Originally created 09/07/00

Aiken's bus fleet gets OK



COLUMBIA - Within hours after Gov. Jim Hodges grounded all South Carolina school buses that are subject to a national safety recall, pending a brake inspection, all but four were ready to go back on the road.

By 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, mechanics had inspected 52 of the 56 vehicles and found nothing wrong with them. School officials expected to know by today whether the remaining four, all in Charleston County, also were ready to roll.

Of the affected buses, only two were in the Aiken area. Aiken County has one, Edgefield County has the other, and both those buses are safe for children to ride, mechanics said after finding no sign of problems with the anti-lock braking system.

"We're very fortunate that these inspections didn't reveal any problems," said Don Tudor, director of the Education Department's Office of Transportation. "We simply don't have any substitute vehicles available in our fleet."

Thomas Built Buses told state officials that it was recalling the mini-buses that carry pupils who are disabled or have other problems requiring placement in special education classes. The company had started notifying schools last week.

State education officials contacted the company after hearing about the potential brake problems from other sources. It was unclear when the official letter confirming the safety threat arrived, however. The governor's office said it came in Tuesday. The State Department of Education said it arrived Wednesday.

Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum said she ordered mechanics to inspect the 15-passenger mini-buses immediately after she heard about the recall. She also authorized overtime pay for them so inspections would be finished by late Wednesday night.

"We have every confidence that these buses are safe, but obviously we're not going to take any chances where the safety of our children is concerned," Mrs. Tenenbaum said.

The governor said his decision to pull the buses out of service until inspections were done also was swift.

"We take no chances with our children's safety," Mr. Hodges said. "We will take these buses off the road until we are absolutely sure they are safe."

Richmond County also pulled six of its buses Wednesday for inspection. No buses in Columbia County were affected.

Thomas Built, a High Point, N.C., manufacturer, said about 6,000 of its buses made from March 1998 to August 2000 have a possible brake defect. The problem is electric control units that might "misinterpret" signals from the wheel, resulting in temporary loss of braking power in "one or more wheel positions."

When the buses are moving less than 20 mph, they might lose braking ability for up to three seconds, the manufacturer said, noting the concern is with hesitations or brief interruptions in braking operations, not complete brake failure. In June, a San Francisco school bus driver reported similar problems. But none has been reported in South Carolina.

Thomas Built has said repair kits are being made for the mini-buses and will be sent to school systems.

South Carolina is the only state that owns and maintains its own bus fleet. It also is the only state with a 100 percent compliance rate on school bus recalls, according to the Federal Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.