A Pre-Trip Inspection a Day Keeps the Lawyers Away

Industry experts share how collaborating and following best practices creates a synergy between the drivers and mechanics for increased efficiency.

A technician at Cobb County School District in Georgia gets a school bus ready for the upcoming school year.

Sometimes the last thing a school bus driver who is running late wants to do is to stop and conduct a pre-trip inspection. Sometimes the last thing a mechanic or technician is considering is properly filing a work order for a driver-requested repair they just completed. However, those could well be the very first things an attorney checks if a school bus from that operation gets into a crash.

Communication and consistency creates the desired synergy between drivers and mechanics, leading to a school bus operation that is not only more efficient, but safer as well.

School bus operations ideally should have a full system that utilizes paper trails to keep track of repairs that are performed, and those needing to be performed, the National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures manual advises.

Joe Scesny is the retired lead school bus inspector for the New York State Department of Education, a founder of the NAPT America’s Best Technician and Inspector competitions, and a current school bus safety instructor and consultant.

One acceptable option is for drivers to write down a basic problem, but then describe it to the mechanic in more detail, Scesney said. On the flip side, drivers only verbally delivering reports, or mechanics only asking for verbal reports, is a recipe for trouble, since the lack of paper trail can make an operation look bad in this day and age.

Worse still, it could result in legal liability or hefty fines, added Denny Coughlin, who was fleet manager for Minneapolis Public Schools for 25 years and currently owns the consulting firm, School Bus Training Company.

He said that when he was the Minneapolis fleet manager, he required his drivers to go farther than the pre-trip check and complete work orders for needed repairs.

“It is possible for maintenance to pull [its] information from the pre-trip forms but it’s not my preference at all, because they don’t really consider it real reliable—[drivers] don’t go into detail with that in most cases,” he shared.

Over the years, both Scesny and Coughlin have presented many training sessions and workshops at the STN EXPO. At the 25th annual Conference last month, they jointly presented the session “The Relationship of the Preventive Maintenance Inspection & the Driver Pre-Trip Inspection.”

“Everything has to have a record,” Coughlin stressed during that July 16 session. Work orders “become legal documents” that can be used by lawyers and in court.

“Don’t just treat it as a piece of paper, treat it as a legal document, because you may have to take it to court,” he reiterated. Driver pre- and post-trip checks, mechanic repairs and preventive maintenance inspections, and especially the paperwork that accompanies it all, “is serious stuff—make sure everyone takes it seriously.”

Driver thoroughness is a training issue, he said, and “if [managers] never enforce it, it sometimes gets pretty lax.”

The National Congress on School Transportation advises in its specifications and procedures manual that every preventive maintenance program should include “immediate attention to all reported defects.” However, a desire to avoid inconvenience sometimes leads to safety hazards going unreported or overlooked.

Investigative reporting has uncovered evidence of drivers doing the “hop and go” without thoroughly checking the bus, as a May news report revealed was happening at Oklahoma City Public Schools.

It should only take about eight minutes to perform a proper pre-trip inspection, Scesny explained, or a bit longer depending on the age and ability of the driver. He encouraged listeners to use a YouTube video, accessible at stnonline.com/go/xx, that he made of himself performing such a pre-trip inspection.

Scesny added that mechanics should take responsibility, too. If a mechanic notices a number of things a driver listed as wrong with their bus, they should question it, he said—since it is highly unlikely that all of those problems popped up out of nowhere. More likely, they had been persisting for some time, but had not been adequately reported.

Both Scesny and Coughlin explained that drivers highly prefer their own buses to being assigned a substitute vehicle while repairs are being made. Consequently, drivers may not report needed repairs until a Friday, a holiday break, or the end of the school year.
“Overall, that doesn’t work too well,” Coughlin stated.

As is common in the industry, technology brings with it increased capabilities that must nonetheless be carefully implemented into a school bus garage’s operation.

“It gave me a lot easier role than at the beginning of my career, when I had to look at everything, write it down, make charts and format it,” Scesny explained. “Today’s technology is assisting a lot.”

“I would encourage you to use as much technology as you can to streamline the relationship,” Coughlin added.

However, technology can only go so far. As multiple keynote speakers at the 2018 STN EXPO reiterated, it’s the people who make or break any organization.

Scesny explained that new school bus drivers being trained solely by a driver trainer or administrator can serve as a barrier to the learning and communication that should be happening in a school bus operation. “When drivers have training, you should bring a shop foreman or mechanic in there,” he suggested. This is valuable, he said, because a mechanic can help bridge gaps, provide understanding, and lead to better and smother interactions all around.

Some operations use a lock-jockey to check for mechanical issues, so drivers don’t have to. But Scesny questioned the usefulness of that method in cases where the bus breaks down on a sports or field trip, leaving the driver unaware of what to do or even what is wrong.
And of course, a mechanic conducting a pre- or post-trip check on the bus for the driver is “a hundred percent no.”

“Mechanics are great candidates for (training), because they understand everything from A to Z,” declared Coughlin. When drivers have a better understanding of how things on the bus work, they’re less likely to engage in driving behavior that is unsafe, inefficient, or damaging to the bus.

The formation of cliques does not help with communication, as Coughlin attested to. Drivers can get annoyed that mechanics don’t fulfil their requested repairs, while mechanics can operate under the perception that drivers write up every little thing. Animosity and disagreements need to be addressed by management, because “when there’s animosity, it really affects the safety of the fleet,” he cautioned.

While the amount of work to be done in the garage often prevents drivers and mechanics from working together as closely as they should, Scesny still urged both parties to take the time “to establish that working relationship.”

This results in not just increased efficiency and avoidance of legal issues, but the safety of students.