- The Washington Times - Monday, May 27, 2002

BALTIMORE (AP) Rear wheels on city buses have fallen off at least 16 times since August, and the Maryland Transit Administration is scrambling to fix the problem.
Fifteen passengers and drivers have filed injury claims with the department.
The 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, the Baltimore Sun reported.
Four weeks ago, a pair of left rear wheels rolled off into early morning traffic.
One wheel hit a curb, bounced up "at least 14 feet" and slammed against the wall of a restaurant, bus driver Robert B. Allen said.
"The traffic light on Lombard was red, thank God," said Mr. Allen, an MTA bus driver for 32 years. "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.
Safety experts say even one incident of a wheel falling off a bus should receive immediate attention.
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, the Sun reported.
Frank White, the acting head's husband, runs the agency's largest shop, an apparent conflict of interest which some say is complicating the investigation.
State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, who learned the magnitude of the incidents early last week, has opened an independent audit of all records on the problem.
"We have to absolutely get to the bottom of this," Mr. Porcari said late last week.
The MTA said it has started an aggressive campaign to replace the studs on the rear wheels of the nearly 800 buses in its fleet.
As of Friday, 147 buses had new wheel studs, the MTA said. The administration hopes to have new studs on all buses by mid June.
"Teams of MTA employees have thoroughly investigated products and internal procedures to identify and implement a solution," Miss White said.
The administration is also changing procedures used by mechanics during wheel changes.
It has spent $250,000 to address the problem, but accidents continue.
On May 10, a bus lost its newly installed right rear wheels. Loose wheels have also been discovered on other buses that had supposedly been fixed, according to John M. Lewis, acting assistant manager of bus operations.
MTA officials have a couple of theories regarding the cause of the loose wheels.
Employees using powerful air-pressure wrenches may have used too much force when putting on the nuts that secure the wheels, perhaps weakening the bolts or "studs" and causing them to fracture.
Managers suspect that some mechanics did not get adequate training.
In a written report on another incident, a driver described losing control of a bus and hitting a guardrail.
"A lot of the drivers are afraid to drive the buses," said Kevin Wise, an attorney representing two drivers in worker-compensation claims.


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