Hundreds of Hampton Roads school buses missing safety device

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) released details Monday about a safety issue involving thousands of school buses across Virginia.

According to a news release, the VDOE notified the Commonwealth’s 132 school divisions that as many as 4,000 school buses may need retrofitting to install a safety device that prevents the parking brake from accidentally disengaging.

In video provided by the VDOE, Kerry Miller, the Associate Director for Pupil Transportation explains how it works.

“What that feature does is forces the driver to depress the brake pedal on the floor before the parking brake valve can be released,” Miller said.

According to the release, unlike most passenger vehicles with automatic transmissions, school bus transmissions do not have a “park” setting. After stopping the bus, the driver places the bus in neutral, and then pulls the parking brake valve on the dashboard. Without the interlock, the parking brake could accidentally disengage — for example, if a student were to slip and inadvertently fall against the brake valve.

In 2011, the VDOE changed its minimum specifications for school buses and required buses with automatic transmissions purchased after March 24, 2011 to have the brake interlock device.

According to VDOE spokesman Charles Pyle, “VDOE’s pupil transportation office conducts inspections of division pupil transportation operations that include examinations of maintenance and driver records and inspections of school buses randomly selected by our inspector. These inspections do not cover every state Board of Education specification. Associate Director for Pupil Transportation Kerry Miller tested several buses specifically for the brake interlock device this month following a conversation with a school bus dealer that indicated a lack of awareness of the 2011 parking brake interlock specification.”

10 On Your Side compiled this list, showing how many buses in Hampton Roads schools are impacted:

  • Portsmouth: 38
  • Hampton: 41
  • Suffolk: 62
  • Virginia Beach: 88 of 730 buses. There are 41 buses purchased after March 24, 2011, but already have the brake interlock properly installed.
  • Norfolk: 92 of 323 total buses
  • Newport News: 122 of 335 total buses
  • Chesapeake: 152 of 547 total buses

10 On Your Side’s Brandi Cummings asked Pyle why it took six years for the state to realize the buses weren’t in compliance.

“The interlock device is not something a driver or technician is going to see by raising the hood of a school bus or by putting the bus on a lift. It is an internal component that is only found by pulling the dashboard and taking apart the pneumatics of the braking system. Bus drivers are trained never to disengage the parking brake valve unless the brake pedal is depressed. So, a driver would have to go against his or her training to check for the interlock,” he said.

Pyle shared the Board of Education’s regulation on the matter:

8VAC20-70-440. Responsibility for Compliance.
The responsibility for compliance with the school bus and activity vehicle specifications issued by the Department of Education rests with dealers and manufacturers. If any dealer or manufacturer sells school buses or school activity vehicles that do not conform to any or all of the specifications issued by the Department of Education, a general notice will be sent to all school divisions advising that equipment supplied by such dealer or manufacturer will be disapproved for school transportation until further notice. A copy of the notice will be sent to the dealer or manufacturer and will remain in effect until full compliance by the dealer or manufacturer is assured.”

According to the release, school divisions were alerted to the issue earlier this month after VDOE tested individual buses purchased from the leading manufacturers after March 2011 and found that none of the vehicles was equipped with the required parking brake interlock. Dealers provided the department with estimates on the number of noncompliant buses sold to school divisions since the specification was approved by the state board.

“The safety of students is the department’s highest priority and the department will work with school divisions, manufacturers and school bus dealers to make sure that all non-compliant buses are brought into full compliance with the state Board of Education’s equipment specifications as quickly as possible,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples said.

According to the release from VDOE, school divisions report annually on school bus accidents to VDOE’s Office of Support Services. The office is not aware of an incident in which a student or other person was injured by a school bus that inadvertently rolled because of an accidentally disengaged parking brake.

It continues to explain, “VDOE is surveying school divisions to identify all school buses in need of retrofitting. Dealers and manufacturers have been directed to submit plans to the department detailing the steps that will be taken to install brake interlocks on all non-compliant buses at no expense to school divisions. The retrofitting can be done in about 90 minutes by factory or dealer technicians at division pupil transportation facilities. “

“In addition, VDOE is asking all school bus manufacturers doing business in the Commonwealth to make sure that interlock devices have been installed and are working as specified on all new buses delivered to Virginia school divisions,” according to the release.

Pyle told 10 On Your Side, “This issue is not limited to Virginia.  Manufacturers are retrofitting buses in 23 states that adopted the specification following a national recommendation in 2010.”