Broken Buses: A Statewide Problem

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Bob Segall/13 Investigates

13 Investigates discovered major safety problems in school buses across Indiana, and experts say those problems could put thousands of children at risk every day.

Chances are you have never looked under your child's school bus. But a longtime bus mechanic says you should.

"It's to the point where I really wouldn't let my kids ride a school bus, it's just that bad," he told WTHR.

The master-certified mechanic has inspected hundreds of Indiana school buses. WTHR has agreed not to show his identity because he fears he could lose his job for speaking to the media. In an exclusive interview with 13 Investigates, he speaks out about neglected maintenance on school buses because he fears a child will be injured -- or even worse.  

"All you have is rolling caskets basically, as far as I'm concerned, because it's going to happen sooner or later," he said.

"That's going to freak out a whole lot of parents," pointed out WTHR. "Isn't that over-reacting?"

"Seeing what I see, it's not over-reacting to me," the mechanic reponded. "It's just so bad, you need to inspect the fleet on your own."

So that's exactly what WTHR did.

13 Investigates started the project two months ago at the First Student bus lot in Indianapolis.

There we discovered the state's largest school bus contractor had massive safety problems under its buses involving brakes, transmissions and shocks.

Indiana State Police motor carrier inspectors stepped in and ordered some of the First Student buses be taken off the road until they were fixed.

But the project didn't stop there. In fact, it was just beginning.

Over the past eight weeks, 13 Investigates has looked at nearly 300 school buses from dozens of school districts across Indiana. The buses were all on open lots, with thier doors wide open and most had keys right in the ignition.

At some school districts, we found buses in excellent condition. At others, we discovered school buses with serious safety violations.

Some of those violations include:

Balding, cracked or severely worn tires on some buses used by Brown County and Pike County schools

Broken or missing safety equipment (such as snapped crossing-arms and mising seat-belt cutters) on buses in the Western Schools Corporation and South Montgomery Schools Corporation

Large holes in rusted-out exhaust pipes on school buses in the Decatur County and Turkey Run school districts. The holes in the exhaust systems violate state law because they can allow dangerous carbon monoxide gas inside the bus. 

Leaking oil, transmission fluid, steering fluid, brake fluid and other fluids flowing from the undercarriage of school buses in Edinburgh, Yorktown, Daleville, Anderson, Lizton, Muncie and Petersburg

"That can be really dangerous because it'll burn. It can catch on fire," said Dave Willard, president of M&M Bus Company in Muncie.

While his fleet of buses appeared to be in very good condition during WTHR's recent spot check, Willard said his staff was not aware of a major tranmission fluid leak on bus #19 until it was discovered by 13 Investigates.

"Anything that's dripping, it's not allowed," he said. "I'll have the guys take care of it right away. Safety is everything. When you're dealing with children, it's everything."

WTHR also discovered a leak that suprised the chief school bus mechanic at the Pike County School Corporation.

"I didn't see that one," said Bill Knight, who keeps seventeen buses rolling in the southern Indiana town of Petersburg.

The oil leak on bus #5 coated brakes, shocks and just about everything under the bus.

"It'll be a big job but we'll get it in," Knight said, adding that the school bus had just returned from taking students to St. Louis and Evansville.

While 13 Investigates found many safety issues under buses, perhaps our most surprising discoveries came when we climbed inside.

One of the problems involves seats.

Every seat on a school bus is a safety device. Because most buses have no seatbelts, it's actually the seats and their padding that are designed to protect students in a crash. 

But in some school buses across the state, the padding is too worn to be effective. In fact, in some buses we inspected, padding had been removed through large holes in the seat covers, and in others, a steel frame under the seat could be felt easily due to a lack of padding -- too little padding to protect a student from a possible head injury during a crash.

WTHR also found deficiencies in first aid kits that are required on all buses. We discovered missing or outdated medical supplies in 80 percent of the buses we checked. Bee sting kits on many of the buses had expired ten years ago.

And school districts such as Tipton, Westfield, South Putnam County and Southwest Sullivan County had emergency exit windows on some of their buses that were either difficult or impossible to open.

See school bus inspection reports for all Indiana schools.

Last month, when a school bus flipped over in Decatur Township, the young children inside were rescued through emergency exit windows.

Such a rescue would not have been possible through some of the broken emergency exit windows discovered by 13 Investigates.

"That's something you have to address very quickly," said Westfield's chief bus mechanic, Chuck Abel. "That's a safety item, and you can't let something like that go."

Keep in mind, WTHR inspected about 300 school buses during our investigation. There are nearly 17,000 school buses in Indiana, and those school buses transport hundreds of thousands of students every day.

If you'd like to know more about your child's school bus, 13 Investigates wants to help.

WTHR is gathering inspection records on nearly every Indiana school bus and Monday night, we're turning them all over to you.

For the first time, you'll get to see inspection reports for your school district. 13 Investigates will also show you which school districts had more than 80 percent of their buses rejected or ordered "out of service" during this year's state inspections.

That part of the story is coming up Monday night at 11:00 when 13 Investigates' Broken Buses continues.

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