Are Local Buses Safe?

NBC 7’s Investigative Team examined safety inspection reports for the 10 largest local school districts

Remember being a kid and that big, yellow school bus bouncing up to the corner on the first day of school?

Kids raced down the street to get the best seat (or at least the one without the permanent rip in the vinyl.)

These days, partly because of state budget cuts, less and less students ride the bus to school each day. Still, across the county, thousands of school buses and their drivers are responsible for getting students safely to and from school in San Diego County.

NBC7 Investigates examined thousands of bus inspection reports for the 10 largest school districts in the county. The records are kept by California Highway Patrol’s Motor Carrier Safety Unit, which inspects every bus in the region annually.

Of the 1,139 buses inspected across the ten largest school districts, NBC7 Investigates found 767 equipment violations ranging from issues such as seats not being properly fastened to blown fuses on stop sign lights to faded paint on the side of the bus. Even the dreaded rip in a seat can result in an equipment violation.

“It’s a bumper to bumper annual certification of each school bus,” said Captain Roy Kramer, who supervises the unit that conducts inspections across San Diego County, Orange County, Imperial County and parts of Riverside County. “At the end of the day, our most serious concern is the safety of the students.”

Between July 2012 and June 2013, a total of 17 buses in the 10 largest districts were taken out of service by CHP for having more serious maintenance conditions.

In Oceanside Unified School District, five buses of the district’s 82-bus fleet were taken out of service for reasons such as clamps around exhaust pipes not being tight enough, burnt out fuses on the stoplights in the back of the bus, and a compressed natural gas tank exceeding its inspection point. CHP did a total of 90 bus inspections for the district with some overlap of buses during a separate annual bus terminal inspection.

Director of Transportation Dennis Smarsty said the buses not certified by CHP were already in the district’s excess pool, and were not being used on a daily basis.

Because the North County district was among the last districts to halt general busing for all students, it has about twice as many buses in its bus yard as it uses on a daily basis.

“We you have 40 extra buses you have the opportunity to make sure you don’t send any buses out unsafely,” Smarsty said.

In Oceanside, drivers also use a computerized system called Zonar to run electronic pre-trip checklist with a handheld device. Yellow sensors located throughout the bus connect with the hand-held device and send data to a computerized system. The system will note if a piece of equipment needs repair and automatically generate a work order for service. All the data from the Zonar check gets sent to a centralized database and can be analyzed by district officials.

“Parents should never be concerned about the buses. We go through extensive training to do the pre-trips and these buses do not go out unsafe,” Smarsty said.

Oceanside also recently equipped 38 buses with video camera equipment at a cost of about $75,000. The rest of the district’s fleet already had video equipment installed to monitor children and review footage if any incidents occur on the bus with the students.

Breakdowns for the number of buses placed out of service during the same time period for the largest districts were: 

  • San Marcos Unified : 0 buses placed out-of-service from a total of 82 inspections
  • San Diego Unified: 2 buses placed out-of-service from a total of 414 inspections
  • Escondido Union: 0 buses placed out-of-service from a total of 34 inspections
  • Cajon Valley Union: 0 buses placed out-of-service from a total of 52 inspections
  • Poway Unified: 2 buses placed out-of-service from a total of 151 inspections
  • Chula Vista Elementary: 0 buses placed out-of-service from a total of 131 inspections
  • Vista Unified School District: 2 buses placed out-of-service from a total of 125 inspections
  • Grossmont Union High: 0 buses placed out-of-service from a total of 121 inspections
  • Oceanside Unified: 5 buses placed out-of-service from a total of 90 inspections
  • Sweetwater Union High: 6 buses placed out-of-service from a total of 143 inspections

In Sweetwater, six buses were taken out of service for violations including brakes out of adjustment and loose rear axle u-bolts. The CHP says most of the repairs were made right away and the buses were certified within a week of the out-of-service notification.

But, in one instance, that wasn't the case. In June 2012, two violations were noted on a Sweetwater bus: excessive fluid leaking from the power steering box and sharp edges exposed from a defective bumper cap. The district was supposed to correct those issues, but when the CHP went back to re-inspect in March 2013, they noted the same problems with that same bus.

CHP told NBC 7 the problem had gotten even worse because it had not been corrected.

“The district wasn’t able to provide maintenance records to prove to us they had done the maintenance on the vehicles,” said Kramer with CHP.

The bus was then placed out of service after they noted a loose steering gearbox and excessive fluid leaking from a steering gearbox - a significant violation that could have caused an accident and placed students at risk if not addressed, according to CHP supervisor Leonard Hazelwood.

CHP says they re-inspected the Sweetwater bus for a third time, the problems were fixed and it was certified in June.

The Sweetwater district subsequently received an "unsatisfactory" report for its bus terminal inspection – a separate review that includes how the overall maintenance program is working and a review of driver records.

That report stated: “This inspection disclosed an unacceptable condition in the maintenance of your school buses and in the category of driver records. The terminal inspection included 20 buses and revealed 51 mechanical safety violations. Three buses were placed out-of-service for imminently hazardous mechanical safety violations. The preventative maintenance program at Sweetwater Union High School District is not adequate to ensure the buses are maintained in a safe operating condition.”

The Sweetwater School District sent NBC 7 this statement about the issue:

“That bus was repaired within a matter of hours by simple torqueing of bolts and a replaced fitting and hose. The safety of our students is our highest priority. Our staff works very hard to ensure that when issues with our buses arise that they are resolved as quickly as possible. We want to ensure the community that our buses are safe and that we will continue to work closely with the CHP to ensure that we are operating at the highest levels.”

All other districts mentioned in this piece received a “satisfactory” report for its bus terminal inspection from CHP. San Diego Unified School District also received a Certificate of Achievement from the CHP for receiving seven consecutive satisfactory reviews for its bus terminal inspection.

Vista Unified School District sent NBC7 Investigates this statement regarding its two buses that were placed out of service:

“We have reviewed our documents and can provide you with the following information:

• CHP Motor carrier specialist Kevin Hearst was here to inspect our buses on 8/2/13.
• We had taken bus # 79 (2000 model) out of service prior to CHP coming as we had it torn apart to repair the sub frame. Therefore bus #79 could not be inspected at that time.
• Bus #72 (1990 model) CHP found the brake warning light on the dash was out during the inspection.
• Both buses were inspected on 8/8/13 and certified.

The safety of our students is the top priority and that it is reassuring to know that our vehicles are regularly inspected by the California Highway Patrol to help us identify any potential opportunities for improvement. You can see from the details regarding our recent experience that we are extremely responsive to any concerns that arise through the inspection process.”

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