One in ten school buses in some communities are being taken off the road for safety problems spotted during mostly routine inspections, a review of state inspection records show, leading one expert to question whether stricter standards need to be in place to keep kids safe.
"I've seen defects in there that have to do with lights, steering, suspension, brakes, tires," said retired Massachusetts State Police Trooper David Eures, who spent most of his career with the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Section and who reviewed hundreds of inspection records for FOX Undercover
"Those things could put our kids at risk?" asked FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet.
"Absolutely," Eures replied. "That's just common sense."
Every school bus in the state is inspected at least three times a year by the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and FOX Undercover obtained every inspection since 2010: 54,892 inspections in all, 1,260 of which led to a bus being taken out of service, a designation even more serious in the inspection lingo than a bus that fails. An out of service bus cannot be driven, even without children in it, until the bus is fixed.
One of the communities that saw the highest rate of buses taken out of service was Wareham, where school committee Chairman Geoff Swett acknowledged, "We have a lot of old buses with a lot of miles on them."
In all, 15-percent of Wareham bus inspections resulted in a bus being taken out of service, or 49 out of 333 inspections, since 2010. Inspectors found buses with leaking diesel fuel, a burst brake line, multiple exhaust leaks, no brake lights and other problems, records show.
Swett maintained that the buses are "absolutely safe" but "they're costing more and more to maintain."
Wareham is so strapped for cash that any money spent on new buses would have to come from other parts of the school budget, Swett said.
"That's not much of choice when you know that to buy a new bus you have to lay off a teacher or three teachers," he said.
Buses in the Bridgewater-Raynham Regional School District face a similar problem, where 10 percent of inspections resulted in an out of service finding for problems involving shocks, brakes and air leaks, records show.
Superintendent Jacqueline B. Forbes tells FOX Undercover, "We've never had an incident where we've had an unsafe bus on the road."
In Quincy, 10-percent of inspections resulted in a bus being taken out of service including one bus with what an inspector wrote was a "major oil leak" that was causing "smoking."
A statement from the district said in part, "Quincy Public Schools is dedicated to the safety and security of all of our students and we work closely with the Registry of Motor Vehicles to ensure that our vehicles are maintained at the highest standards possible."
When he was on the State Police truck team helping oversee the heavily-regulated commercial trucking industry, Eures says regulators would look for the root cause of systemic problems.
"There's a human factor involved here," Eures said. "We need to get away from the buses. We need get into the building. We need find that office door that has president on it, and we need to inform the president that they are going to be subjected to a comprehensive safety audit."
Safety audits are done in the trucking industry, where repeated problems can also lead to fines and other sanctions, even a company being shut down. But that doesn't happen with school buses. The Registry tells FOX Undercover the most serious step they've taken in the past two years has been to have face-to-face meetings with districts and bus companies repeatedly failing inspections.
"It doesn't seem like there are really any consequences?" Beaudet asked Eures.
"If there are no consequences, to me this inspection program is nothing more than a taxpayer-funded preventative maintenance program," he replied.
Massachusetts Registrar of Motor Vehicles Rachel Kaprielian disagrees.
"I think when you have an inspection process that happens three times a year, that's fairly comprehensive on any vehicle. And if we see a pattern of fail fail fail fail fail, then we up that conversation," Kaprielian said.
"Schools tell us they don't let unsafe buses on the road, but your inspectors have found serious problems," Beaudet said.
"Yes, and we take if off the road and they have to go fix them," Kaprielian replied. "And usually it's not a major mechanical issue."
"These were buses that were on road before inspection. Are kids being put at risk?" Beaudet asked.
"Whenever we find any violation we act immediately," Kaprielian replied.
Kaprielian added it would be up to the Legislature to give the Registry the power to sanction school bus companies similar to how the trucking industry is regulated.
Eures wonders whether it's time to put more teeth in school bus inspections.
"We should hold them to at least the standard that we do the trucking industry. They're transporting general freight. Over here in the school bus, we're transporting precious cargo, school children. In my opinion we should even be holding them to a higher standard," Eures said.