Imagine a school bus bursting into flames -- with dozens of children on board. Thanks to the quick actions of a bus driver in Maryland, that exact scenario ended without serious injuries, but it does put bus safety front and center.
"It's nerve-wracking,' Christina Jimenez, a local parent, says. "Like I said, you just want your kids safe. I pray for my kids every morning.
"You've got to put a lot of trust in the schools because once they step onto that bus, they're the school's responsibility."
New York state puts school busses through a rigorous series of tests twice a year. But no system is perfect, and a 7 Eyewitness News investigation shows that some of the buses are falling through the cracks -- potentially putting your children in danger.
Last year alone, the number of serious safety violations discovered by state inspectors, who then held those buses off the road, totaled nearly 500. These buses were found to have the most serious violations: things like broken axles, faulty brake systems, and defective tires.
The full list of violations is below. The darker the color of red in the bar graph -- the higher percentage of that school bus operators bus that was deemed "out of service"
7 Eyewitness News analyzed data from more than 130 school bus operators, and found:
- One-third of those operators passes the test without any problems. The top-to-bottom test checks everything from flashing lights and transmission to sun visors and seat belts.
- The other two-thirds had at least one bus in their fleet yanked off the road by the Department of Transportation.
Many school contract out their busing to private operators, and these companies stood out with high numbers and percentages of Grade A, or serious, violations:
- First Student, the largest bus operator in the country, provides service to the 700 buses in Buffalo Public schools as well as buses in 20 other districts. From April 2015-April 2016, First Student bus garages in Buffalo, Lackawanna, and Cheektowaga were cited 100 times for things like defective headlights, taillights, air brakes, and tires.
- Ransomville bus lines, which handles students from Lewiston-Porter, was cited 21 times for defective axles, an improperly mounted fuel tank, and a defective brake sysyem
- Two other companies -- Carrier Coach and Quaker Taxi-- had 140 citations last year and have since gone out of business
Ransomville bus lines declined an interview, but Lewiston-Porter superintendent Paul Casseri defended the company, calling the district's relationship with Ransomville "outstanding," and said the company "has provided continuous communication" regarding safety protocol.
Seab McCabe, the general manager of First Student downplayed the nature of the violations. "Those defects," McCabe said, "that's part of being on the road and being on the Buffalo streets and the defects are not necessarily any significant breakdown issue. They're things that are found that have experienced some wear and tear, like a headlight...you might have a stone in your tire. As a parent and a father of four who has ridden First Student buses, I have a great level of confidence that they're the safest way to transport.
First Student spokesman Chris Kemper says the company inspects its own buses every 90 days -- more often than the state requires -- and has an overall 94% pass rate in Western New York. "Naturally, when you're driving that volume of travel, or miles," Kemper said, "you're going to have some wear and tear.
Steve Danaher, who runs the school bus program for the state DOT, says the state takes every violation seriously. "The school bus lights are a traffic control device," Danaher said. "They stop traffic. They save children's lives. They prevent children from being struck while crossing the road. So there is no room for error or downplaying any of those types of defects.
As far as who's on top of the state's list -- Akron schools have managed to have a perfect record -- with more than 80 inspections without a single violation.
"They care what they're doing," John Wideman, Akron's transportation supervisor told us. "They want to provide a safe vehicle, and again they expect to have all their buses pass."
The state considers more than 90% of buses in Western New York to be safe enough. But percentages don't matter much to parents like Hammond. For her, even one dangerous bus, with her little boy on board, is one bus to many.
"There's so many terrible things in the world," Hammond said, "and just for bus safety, to have to worry about that? A parent should not have to worry about that