New Jersey’s school bus failure rate continues at almost half of the 24,000 vehicles each year, according to the Motor Vehicle Commission’s updated school bus report card.

Last week’s report from the MVC found that 47 percent of buses fail on first inspection for an item that required the vehicle be taken off the road. Another 12 percent fail for minor items that do not affect safety, but must be repaired within 30 days. The remainder pass.

A watchdog report by The Press of Atlantic City in January 2011 found that almost half of all school vehicles inspected in 2010 failed inspection and another third got 30-day notices. The most common violation was insufficient brakes, which made up 21 percent of all violations. Other common problems included emissions, lights, seats, and engine problems.

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Locally, most school bus operations fell within the state average. Local school officials said they are aware of the reports, and would be concerned if failed inspections left students stranded.

“Our concern would be if there were not enough buses available to pick up the students,” said Charles Muller, business administrator in Greater Egg Harbor Regional School district, which manages a transportation consortium that also includes Galloway and Hamilton township schools. The consortium contracts with First Student, Integrity and Sheppard.

Integrity’s latest failure rate of 88 percent was the highest in the area. In 2010, Integrity’s failure rate was 97 percent, according to The Press report. Integrity is being monitored by the state.

Muller said parents or residents will occasionally call if they notice a problem with a bus, and district officials follow up on a regular basis to make sure buses are in compliance, but there have been no problems so far this year. Galloway Township superintendent Annette Giaquinto also said in an email there have been no problems with year with buses not being available.

The state School Bus Inspection Unit also does monthly surprise inspections with the State Police and will target sites with high failure rates or public complaints.

MVC spokeswoman Elyse Coffey said Integrity has received more state attention, but has shown signs of improvement. Integrity owner and general manager Joe Duncan did not return calls asking for comment.

School bus operators said staying on top of even minor repairs is a daily challenge. There are 180 items on the state checklist that can result in a school bus failing inspection: Worn brakes, a broken seat belt or having just one of the 35 lights malfunction can pull a bus off the road.

Even brand new buses have been known to fail inspection. In addition to the state inspections, districts are required to do self-inspections every 3,000 miles and keep records for MVC inspectors.

Coffey said stringent inspections, performed twice a year, insure student safety and demonstrate how seriously New Jersey takes school bus safety. She said 91 percent of the failed buses are repaired, re-inspected and passed the same day and do not affect the safe transportation of students to and from school.

“We don’t want the public to be alarmed by the initial failure rate,” Coffey said. “Buses often fail for very small things.”

The state began posting school bus report cards online in 2005 to raise public awareness of the inspection process and school bus safety. The report includes the percentage of school vehicles that failed and passed inspection, and the most recent inspection data for each individual bus.

Some districts have only a few buses, so the percentages of passing or failing vary widely.

Lower Township school transportation officials said their buses and those used by Lower Cape May Regional are together in the state report, and they believe their failure rate is lower than the 57 percent reported. Lower Cape May Regional officials did not return a call asking about the report.

Egg Harbor Township school transportation staffers have taken extra steps to stay on top of even minor problems, and as a result reduced their failure rate from 73 percent in 2010 to 35 percent in the most recent report. The school district has one of the largest school bus fleets in South Jersey, with 145 buses that travel 1.3 million miles a year, transportation coordinator Warren Fipp said.

Fipp said this year they have enlisted the bus drivers as more active participants. Each day the drivers complete a pre-trip inspection of 52 items that includes looking for interior damage, checking the wheels and tires, windshield wipers, gauges, steering and lights. If they spot anything they mark it on the form and turn it in to mechanic Jim Passarella. If it’s a minor item,Passarella has it fixed before the bus heads out to take students home. A larger issue pulls the bus immediately off the road.

Passarella said he typically gets about 10 reports per day, most typically a light bulb out.

“With so many lights, they’re always going out,” he said. A pile of recent reports included lights out, writing on the seats, and low windshield washer fluid.

Fipp said the new system means smaller problems get fixed more quickly, and their records will show the MVC inspectors that they do ongoing maintenance. He said the district is also buying the latest version of the brake-testing machine the state uses so they can be sure they are replacing brakes within the state requirements.

The district also has a new program to more efficiently stock and track bus parts, including a wall of light bulbs, and a tall, blue car-wash type brush to more quickly clean the sides of the buses.

“The buses are like a poster for Egg Harbor Township schools,” Fipp said. “We try to keep them all clean.”

The inspection results for every school bus inspected by the state are posted on the MVC website at Click on the inspections link, then scroll down to school bus inspections.

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