By andrei Blakely and Lori Silverstein
A statewide inspection of 590 school buses with potentially defective braking systems uncovered six buses with faulty wiring this week, but all were immediately fixed and are back on the road.
Transportation officials in all 24 jurisdictions said Friday that the buses are safe for now, but that they will continue to monitor the vehicles.
“This is a continuing story. There are things we have to do in the future,” said Winship Wheatley, supervisor of transportation for Anne Arundel County Schools, “This won’t be dropped now. We’re going to keep a careful look at it.”
The review was ordered Tuesday by State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, after the state received a notice from a bus manufacturer, Thomas Built, about potentially defective Bendix equipment on buses with air brakes.
The Bendix anti-lock braking system electronic control units were implicated in 40 incidents involving trucks and buses over a 60-day period. Bendix traced the problem to sensors in the electronic control unit and wires, connecting the unit to the wheels, that could chafe and misread signals, causing a brief loss in braking power.
The problem occurred while decelerating at slow speeds, possibly extending stopping distances and leading to an accident. Bendix said the units were used on 46,000 school buses across the country — including a total of 590 in Maryland — that were manufactured from March 1998 to last month.
The buses turned up in every Maryland jurisdiction but Kent, Frederick, Talbot and Baltimore counties. Of those counties with the affected buses, Prince George’s, Garrett and Anne Arundel found and immediately repaired defects.
But even in those counties with a clean bill of health, officials were treating the situation seriously and pledged to continue to do so.
“Because we have a very precious cargo, we don’t want to fool around and take it lightly,” said Don Morrison, a spokesman for Harford County schools, where all 17 buses with the Bendix braking system cleared the inspection.
Bendix spokesman Rick Batyko said the company decided against ordering buses with its brakes off the road, after conferring with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and bus manufacturers.
“In the bus population, there were 16 incidents and no accidents,” Batyko said. “It does not affect emergency brakes and it only happens at slow speeds.”
Despite that, a spokesman for the state Department of Education said Grasmick did not want to take any chances.
“Brake problems occur when decelerating under 20 miles per hour. It’s a perfect scenario for a school bus in a parking lot,” said Neil Greenberger, the spokesman.
“There is no minor accident when it involves a first-grader,” Greenberger said. “Their (Bendix’s) attitude is it is not an emergency situation. Well, that’s what Bridgestone and Firestone did.”
But Bendix Vice President of Marketing and Sales Lori Breninger said Friday that the company absolutely intends to keep concerns of child safety as a top priority. Batyko said the company would send repair kits to schools starting in October. The company expects the situation to be fully remedied by November.