A labour dispute between Quebec's automobile insurance board and its roadside inspectors has left school-bus operators scrambling to figure out how to keep hundreds of propane-powered buses on the road.
Société de l'assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ) regulations require that school buses be fitted with black or grey bumpers, except for electric ones that are required to use blue ones.
The distinct colours allow first responders to identify quickly what type of vehicle they are dealing with in the event of an accident.
Despite the green colour not yet having been authorized, manufacturers in Quebec have been putting bright-green bumpers on propane-powered buses for some years now.
The province's school bus federation says it has been flooded with calls from anxious operators of propane-powered buses who have been stopped by traffic inspectors ever since they began targeting buses with green bumpers on Wednesday.
The union representing the SAAQ roadside inspectors, whose members have been without a contract for more than two years, acknowledge the checks are a pressure tactic.
"The school buses are being targeted for mechanical checks," Nathalie Rainville, a negotiator with the Fraternité des constables du contrôle routier du Québec, told Radio-Canada.
"All the buses are checked periodically to ensure emergency exits are compliant, to ensure there are enough seats. We are also checking the colour of the bumpers."
Rainville said some delays in school bus service could happen as a result.
Not an April Fool's joke
"It's sort of taking the children hostage," said Luc Lafrance, the president of the federation of school bus operators. "At the rate it's going, I'm worried there won't be enough buses to get the kids home at the end of the day."
Lafrance says some of his members have received notices of non-compliance for the colour of their bumpers in the past, but until now, he has never seen buses pulled off the road.
But as of Wednesday, about a dozen propane-powered school buses have been impounded by roadside inspectors.
"I thought it was an April Fool's joke," said Félix Guévin, the president of Groupe Guévin, a school bus operator based in Saint-Léonard-d'Aston, southeast of Trois-Rivières.
"I understand the SAAQ's regulations as far as safety is concerned," Guévin said. "If a wheel doesn't meet the regulations, or if there are poorly made welds … I can understand that. But this is just the color of the bumper: it doesn't change the safety of the vehicle in any way."
He said an inspector escorted one of his drivers to a garage after she was stopped, so that the bumpers could be painted quickly with a can of black spray paint before it was allowed to return on the road.
He's been rushing to spray paint the bumpers on the remainder of the propane-powered buses in his fleet since then, although he said it is just a temporary fix since the paint wears off quickly.
"There are immense risks. If our vehicles are stopped like this every day we won't have enough buses in our supply," Guévin said.
The union representing the road inspectors is unapologetic, as it said talks with the province have stalled.
"The job of roadside inspectors has not been reassessed since 2001. Their tasks have increased. Their responsibilities and mandate have also changed. What we are asking from the Treasury Board is the same salary that correctional officers are earning," Rainville said.
Green bumpers safer, says industry
Players in the industry have been urging the province to allow green bumpers on propane-powered buses for several years now, said Michel Labrie, the sales director with Autobus Girardin, a Drummondville-based school bus manufacturer.
Blue bumpers were officially authorized for use in electric school buses last summer. However, the Transport Ministry failed to follow up on requests to allow for green bumpers on propane-powered buses, he said.
"We firmly believe that the green bumpers are a very important safety item, as much as blue bumpers on electric vehicles are," said Labrie.
The province's tow-truck association also believes the green bumpers indicating a school bus is propane-powered is an important safety feature. The association pushed for the use of the colour while taking part in consultations with the SAAQ and the Ministry of Transport, but to no avail.
"It's really a question of safety, especially now, while the Highway Safety Code is being overhauled," said Réjean Breton, president and CEO of the Association des professionnels du dépannage du Québec (APDQ).
The office of the Minister of Transport didn't respond to Radio-Canada's requests for comment.