I observed sharks feeding in bloody waters early last month. No, these beasts weren’t lurking off the coast of New Jersey, my home state. They were TV and newspaper reporters slavering over news of “unsafe school buses.” It’s a tried-and-true hook. Gets ’em every time. Think about it. Tens of thousands of school buses with defective brake systems. Millions of parents must have leaned a little closer to the TV or, if the remote was within arm’s length, flicked the volume control up a couple of notches. Dad hears the news first and calls to his wife: “Tammy, come quick! Jimmy’s riding a bus with no brakes. Better call the principal.” Can’t blame the parents though. School bus recalls for defective brakes are scary. The first image that comes to mind is a packed school bus plunging off a steep road and doing cartwheels down the side of a mountain. Or, in the city, an equally packed bus rolling helplessly through a red light and being T-boned by a tractor-trailer rig traveling at 45 mph. These are horrific scenarios that no parent — or school transportation professional — wants to seriously consider, not even for a moment.
Were the dangers real?
Of course, the dangers presented by the defective electronic control unit of the Bendix anti-lock brake system on some 46,000 buses were less dramatic than represented in the media. First, thousands of buses with the defective ABS system have been on the road for more than two years without any attributable accidents or injuries. Next, a loss of braking power could only occur if other conditions arise, such as chaffed sensor wires or a displaced tone ring. According to Bendix, far less than 1 percent (.035 percent) of buses equipped with the faulty electronic control unit have reported unexpected ABS activity. (This unwanted ABS activation can occur only at low speeds, generally less than 15 to 20 mph.) The potential for a serious incident was so remote that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did not recommend that the affected buses be taken out of service. Bus manufacturers recommended that the buses be thoroughly inspected (either by a qualified school bus mechanic or by a dealer or factory representative) for chaffed or improperly secured sensor wires and loose tone rings, but did not advise its customers to park their vehicles.
Buses were safe to run
This is important. A truly dangerous situation would have merited immediate suspension of service until an inspection could be performed or until the defective part was replaced. There’s no moral to this story. The media’s coverage of Bendix’s defective brake systems was perhaps misleading, but, in most cases, not inaccurate, or at least not intentionally inaccurate. In some cases, bus managers first learned of the problem through media reports. This heads-up gave them a chance to gather more information from dealers and factory reps. To their credit, many school bus managers and mechanics cut short their Labor Day holiday and spent Monday inspecting the affected vehicles in their fleet. The inspections gave them some peace of mind, just hours before a real feeding frenzy began — the start of the school year.
SBF Publisher Frank Di Giacomo can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.