HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - School bus transportation is the No. 1 form of mass transit in the U.S., according to the American School Bus Council, which means it is likely local parents' children will ride the bus this school year.
In Horry County, 24,000 students ride buses daily during the school week. That is why, when it comes to making sure the 7-ton vehicle is safe to be on the road, the state of South Carolina said it looks at dozens of different areas and each bus is checked several times a year.
Some of that work happens at the Socastee bus maintenance shop on Lafon Lane, where men like Doc Price and Raymond Chestnut are certified for the job.
They use a vehicle inspection form from the State Department of Education to be thorough. They check the inside of the bus to make sure things like buzzers, warning lights, parking breaks and mirrors are intact.
Inspections on the outside of the bus include looking at items like the battery, headlights, wires, fuses and the engine hood.
Then there is the engine compartment, where the men inspect the brakes, alternator, fuel system, and radiator cooling and heating, among others.
"We try to touch, look at, listen to, operate as many of the components on that vehicle as we can," said Rennie Hunsucker, the area supervisor for the
State Department of Education.
She said each bus is checked every seven weeks and stickers are posted on the front window upon the completion of each inspection. By law, the vehicles are supposed to be taken off the road for good after 15 years, but state funds have to be made available in order for that to happen.
But like any man-made product, parts expire and sometimes these checks are not enough.
In May 2011, 40 students at Ocean Bay Middle School had to be evacuated when smoke began billowing out the back of their bus near the engine. WMBF News later learned that bus had been in and out of the maintenance shop for repairs five times and had passed all five inspections.
"Any time you have something mechanical, something can occur that you aren't expecting," said Hunsucker.
The vehicle inspection summaries from the state for Horry County buses for the past five years show, surprisingly, a lot of buses during scheduled checks are taken off the road. The state calls them OOS defects, or out of service.
In 2016, during the January through February inspection check at the Socastee maintenance shop, 83 out of 159 buses that were checked were put out of service.
Looking at the June and July inspection check period in 2015, 65 out of 211 buses were put out of service.
Hunsucker said when that happens, they quickly make the repairs so that service is minimally interrupted.
Still, the question remains why so many buses are put out of service during their scheduled inspection.
Hunsucker said when it comes to the students' safety, inspectors are overly cautious.
"For instance, it could be a very minimal item to repair, two minutes, a step well light in and of itself can place a vehicle out of service," she said. "If a child is loading in the morning, early before the sun rises, that allows the child to see as they go up the steps to the bus. We want the light operating."
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, students who ride the bus to school are 20 times more likely to arrive to school alive than if they were to ride to school in a car with their parent.
It is a fact these maintenance men take pride in as they work to prepare buses for another productive school year.
"I would want everyone else's kids to be safe, just like I want my kids to be safe, so it's very important," said Chestnut.
In addition to the seven inspection checks that take place throughout the year, officials with Horry County Schools said all of its drivers perform a pre-trip and post-trip inspection daily.