Total Recall: Managing Fixes to Bus Defects Requires Attention to Detail

Vehicle or equipment recalls can be a rather mundane part of school bus maintenance operations. But media, regulatory and even parental scrutiny over yellow bus safety dictates that school districts and bus companies have all of their ducks in a row.

When a tragedy occurs on a school bus, maintenance records are checked—including recall records—to explore any issues of causality. If there’s a federal investigation, such as with the fatal Iowa school bus fire in December 2017, recall campaigns and their implementation are routinely checked.

For student transporters, it’s imperative to maintain a disciplined process of receiving recall notifications, acting on the recall and documenting the action.

Related: Authorities Question Maintenance Records in Iowa School Bus Fire

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) looked into three recalls tied to the school bus that was involved in the Iowa tragedy, but discovered they had been handled correctly and weren’t the cause. NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway explained that a routine part of any investigation is to examine all documentation that could be related to the incident.

This includes maintenance data, service bulletins and any recalls of equipment on the vehicle. If there are recalls found, NTSB may obtain a subpoena for documentation that addresses the fix.

But suppose a district is cavalier in attending to recalls? Can the school district be held liable if the recalls were not handled properly?

Winning the Blame Game

Attorney George Sink, Jr., in North Charleston, South Carolina, where recent school bus fires are especially a concern, said there are multiple responsible parties. These include the school bus driver, district, bus manufacturer, bus dealer, and any suppliers of related components. But liability can be difficult to pin down.

“A manufacturing or design defect in a vehicle may sometimes give rise to product liability for the designer of the vehicle, the manufacturer of it, or others,” says Sink. “Simply recalling the product, without sufficient notice to those who may be affected or harmed, may not be enough to avoid manufacturer liability. Those who operate a vehicle, including school buses, have a duty to ensure the vehicle is safe to drive.”

Most districts seem to have a process of addressing recalls (although the processes are not always formal). The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the central government focal point for recalls. Vehicle, engine and equipment manufacturers must voluntarily report all recalls to NHTSA or face federal scrutiny.

NHTSA then posts the information on its website, but specific recall information is usually disseminated as a “push” by school bus dealers to the districts within specific region. Student transporters we spoke to voiced confidence that their recall processes are sound, but they still must be managed.

“I can think of a few recalls in the last couple of years. Any of our International recalls have been done by Midwest Transits’ mobile tech,” says Bruce Stephenson, maintenance manager and mechanic with Wamego Public Schools in Kansas. “He comes in and accomplishes the recall, they notate it in the International database and it’s done. My only effort has been a phone call to schedule the mobile tech.”

He also noted two recent recalls on a wheelchair lift that was installed on a Thomas Built Buses Minotour Type A school bus. “One was an inspection of the lifting mechanism rollers and joints. I did a quick visual inspection myself, then Thomas sent an inspector and he came out, inspected the lift, determined it was safe and cleared the recall for us,” he said.

“Another recall on the same lift entailed us doing a pre-inspection ourselves to see if all of the safety devices were working properly,” he added. “Then we communicated with Midwest Bus Sales, communicated our results to them, then a while later we received paperwork showing the recall had been accomplished.”

Stephenson does point out that cloud-based platforms that many manufacturers are including in their buses as add-ons or installed with new bus deliveries, are expediting recall management.

“International has a good system in its OnCommand connection software,” he says. “If you have an International bus with a recall, there is a very obvious flag that tells me there is a recall. I can look at my entire International fleet at a glance, and see any recalls I may have, and how urgent that repair may be. I can take appropriate action from there.”

Whether the notification is received via a remote monitoring platform, or through traditional snail mail, prompt remediation is always a best practice.

“I don’t know that we have a lot of issues with recalls in our fleet,” says Jason Sherman, director of facilities and transportation with Delaware City Schools in Ohio. “We seemed to be notified quickly, by mail, when a formal recall is issued. Our technicians then either order parts and repair the bus or make an appointment to send it to the dealer.”

Keeping It Simple, But Complete

Michael McClure, director of transportation services for Fayetteville Public Schools in Arkansas, says the process doesn’t have to be complicated.

“Just file the recall notice and file the correction the vendor makes with it (we have dedicated files for each asset). We would have any hard-copy information, as well as digital communication. My shop foreman would communicate and sign off on any corrections or fixes.”

When it comes to recalls, one thing seems to be certain: District operations managers take them seriously.

“Safety recalls are taken seriously by our department,” says Paul Shelley, director of fleet services for Nevada’s Clark County School District. “We are normally notified by our vendors prior to receiving the official recall notice, and the repairs are made by the dealer or their representative. Once we are notified of a recall, we generate a list of affected units and coordinate with the dealer to expedite repairs. We verify that we are not seeing the potential recall failures in our units. If the failure is found, the unit is taken out of service until correction is taken. The recalls we have received have not been detrimental to the operation of our fleet.”

Recall management is one component—albeit an important one—of establishing a bedrock of school bus safety. Fleet managers need to focus on insuring all recalls are received and acted on. Failure to do so, could result in an unsafe environment for pupil transport. Though the incident in Iowa was attributed to poor management of the recall, it was one of the first things investigators looked into. Safety officials agree that prompt attention is paramount.

“The National Safety Council believes all safety recalls are serious and should be fixed as soon as possible,” said Tom Musick, the organization’s senior program manager of transportation safety. “Recalls are 100 percent free to have repaired, and there is no good reason to allow a known safety recall to go ignored. School districts and any other organization with a fleet of vehicles should develop policies and procedures to regularly check for open recalls and address them promptly whenever they arise.”