Sunday, September 03, 2000

Buses' brakes to be inspected

Report of defect prompts safety checks

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        School buses throughout the Tristate will be undergoing stringent brake inspections before school starts next week in light of a report that a leading manufacturer has reported that its brakes could malfunction.

        According to the Washington Post,Thomas Built Buses Inc. of High Point, N.C., wrote in an Aug. 30 letter sent to hundreds of school districts nationwide that the defect involves the anti-lock brake system on about 6,000 buses manufactured between March 1998 and last month.

        The brake system's electronic control units can “misinterpret” certain signals from the wheels, resulting in the temporary loss of braking capability “in one or more wheel positions,” the letter said.

        The company told the districts how to inspect their buses' brakes and said repair kits were being manufactured and would be shipped by November.

        Officials at Freightliner Corp., Thomas Built's Portland, Ore.-based parent company, said they were notified of the braking problem in June by Bendix, the brake system's manufacturer.

        Bendix reported an incident in which a San Francisco school bus experienced a “temporary loss of brake capability,” although the driver was able to bring the bus to a safe stop, Freightliner President Jim Hebe told the Post.

        Area school officials con tacted Saturday said that they would be checking their fleets or with their outside contractors to determine if they were affected.

        Pam Freson, transportation manager for Kings Local Schools in Warren County, said her district bought two of the Thomas Built buses for about $55,000 apiece last year, but had never had any problems and had yet to receive a letter.

        “I can tell you one thing, neither of those buses will go out until we go over them with a fine-tooth comb,” she said Saturday. “The two most important things on my buses is brakes and steering, and we're not going to mess around with that.”

        To bus its and Hamilton County's parochial students, Cincinnati Public Schools uses four outside contractors, one of which could not be reached for comment.

        Of the three that were available Saturday, two had Thomas Built buses — Washington Bus Service and Riggs Bus Company. A Washington Bus spokeswoman said the most recent Thomas Built purchase was in 1997, but that the company would still check out those buses just in case.

        And an official at Riggs Bus Company acknowledged that the company used Thomas Built buses but would not comment further, referring all calls to the company's maintenance division, which was closed for the holiday weekend.

        “We're going to check this out first thing on Tuesday,” said CPS business executive Kent Cashell on Saturday. “The bottom line is that we require our contractors to meet all safety standards, and we would hope we hear from them if this affects them.”

        Mariemont City School District superintendent Gerry Harris said he didn't think any of his fleet was affected because the district hadn't made any recent bus purchases. Still, he was going to check.

        “It won't hurt to be sure,” Mr. Harris said.

        Calls to Thomas Built's headquarters for comment Saturday were not answered.

        Mr. Hebe said Thomas Built is just one of several bus manufacturers that use the Bendix system. The two companies discussed the problem with officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, he said.

        “Action was taken as quickly as possible,” Mr. Hebe said. “We are the first manufacturer to notify our customers. We are extremely concerned about this.”

        Mr. Hebe said school officials could call a Freightliner help line — 800-FTL-HELP — to arrange for an inspection of any buses that might present a safety problem.

        Some school districts said they had yet to receive the warning from Thomas Built about the braking problem. Others complained the company's letter was unclear.

        “The letter is vague and cryptic and borderline irresponsible in its lack of detail,” said Brian Porter, a spokesman for the Montgomery County, Md., school district.

       The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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