Most county transportation directors oppose a new state bill currently in the Senate that would require public school buses to comply with all Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations for maintenance, repair and inspections because they said it is unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money.
The responses from more than a half dozen student transporters from across the state were the result of questions STN sent following state Sen. Ronald Turner's introduction of SB 44 on Jan. 10. One transportation director told STN that he heard the legisation arose after after a disgruntled former school district transportation employee told Turner's office that school districts don't check tire pressure every day. However, nothing in the federal regulations requires commercial vehicles to have their tire pressure checked daily.
"So this accomplishes nothing," commented Todd Watkins, director of transportation for Montgomery County Public Schools in Rocklin, Maryland.
Still, Turner responded with the bill, which would move school bus inspections from the state's Motor Vehicle Administration to the state police. It would also require electronic reporting of inspections. A hearing on the bill was held on Jan. 17. STN reached out to Turner's office for comment but a message was not returned at this report.
Maryland school buses already undergo three safety inspections and one preventive maintenance inspection each year. The state's Motor Vehicle Administration must observe and record one inspection with accountability for other inspections left to the local school district or private contractors. MVA also already launched a new tablet-based electronic inspection reporting system last March.
Additionally, school buses older than 13 years must undergo one additional inspection per year.
"The MVA does a great job and its (inspection program is) tailored to the industry. They don't do random road-side inspections and school buses don't have to stop at (weigh stations)," Watkins said, "We already have high standards and we're not anxious to report to another group tailored to over-the-road trucking. It's not that we have something to hide."
Watkins said there are limited to zero safety benefits compared to the cost school districts could face in complying with the regulations. And Montgomery County voluntarily complies with many FMCSRs. He added that the school bus safety record already exceeds that of other commercial vehicles on the road.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration exempts publicly owned and operated school buses engaged in route and extracurricular service from complying with FMCSRs. Route service provided by private schools and contractors is also exempt, though extracurricular trips offered are not.
Gabriel Rose, the state director of pupil transportation at the Maryland State Department of Education, told STN that some districts could see school bus drivers being required to complete more pre- and post-trip forms, which would add to school district payrolls. Additionally, school buses found to have a major defect would not be allowed to be driven to a repair shop and instead would need to be towed at the school district's expense. School districts would also be subject to fines.
However, a fiscal note attached to SB44 said any local effect would be minimal but added that small businesses that own and operate school buses or perform vehicles inspections and maintenance may be affected. No dollar figures were provided.
Several transportation directors who responded to STN's questions indicated they do not foresee the need to hire more maintenance staff if the bill passes. However, they expressed concerns about the additional time it could take for school buses to undergo roadside inspections.
One reader said bus operators could be forced to purchase more spare buses to account for vehicles immediately taken out of service by state police inspectors, while another said districts might have to bear the additional cost of complying with record-keeping requirements.
If the bill is passed into law and takes effect this summer, Rose said it's his understanding that the Motor Vehicle Administration could demonstrate that its inspection processes exceed CFR Part 396 and be allowed to continue a program separate from the state police.