City gives bus firm a reprieve

School officials restore about half of suspended routes

Involved in crash last week

MVA to destroy tags of 17 vehicles owned by Allender Group

January 17, 2002|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Saying that they are feeling "more comfortable with the situation," Baltimore school officials restored yesterday about half the suspended bus routes to a transportation company whose bus crashed into a house last week and injured several children on board.

At the same time, the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration said yesterday that the agency is destroying the license tags of 17 of the company's buses that had been suspended after a recent citywide inspection of school buses. The company, Allender Group, owns 34 buses.

The school system's decision will allow Allender, whose buses have a spotty inspection record, to recoup about 15 bus routes that city officials had taken away pending an investigation of the accident Jan. 8 in Northeast Baltimore. Allender, one of the city's largest contractors, was not legally allowed to be carrying children on the bus in question because the vehicle had flunked a state inspection earlier in the day.

"We feel more comfortable with increasing the number of [Allender] buses, because many of the problems with them have been corrected," said Edie House, a city schools spokeswoman. "We felt that based on information we've been getting in our investigation that it's safe to start increasing the company's routes."

Allender will be allowed to operate its remaining 17 buses in the city school bus program. School officials had said last week that they were limiting Allender to two of its 32 contracted bus routes.

The scaling back stemmed from not only the accident, which occurred after the bus driver reportedly blacked out, but because of more than a dozen major defects on Allender buses that were identified this month in inspections by state motor vehicle officials.

Biff W. Allender, owner of the Allender Group, didn't return a reporter's phone call yesterday.

David Sitko, manager of the state MVA's vehicle safety and technical program, said inspectors confiscated this month 17 license tags from Allender buses. The first of those buses was the one in the Jan. 8 accident and the other 16 were "no-shows" at a required round of inspections by MVA officials that began 10 days ago, Sitko said.

"We'll be destroying the tags for the buses that were no-shows, as well as the bus from the accident," Sitko said. "They won't be allowed on the road. As far as we're concerned, if you don't show up for an inspection, the bus isn't safe."

In a list issued yesterday by MVA officials, Allender had more major defects - 14 - and more suspended tags - 23 - than any other city contracted bus company inspected this month. The next highest on the list was Gladney Transportation, with 11 major defects identified and 10 suspended tags. Most city bus companies on the list had no more than three major defects and usually one or two suspended tags.

Motor vehicle officials said Allender's major defects included broken brake lights, a broken mirror and a broken stop sign used to protect children crossing streets.

The accident occurred in the 2300 block of E. Cold Spring Lane, hours after Allender had been ordered by MVA officials not to transport passengers on the bus because inspectors found a broken window on the right side. The driver, James Fields Jr., 60, was traveling about 20 mph when he says he blacked out and crashed into the house.

A broken window is considered a "major defect" by state motor vehicle inspectors because of the dangers posed by loose shards of glass around children, Sitko said. School officials said last week that Fields apparently took the bus out on the road after believing that the window had been fixed.

"It's nice that the window was supposedly fixed, but that didn't give him any right to drive that bus," Sitko said. "He has to re-present the vehicle for inspection. That bus was without a doubt transporting students illegally."

Every school bus operated by city contractors is required to undergo three inspections per year.

House, the city schools spokeswoman, said officials are focusing on the 17 Allender buses that have passed inspections, rather than the 17 that have had their license tags taken away.

"The problems have been corrected," she said. "We are comfortable with 17 buses that have passed and which got the green light to go back on the road."

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