Defects rife among city school buses

Inspection failures outpace rest of state in past three years

25% of vehicles flunked

Baltimore's fleet is oldest in Md.

maintenance difficult

February 24, 2002|By Michael James and Andrew A. Green | Michael James and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

School buses in Baltimore fail state safety inspections far more often than those in any other Maryland jurisdiction, and many are so old that surrounding counties would bar them from carrying children.

Some violations are as simple as a tiny hole in an exhaust pipe, but inspectors have also seen buses with front bumpers falling off, brake fluid spewing from hoses and, in one case, a bus so decrepit that it had to be towed from the inspection yard.

In almost all cases, the major defects are found a few hours after the buses delivered children to school.

County officials say contractors with a fraction of the violations seen in the city would have been fired long ago.

"You can't continue to have problems and not sometime in the future have an accident due to mechanical failure," said Norman D. Seidel, director of transportation for Harford County, which had the best school bus inspection record in the metropolitan area. "I think you're rolling the dice."

An analysis by The Sun of city and Motor Vehicle Administration records for more than 3,100 buses in the metropolitan area shows that:

More than 25 percent of public school buses in Baltimore failed safety inspections in the past three years, several times the percentage of most other school systems. Buses in most area counties fail less than 10 percent of required inspections.

Using buses cast off from other jurisdictions, Baltimore contractors have amassed the oldest fleet in the state. A third of the city's 364 buses are more than 12 years old, an age at which maintenance becomes difficult and costly.

Among school systems that allow older buses, maintenance practices vary widely. Some counties have nearly spotless records, while some buses in the city are continually cited for violations. None of Prince George's County's older buses and only one of Baltimore County's 28 were cited for major violations this year, while more than half of the city's older buses were cited, one of them for eight violations.

Regulations in area counties prohibit companies with multiple violations from transporting students, but city officials have rescinded only one bus contract in the past two years despite several instances of multiple violations.

The bulk of violations found by MVA inspectors occurred in buses owned by a small group of city contractors. Of more than 200 bus contractors in the Baltimore area, three in the city account for 36 percent of all safety violations. Those companies are Allender Group, Gladney Transportation and Barber Transportation.

Baltimore bus company officials defend their records by saying that most problems are minor and are fixed immediately. City school officials say they take maintenance seriously and sanction companies with poor records.

Bus companies note that serious accidents are rare - which is true not only in Maryland but in every other state. A combination of a heavy-duty frame, relatively slow speed and an emphasis by legislators on frequent safety inspections has made school buses the safest mode of travel in the country, with fewer than 10 deaths reported a year.

In Baltimore, the school system operates a handful of buses on its own, but most bus transportation is handled by 20 private companies under contract with the city.

Area counties have a larger number of contractors and far better inspection records than the city. Anne Arundel County has 39 private contractors; Carroll County has 67; Baltimore County has four; and Harford and Howard counties have 52 each, records show.

Most accidents driver error

City records show that most of Baltimore's bus accidents are caused by driver error, not mechanical failure. In fact, MVA records show that no accident in the last three years is attributable to mechanical failure. In the city's 1998-1999 school year, for instance, there were 231 accidents involving city school buses - and 225 of them involved property damage of $500 or less. The majority of the accidents occurred in parking lots or on streets where the bus was traveling less than 20 mph.

The bulk of the violations found by MVA inspectors, who are in charge of cataloguing all inspection records for the state's 8,500 public school buses, occurred in buses owned by a small group of city contractors.

Leading the pack is Allender Group, the city's second-highest-paid contractor at $1.6 million a year, with 66 violations on its fleet of 28 buses in the past three years. Allender was in the news in January when one of its buses crashed into a house the day that it failed a safety inspection.

Gladney Transportation, a contractor that receives $1 million from the city, has seen every bus in its fleet fail at least one inspection in the last three years. And Barber Transportation racked up 26 violations with a fleet of 14 buses.

Representatives of several bus companies say the failed inspections aren't a problem because they correct the defects and because there's no evidence that they cause accidents.

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