Charlotte fire prompts additional school bus inspections

On Feb. 8, a fire on board Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bus No. 295 received national attention after video of the incident made its way online. Thanks to the quick reaction of the driver, all six students who were on the bus were safely evacuated without injury. The fire occurred in spite of a rigorous inspection system in place in the state. N.C. General Statute 115C-248(a) dictates … each school bus owned or operated …  be inspected at least once each 30 days during the school year for mechanical defects, or other defects which may affect the safe operation of such bus.“

The initial inquiry into the Feb. 8 fire suggests that a worn wire covering next to the metal heater shutoff valve was at fault. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) has since directed all 115 school districts in the state to perform special inspections of buses to help prevent similar incidents. These special inspections specifically focus on wiring that may be worn or could come in direct contact with parts of the engine. Directives for special inspections are often initiated following such incidents as the one on Feb. 8. This additional review occurs within a rigorous school bus inspection schedule already mandated throughout the state.

Each N.C. school bus undergoes a 46-point inspection once every 30 days, and 10 percent of the entire fleet is personally inspected by NCDPI consultants at least once per year. With approximately 13,700 buses transporting students to and from school, and each bus being inspected once every 30 calendar days or roughly nine times per school year, the total number of school bus inspections occurring this year is estimated at 123,300, or 685 per school day for the entire state. For CMS, which operates nearly 1,000 buses, the rate of inspection is around 9,000 per year, or 50 buses per school day, in order to meet the 30-day mandate.

School bus inspection requirements and guidelines last changed in the summer of 2010 in response to the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles (NCDMV) discontinuing annual school bus inspections by licensed NCDMV staff. NCDPI created new certification requirements for public school bus inspectors in collaboration with a statewide team of school transportation officials. Each school bus inspector certified by NCDPI must be thoroughly familiar with the N.C. Fleet Manual’s 30-Day Inspection Section, successfully pass a comprehensive written assessment on the information contained within the manual, as well as attend annual service trainings and refresher courses offered statewide by NCDPI personnel. Bus inspectors are also subject to random, unannounced hands-on testing by NCDPI personnel where certified inspectors must demonstrate the correct performance of a 30-day inspection as well as properly demonstrate a brake stroke measurement. 

Since adopting the new certification requirements in June 2010, the State of North Carolina has certified 918 bus inspectors across the state. N.C. bus inspectors traditionally rank among the best in the nation, having taken the top prize at three of the previous eight bus inspection competitions hosted by the National Association for Pupil Transportation.

Kevin Hart

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