Editorial: School bus safety is not optional

Most parents would not willingly entrust their children to a vehicle that was officially deemed unsafe. But across Michigan, between 13 and 15 percent of school buses failed a state police inspection.

Needless to say, that’s unacceptable. Ten percent of buses were red tagged and taken off the road, while 3 to 5 percent were given yellow tags, which means they can be used but the defect must be corrected in 60 days.

State officials stress that overall, Michigan school bus fleets are safe and well managed with about 85 percent passing the inspection. But that 15 percent is troublesome. All buses used to transport children should be safe. The failure rate could be improved with a higher priority placed on preventative maintenance.

The state police inspection examined 15,987 buses serving about 820 public and private school districts. Sgt. Mike McLaughlin, who is in charge of the school bus inspection unit, says the checks were made of all buses that carry students, even those that are owned privately and contract with school districts.

Only about 25 percent of the school systems had all of their buses pass.

“We strive for perfect buses but it’s important to realize buses sometimes break down,” McLaughlin says. “It takes a full commitment by everyone involved – from the drivers and technicians to the supervisors and superintendents.”

The Macomb Intermediate School District is one of the fleet operators that had all its buses pass inspection. The district uses 166 buses to transport special education students. Deputy Superintendent Don Bollinger credits teamwork at the transportation garage and the dedication of the mechanics to put a priority on the maintenance plan. This includes mechanics coming in at 4 a.m. on bad weather days and staying late at night to repair buses. Also, the district does its own examinations and periodic updates on all buses.

“You can’t just put them on the road,” he says. “Money is always a challenge but when it comes to safety, we put students first.”

The Detroit Public Schools had 12 yellow tag and 20 red tag buses, not a bad performance considering it has 440 buses in operation. Districts that contract with private carriers have a particular challenge in assuring bus safety. Penalties should be written into contracts to assure the companies take safety seriously.

Safety is not an option when it comes to children. Certainly districts are struggling with financial issues. But bus repairs are not a place to skimp.

The goal of every district should be to reach a 100 percent bus safety rating.