State school bus inspections uncover range of issues

SEATTLE -- We trust school buses to transport children each day, but we wanted to know just how safe our state`s school buses are.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction just released its report on how many school buses had to be pulled following inspections.

It began with a public disclosure request for these state inspection records, and in some cases the findings were troubling.

Liza Rankin`s first-grader rides the bus every day, and she worries about his safety. Some of the buses that stop to pick up her son concern her.

“The bus that dropped him off looks like maybe it was in use when I was a public school student,” said Rankin. “It seems the buses themselves are pretty inconsistent.”

After looking through hundreds of pages of state inspection records, there were a range of minor problems --like fluid leaks, burned-out lights, and loose items on the bus -- and a number of major problems that could put your child at risk, including emergency escape hatches that don`t work, worn tires and bad brakes.

“The safety of our students, we don`t take that lightly,” said OSPI Regional Director Mike Shahan, adding that each bus gets a full inspection at least once a year.

The Washington State Patrol conducts the inspections.

“We`re ensuring that the vehicles are safe to transport our students,” said WSP Officer Jeff Osberg.

They work through a checkoff list of the most critical items, making sure the stop paddles work, the emergency doors will open, and that the brakes pass their tests.

Q13 FOX News rode along for a very specific test. If a bus can`t stop within 50 feet, it`s a serious problem.

Imagine your child`s school bus not being able to stop in time to avoid a crash. According to Shahan, any bus found with a brake problem is pulled from the road until it’s fixed.

So how many bad brakes did we find in our search of the records?

In the Bethel School District, one bus failed the 50 ft. brake test.  One bus failed an emergency brake test in the Highline District. But inspectors pulled two Tacoma Public School buses, out of their estimated 200, from the road after they couldn`t stop within 50 feet.

Two might not seem like a lot, but we asked Tacoma Public Schools Spokesman Dan Voelpel if he would put his child on those buses.

“I think any time that kids ride the bus, parents are always concerned and probably wonder from time to time whether the buses are being maintained,” said Voelpel.

Durham School Services is contracted to maintain buses for Tacoma. They downplay the test failure, saying the failed tests came down to just a foot. They stopped at 51 feet instead of 50.

“It`s definitely concerning to us,” said Justin Cox with Durham School Services. “It`s not that the brakes failed and weren`t working, the 0 to 50, it`s a standard or a tolerance.”

Seattle Public Schools, home to the largest school bus fleet in the state with more than 400 buses, had some 50 buses with fluid leaks, 9 were written up for front steering issues, and 35 had problems with eight-way paddles.

How important are the eight-way paddles? It`s the only way to warn other drivers to stop so children can safely get on and off the school bus. The district did not return our requests for comment.

However, we did ask Seattle School Bus driver Renita Wright about the findings. In her experience, she says buses that aren`t safe will not go out on the road.

“There are times we are faced with a vehicle that is not safe during our pre-trip process, but once we`re doing our walk through, we get to notice those details, we will automatically down a bus,” said Wright.

But for mom Liza Rankin, any maintenance red flag is a reason to worry as she hands over her most precious cargo every day.

“I would expect the buses to have at least a good record and at least as taken care of my car,” said Rankin. “Everybody`s kid is on those buses and to me part of public education is safe transportation to and from that public education for every kid, and if we`re not providing that-that really needs to be figured out.”

WSP started conducting surprise inspections this month, where investigators will inspect 25 percent of the fleet at random. Those inspections will go through March.