Runaway bus wheels imperil people on streets

MTA logs 16 instances in Baltimore since August

Cause still under investigation

15 riders and 5 drivers have claimed injuries

May 26, 2002|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Rear wheels have fallen off Maryland Transit Administration buses at least 16 times since August in a series of accidents that have baffled MTA officials, resulted in injury claims from bus drivers and passengers, and imperiled pedestrians and motorists in the path of the 200- pound wheels.

These types of accidents are so unusual that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration knows of only one case of a bus losing a wheel anywhere else in the country in the past three years.

But MTA officials waited until after the 10th incident in Baltimore to launch an internal investigation last month. And as the accidents continue, they still aren't sure what is going wrong.

Four weeks ago, a pair of left rear wheels from a bus heading north on Calvert Street rolled off into early-morning traffic across Lombard Street. One wheel hit a curb, bounced up "at least 14 feet," slammed against the wall of a McDonald's, then spun on the pavement, said bus driver Robert B. Allen. The other cruised past the Brookshire Suites Hotel and toppled over near a parking garage.

"It was something like out of a movie," said Allen, an MTA bus driver for 32 years. "The traffic light on Lombard was red, thank God. If it had been green, the tires would have probably killed someone."

Norma Powell, a passenger on one of four buses whose wheels came off last month, remembers smoke billowing into the crowded vehicle and panicked passengers racing to get out. "A great big tire was laying in the middle of Belair Road," she said. "Oh my Lord, I couldn't believe it."

Safety experts say even one incident of a wheel falling off a bus should receive immediate attention.

"This is a problem you would want to address right away," said Peggy Fisher, a Detroit-based consultant for bus and truck fleets. "You're talking about a lot of weight being propelled even at 20 miles per hour. It can cause tremendous destruction."

In Baltimore, buses lost wheels at least once in August and January, three times in February and twice in March. Four more incidents were reported in April, and five so far this month, according to MTA records.

Acting MTA Administrator Virginia White, the agency's top executive, has kept the investigation a discreet internal affair, but it has been marred by infighting and an apparent conflict of interest on her part.

According to interviews and documents obtained by The Sun:

White failed to disclose the extent of the problem, including the number of incidents and reports of injuries, even to her bosses at the Department of Transportation. They learned the scope of the problem only a few days ago.

Wheel manufacturers - typically the first to be called in during such accident investigations - were notified by the MTA about vague wheel problems two weeks ago. As of early last week, they still had not been told the number of incidents or that buses had lost wheels.

White excluded the MTA's safety department from the investigation team and blocked an independent inspection of buses arranged by the safety department. And when a safety officer reported a potential wheel maintenance problem in the MTA's largest shop, on Bush Street, White challenged the officer's authority.

Frank White, the acting administrator's husband, runs the shop on Bush Street - an apparent conflict of interest that some say is complicating the investigation.

State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, who learned the magnitude of the incidents early last week, has launched an independent audit of all records on the problem and has asked an outside firm to investigate the wheel failures and MTA's response.

"We have to absolutely get to the bottom of this," Porcari said late last week. "No one would want to be in the vicinity of a wheel coming off a bus. ... Something needs to be done immediately."

An official with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration described such incidents as "very rare."

"If it looks like a pattern - and two incidents can be a pattern - we'd want to investigate," said NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd.

Maintenance and operations employees, including those in the Bush Street shop, say the wheel problem was evident as early as February. Virginia White said in recent interviews that even one incident is too many and deserves immediate attention. But she said she didn't recognize a pattern of wheel failure until April 20, after three incidents occurred in four days. On that date, she said, she began an investigation. By that time, 10 buses had lost wheels.

"That to me raised the flag that this was not our normal way we operated," she said. Since then, she added, she has conducted a "proactive and very, very comprehensive investigation."

She suggested that a wheel coming off was not necessarily dangerous. A rear wheel would almost always "fall off in place, just tip over on its side," and the bus frame would likely catch it, she said.

"Rolling down the street? God, I hope not," White said.

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