TRANSPORTATION VEHICLE INSPECTIONS
As I shared last week, there were a number of news reports earlier this fall related to bus inspections in the Twin Cities metro area. The reports indicated that some buses in the metro area failed to receive appropriate certification.
After hearing the information, we discussed certification issues with our transportation providers. Certification comes through annual bus inspections intended to assure safe transportation conducted by the Minnesota State Highway Patrol. I will continue our review of information about school transportation vehicles and inspections.
Much of the information comes directly from the manual regarding bus safety and inspections. Federal and state law, along with adopted rules and minimum standards, govern school bus design, manufacture and operation.
According to Minnesota Statute, a school bus is defined as a motor vehicle used to transport pupils to or from a school or to or from school-related activities. A school bus may be type A, type B, type C, or type D, or type III—which we reviewed last week.
According to the manual, inspections of school buses may be scheduled, unscheduled, or done at roadside. All school buses will be inspected on an annual basis by the State Patrol. School bus inspectors shall arrange scheduled annual, inspections with school districts and fleet operators and re-inspections for verifying correction of deficiencies.
Unscheduled or unannounced spot checks of any school bus may be conducted at the location where the bus is kept when not in operation. Unannounced roadside inspections will be conducted on an as needed basis.
Buses will be checked at a location that offers ample parking for buses being inspected. Buses will be empty and directed off the street or highway. Enforcement action will be taken as deemed necessary.
All inspections will be performed in accordance with the state manual. Established criteria should be followed to assure uniform inspections statewide. Deviation from criteria should be only with sufficient cause to do so.
In general, buses will meet the criteria effective on the date of manufacture. This does not prohibit updating older buses to newer standards providing the updating does not lessen the prevailing standard at manufacture. A Type III vehicle that has reached twelve (12) years of age will no longer be inspected nor allowed to be used as a school bus.
Danny Feldhege, at Richmond Bus, had this to share about the inspections. “The book regarding bus inspections is big and quite extensive. It covers every factor of bus safety and has point deductions for minor infractions to major ones.
“We have our inspections” Danny said, “in November every year and the inspectors are here for 2 days. Usually the inspection process is handled with maintenance staff and the inspectors unless they want to look at the driver files.” Voigt Bus has indicated that the inspections there are conducted in May.
“A bus starts with 100 points and they are deducted 2 - 25 points per infraction from there, but some infractions are more critical than others. Things such as a brake adjustment problem on one wheel deducts 25 points and automatically places a bus out of service, as it should, but an emergency door buzzer that's not working also deducts 25 points and does the same thing.
“With that said any bus is put out of service if it has less than 80 points left after an inspection , but most of the time if we have one that is put out of service, it is a simple issue and it is fixed within a half an hour and signed off as safe again.”
EXAMPLES OF INSPECTION ISSUES
Danny offered examples of issues that the bus contractors may experience with inspections. Seat cushions are one catch as they all have different types of latches holding them down and students feet and backpacks under the seat can make them come loose regularly. Each unlatched seat is 2 pts deducted and with 25 - 30 seats per bus, a bus can be out of service quickly but can usually be put back into “service” in 5 minutes.
“The state officers, who are not mechanics, determine what is a safety issue and what isn’t,” Danny explained, “and sometimes, as professional mechanics, we don’t agree with their assessment but ultimately what they say goes.
“For instance a few years back we had an inspector who felt the manufacturer’s brake adjustment code was too lax and even after showing her the service manuals stating the required adjustment for that particular bus was actually in specification. Her reply was ‘well, you should be held to a higher tolerance than the manufacturer states.’
“It should be noted that this is not indicative of all inspectors and we have not seen many bad ones. She has moved on to another job, but the point is, bus inspections are sometimes subjective and that is why we don’t always agree or why a bus might be out of service temporarily.”
Troy Voigt, from Voigt Bus Service, added some other examples. “There is some gray area that can sometimes create some very hard feelings. Like an opinion that a horn cannot be heard loud enough in 200 feet, or a mirror being too loose when they need to be adjustable for the driver etc. We all have to respect the people with badges, but there are some instances where the ridiculous becomes an issue.”
OTHER SAFETY STEPS
Regular maintenance, according to both ROCORI contractors, is a critical part of bus safety. Danny Feldhege noted that Richmond Bus always strive to keep the maintenance aspect of buses a high priority.
Troy Voigt added, “The troopers will tell you that the buses need to be ready for inspection every day they haul passengers and they are right. We have a pretty extensive maintenance program that does keep tabs on our vehicles. The tricky part is that lights burn out, switches go bad, and heaters stop working at any given time. It is very hard to keep things perfect all the time.”
Most of the significant maintenance work is done during the summer. Troy explained, “We also try to do all the heavy work during the summer months when the buses are not in such big demand. That requires us to monitor tire wear, break wear, exhaust and our MN rust while trying to get the bus all the way to summer before changing the parts so we do not waste any wear material on the components. It is tricky, and many times we revert to the safety side and replace early so we do not get points deducted for the vehicles.”
Richmond Bus generally keeps the average bus fleet age low at about 7 years of age. This would be in comparison to the state average of 12 years in 2012. The lower bus age helps retain the newest safety standards for passengers. Also the newer the fleet, the less work the buses need to keep them running safely.
We are very proud of the safety records and efforts of the two ROCORI bus contractors. Richmond and Voigt Bus have excellent records regarding inspections and bus maintenance. Although the media reports highlighted metro area buses, the inspections within the ROCORI School District generally go very well. Keeping school buses updated, well-maintained, and certified for service is a very high priority for our contractors and the ROCORI School District.