Almost half of all school buses and vans in the state are ordered off the road at their semiannual inspections for a violation deemed too serious to allow them to transport children, an analysis by The Press of Atlantic City of bus inspection records shows.
Another third get 30-day violations for items that would not put children at risk.
The inspection failure rates for some southern New Jersey school bus providers, including Integrity Transportation in Egg Harbor Township and First Student in Galloway Township, are among the worst in the state. At least 90 percent of both companies’ buses were put out of service during inspections last year.
The percentage of buses statewide found in violation has not dropped during the past decade despite new procedures put in place to toughen inspections. State Motor Vehicle Commission and local school district transportation officials say the buses, vans and other vehicles that take more than 800,000 children to school each day are overall very safe specifically because state inspections are so thorough.
“It’s a white-glove inspection,” said Timothy Wallace, owner of Rahway Bus Co. and president of the New Jersey School Bus Owners Association. “They do not tolerate anything.”
Problems on failed buses range from malfunctioning warning equipment to fluid leaks to poor brakes, which is the most common out-of-service violation.
Eighty inspectors in 20 teams fan out across the state, performing about 75,000 inspections and re-inspections a year at 1,400 terminals, MVC spokesman Michael Horan said. Bus operators also are expected to self-inspect their buses every 3,000 miles and must keep documentation that is reviewed as part of the MVC inspection.
The teams also conduct surprise inspections based on their own concerns or public complaints. Integrity got a surprise inspection in October, Horan said, based on inspector concerns. Vineland got a surprise inspection in July.
Local bus operations rank at both the high and low end of inspection violations. Among the larger operations, Integrity had 97 percent of its buses cited for an “out of service,” or OOS, violation during the first 10 months of 2010, data provided by the MVC shows. First Student in Galloway Township had 90 percent of its buses in violation. The Pleasantville school district had 88 percent. Safety Bus had 75 percent put off the road, and the Egg Harbor Township School District had 73 percent failed. Out-of-service buses cannot be used until the violation is fixed and the bus is reapproved.
At the lower end, Lower Township in Cape May County, and Vineland and Sheppard Bus Service in Cumberland County saw about a third of their vehicles receive at least one out-of-service violation. About half of the buses in Ocean County’s Barnegat Township, Southern Regional and Lacey Township school districts were cited for at least one out-of-service violation.
The Press analyzed more than 1.2 million computerized inspection records to calculate inspection failure rates.
In 1999, The Press reviewed the results of school bus inspections and found many local operations had high numbers of violations. The rates have changed little since. The MVC posts inspection results online and plans to introduce a new “school bus report card” this month that spokesman Horan said will be more clear about why buses have been pulled out of service.
“We do want to try to reinforce with the public that many of the violations are things that can be fixed on the same day, like a bulb being out,” Horan said. “But we do pride ourselves on being tough, and we want parents to feel comfortable with that.”
Fees cover some costs
Tough inspections also generate some of the revenue that pays for them. Companies are charged $25 per inspection, plus another $25 for a reinspection if the violation requires a separate trip. If the bus is fixed and reinspected the same day, there is no additional charge. The inspection program costs about $7 million a year, about $1.3 million of which is generated by the fees. Horan said despite the state budget crunch, there are no plans to make any cuts to the program.
The state code that regulates school bus inspections expires this year, and the MVC has held hearings across the state to get input on changes. Wallace said the bus owners association would have liked more formal input and would recommend that some items be moved from the out-of-service list to a 30-day violation that does not put the bus out of service.
But, he said, the association supports thorough inspections to keep all school bus operators on their toes.
“There are almost 200 inspection items, and they check every one,” Wallace said.
School officials said they are concerned when a large number of buses are placed out of service because students could be stranded.
Galloway Township uses Integrity for its student busing. Superintendent Annette Giaquinto said district officials met with company officials about the high inspection failure rate out of concern that there might not be enough buses to pick up the students.
Galloway is part of a transportation consortium managed by the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District that contracts with both First Student and Integrity to bus students in Hamilton Township, Galloway Township, and Oakcrest and Absegami high schools. Greater Egg officials did not return multiple calls for comment.
Where’s the bus?
Giaquinto said there have been a few instances when buses were late because one bus had to make two runs, but it is not a common occurrence. She said the district keeps logs of late buses and other problems, and the company can be charged a penalty if buses are chronically late.
“We met with (owner) Joe Duncan because a significant number of buses out could cause major problems for us,” Giaquinto said. “But we haven’t had anything major.”
Parent Cynthia Haldeman said she was not surprised that the buses have failed inspection, although she was surprised at the high rate for Integrity. Her daughter, a kindergartener, had to wait at school one day because there was no bus for them.
“We didn’t know what was happening, just that the bus didn’t come, and we called the school,” she said. “They had to wait for another bus to bring them home an hour later.”
Integrity has 120 buses, about 108 of which are on the road each day. Horan said during the surprise inspection, 13 of 14 buses were pulled out of service for 55 violations. The buses also received 63 30-day violations.
Inspectors also review driver registration and insurance information. The July surprise inspection in Vineland found four drivers with suspended licenses. Integrity’s registration is pending a suspension because insurance on all buses was not up to date.
“If even one bus is not covered, we suspend the entire fleet,” Horan said.
Vineland school transportation officials did not return calls for comment.
‘Strict, not unreasonable’
Integrity owner and general manager Duncan said there have been problems but that they are immediately addressed.
“The inspectors are very strict, but they are not unreasonable” he said. He said there were days when he worried about having enough approved buses on the road to pick up students.
“I expect (inspectors) to be picky, and a lot of the items we can fix the same day,” he said. “But there have been days when it’s been tight to get enough buses on the road to pick up kids.”
First Student, an international transportation company, operates 26 terminals in the state and about 2,000 buses. Spokeswoman Bonnie Bastian said New Jersey inspections are considered very stringent, but the company’s policy also requires inspections every 120 days or 6,000 miles. Drivers also do daily checks using a Zonar electronic fleet management system that automatically sends a report to maintenance. The First Student terminals had inspection failure rates ranging from 25 percent to 90 percent. Bastion said the variation in failure rates could depend on the age of the buses or whether there was a maintenance garage on site to fix smaller problems.
Fred Potter, president of Teamsters Local 469, said drivers take pride in the condition of their buses but that tight budgets and increased fuel costs can take a toll on operations. The local represents about 1,000 bus drivers and other employees of private bus companies in central New Jersey, including First Student sites. Potter said the union’s concern is that as drivers get their hours cut to save money, they do not have the time to do thorough daily inspections.
“There is a lot of pressure now, especially on small operators, to keep down costs,” he said. “But the buses take a lot of abuse. Stuff comes loose. I’ve been on roads that make my teeth shake.”
A major change during the past decade has been that rather than making operators bring buses to inspection sites, the teams travel to the bus terminals, sometimes spending a week or more with one company.
Inside an inspection
Throughout September, a team visited the Egg Harbor Township School District bus maintenance center, peering into engine compartments, crawling under frames, shaking seats to check for loose bolts and testing brakes to see if pads are too worn.
On one visit, EHT school transportation coordinator Warren Fipp spotted a small, round sticker on the outside of a bus and called out to one of his mechanics to remove it. A student had likely stuck his hand out the window and placed it there as a prank.
“But if I don’t get it off, it could fail the bus,” Fipp said as inspectors swarmed another bus.
The district has 145 school buses. Most travel about 10,000 miles a year, but some will travel as much as 20,000 miles up and down the 68-square-mile township’s roads, in addition to special education, sports and field trip runs. The buses run a total of 1.3 million miles a year, Fipp said.
“This is not highway driving,” he said. “It’s a lot of starting and stopping on every type of road.”
That wears on a bus, and Fipp said he welcomes the state visits in March and September to help him keep his buses in top shape, even if it means a lot of out-of-service stickers.
Kevin Butler, chief inspector on the team visiting EHT, said there are a lot of items to check, but since many violations can be fixed immediately and re-inspected the same day, many buses are never really out of service.
One example involves lights. There are 35 lights along the top of a typical school bus. If one bulb is out, the bus fails inspection. But that’s a quick fix and will not keep the bus off the road for long.
Butler said the teams are specially trained and only inspect school buses. Each team will generally inspect 10 buses a day. Each inspection sheet has 30 categories and 180 items to check.
He said the most common problems are lights that are out, seats that have been written on or vandalized, worn tires and fluid leaks.
The Press analysis of violations statewide showed the most common violations involve brakes, including tests of the distance it takes for a bus to brake, accounting for 21 percent of the violations that put buses out of service. Buses are put out of service for light problems or for seats about 8 percent of the time.
Fipp has a staff of six mechanics. Drivers are required to do daily checks.
“We always take care of the safety stuff right away,” Fipp said.
Most operations have spare buses, about one for every 10 operating buses, Wallace said. Horan said about 91 percent of all vehicles are approved on reinspection.
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-More than 75 percent of school buses run by several southern New Jersey bus operators failed state safety inspections are were pulled off the road in 2010.
-Nearly half of all school buses checked by inspectors statewide failed last year.
-Brake problems are the most common violation that puts school buses out of service.
Why buses fail
Major categories of violations that cause school buses to be taken off the road:
Brakes: 21 percent
Emissions/exhaust: 11 percent
Lights: 8 percent
Seats: 8 percent
Under-hood problems: 7 percent
Under-body problems: 4 percent
Tires: 2 percent
Warning equipment: 2 percent
Sources: N.J. Motor Vehicle Commission, Press analysis