately, there seems to be a pervasive level of failure when it come to the required safety measures and insurance,” DeFazio said. “As a rule, these commuter vans are not complying with the minimum standards. Either the vans had a lack of insurance or phony insurance cards, or there were liability issues and driver’s license issues. It’s a pervasive problem all over Hudson County, but it seems to be more prominent in north Hudson.”
Some of the violations that were levied against the commuter vans and jitneys were broken brake lights, directional signals and other lights; a lack of essential emergency equipment such as fire extinguishers, and bad brakes.
DeFazio said that the commuter vans and jitneys operate with “very little regulations and no uniform scheduling routes.”
“I think these vans were going to continue to operate illegally unless we did something,” DeFazio said. “I think the results speak for themselves. There are several dangers that exist with these commuter buses.”
The Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office’s Insurance Fraud Unit also received help from the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission Bus Enforcement Unit.
Dangers that exist
DeFazio said that most of the owners of these commuter vans and jitneys lease the vehicle to private contractors on a daily basis.
“With different owners and companies, it makes it more difficult to regulate,” DeFazio said. “God forbid if we have a catastrophe and the commuter van in question has no insurance.”
DeFazio also said that there has been concern that the drivers operate the vehicles in an erratic fashion.
“When the vehicle is leased for the day, it almost encourages them to drive in an erratic manner in order to make the fee for the day,” DeFazio said. “They stop in the middle of the street like a taxi cab. There are accidents, but there hasn’t been a major catastrophe yet. But it’s definitely quite an issue. The insurance issues make it even more complex.”
DeFazio credited the efforts of Assistant Prosecutor Thomas Carroll with his leadership in the investigations.
North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco was pleased with the efforts. Sacco sponsored a bill in the state Senate last year that would put more regulations on the commuter van and jitney operations.
“I thought it was great news,” Sacco said. “I commend Prosecutor DeFazio for taking the bull by the horns and getting this done. He’s really helping the community. We introduced bills that would hit these owners with higher penalties if they didn’t keep their insurance up to date. By conducting these random investigations, it is a very strong weapon to combat all the different issues. These vans endanger the lives of the people of our community.”
DeFazio said that he plans on continuing the random investigations to crack down on the illegal activity of the commuter vans.
“We have to make sure that they adhere to safety and insurance standards,” DeFazio said. “We have been doing this for a while, but we decided to tell everyone that the inspections and the violations are going to continue. We’re not going away.”
DeFazio said that similar inspections have taken place in Jersey City, Union City and Weehawken.
“Those are the towns where the commuter buses are more of an issue,” DeFazio said.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or firstname.lastname@example.org