About 4K Va. school buses to get required safety feature added

WASHINGTON — The brakes on an estimated 4,000 school buses in Virginia will be getting an added safety feature.

All school buses with automatic transmissions sold in Virginia after March 2011 are required to have a brake interlock to prevent parking brakes from accidentally disengaging. But an investigation by state officials revealed thousands of noncompliant buses were subsequently sold to school districts.

“We hope to get as many as possible retrofitted over the summer,” said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education.

Manufacturers failing to retrofit noncompliant buses will lose the right to sell school buses in the state. Pyle said manufacturers will do the work at their own expense, on site at school district transportation facilities. The retrofitting can be completed in around 90 minutes, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

In the meantime, Pyle said, drivers now are more aware of the issue of parking brakes without the interlock having the potential to accidentally disengage if, for example, a student were to slip and fall against the dashboard.

An interlock prevents releasing the parking brake without first depressing the brake pedal.

“We don’t know of any instance in Virginia where a bus has rolled inadvertently because the parking brake has become disengaged by accident,” Pyle said.

School systems statewide now are evaluating their fleets to determine whether and/or how many buses need the brake interlock to be installed.

The issue does not impact Fairfax County Public Schools, said spokesman John Torre.

It does, however, affect Alexandria City Public Schools. “We are working with transportation to get more details,” said spokesman Helen Lloyd.

Schools in Loudoun and Prince William counties have buses that will be getting the added safety feature.

“Upgrades to the majority PWCS fleet will begin shortly and continue throughout the summer,” Prince William County Schools posted on its website. “The work will not affect service to students.”

“The safety of students is the department’s highest priority and 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,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples said in a statement.

Retrofits for 119 school buses in Loudoun County is expected to begin mid-summer.

“These buses are operational and driven in a safe manner by our drivers,” said Wayde B. Byard, spokesman for Loudoun County Public Schools.

School buses sold in Virginia prior to the state requirement taking effect will continue to operate without the interlock.

Watch a statement from the Virginia Department of Transportation below.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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