Bus firms due exam

City school officials will check vehicles for all companies

`A complete review'

Vendors to be asked to provide evidence of safety compliance

January 12, 2002|By Eric Siegel and Del Quentin Wilber | Eric Siegel and Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's top school official pledged yesterday to examine all the 20 companies that provide bus transportation for city schoolchildren after the crash of a bus that should not have been carrying passengers.

"I will do a complete review of all the buses and all the companies," said Carmen V. Russo, chief executive officer of the city schools.

Elaborating later, a school spokeswoman said that each company will be asked to meet with the transportation director, and possibly Russo, to provide evidence that buses and drivers are in compliance with state and city regulations.

"We're pulling each and every vendor in to make sure they are following the regulations to the letter of the law," spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt said.

Yesterday's announcement of the broad-based review of all 20 companies - which could begin as early as next week - occurs a day after school officials said they had stripped 30 of 32 routes assigned to the Allender Group. Allender owned the bus that crashed into a house Tuesday in Northeast Baltimore, injuring several children, hours after the company had been ordered not to transport passengers on the vehicle after it failed a state inspection because of a broken window on the right side.

Russo said the improper use of the bus was the result of a "miscommunication," explaining that although the window had been repaired, the driver didn't realize he couldn't use the bus until it was reinspected.

"That was the step that was missing," Russo said. She based her statement on a conversation between Biff W. Allender, owner of the Allender Group, and the city school's transportation director, according to Pyatt.

Efforts to reach Allender and James Fields Jr., driver of the bus that crashed, were unsuccessful.

Police said they were going to subpoena the medical records of Fields, who claimed that he had blacked out during the accident.

Fields could face charges of driving on improper tags, because the state Motor Vehicle Administration had pulled the license plates and issued temporary paper tags that allowed him to drive it only to have repairs done or for reinspection, police said.

Under state law, driving with improper tags is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500. Allender officials could also be cited if they were found to have aided or caused the violation.

Fields also could face other driving charges or driving with a commercial driver's license without having proper medical certificates, police said.

Police ruled out a mechanical problem, and said the bus was traveling about 20 mph when it crashed into a house in the 2300 block of E. Cold Spring Lane.

Fields, another adult and seven children suffered minor injuries.

Police said they did not draw Fields' blood after the crash because they did not have probable cause and did not suspect he had been under the influence of drugs or alcohol. There is no requirement under state law to take blood or urine samples from school bus drivers involved in crashes - unlike train engineers who are involved in crashes.

Fields, 60, of the 300 block of Farwind Drive in Middle River, was issued his commercial driver's license in November 1997. He has no points on the license, an MVA spokeswoman said.

In 2000, Fields was found guilty in traffic court of failing to transport a child younger than age 4 in a child safety seat, computerized court records show. In 1998, a judge dismissed a charge against him of driving through a red light, records show.

The bus he was driving was one of seven Allender buses that failed inspections Tuesday. Three have had their defects corrected, were reinspected and had tags returned, said David Sitko, manager of the vehicle safety technical program for the MVA. But Allender has not brought in 16 other buses for MVA inspection, Sitko said. License plates from those buses have been removed, he said.

The problems were discovered during an inspection this week of buses that are at least 12 years old. Buses of that age are inspected twice a year. Newer buses are inspected once a year.

The last MVA inspection of older buses owned by companies with contracts with the city school system was in September.

Of 27 Allender buses brought in for inspection then, 10 had their tags suspended, records show. That was twice as many as any of the other dozen companies with buses more than 12 years old, records show, although Allender has more older buses than any of the other companies.

The MVA will continue its inspection of older school buses through next week.

Sun staff writer Erika Niedowski contributed to this article.

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