Bus drivers for Durham School Services came forward to speak out about the poor condition of their buses, and the California Highway Patrol did nothing to investigate their concerns. Tony Kovaleski reports.
The California Highway Patrol has acknowledged to the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit that the agency has never investigated school bus maintenance problems exposed by bus drivers working for Durham School Services.
Two veteran bus drivers aired their concerns to the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit in May. They risked their careers and their paychecks to expose what they called a consistent pattern of buses breaking down and not getting repaired. They blamed their employer, Durham Bus Services, for cutting corners and failing to repair problems with buses that lead to frequent break downs.
In the Bay Area, Durham has offices in Campbell, Concord, Hayward and Livermore. NBC Bay Area's investigation focused on Hayward and Livermore.
“I have witnessed [breakdowns] on numerous occasions,” one veteran driver told NBC Bay Area’s Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski at the time. The driver asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job. “We had one day where we had 6 or 7 breakdowns in one morning shift.”
Our camera found an example of his concerns. We talked with a tow truck driver as he hauled off a Durham school bus in Alameda.
Lorraine Ramirez spent six years driving special needs kids to and from school for Durham. Ramirez, also said in a previous interview, that she, too, has seen problems.
“My bus leaks massive, and the brakes are going out right now and every time I take it in for maintenance they tell me we don’t have parts,” said Ramirez, who drives in Livermore.
After complaining for months about her brakes, Ramirez said they still were not fixed: “It’s about time Durham is put on notice to fix it or get it off the road.”
Two days after NBC Bay Area's investigation aired in May, Durham replaced the brakes on Ramirez’s bus. According to maintenance records, Durham mechanics spent more than 18 hours inspecting and repairing problems on the bus, including replacing the brake pads which were “worn to the limit.”
And, following our investigation, we sat down with CHP to see how the agency responded to the drivers’ concerns for safety. After three months, the CHP reported to NBC Bay Area that it did nothing. According to state law, the CHP has a motor carrier safety unit, whose primary function is to conduct safety inspections of commercial vehicle operators in the nine Bay Area counties. That, of course, includes school bus inspection and certification.
“I don’t have any records that we have gone out and done an investigation,” said Monica Christopher, who is in charge of the CHP’s school bus inspection program for the Bay Area.
Christopher agreed that when drivers talk publicly to the media to say their buses are not being repaired when they should be, that is a problem worth investigating.
Still, Christopher confirmed the CHP never interviewed the drivers, never reviewed the repair records, and never cited Durham School Services for the problems exposed by the drivers.
Kovaleski asked the Christopher: “In this case, the drivers came forward and nothing was done?"
Christopher answered: “I am having a loss as to how to answer this really… you’re asking me for my personal opinion.”
Kovaleski then asked: “They came out publicly saying they are concerned about the condition of the buses they drive. I am asking if the California Highway Patrol has reacted in any way to confirm what they are saying?"
Christopher answered: "No.”
Following the interview, the CHP conducted a review of Durham’s bus repair records, which confirmed the brake problems with Ramirez’s bus.
Despite this confirmation, NBC Bay Area has learned that Ramirez was recently fired from Durham, although it is not clear why.
The company declined our request for an interview; however Durham provided a statement reading in part:
Our school bus drivers are some of the most well trained drivers on the road. We are proud of our team of drivers and are committed to providing them the tools and training necessary to succeed. . . All Durham School Services' California operations have passed the most recent California Highway Patrol inspections. Our focus on safety, customers, people and the communities we serve ensures we meet and exceed our customers' expectations in providing safe, reliable transportation for their students.
Christopher maintained that the CHP takes passenger transportation safety very seriously and notes that the department’s commercial enforcement program was recently honored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police for their efforts to reduce collisions and increase the use of seat belts in commercial vehicles.