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Incident echoing '91 school bus tragedy prompts DMV action

Published 5:08 pm, Tuesday, January 8, 2013
  • A view of DATTCO buses parked in the Imperial Avenue lot. DATTCO received nine tickets from the Department of Motor Vehicles for violations recorded by DMV inspectors during a Nov. 28 visit to DATTCO's Post Road East bus yard. Photo: Paul Schott / Westport News
    A view of DATTCO buses parked in the Imperial Avenue lot. DATTCO received nine tickets from the Department of Motor Vehicles for violations recorded by DMV inspectors during a Nov. 28 visit to DATTCO's Post Road East bus yard. Photo: Paul Schott

 

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Westport's school bus contractor was slapped with nine tickets in November by the state Department of Motor Vehicles for mechanical violations on buses after DMV officials responded to a Coleytown Middle School parent's complaint about bus safety that was eerily reminiscent of a school bus tragedy in town two decades earlier.

The citations are detailed in DMV records obtained by the Westport News.

DMV officials were contacted Nov. 26 by the parent, Brook Porter, after a Nov. 14 incident in which her son's backpack strap caught in the school bus' doors as it drove away. A bus surveillance video showed the driver opening the door before fully stopping the vehicle and driving off without checking to ensure that the pupil was clear of the bus, according to a DMV report. The bus "driver and/or monitor quickly observed what had happened and the bus was immediately brought to a stop," the report added. The boy was unharmed as he slipped off the backpack.

The driver, Ralph E. Nebelung, was issued two infractions for failure to perform driver's duties and failure to safeguard school children.

The incident revived memories of the December 1991 death of Holly Finley, an 8-year-old Westport girl who was killed when a cord from her jacket became caught in a school bus railing as she was leaving the vehicle at her driveway. The bus driver, unaware the young student's clothing had become entangled in the vehicle, drove off and the girl was dragged beneath the bus.

In the aftermath of the similar bus incident last Nov. 14, DMV inspectors made an unannounced safety audit at DATTCO's school bus yard at 304 Post Road East, adjacent to the town-owned Baron's South property. During that visit, DMV inspectors found violations in 26 of the 46 buses they reviewed that day. Nine of those buses were temporarily taken out of service after DMV inspectors issued nine tickets for violations related to a leaking fuel tank, a faulty prop in a back emergency door and several inoperative lights.

The school buses reviewed by DMV inspectors "appeared to have an above-average violation ratio for its size," according to the DMV report.

DMV inspectors did not report any mechanical violations on the bus involved in the Nov. 14 incident. They evaluated the bus' door-handle mechanism and its service entrance area and found no "catch points," according to the DMV report.

"This incident resulted mainly due to the driver not performing his duties as required and not a mechanical issue," the DMV report added.

In recent years, DMV officials have repeatedly found issues with DATTCO school buses registered in Westport. During approximately 370 inspections between February 2005 and December 2012, DMV inspectors found about 670 violations relating to DATTCO's Westport bus fleet, which included problems with bus parts such as brakes, lighting, steering, tires, windshields and emergency equipment.

DATTCO's record, nonetheless, compares favorably to those of many of its peers. Between September 2011 and August 2012, 6.2 percent of DATTCO buses placed out of service were taken off the road because of a DMV annual inspection, good enough for the company to record that year one of the 12 lowest out-of-service rates among the approximately 30 carriers in Connecticut with more than 20 registered school buses.

Bus safety has emerged in recent months as a contentious issue in the Westport school district, since a pair of Oct. 18 incidents on another Coleytown Middle School bus when a bus driver was accused of making obscene and threatening remarks in front of students. That driver -- Daniel Florio, 44, of Norwalk -- was fired for the reported misconduct and faces several criminal charges related to the outbursts. In response to the Oct. 18 incidents, the Board of Education last month approved new reporting procedures for complaints about bus driver misbehavior.

But many parents of children who rode Coleytown Middle School's Bus 16 have excoriated education officials' and DATTCO's response to the Oct. 18 incidents. In particular, they have expressed anger the driver was allowed to drive the Bus 16 afternoon run on Oct. 18 after students who ride Bus 16 complained to Coleytown Middle School staff that he made inappropriate comments during that day's morning run.

Porter, meanwhile, has criticized the school district's handling of the Nov. 14 incident involving her son.

During the Dec. 17 school board meeting, she faulted education officials for not reporting the incident to the DMV and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and added that district administrators initially resisted a request that she and her husband made to watch the video of the mishap recorded by the bus' surveillance camera.

"Our feeling is the parents need to know about it and the school board needs to know about it," she said. "We need to report it so we can be helped. And hiding things doesn't help and I think the district needs to manage DATTCO. DATTCO clearly has some problems. And this board needs to manage their employees."

DATTO management has defended the company's performance in Westport, arguing that it has strong safety protocols and comprehensive driver training programs.

"We're not pleased that they found nine buses to have violations, but we're confident that we have a good maintenance program," said DATTCO Chief Operating Officer Cliff Gibson. "Most of the items that they showed us on the buses were of a small or minor nature. There weren't any major safety situations with brakes or tires or steering or anything like that. There's a lot of pride in our maintenance program."

Eight of the nine DATTCO buses that received tickets Nov. 28 were repaired and returned to service for their afternoon runs that day, according to Gibson.

Before Nov. 14, Nebelung had an "otherwise clean record," according to Gibson. After the incident involving Porter's son, Nebelung was issued a disciplinary suspension and was retrained by DATTCO master instructors on passenger discharge procedures, he said. Nebelung has since resumed driving his bus route in Westport, Gibson added.

Each DATTCO bus driver in Westport attends 10 in-service training sessions per year, according to Gibson.

Despite parents' unhappiness with DATTCO's performance, education officials have not indicated the New Britain-based company is at risk of losing its five-year contract with the Westport school district, which runs until June 2015.

"I'm disappointed in those instances, but an incident can always happen," Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon said. "We've been fortunate in the sense that nobody has been hurt."

Board of Education Chairwoman Elaine Whitney declined to give an assessment of DATTCO's record.

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott