When a state inspector spotted a full-size school bus on the road with no brake lights, he ordered the Specialty Transportation Inc. vehicle back to the company's yard for a full examination.
Inside the gates, bus drivers were eager to see him.
"While in yard, several drivers approached me and advised that the company was not fixing defects," Sgt. Garfield Green wrote in his notes of the April 2008 inspection, in which he found 16 violations. "After inspecting the bus that I stopped, I can see where the concern may be valid."
A Courant analysis of nearly 30,000 school bus inspections in Connecticut magnifies that concern. Among larger school bus operators, Specialty had by far the worst maintenance record in the state in 2009, with inspectors declaring its buses unfit to carry students nearly seven out of 10 times. Specialty's buses on average had five times as many serious violations as buses statewide, and nearly 75 percent more on average than the large bus company with the second-worst record, Autumn Transportation, whose buses were taken off the road in six out of 10 inspections in 2009.
It was an Autumn bus that crashed in January, killing a Rocky Hill student, and the driver was an employee of Specialty. The two companies, which transport special-education and magnet-school children in Hartford, operate from the same bus yard, have the same shop foreman and use the same mechanics.
Bennett Grossman, president of Specialty, and Salvatore Marotta, president of Autumn, both said they were surprised by the high percentage of out-of-service buses, and said they have increased safety and maintenance efforts since the crash.
"We've been doing this a long time. We take this very, very seriously," Grossman said. "We take the safety of the kids very seriously."
Overall, more than 25 percent of the roughly 7,500 school buses carrying children across the state were ordered off the road in 2009 during routine safety inspections. More than 600 buses had serious brake problems; another 200 had transmission leaks. More than 100 had serious problems with emergency doors and more than 300 had problems with crossing gates or lighted stop signs that extend when a bus is picking up or dropping off students.
Many vehicles were repeat offenders. Among buses that were ordered out of service in 2008 and reinspected in 2009, more than 70 percent were ordered out of service again — sometimes for the same problem, even after carriers had certified that repairs were made.
After a January 2007 check of buses at the New Britain Transportation Co., Inspector Douglas Lecco ordered a Ford van out of service because gas was dripping from the fuel tank. When he returned in June 2008, he found the same van's gas tank leaking and ordered it out of service. Last October, when Lecco inspected the van again, he once again found fuel dripping from a leak in the tank.
For another New Britain Transportation Co. vehicle, inspectors on four consecutive inspections ordered a bus out of service because a dashboard light indicated a possible problem with the braking system.
Peter Agostini, president of New Britain Transportation, did not return a telephone message seeking comment.
For some inspections, state officials specifically noted that earlier violations had not been corrected — even in cases where bus companies had claimed the repairs had been made.
In an inspection last October on a 16-year-old van operated by Windham Technical High School, the inspector noted eight violations, from minor paperwork issues to leaking axles, that had been certified as repaired when the work had not been done.
"FALSE STATEMENT MADE ON INSPECTION REPORT, signed as repaired under penalty of false statement," Inspector Bonnie Morin wrote in her report.
William Seymour, a spokesman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles, said that state-owned technical school buses are repaired at multiple facilities and that officials are investigating to determine if false statements were made or if there was confusion or miscommunication about maintenance.
"We're literally in the process of still sorting that out," he said.
Seymour said the agency audits buses with multiple out-of-service records. "In these instances, we reinspect buses with the resources we have and ... issue tickets that carry fines and do spot inspections later," he said.
Seymour said a reinspection last July led to the arrest of the shop foreman for Specialty and Autumn after inspectors concluded that he signed off on repair work that had not been done. The case was later dropped, and Grossman said it was a misunderstanding over paperwork.
But such an arrest is the exception. When Green, the DMV inspector, pulled over the Specialty Transportation bus with no brake lights, among the 16 problems he found were inadequate seat anchors and a defect with the rear emergency door that made it difficult to open. Those same violations were among 14 problems found on the same bus during an inspection eight months earlier.
After the April 2008 inspection, Green wrote that spot checks would be conducted to make sure Specialty was performing necessary repairs. But the next recorded check on the bus came 16 months later — when an inspector found the emergency door and the seat anchors were still a problem.
Grossman, the president of Specialty, said a repeat violation does not necessarily mean the repair work was not performed.
"A thing like that, it might have slipped by. But it might also have broken again," he said. "It could be one of the two."
Asked if he was sure that his buses were being repaired after inspections, Grossman said, "I'd say now they are."
Some Better RecordsOverall, inspectors found 26,000 violations in 2009, including more than 4,500 serious enough to take a bus out of service. William Moore, executive director of the Connecticut School Transportation Association, a bus company trade group, said not all out-of-service violations indicate critical safety problems. Torn seats that expose the metal frame can lead to an out-of service order, as can multiple inoperable interior lights.
"Without knowing what the specific violations are, it's kind of difficult to really say if [25 percent out of service] is a high number," Moore said, "because it could go anywhere from lights not working in the interior of the vehicle to faulty brakes."
But Moore also said the state mandates policies designed to spot problems early, including daily driver inspections of their vehicles and full mechanical work-ups at least every 90 days. "You've got a system of redundancies and backups built in to make sure the vehicles are meeting the strict safety requirements that Connecticut has and the feds have," Moore said.
The five large bus fleets with the best inspection records in the state collectively had nearly 900 buses inspected last year, with only 14 ordered out of service. All Star Transportation buses, for example, were inspected 562 times last year, with only two taken out of service.
"I can tell you the reason why a lot of those companies have problems," said John Dufour, All Star's owner. "They don't do their maintenance until the DMV shows up and tells them what is wrong."
Dufour said his company, which is based in Waterbury and serves 26 towns, mostly in Litchfield County and the Naugatuck Valley, spent more than $1.5 million to outfit each of three garages with state-of-the-art equipment. He employs one certified mechanic for every 30 buses.
"This company has been in our family for years and we take pride in the buses we put on the road," Dufour said.
Statewide, there was a slight improvement in bus inspections last year, with 25.5 percent of buses ordered out of service, compared with about 29 percent in each of the previous two years.
But both Specialty's and Autumn's inspection records declined dramatically in 2009. Specialty buses were found deficient in 69 percent of inspections last year, but in only 35 percent of inspections in 2008.
At Autumn, buses were ordered out of service 60 percent of the time last year, but only 34 percent of the time in 2008. And in 2007, inspectors found a serious violation in only 2 percent of Autumn's inspections.
Grossman and Marotta said their poor ratings might be explained, in part, by a large number of newly purchased buses, which are inspected — and sometimes found out of compliance with Connecticut's standards — before they are put on the road. But excluding first-time inspections for the companies' vehicles actually yielded higher out-of-service rates.
Grossman said the 2009 data excluded a number of minivans he also uses for student transportation. There are 15 Specialty-owned minivans last inspected in the summer of 2008, one to two months after they were purchased by the company, and none was taken out of service after that inspection. Including those vehicles would lower Specialty's out-of-service rate last year to 61 percent.
Specialty and Autumn serve special-education and magnet-school students in Hartford, including suburban students who travel long distances to attend Hartford schools, and Marotta said those runs — to Wallingford, Colchester and Enfield — also take a toll on buses.
"We'll have suburban buses putting on 25,000 miles per year, vs. an in-city bus doing about 10 or 12 [thousand]," he said.
"Think of all the things that go wrong with a bus," Grossman said. "It's all the ruts in the roads in Hartford that you hit. These are all stop-and-go, so the brakes get worn more, there's more wear and tear. And items, even on brand new buses, can break. They break frequently."
Since the January accident, Grossman said he and Marotta have spent about $100,000 each hiring outside firms to ensure that their bus fleets are in good working order. "So we have every single one of the vehicles in our fleet right up to snuff," he said.
"I don't want that to be construed that it wasn't up to snuff before, but we just did this to double-check and make sure everything was proper," Grossman said. "So we put a lot more safeguards in there, and more rules and regulations, and we are more on top of it than we've ever been."
Moore, from the school bus trade group, said out-of-service rates in the 60 percent to 70 percent range should set off alarms. "That's an extremely high number," he said. "The company probably needs to have some serious work done and the Department of Motor Vehicles probably needs to focus in on those companies and make sure that they are putting safe buses out on the road."
Seymour, the DMV spokesman, said the agency attempts to keep pressure on companies with poor inspection records.
"With available resources, we address as we can egregious companies by follow-up inspections when possible, tickets/fines for violations and further out-of-service orders when repairs are not made," he said.
Seymour said the department also plans to publish the out-of-service rates for school bus companies so school officials and the public are aware of the companies' records. He also said bus maintenance is ultimately the companies' obligation. "Daily driver inspection reports are required by regulation and we advocate to the companies that pre-trip reports should be done, which means more frequent checks."
School buses in the state averaged just under three minor or major violations at each inspection last year, although more than one in four passed without a single violation.
Others had myriad problems.
One 15-year-old bus owned by the town of Killingly has been hit with a total of 62 violations during annual inspections over the last three years, including 14 out-of-service violations.
A Durham School Services bus inspected last year was found to have 30 violations, including 17 that made the bus unfit for service. The violations included problems with the bus' headlights, taillights, brakes, doors, steering, seats, exhaust, transmission and stairs. Within three months, Durham dropped the bus from its fleet.
Last month, a Specialty bus rear-ended an SUV in Hartford, causing minor injuries to eight students. Although mechanical problems have not been implicated in the crash, that bus' last inspection found 27 violations, including 11 out-of-service violations — eight of which involved brakes.
By contrast, B and B Transportation in Bethany, which had 65 buses inspected last year, had just 23 violations in total, without a single bus ordered out of service. Bradley Cohen, who runs the company with his wife, Beth, said four mechanics keep the buses on a strict maintenance schedule. The business also purchased sophisticated GPS systems for every bus that do more than simply track location and speed.
"The GPS will literally tell us that Bus 22 needs a brake inspection in 1,000 miles, or that another bus is due for a safety check in 500 miles," he said.
And, like many family-owned companies, his is a hands-on operation. Cohen had to cancel an interview with a reporter recently when an unexpected driver shortage had him jumping behind the wheel for an after-school run.
"At the end of the day, we need to be able to sleep at night," Cohen said. "The safety of the children always has to be No. 1, no matter what the cost is."