Arizona school bus safety inspections: 8,000 violations in 2 years

Posted at 6:00 AM, May 07, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-08 17:34:32-04

You put your kids on the bus and assume it’s a safe ride to school, but new numbers show that might not be the case.

Arizona school districts operate roughly 7,000 buses, and Department of Public Safety numbers from the past two years show nearly 22 percent of those buses had serious violations requiring buses to be taken out of service for repair. Some of the most common problems in the DPS inspection records include bad brakes and broken emergency exits.

Lax maintenance requirements

Arizona statute allows school districts to do the bare minimum for maintenance under federal law. Seven inspectors from the Arizona Department of Public Safety are tasked with inspecting each bus just once per year. 

Robert Berkstresser is a commercial bus consultant operating out of California. He said the number of buses taken out of service for violations should be well under 10 percent, much lower than Arizona's 22 percent.

"You could be driving a bus for a week or longer [before problems are caught], jeopardizing the safety of the students your transporting," Berkstresser said. 

Some of the most common problems in the DPS inspection records include bad brakes and broken emergency exits.

The top three violations from 2016-2017 were:

  1. Inspection, repair and maintenance of parts & accessories
  2. No or defective bus emergency exits
  3. Inoperable required lamp

"That's a little alarming," Berkstresser said. 

Berkstresser said part of the problem is that Arizona doesn't mandate any kind of preventative maintenance schedule for schools between official inspections. 

Compare that to California where districts have to check their buses every 45 days or 3,000 miles, whichever is first.

Berkstresser said the tighter maintenance interval greatly reduces violations during official inspections. 

The worst offenders

The Valley's top three violation offenders from 2016-2017 were:

  1. Mesa Unified: 655 violations
  2. Roosevelt Elementary: 210 violations
  3. Scottsdale Unified: 179 violations

Scottsdale is a perfect example of how even a slightly tighter maintenance schedule can make a big difference in safety. Scottsdale Unified told us they look at their buses every six months or 3,500 miles, not that much longer than California standards.

But another problem in Arizona is that not all schools stick to their own voluntary maintenance policy according to state audits over the last two years.

"Of those 23 audits [completed in the past two years], 12 districts did not systematically perform preventative maintenance," said John Ward, a school audits manager with Arizona's Auditor General.      

State auditors found Roosevelt Elementary wasn't following its own preventative maintenance schedule or keeping accurate mileage records.  

According to an Auditor General report, 33 of its 44 buses failed the 2016 DPS inspection. 

Roosevelt administration didn't respond to request for comment by the time of publication. 

What can be done?

Berkstresser said the Arizona Legislature could step up the bus safety standards. 

"If you tighten up that inspection interval you would see a dramatic drop in those numbers."

Right now there is no legislative action on the books.

You can also search by school district, license plate, or violation in the database below.

License plates listed as "0" or "None" were likely inspected as they entered into the state of Arizona, before they were issued license plates, according to officials. These buses can be new or used.