Dozens of W-JCC school buses missing required safety feature

More than three-dozen Williamsburg-James City County school buses are missing a state-mandated safety device that prevents the vehicle’s parking brake from accidentally disengaging.

All 132 school divisions were notified their buses may not be up to snuff with Virginia Department of Education standards, according to a VDOE news release.

The safety device is required on all buses bought after March 2011, when the mandate went into effect. The device is missing on 38 of the division’s roughly 150 buses, W-JCC senior director of operations Marcellus Snipes said.

“The safety of students is the department’s highest priority," superintendent of public instruction Steven Staples said in the release. "The department will work with school divisions, manufacturers and school bus dealers to make sure that all non-compliant buses are brought into full compliance with the state Board of Education’s equipment specifications as quickly as possible.” 

School buses have automatic transmissions, but unlike cars, there is no “park” gear. They are instead parked in neutral and kept in place by a parking brake knob on the dashboard, the release stated. 

To engage the brake, the driver pulls the knob out. Without the safety lock device, if someone accidentally pushes that knob back in, the bus could roll.

No school divisions within Virginia have had any incidents involving the parking brake, according to VDOE.  

“It’s rare, but it’s one of those worst-case scenarios we want to be covered for,” Snipes said. “With anything involving children, safety in transportation is always a concern.”

Accidentally hitting the knob, which is to the right of the steering wheel, could only happen if bus drivers leave their seat. That rarely happens while students are on board, Snipes said.

“Student health or emergency is the only reason a driver gets out of their seat while students are on the bus,” Snipes said. “On our other special education buses, those valves are already in place.”

He said drivers on special education buses get up more often than those on other buses.

The division wasn’t aware their buses were missing the device until the VDOE reached out earlier this month, Snipes said.

The safety device requires the brake pedal be pushed in to release the parking brake. The state is providing the fix, which Snipes said will be in place before the start of school in September.

He said the 38 buses will not be used during the summer but will remain in rotation for the rest of this school year, which ends June 15.

“We are looking at installing additional safety equipment to cover that brake valve in the interim … so that the brake valve can only be accessed once you remove the lock-out mechanism,” Snipes said.  

The department of education discovered the issue while testing buses purchased from common manufacturers. Those dealers estimated that as many as 4,000 buses have been sold without the device since 2011.

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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