City takes away routes from school bus firm

MVA had forbidden carrier to use vehicle that later crashed

January 11, 2002|By Erika Niedowski, Eric Siegel and Del Quentin Wilber | Erika Niedowski, Eric Siegel and Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school officials have taken away 30 of 32 routes assigned to a company whose bus crashed into a house, injuring several children, just hours after the company had been ordered not to transport passengers on that bus because it had failed a routine state inspection.

School officials said yesterday that they have turned over the routes to other bus companies while they investigate the accident Tuesday involving a bus owned by the Allender Group.

The school system wants to determine what caused the accident in Northeast Baltimore and why the company was using a bus that should not have been carrying students.

Until the investigation is completed, school officials are allowing the company - which has a $1.6 million contract - to keep just two routes, saying they can monitor that number comfortably.

"We don't ever want to think that we are putting students' safety in jeopardy," said Valencia Baker, the school system's head of pupil transportation.

City police have ruled out mechanical failure and said yesterday that they strongly suspect driver error as the cause of the crash.

Police said they were checking into the health of the driver, James Fields Jr., who had complained about blacking out during the accident.

Fields and another adult on the bus as well as seven children suffered minor injuries in the crash in the 2300 block of E. Cold Spring Lane. The bus was returning children home from the Woodbourne Day School, which serves students with emotional problems.

Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration inspection records show that the bus involved in the crash, which is 12 to 14 years old, had a broken window on the right side - a defect considered "major" by the state agency.

The vehicle was one of nine Allender buses inspected Tuesday morning by the MVA. Seven failed, MVA records show.

The buses' license plates were confiscated after MVA inspectors discovered 14 defects considered "major" on the buses. The MVA replaced the license plates on those buses with paper tags specifying that the buses could not carry passengers and were allowed to be driven only to garages for repairs or for re-inspections.

The fact that the bus involved in the crash had its tags revoked by the MVA was first reported Wednesday by WBAL-TV.

City schools Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo said she believed the window had been repaired before the accident, but records show the bus had not been re-inspected and cleared by the MVA to carry passengers.

School officials said they did not know whether any of the other six buses that failed inspection improperly carried passengers. Baker said the school system was told by Biff W. Allender, owner of the bus company, that they did not.

A man at the West Baltimore bus yard who was identified by others there as Allender declined to comment.

"Right now I don't feel like talking," said the man, who would not identify himself.

Major infractions discovered this week by MVA inspectors on the company's other six buses included fluid leaking from a brake system, a broken stop sign used to protect children crossing streets, broken brake lights, a malfunctioning ignition switch, a broken front bumper, a broken mirror, a tailpipe that did not extend beyond the rear bumper, and a tailpipe that had become separated.

MVA inspectors revoked the licenses on 15 other Allender buses Tuesday because they were never taken for their scheduled inspections.

On Wednesday, MVA inspectors went to Allender's yard and removed the tags from those buses and also confiscated the temporary repair tags.

"We didn't want him driving them anymore," said David Sitko, manager of the MVA's vehicle safety technical program.

Two of Allender's buses passed inspection Monday.

In September, 10 of Allender's buses failed inspections but all were repaired within days, and MVA officials returned their license plates, according to records and interviews.

Under state law, the MVA inspects buses that are at least 12 years old twice annually. Newer buses are inspected once a year.

MVA officials said they did all they could to keep the buses off the road and plan no further action. Sitko said it was up to school officials to revoke Allender's contract.

"My authority is to take the tags and put the vehicles out of service," he said.

The school system is awaiting a report from its transportation division before deciding what, if any, action to take.

The school system's contract allows it to fine the company $50 for failing to present a bus for a scheduled inspection and $100 for failing an inspection. The school system also has the right to withhold payment or terminate the contract.

Under its contract with the school system, the company, which also operates as Allender Bus Service, transports 250 to 300 special and regular education children to seven schools, officials said.

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