LEWISTON State inspector Hal Prince was under the small school bus for only a few seconds before he yelled Holy!

Rust had corroded the bus steel brake line. The exhaust pipe was leaking. The steering box and steering shaft were not tight enough. The drive shaft was so loose it was in danger of falling out. In a worst-case scenario, it could have hit the fuel tank and caused an explosion.

The 24-seater belonged to Pathways Inc., a nonprofit corporation that helps disabled children and adults. The bus had just taken a group of children to preschool.

If not for the failed inspection, it would have picked them up in a couple of hours.

Instead, it was towed. The bus was so dangerous state inspectors wouldnt let it be driven to the mechanic, less than five miles away.

Prince liberally punctuated his inspection with Holy! and Wow! and Oh my god.

But it wasnt the first time hed seen a Maine school bus fail a mandatory inspection so spectacularly. And, if statistics hold true, it probably wont be the last.

On average, one out of every four school buses couldnt pass a mandatory inspection last year. In some school systems including Auburn, Lewiston and Dixfield one of every two failed.

Now, with surprise inspections and increased training for drivers and mechanics, the state is trying to change that.

We want these to be the safest vehicles on the road, said state inspector Jamie Dionne.

From light bulbs to brakes

Like car inspections, mandated school bus inspections take about 15 minutes and are designed to gauge the vehicles safety based on state guidelines. And, like car inspections, theres a reason why theyre required: broken vehicles can cause accidents.

Since 2003, seven Maine school buses have been involved in accidents because of defective brakes or other mechanical problems. In one, a person was injured when a bus went off the road.

Because of the dangers, inspectors can fail a school bus and take it off the road for dozens of reasons. Some problems are easy to fix: loose seats, a missing first-aid kit or a burned-out light bulb. Other problems are more complex: exhaust leaks, brake problems or steering system issues.

Maine school buses routinely fail for both types of problems. Exhaust leaks are common. So are brake problems, rust, fluid leaks and broken emergency-door buzzers.

In the past, state police inspected all school buses. But in 2003, in an effort to save money, the state handed over inspections to a group of civilian inspectors. Most were former mechanics.

In 2005, the state made another significant change. It went from twice-a-year mandatory inspections to once-a-year. The change allowed more time for random inspections on school systems with a history of problems.

Around the same time, in an effort to improve safety, inspectors started training school bus drivers, supervisors and mechanics to routinely examine their own buses. Minor problems can develop into major ones when they arent taken care of quickly, inspectors said. A perfect bus one year can have severe problems the next if it isnt monitored, especially if it is near the end of its 10- to 15-year life expectancy.

Although drivers were supposed to check their buses every morning, some werent doing it or werent doing it correctly.

Were trying to get across: Do this every day, Dionne said.

The changes seem to be working. In 2005, 27 percent of buses were pulled out of service for a failed inspection.

So far this year, failures seem to hover around 13 percent.

Inspectors are pleased with the decline. But they arent completely satisfied.

Were trying to get that a lot better, Dionne said.

Hed like to see that number get down to 1 in every 10. Or less.

On one recent morning, that goal still seemed far away.

Eight out of 30

A couple of weeks ago, in the Lewiston garage owned by Hudson Bus Lines, seven inspectors crawled over 30 school buses. Most of the buses were owned by Hudson, which transports Lewiston schoolchildren. One was the small bus owned by Pathways.

A stickler for safety, Pathways driver Gilmay Lamarre said she gets the nine-year-old bus serviced every 3,000 miles by a private mechanic.

If theres a noise, I want to know what it is, she said.

She was sitting behind the wheel as Prince and his partner, Jason King, began their inspection.

Lights, check. Windshield wipers, check. Horn, check.

Then Prince slid under the bus for a closer look. Brakes, exhaust, steering, drive shaft Holy! he exclaimed. This ones out of service.

Lamarre was surprised and mortified. Shed never had a bad inspection before.

The bus was towed and would spend a week in the shop. Pathways borrowed an eight-seater from Hudson so it could get kids to and from school. Because the borrowed bus was so much smaller, Lamarre had to make two trips to pick up the preschoolers and had to cancel field trips.

But the hassle, she said, was worth it. She never thought her bus could have such problems.

I always like the fact that the state inspectors take a look at my bus. Without them, I dont know if the work is being done properly, Lamarre said.

The same day, three of Hudson Bus Lines oldest buses failed because of exhaust leaks, rust problems, brake problems or fluid leaks. Because the buses were at the end of their life expectancy, Hudson had planned to replace them soon. Instead, it junked them immediately.

Four of Hudsons newer buses also failed. On one, transmission fluid was leaking onto the exhaust system. It could have ignited, inspectors said.

The problem loose nuts was later fixed.

Hudson, which has a new owner, fared better than it had in years past. But the inspection didnt meet Dionnes goal.

In all, eight of the 30 buses failed that day. Thats 26 percent.

Failed but safe?

Lamarre and Hudson officials accepted their failed inspections without complaint. But other school officials can get riled.

They say inspectors are too picky.

Theyll put you out of service for the least little thing, said Kenny Robbins, transportation director for SAD 21, which covers Canton, Carthage, Dixfield and Peru

Last year, just over half of Robbins buses were pulled out of service.

They failed because backup lights didnt work, the brake chamber leaked or brakes needed to be adjusted, according to the state.

But Robbins said the problems were minor and fixed within hours. His statistics dont look good, he said, but his buses are safe.

Theyll put you out of service for a light bulb (thats out), he said. I think they ought to use some common sense, and they arent doing that.

In Auburn, the statistics are similar. Fifty-three percent of its buses failed in 2005.

I feel its kind of a misleading figure, said Support Services Director Billy Hunter.

The buses were pulled out of service because of a missing roof hatch latch, a discharged fire extinguisher or brakes that needed to be adjusted, according to the state.

Most were fixed within a few minutes, Hunter said. Zero were kept out more than a couple of hours.

Inspectors say they do allow buses on the road when problems are very minor, such as when one of a bus six turn signal lights is out. When found, those problems dubbed serviceable defects must be fixed within a short period of time, but the buses can remain on the road.

Last year, nearly 50 percent of buses had serviceable defects.

Other problems may be just as easy to fix, inspectors say, but they can be more potentially dangerous so dangerous that the bus needs to be off the road.

Despite the grumbling, school officials are quick to say that safety standards are important, inspections are necessary. Even picky ones.

I dont know where they could back off, Hunter said.

A missing first-aid kit is a serious problem when a child is hurt. Loose seats can be dangerous if the bus gets into an accident.

And the myriad outside lights which can burn out or break are important because they warn other drivers when the school bus is stopping to pick up or drop off kids.

Lord knows, we dont want anybody to have an accident because something wasnt fixed, Hunter said.

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