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Fuel leaks, bad tires, worn brakes: WRAL investigates NC school bus inspections

August 29, 2018

Fuel leaks, exhaust leaks, bad tires, worn brake lining and an emergency exit taped shut – those are just some of the problems state inspectors found when checking local school systems’ buses in the past year.

Each year, about 14,000 school buses transport approximately 800,000 public school students 181 million route miles in North Carolina. State law requires school systems to inspect buses every 30 days, but once a year, the state comes in to double check maintenance procedures. They also randomly inspect about 10 percent of each district’s bus fleet to determine whether any need to be pulled off the road.

“From our perspective, 10 percent is a good sampling,” said Keith Harrison, transportation chief for the state Department of Public Instruction. “School buses are an exceedingly safe form of transportation.”

Records reviewed by WRAL Investigates show that when the state showed up to the Wake County Public School System recently, 35 of the 80 buses inspected – about 44 percent – were pulled off the road.

Bus 550 had a worn tire and worn brake lining. Bus 1118 had low oil and a fuel leak and the emergency exit was taped shut, though the school system disputed that finding and said there was only a piece of masking tape on the exit window.

Records show Bus 1118 was inspected by the county 20 days earlier. The bus has a type of engine that’s had continuous problems across the state. Earlier this month, the state sent a memo to school systems laying out a plan to replace those engines or provide back-up buses.

Overall, the Wake school system received an inspection score of almost 57, compared with 40 last year and an average of 37 in the eastern district. Lower scores are better in the bus inspection world.

“We’re very meticulous in performing these inspections and we set a very high standard,” Harrison said. “There are hundreds of items in our manual that take a vehicle out of service.”

Based on inspections, some of the issues that led to buses being pulled off the road were not immediate safety dangers, and “could be anything from an aerosol can left on a school bus to a light malfunctioning,” according to Harrison. But Wake County’s bus inspection results were unacceptable to Cary parent Ray Chow.

“As a parent, to learn of something like that it’s actually kind of shocking,” he said. “I think the blocked emergency exit would be one of things that would probably be of high concern for me and of course the fuel leak … It does give us concern for our kids’ safety.”

To fellow Cary parent Winters Hankins, the results were “disturbing.”

“There needs to be some discussion and some action to rectify these issues and prevent them from happening in the future,” Hankins said.

WRAL Investigates reviewed inspections from every school district in the viewing area. While 44 percent of inspected buses were pulled off the road in Wake County, Warren County Schools’ 80 percent and Franklin County Schools’ 73 percent were even worse. The districts’ buses have since been reinspected and showed improvement.

Person County Schools’ 57 percent removal and Wilson County Schools’ 50 percent were the only other counties where at least half their buses were put out of service. Both Chatham and Lee county schools had zero buses pulled off the road. On average, 31 percent of buses in the WRAL viewing area failed inspections, compared to about 3 percent of personal vehicles that fail annual safety inspections.

“In all counties, there is always room for improvement where we can do things better and more efficiently and with safety in mind,” Harrison said.

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