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How Safe Are New Jersey School Buses?

Four in 10 school buses in New Jersey failed initial inspections, according to an analysis of 22 months of New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission records. Nearly 6,000 inspections led to buses being taken off the road.

Bus #151 had collected 28 Edison, N.J., students bound for John Adams Middle School by the time the driver realized they were in danger.

As she approached a stop sign to turn, Bienvenid Almonte later wrote in her report, “the bus accelerated and lost all brakes.” In a split-second, she veered off of Rahway Road and onto a vacant lot, hoping to lose as much momentum as she could before the bus careened into the side of a house.

It was a parent’s worst nightmare.

Miraculously, most on board were OK, but two students were sent to the hospital with minor injuries following the October 2023 crash. Police credited the actions of the quick-thinking driver. The rest of the kids continued to school, where a child psychologist and emotional support dog were there to comfort them.

The exact cause of the crash is undetermined, though an inspection later found the brake system damaged and leaking fluid. The bus company was cited for failing to keep safety records showing whether it maintained the brakes as required by state law, documents obtained by NJ Advance Media show.

Children are the most precious cargo on the road, and in New Jersey, six out of every 10 students take the bus to school each day.

To get them there safely, school districts rely on a patchwork of public and privately owned bus operators at a taxpayer cost of nearly $1.2 billion a year, according to a 2019 report from the Garden State Initiative.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says school buses are “statistically the safest vehicle on the road,” even safer than driving them yourself.

But a mechanical error or the wrong decision by a driver can imperil the lives of dozens of kids at once, so New Jersey has strict rules for who can become a bus driver and how often buses are inspected and maintained.

Just like a pump at a gas station or a meat slicer on a deli counter, New Jersey regulates buses with a mix of in-person inspections and laws requiring the people running the machines perform their own maintenance.

So how safe are New Jersey’s buses?

To find out, NJ Advance Media obtained 22 months of records representing over 112,000 inspections from January 2022 through October 2023 from the state Motor Vehicle Commission, creating a first-of-its-kind database of safety inspections.

The state MVC has an online lookup tool where parents can get a “report card” for their kids’ bus, but has never before made raw inspection data available for public inspection. Through a series of public records requests, NJ Advance Media obtained data allowing parents to see how their bus compares to others.

Then we talked to bus operators, inspectors, safety experts, school officials and parents to find out how New Jersey’s bus oversight system works — and what happens when it falters.

What The Analysis Found:

  • More than four in 10 buses failed initial inspections, accounting for over 24,000 buses that operate in the state. If that sounds high, MVC officials say it’s because they scour every vehicle, typically flagging minor issues that are addressed the same day. But experts say it could also be a sign bus operators are relying on the inspection process to flag issues they should be catching themselves.
  • Nearly 6,000 inspections led to buses being taken off the road because they were unsafe for students. In those cases, faulty seat belts, a malfunctioning crossing control arm or engine trouble found by inspectors sidelined the vehicles.
  • Privately owned school buses, which account for nearly two thirds of overall inspections, failed more often than public buses, with an initial failure rate of 46 percent out of 53,535 total inspections. By comparison, public school buses failed 40 percent out of the 23,531 initial inspections. Some experts said such high fail rates raise questions about internal checks by commercial bus companies, but private bus operators counter they are subjected to more scrutiny by the state.
  • State law requires bus companies to check their own buses regularly and keep detailed records, but enforcement of those laws fell off during the coronavirus pandemic. From 2003 to 2023, the MVC issued over 2,100 summonses for not maintaining inspection records, with a record high of 409 in 2008. Last year, the agency issued just seven — five of which went to a bus company only after one of its buses crashed into a house.
  • Experts say surprise inspections are one of the most effective ways to catch bad operators, but they make up a small fraction of overall inspections. A bill before the state Legislature would increase surprise inspections to at least once a year for every bus operator, but has yet to get a hearing.

“The stakes are high,” said Andrew Samuel, professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore’s Sellinger School of Business, who specializes in inspecting the inspectors.

He pointed to the recent example of Boeing, the airplane manufacturer now accused of cutting corners at the expense of safety after several mid-flight malfunctions. Like school buses, airplanes are a largely safe way to travel but depend on vigorous oversight and routine maintenance to stay that way.

‘Ticky-Tack Failures’

The wheels on the bus are subject to intense scrutiny.

Twice a year, MVC inspectors wearing black jumpsuits descend upon local garages and bus depots to check tire pressure, test seatbelts and take a look under the hood.

“They’re inspecting anything that looks wrong,” said Joseph Spinelli, the MVC’s bus inspection manager.

This is more involved than the quick physical your own car gets every other year. School buses in New Jersey are examined every six months by MVC inspectors, who come with a checklist of more than 180 items.

When NJ Advance Media visited a bus depot during one such inspection in Medford Township, a five-member team of inspectors fanned out over different parts of each bus, looking for issues. One popped a hood, inspecting the engine. Another laid on a “creeper” — the small cart resembling a skateboard mechanics use — using a flashlight to examine the undercarriage.

One inspector walked up and down the bus testing seat belts and checking lights, while a fourth took a separate bus for a spin out to test the brakes, accelerating and stopping to make sure they worked.

On average, four in 10 bus inspections failed inspection the first time through for everything from issues with the bus’s lettering to key safety issues like malfunctioning crossing arms, the devices that keep school kids from walking into a driver’s blind spot , according to NJ Advance Media’s analysis of MVC data.

“It’s very easy to fail,” Spinelli said.

That’s by design, according to the MVC, which says New Jersey’s 44 percent initial failure rate is a product of tough oversight.

Bill McClaran has been the head mechanic at Medford Township Board of Education for nearly 10 years. He also occasionally oversees the Tabernacle Board of Education school buses and so has overseen nearly 20 to 30 inspections in his career of fixing school buses.

“We take pride in what we do,” McClaran said. “We want our kids to be safe. We want all of our drivers to be safe.”

But even McClaran can get flagged for “ticky-tack-failures.”

Small issues, like a light bulb that goes out. A seatbelt buried between seat cushions. A missing screw.

“Up top, there’s hundreds of screws. One screw missing can go in as a failure,” McClaran explained.

“We’ll rectify the situation. It’s a very rare occasion that we come across something where it can’t be repaired in that timeframe.”

While inspectors are at work, a mechanic with the bus company is typically on standby, ready to fix any issues they point out. That’s why most buses get fixed within the same day they fail and pass on a second inspection the same day.

Some bus operators say that’s also why the inspection data obtained by NJ Advance Media for this story could be misleading, because initial failures may range from serious issues with the vehicle to those “ticky-tack failures” like a misplaced window decal.

Dan Jauch, president of the New Jersey School Bus Contractors Association, said he had a whole fleet of his own buses fail a recent inspection because each bus had an incorrect decal that needed replacing. The state data doesn’t differentiate between “ticky-tack” failures and serious safety concerns when calculating the initial failure rate, making the figure seem more “concerning” than it is, Jauch said.

“If I don’t know anything about school buses and the inspection process, that’s a red flag,” he said.

Bigger issues take longer to fix, and the MVC has different tiers for failures. Minor issues get a 30-day warning sticker, but the bus is still drivable.

For more serious concerns, there’s the dreaded “out of service” result. That includes engine trouble, a busted axle — anything that would “make it unsafe to operate, period,” Spinelli said.

One bus had a busted axle, body damage and 27 other issues, making it the worst in the database. Bus 2012, owned by Durham Services, was inspected in June 2022, a month after it was in a serious accident, records obtained by NJ Advance Media showed.

A month earlier, the bus collided with another school bus in a four-vehicle crash in Howell. Photos from the scene showed the bus missing most of its front end.

According to Edward Flavin, a spokesperson for National Express, the company that owns Durham Services, the bus was not put back in service and was subject to a routine inspection because it “was due for inspection in June, but the state’s records had not yet been updated to indicate that the asset was out of service and would not be able to be returned to the road at any point after the incident.”

What’s Driving Failures?

Overall, privately owned buses tend to fail at a higher rate than public buses do — about 46 percent compared to about 40 percent.

In many New Jersey communities, school buses are operated by a local or regional school district. But many more districts contract with private companies for bussing, often favoring those who submit the lowest bids for service.

As part of our reporting, NJ Advance Media contacted 30 bus operators, both private and public, with a range of failure and passage rates. Many either declined to comment or did not return messages, but some spoke candidly, saying they struggled to afford new vehicles, or complaining about unfair treatment by state inspectors.

Kristopher Soto, the transportation director for the Jackson School District (initial failure rate: 71 percent), said he faces a dilemma common to publicly run bus fleets: how to pay for new buses.

Soto said the average age of his district’s buses is 13 years — just two years shy of the state-mandated 15-year lifespan of a school bus — making it harder to maintain the fleet.

Some districts have lost millions in funding in the past six years, impacting their transit budget.

Some districts have lost millions in funding in recent years — Jackson alone saw over $16.5 million in cuts since 2018, state data shows — and Soto said freezes to school transportation funding has “impacted the district’s bus replacement schedule.”

“The longer a bus is in service, the more work it is going to need,” he said.

Jauch, whose organization represents about 60 private school bus operators, said his members amount to the “cream of the crop” of private contractors: companies with established reputations that not only favor current oversight of bus companies, but welcome more.

“From a good, responsible operator standpoint, we like them,” Jauch said of state inspections.

The problem, Jauch said, is that New Jersey is a “low-bid state,” meaning public contracts are often awarded based primarily on which company out of more than 700 across the state are willing to do the job at the lowest cost. The result, he argued, is contracts going to companies that cut corners.

“You know, submitting a low bid — a number on a piece of paper — does not qualify you to transport students,” he said. “That’s our position. So we want more checks and balances.”

In recent years, spurred in part by a 2020 Asbury Park Press investigation, New Jersey lawmakers have passed a raft of reforms aimed at keeping bad operators out of the business of school busing. Those measures followed several headline-grabbing incidents, including an unlicensed driver who crashed a Newark school bus while overdosing on heroin in 2019 with 11 special needs children on board.

The bus company in that case, Essex County-based F&A Transportation, was later criminally charged after a probe into the crash found the company lied to school districts about the qualifications of its drivers and the condition of its buses.

Owner Ahmed Mahgoub, 65, of East Hanover, pleaded guilty to making false representations for a government contract. F&A, which also did business as Smart Union, Inc., and Unity Transportation, Inc., had $3.5 million in contracts with public school districts in Essex, Passaic, Morris and Union counties between 2015 and 2020, according to state prosecutors.

An attorney for Mahgoub, who faces up to five years in prison, did not return messages seeking comment.

Records from that case obtained by NJ Advance Media shine a light on how some bus companies still skirt bus maintenance standards and flout legally mandated self-inspections. New Jersey requires school bus operators to self-inspect buses every 45 days and record their findings. These inspections run largely on the honor system and are not publicly available, but if MVC inspectors request them, bus companies have to turn them over.

State investigators say F&A Transportation employees “falsified vehicle inspection forms” to attest they conducted self-inspections that never actually occurred. The probe also found F&A management “misrepresented their buses as being in working condition, when they were not, and they forged, reused, or otherwise falsified inspections reports.”

The MVC previously issued many citations a year for bus companies failing to maintain records, doling out more than 2,100 between 2003 and 2023, data obtained by NJ Advance Media shows.

The annual rate of summonses peaked at 409 in 2008, but had been slowly declining when many government functions ground to a halt during the 2020 global pandemic. In the years since, it has barely recovered.

Just three bus companies received summonses last year — two of them after serious crashes already occurred.

The Element of Surprise

The inspectors on the bus mostly go round and round on a set schedule.

New Jersey currently performs more than 40,000 bus inspections every year, but fewer than a thousand are conducted by surprise, according to a 2020 Asbury Park Press investigation.

Experts say surprise inspections are the most effective way to catch rogue operators failing to maintain school buses. But they aren’t required by law.

In response to questions sent by NJ Advance Media, the MVC said its inspection program “is primarily geared towards conducting two in-terminal inspections for each school bus annually, as required by statute.”

“While unannounced inspections are not required by New Jersey law, the MVC Bus Inspection Unit teams continue to conduct unannounced school bus inspections for public safety reasons,” the statement said.

When state lawmakers took a close look at school bus oversight in 2020, they considered legislation that would ramp up surprise inspections considerably.

But ultimately, the measure was not among the reforms signed by Gov. Phil Murphy and died during the last legislative session. A new version, introduced earlier this year, has not yet received a hearing.

Samuel, the professor who examined the data at NJ Advance Media’s request, said he couldn’t draw hard conclusions about why the failure rate was so high. The data provided by MVC represents only a 20-month snapshot of oversight records and does not explain the issues in detail.

He suggests that the MVC should perform random bus inspections and then use the results to compare that to data from scheduled inspections. Then, the MVC would know if bus companies are taking routine maintenance more seriously, or simply waiting until inspectors are scheduled to visit.

Matthew Makofske, an associate professor of economics at Colgate University, said if 44 percent of those inspections are still resulting in initial failures, minor or not, that could mean operators aren’t catching enough problems on their own.

“It sounds like there’s a tendency for some school bus operators to essentially wait until inspection time to fix things that they might otherwise fix sooner,” he said.

The State Police performs several hundred more at transportation hotspots around New Jersey, a review of state records shows.

Troopers from the Transportation Safety Bureau snag bus operators on the job at popular field trip destinations including the Camden Aquarium, Liberty Science Center or Six Flags Great Adventure, a State Police spokesman said.

The division has done between 400 and more than 800 such inspections per year in recent years, according to a State Police spokesman.

Proponents of more surprise inspections say they’re more likely to catch problems because operators are caught by — you guessed it — surprise.

One such inspection in 2019 found nine school bus drivers dropping off students with special needs at a school in Nutley “either did not have proper driver’s licenses or documentation,” according to state Sen. Patrick Diegnan, one of the main sponsors of the surprise inspection bill.

Makofske said upping random inspections wouldn’t change the annual inspection burden considerably.

“They’re already conducting two inspections each year for every operator and this is simply mandating that one of them be a surprise inspection and be unscheduled,” Makofske said.

A surprise inspection may have caught the brake failure that led to the Edison bus crash, but there’s no way to know for sure. Edison police completed a report of the crash, citing brake failure, but did not investigate further.

The MVC soon took over the investigation, finding in a report obtained by NJ Advance Media that the bus’s brake system had failed and was leaking brake fluid. It wasn’t clear from the records, however, whether the damage to the brakes was a result of the crash rather than a cause of it.

That’s partly because the bus’ owner, Joy Transport LLC, never kept records required under state law.

When inspectors asked Joy Transport to turn over maintenance records and brake purchase receipts, the company could not provide them, the records show. The MVC issued five summonses to Joy Transport for not maintaining legally required documentation,

“They didn’t do the work,” said Carl Berkowtiz, an expert on transportation and traffic safety who reviewed the records at NJ Advance Media’s request.

“That’s why they don’t have the documents,” he said. “From reading this report, it seems like they don’t have any record that the brake system was ever maintained.”

Joy Transport (initial failure rate: 29 percent) declined to comment for this story. Almonte, the driver police credited with acting to prevent further harm to the students on board, could not be reached despite multiple messages and phone calls seeking comment.

Jauch, the private bus operator association president, said his organization had no objections to increasing random inspections if it means preventing more crashes and weeding out less reputable bus companies.

“Those irresponsible operators transporting students when they should clearly not be, you see the news headlines, we want them gone,” he said. “We want them shut down, period.”

A note about the data: NJ Advance Media analyzed 112,596 inspection records obtained through multiple OPRA requests. We attempted to standardize the data but can’t account for all discrepancies. For example, over 200 buses had issues related to Abigail’s Law, a measure passed in 2016 requiring buses to be equipped with front and rear sensors. But spelling for Abigail’s Law, which is named for a toddler who was struck and killed by a school bus in 2003, may vary based on how the inspector recorded it.

©2024 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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