Districts Are Warned To Inspect All Buses For Substandard Bolts
Washington--Responding to concerns that substandard metal bolts have been used in the manufacture or repair of some school buses, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is recommending that school districts inspect their fleets and replace suspect bolts in key areas where bolt failures could result in accidents or injuries.
The bolts, most of which are Japanese-made, can potentially fail under normal use, according to Timothy T. Hurd, chief of public affairs for NHTSA.
All suspect bolts found in the steering and suspension of buses or connecting seats to the vehicles' frames should be tested or replaced, the spokesman said this month in an informal advisory to districts.
Districts should likewise check for suspect bolts in their garage storage bins, he said.
Mr. Hurd stressed that no school- bus accident has been linked to a suspect bolt, and said his agency is not currently investigating any such accident in which bolt failure is suspected as the cause.
A federal official involved in an ongoing investigation of the bolt industry said in an interview that 60 percent of more than 500 school districts whose fleets have been inspected by the government since the late 1980's have been found to have suspect bolts in at least some buses.
The official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, said several school-bus manufacturers have used such bolts.
The country's five major school-bus manufacturers say they have taken precautions to keep suspect or faulty bolts from being used in their vehicles. One large manufacturer contacted last week admitted inadvertently selling several buses with counterfeit bolts within the past three years, but said it sent replacement bolts to the affected customers.
Far greater than the risk of buying buses with suspect bolts, federal and industry officials say, is the chance that school districts will install substandard bolts themselves after unsuspectingly buying them from low-bidding distributors.
"The simple fact is that school districts buy from distributors, and distributor warehouses in the United States are loaded with these things," asserted Charles T. Grant, president of Grant Fastener Inc., a bolt manufacturer based in Houston.
"I think there is a good possibility that 90 percent of the districts have gotten these fasteners into their maintenance garages," said Mr. Grant, who has been a prominent spokesman for the domestic bolt industry on this issue. Other experts provided similar estimates.
In a related development, a proposed "fastener quality act," which would prevent manufacturers from selling bolts and other fasteners unless they have been certified as meeting industry standards, was approved last week by the Senate Commerce Committee and was awaiting consideration by the full Senate.
The measure, which grew out of a series of hearings on the problem of mislabeled and substandard bolts in American industry chaired by Representative John D. Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, was adopted by the House last summer.
Suspect Bolts Identified
The bolts listed as suspect by the traffic-safety agency are potentially counterfeit or likely to fail to meet standards specified by the Society of Automotive Engineers because of improper production techniques or improperly mixed metal content.
While being listed by the agency does not necessarily mean that a given bolt is counterfeit or will fail, Mr. Hurd said, the listing does mean that bolts of these descriptions have been counterfeited, have failed when tested for the uses for which they were specified, or have been found to be more susceptible than normal bolts to cracking or damage from exposure to high temperatures.
All of the bolts identified by NHTSA are either Grade 5, identifiable by heads marked with three lines radiating in a circle, or Grade 8, identifiable by heads marked with six lines radiating in a circle.
A list of 26 suspect bolt types distributed by the agency since last December includes all Grade 5 and Grade 8 bolts of foreign origin that do not bear any manufacturer's headmark.
Also listed are foreign-made Grade 5 bolts with the headmarks A, D, E, J, KS, KY, M, S, UNY, Y, K, or three stacked dashes, and foreign-made Grade 8 bolts with the headmarks A, FM, H, J, KS, KY, M, MS, NF, RT, a single dash, or a hollow triangle. (See box on this page.)
According to NHTSA officials and Congressional reports, suspect bolts of these types are known to have been used throughout the transportation, defense, and aerospace industries and have been linked to several industrial and traffic accidents.
The problem, according to those sources, has led to recalls by the truck manufacturers Peterbilt and Freightliner of Canada, the replacement of suspect bolts in 400 metropolitan-transit buses made by Neoplan U.S.A. Corporation's Bus & Coach Division in Denver, and several road failures of municipal buses that led the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Houston to discover that 92 percent of its fastener inventory was counterfeit.
Because NHTSA investigations typically are initiated only in response to specific traffic accidents, agency officials say they have little information to determine how widely the bolts have been used in school buses.
The trucking and aerospace industries have relied on sophisticated maintenance programs to help weed out suspect bolts, noted Stephen Sims, a special assistant to the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight and investigations, which is chaired by Mr. Dingell.
"I suspect we have not heard as much about school buses as we might," Mr. Sims said, "because we don't have a lot of people with as much expertise looking at them."
Alarm Sounded in 1986
Although experts say counterfeit and substandard fasteners were being shipped into the United States in small quantities in the late 1970's and in large quantities after 1983, many U.S. manufacturers were not aware of the problem until the Industrial Fasteners Institute alerted the Congress and the media in a 1986 report.
Thus, fastener-industry officials say, there is a strong possibility that the bolts may be present in buses manufactured in 1983, 1984, and 1985.
Mr. Hurd of NHTSA said "the probability is high that [the bolts] are not being used in new school buses, because there is a limited number of manufacturers and they are all aware of this problem. But there is a definite possibility that they were used in school buses around the country that were built earlier."
As a precaution, however, federal and industry officials recommend that school districts inspect their new buses as well as older ones and require manufacturers to certify that the bolts used in them meet industry standards.
As for replacement bolts that districts stock in their own garages, Luann Fulbright, communications director for the American Association of School Administrators, observed that most districts buy spare parts for the lowest prices available and do not have testing equipment on hand to ensure that they meet standards.
"They generally hold the manufacturer accountable for the integrity of the product," she said.
When Education Week this month distributed NHTSA's list of suspect bolts to 10 of the largest school districts, at least 3 of them reported that they found or had had suspect bolts in their maintenance shops.
In the Dade County, Fla., district, Jack W. Serig, director of transportation, ordered an inspection of the parts bins in the district's warehouse and five transportation cen8ters. He reported finding and removing 40 suspect Grade 8 bolts with the hollow triangle marking that he said were manufactured by Infasco, a company that produces bolts in a number of foreign countries.
In the Houston school district, Michael G. Christman, superintendent of vehicle management, said inspections conducted in 1987 and 1988 had found that about 2 percent of the district's bolt supply was suspected of being counterfeit.
In addition, Mr. Christman said, Houston's inspections found that 40 to 50 percent of the district's bolts had been improperly plated by area distributors seeking to cut costs. As a result, he said, the bolts were susceptible to becoming brittle and breaking, potentially causing leaks in buses' exhaust manifolds.
In Philadelphia, Bob Nagel, manager of maintenance for the school district, said the district removed large numbers of suspect Grade 8 bolts from its supply several years ago after linking the bolts to failures in bus exhaust systems. The system now uses only Grade 9 bolts, he said.
Mr. Hurd, the NHTSA spokesman, said his agency has alerted the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation so that word of the problem will spread to state and local transportation directors.
But George Davis, president of the association, said this month that he had not been informed that districts should check key areas of their buses for suspect bolts or that his organization was being relied on to notify states and districts of the situation.
Mr. Davis said the official who served as president of his organization two years ago received from the federal agency on May 8 a list of suspect bolts and a clipping from the trade publication Commercial Carrier Journal describing the problem as it applied to trucks and commercial buses.
"But," Mr. Davis said, "there is no direct request that I can see here for our association to do anything."
In contrast, officials at school-bus manufacturing companies say theyel15lhave known about the bolt problem for at least a year and have taken steps to keep bad bolts from being installed.
Don J. Hardin, vice president of sales and marketing for Carpenter Manufacturing Inc. in Mitchell, Ind., said his company has avoided the problem by using only domestic bolts.
Officials of the other four major U.S. school-bus manufacturers--Thomas Built Buses of High Point, N.C., Blue Bird Body Company of Fort Valley, Ga., Wayne Corporation of Richmond, Ind., and American Transportation Corporation of Conway, Ark., which manufactures Ward school buses--said they regularly test their bolts or require their suppliers to certify the bolts as meeting Society of Automotive Engineers standards.
"The school-bus industry has one of the safest records of any mode of transportation known to man," asserted Jerry D. Williams, president and chief executive officer of American Transportation Corporation.
"That has has been wrought," he said, "because there are five manufacturers who have been in business for years ... and they have always kept the safety of their passengers in mind. If we don't do that, we are not going to be in business very long."
Nevertheless, some bus manufacturers acknowledge that they, like manufacturers in other industries, are vulnerable to being supplied mislabeled or substandard parts.
Morris Adams, vice president of marketing and corporate affairs for Thomas Built Buses, admitted that his company has sold one small group of buses with counterfeit, unmarked bolts within the past three years.
"We missed it," Mr. Adams said, adding that the bolts were discovered by a school district and the company sent replacement bolts to all districts that had bought the buses.
In an separate incident, Joe T. Mirabella, director of transportation for the Cherry Creek school district in Aurora, Colo., said his district recently inspected five newly delivered 1989 Thomas Built buses and found Grade 5 fasteners with the suspect KS marking and other suspect markings in all five. Most were fastening seats to the floor.
Mr. Mirabella said he sent a five-bolt sample back to the company, which responded by sending him the results of laboratory tests certifying the bolts as meeting standards as well as a letter assuring him that all of the company's fasteners meet industry standards. The district nonetheless plans to inspect all its buses for the bolts, Mr. Mirabella said.
American Transportation, which accounts for about one-fifth of the school-bus market, was among 50 vehicle and component manufacturers whose names were obtained from various customer lists seized by the Customs Service from distributors accused of shipping counterfeit or substandard bolts.
Mr. Williams of American Transportation said company officials discovered that some bolts being held in inventory for future use in the internal structure of buses were on the NHTSA list as suspected counterfeits. But, he said, the bolts were checked and found to be authentic.
The director of transportation for the Denver schools, Phil H. Vannoi, said a recent investigation by station KUSA-tv there led his district to discover suspect bolts in the tracking that helps hold wheelchairs in place in a small number of 1986 Blue Bird buses. The bolts were removed and replaced.
Herman Light, director of quality assurance and customer service for Blue Bird, said one of the company's distributors had had the tracking installed after the buses left the factory.
Blue Bird customers "may have some buses with head markings that people say are suspect," he added, "but we do enough testing to be convinced that the bolts meet sae standards."