In the aftermath of the late August recall of an electronic-control braking component in some 300,000 school buses, district transportation officials have had to grapple with safety concerns and parental fears.
“Our school bus technicians and drivers are erring on the side of safety,” said John Green, supervisor for the California Department of Education’s Office of School Transportation. “School districts have been very proactive in this area. They are handling the situation well, and no one has panicked.”
Thomas Built, one of the nation’s largest school bus builders, warned that 6,000 of its buses might have the defective brake systems. The same brake systems also are in some International and Blue Bird brand buses, according to industry press releases.
When the vehicles are moving slowly, typically less than 20 miles per hour, they can temporarily lose their braking ability for up to three seconds, said Debi Nicholson, a spokeswoman for Freightliner Corp., the Portland-based parent company of Thomas Built Buses Inc.
The problem was discovered by the brake system’s manufacturer, Bendix of Elyria, Ohio, after a San Francisco school bus experienced a temporary loss of brake capability. The driver was able to stop safely.
No accidents have been linked directly to the brake systems, and Bendix spokesman Rick Batyko said the emergency brake is unaffected by the problem.
Batyko said there have been 40 reported incidents of drivers temporarily losing braking power, but no accidents. It is only under “very rare circumstances” that the brake system would fail completely, he said.
To determine whether your district’s buses are included in the recall, you should ask three questions, a Bendix press release said:
• Does the bus have air brakes?
• Is the bus a 1998 model year or later?
• Does the bus have a Bendix Antilock Braking System (ABS)?
According to company officials, if you answer yes to all these questions, you’re affected by the recall.
The company has sold 300,000 of the same anti-lock brake systems, manufactured from March 1998 to July 2000. About 46,000 of these systems are in buses made by International, Blue Bird, and Thomas Built.
Batyko said Bendix has recommended that all its manufacturers who use the brake system issue recalls.
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.
According to Bendix product line manager Anton Schneider, the problem results from an incorrectly wired electronic control connecting the automatic brake system to a wheel speed sensor. That wire rubs against a rotating part on a wheel end, and the chafing causes the sensor to issue a displaced tone ring, causing a three to four second loss of braking capability at low speeds.
The company said repair kits were being manufactured and would be shipped by November. Meanwhile, Freightliner dealerships are prepared to inspect buses around the clock, Nicholson said.
According to Charles Gauthier of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation, safety recalls such as this one are not uncommon.
“There are probably 20 or 30 recalls a year involving small safety problems,” Gauthier told the Cable News Network.
If Thomas Built and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration thought the problem was a severe safety threat to students, they would have ordered all affected buses to be taken out of service, Gauthier said.
“It’s the smartest decision [parents] could make to put their children in a yellow school bus. By orders of magnitude, it’s a hundred times safer than even driving your children to school,” he said.
Agreed California’s Green, “People should not panic and worry that their kids’ school bus has bad brakes. We have an incredible safety record.”
In a letter from Thomas Built Buses to school districts, company officials offered to repair each bus recalled.
The letter stated, “This defect will be remedied without charge. The repair consists of replacing the ABS ECU (electronic control unit) with a new ECU. The repair will require approximately .5 hours per vehicle.”
“My advice to districts with these types of brake systems is to immediately call the manufacturer and see what kind of action they should take to ensure safety of their buses,” Green added.
Thomas Built Buses Inc.
Blue Bird Corp.
International Truck and Engine Corp.
National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation