School Buses Checked for Brake Defects

Sept. 5, 2000 -- As millions of American kids head back to class today, districts are scrambling to complete last-minute inspections of thousands of school buses for possible brake defects.

The Elyria, Ohio-based Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems announced Saturday that a defect with its brake systems could affect as many as 300,000 commercial vehicles, including 46,000 school buses operated by some of the country’s largest school bus builders.

Bendix spokesman Rick Batyko said about 40 drivers reported losing the ability to brake for 3 to 4 seconds when vehicles were moving at less than 20 mph. He pointed out, however, that all Bendix buses have emergency brakes that function at any speed.   It is only under “very rare circumstances” that a school bus brake system would completely fail, he said.

Batyko said Bendix immediately notified the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration of the brake problems and has encouraged manufacturers to issue recalls.“Now, we’re just talking to a lot of school districts about their inspections.” he said.

Sixteen of the 40 incidents were reported in buses, but there have been no injuries associated with the brake system problems.

Bendix says it has sold 300,000 of the anti-lock brake systems, manufactured from March 1998 to last month. About 46,000 are in buses made by International, Blue Bird and Thomas Built.

“We’re certainly trying to react as quickly as possible,” said Debi Nicholson, a spokeswoman for Freightliner Corp., the Portland, Ore.,-based parent company of Thomas Built Buses Inc. “We wanted schools to have an opportunity to inspect their buses before school starts.”

Buses Still Called Safest Transportation

Annually, about 24 million school children ride school buses in the United States.

Jim Vaglia, Director of Transportation for Virginia’s Prince William County Public Schools said he was first made aware of the problem on Friday afternoon.

“We have 117 buses that are in the recall list. We have gone through and inspected 45 of them,” he told ABCNEWS’ Good Morning America. “ He said five buses in his county had a problem similar to the one pointed out by the inspection procedures.”

Vaglia said the problem on the five buses had been corrected and the vehicles were now safe for driving.

Charles Gauthier, Executive Director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, said despite the recall parents should feel comfortable putting their children on the bus this morning.

“School buses are the safest form of highway transportation we have in this country,” he told GMA. “And yes, there is a safety recall. But as we just heard, there’s a process where you can visually inspect and identify buses that may, in fact, have this problem.

“As a parent, I would not worry one bit about putting my children on a yellow school bus. The school bus is 100 times safer than if you take your child to school or allow them to get to school some other way.”

Part to Be Replaced

Bendix has promised to replace the parts, but that will not begin until November, said Ray Tyson, of the National Highway Transit Safety Administration.

Tyson said Bendix and the manufacturers developed a plan to replace the parts starting with school buses first, then transit buses, emergency vehicles and heavy trucks.

The NHTSA accepted the plan because officials believe the brake system is safe enough to operate while vehicles are checked out for the faulty part.

The brake system’s electronic control units can “misinterpret” certain signals from the wheels, resulting in the temporary loss of braking capability “in one or more wheel positions,” Thomas Built wrote in an Aug. 30 letter sent to hundreds of school districts nationwide.

Meanwhile, Freightliner dealerships are prepared to inspect buses 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Nicholson said.

School officials can call Freightliner’s help line — 800-FTL-HELP — to arrange inspections.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.