While looking under the hood of a 2006 Richmond County school bus last July, state inspector Matt Kelly found exhaust leaking from a loose flex pipe.
Below the engine, the tread of a tire had faded into the grooves.
Inside, all emergency window buzzers were broken.
Kelly immediately pulled the 8-year-old Blue Bird from service until district mechanics corrected the violations, but those problems are not the only ones documented in state inspection reports filed in 2013 for the system’s fleet.
An analysis of the reports by The Augusta Chronicle found that 25 percent of the county’s 216 school buses were declared unfit to carry students last year.
Of the system’s 54 “out-of-service” buses, 14 had multiple violations that were seen as major. In all, only 73 Richmond County school buses were problem-free. The remaining 89 had minor defects, such as sagging seat cushions, bad cabin lighting, worn wiper blades and low fire extinguishers.
As Kelly completed his second year of annual inspections in Richmond County last week, he said bus quality has “greatly improved” from 2013. School transportation officials say all violations are corrected before any of the fleet is approved to run routes.
They praised the inspection process as a valuable tool in preventing major problems during the school year, when the district is transporting 22,000 students.
“The rule of thumb is to be ready to go by the first day of school,” Marion Myers, Richmond County’s school bus fleet supervisor, said of annual inspections, which traditionally occur in mid- to late July. “Any bus that is not repaired, doesn’t run. It’s that simple.”
With a local mechanic shadowing him to document and plan needed repairs, Kelly spends about 10 minutes inspecting each bus in the school system’s transportation garage on Mike Padgett Highway.
He starts at the front, checking headlights, turn signals, wipers, horns, safety crossings and stop signs, then goes under the hood to examine air-brake systems, power steering, fuel lines and exhaust pipes.
After that, he gets on a skateboard-looking device known as a “creeper” and slides under the engine to the rear of the bus to further check steering components and exhaust lines. He also confirms suspension and shocks are in working order, and that body-mounting clips are securely fastened to the frame.
At that point, he has the driver pump the air brakes eight to 10 times until fully charged to make sure the system has a strong enough stopping stroke and a working warning system if air pressure gets too low.
Finally, he goes inside and checks the fire extinguisher, opens safety hatches, sounds all emergency exit buzzers, and pats the seat cushions and backrests to verify they have the right thickness and no exposed metal.
“It’s very thorough,” Myers said of the process. “If there’s something wrong with the bus, he’ll find it. I guarantee it.”
Among major violations reported in 2013, more than half involved brake problems. Tanks were leaking air, hoses were chafing, drums and lines were loose or contaminated, warning systems were not activating properly, and push rods were reaching their limits to make rapid application of the brakes possible.
Other significant findings included a rear escape window being bolted shut and strobe lights not sufficiently illuminating buses.
“They have improved greatly” since last year, said Kelly, a motor carrier officer with the Georgia Department of Public Safety.
After four years of performing state inspections on heavy-duty commercial trucks in Georgia, Kelly was transferred to school buses 18 months ago. He covers 20 counties in east Georgia and was introduced to Richmond County fleet mechanics in July 2013. In Georgia, a 112-page manual spells out what specifications all school buses must meet. It covers all bus sizes and outlines guidelines for 65 sets of equipment on each vehicle’s body and engine. The requirements were adopted by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, Society of Automotive Engineers and the American Society for Testing and Materials.
“It’s all standardized,” said Kelly, who added all buses must also meet manufacturer specifications. “It has to be. We are transporting the most precious commodity on the road.”
Myers said most problems identified by Kelly, who also does random inspections throughout the year, are fixed immediately.
If a deficiency is found, Myers writes up the defect on a pink slip and gives it to a foreman, who notifies a mechanic to fix the problem. When one of the 160 route buses is out of service, Myers said a spare takes its place until repairs are made.
“While there’s no such thing as a perfect fleet, we have checks and balances in place that work well to ensure we address any problems that come up,” Myers said. “It’s a good process, and we improve every year.”