Perhaps the most important safety aspect that school districts and school bus companies can provide students is ensuring that the nation’s 480,000 school buses that are in regular service nationwide remain in top operating condition. This requires a tried and true preventive maintenance schedule.
So what exactly is preventive maintenance?
We all have preventive maintenance performed on our personal automobiles. Many of us take our car into a quick oil change shop somewhere between 3,000 and 7,000 miles and wait while they change the oil and filter, lube the steering and suspension (if you have grease zerks), air the tires, vacuum the inside, check the transmission, power steering, antifreeze, and washer fluid levels, and charge us if they add even a capful of fluid. They will check the belt, and pull the air filter in hopes you will need one at a huge markup. Unless something goes wrong, this is the normal PM schedule for most cars on the road today.
Trucking companies are far more sophisticated. A breakdown in another part of the Country can cost them thousands of dollars. They often study the life of various components and change them before they fail, preventing a breakdown. The school bus industry runs something between the automobile and the over-the-road trucking companies. School bus technicians try to find potential problems before they turn into costly repairs that remove the vehicle from service for extended periods of time. There are a number of ways we do this. The daily pre-trip inspection performed by the driver is the most common. The scheduled services or inspection performed by the mechanics is another. Most states have an annual inspection requirement, which may be performed by a state official.
Preventive maintenance is the key to a safe fleet and an economically operated fleet. School buses must be inspected on a scheduled basis by a qualified mechanic. Lubrication is necessary to extend wear points. The amount of wear in many areas can be measured. Replacement of component parts can be done before failure occurs.
There is no universal PM schedule. Manufacturers recommend a schedule for their vehicles. States often mandate schedules, and each fleet develops a schedule that they believe is best for them. Some are based on days, miles, or hours of operation. No matter, these schedules should be continuously reviewed. Determining factors that some schedules may not be ideal can start by looking at the number and type of vehicle breakdowns. For example, if an operation is making service calls for items that could be found during normal PM inspections may indicate that the schedule should be shortened.
Public school districts, as well as private school bus companies, have employed these policies for decades, in which regular service intervals check for potential problems besides simply changing the oil and making sure the tire pressure is correct. But as the vehicles have evolved so, too, have the responsibilities of vehicle technicians. Today’s school buses utilize intricate computer programs to run virtually every function, from the engine to brakes to lighting. And the advent of GPS, routing and maintenance software has the capability to provide in-depth vehicle diagnostics. This requires technicians to obtain advanced certifications from such organizations as the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, which developed seven tests specific to school buses maintenance issues.
Just as paramount is the ongoing training of both technicians and certified school bus inspectors. The National Association for Pupil Transportation holds a competition each year to select the nation’s best school bus professionals in these categories. The event also provides training on the latest mechanical issues related to school buses and networking opportunities for participants.
Additionally, resources exist at the bus OEM, dealer, and product and service vendor levels, perhaps the best place to turn for technical expertise. The School Bus Manufacturers Technical Council at the National Association for State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services exists to advise school bus operators on the latest vehicle design and maintenance issues to increase student safety.
Most states also have at least one school transportation association that communicates news and trends provides training to its members. Several even have dedicated school bus maintenance associations.