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Safe behind the wheel? Maine public schools employ bus drivers with OUI, speeding, other violations

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Safe behind the wheel? Maine public schools employ bus drivers with OUI, speeding, other violations

PORTLAND — School districts go to great lengths to make drivers aware of school buses – from the buses' eye-catching yellow color, to their bright flashing lights, to advertising campaigns aimed at reminding folks to drive safely.

But driving safety is a two-way street, and an examination of the personal driving records of some southern Maine school bus drivers reveals parents can't assume their children are being transported by drivers who always obey the law.

The survey found some area school districts check their drivers' personal driving histories at least annually, while others haven't checked in several years. When districts do check, some are more tolerant than others about past violations and accidents.

Eleven districts were asked to provide records under Maine's Freedom of Access Act. Most provided reports going back 10 years, while others only provided three-year histories.

Although the personal driving records do not indicate fault in the case of accidents, or if accidents or moving violations occurred while the drivers were operating school buses, the difference between the three- and 10-year reports is not insignificant.

The longer view

In several cases, the 10-year reports reveal serious driving infractions that may not show up on a three-year record, including operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs and multiple speeding violations.

The records in Portland reveal that 50 percent of the city's 26 school bus drivers have no convictions or accidents within the last three years. The percentage drops to 38 percent in the last 10 years, and 19 percent of the drivers have multiple accidents and/or convictions.

In one case, a driver whose record only showed two incidents in the last three years – an accident and a seat belt violation – had nine convictions from 2002-2006, including three violations for speeding or improper passing.

In another case, a driver with six convictions from 1988-1999, including speeding, failure to keep in lane and improper passing, had only one conviction in the last three years, for not wearing a seat belt.

In South Portland, 77 percent of the city's 26 drivers have neither an accident nor a conviction on their three-year reports. The percentage drops to 52 percent when the 10-year history is considered.

The 10-year report also indicates the South Portland School Department employs two people with prior convictions for operating under the influence, and one of them appears to have two OUIs.

Although 80 percent of drivers in SAD 75 (Harpswell, Topsham, Bowdoinham and Bowdoin) have neither an accident or conviction in the last three years, four have multiple incidents, including one driver with two speeding violations and an accident.

But according to the 10-year reports, the district employs a driver with convictions for OUI, operating after suspension and driving 82 mph in a 65-mph zone. Eight drivers have multiple offenses, including a driver with two speeding violations, two failures to obey traffic signals and an improper turn.

In School Administrative District 51 (Cumberland, North Yarmouth and Chebeague Island), 77 percent of the district's 30 drivers have no accidents or convictions in the last three years.

According to the 10-year reports, however, that percentage drops to 53 percent; eight drivers have multiple accidents and/or convictions.

Sixty-two percent of Falmouth bus drivers have no accidents or convictions in the last three years, but six drivers have multiple incidents, mostly for two or more accidents.

A 10-year review shows only 33 percent without an accident or conviction and seven with multiple incidents, including one driver with a speeding conviction and four accidents.

Only one of 18 bus drivers in Brunswick has a conviction in the last 10 years. Four have accidents, and one has two accidents.

The shorter view

Districts that provided only three-year records may appear to have safer drivers, although they aren't spotless.

Regional School Unit 1 (Bath, West Bath, Phippsburg, Woolwich and Arrowsic) hires the Bath Bus Service to transport its students. Only one driver has an accident in the last three years, and 95 percent of the drivers have accident- and conviction-free personal records.

Scarborough drivers also have relatively good three-year records, although one driver was convicted of driving 45 mph in a 25-mph zone. Only one of the 30 drivers has multiple incidents, and 73 percent have no accidents or convictions.

Although six of the 10 drivers employed by RSU 5 (Freeport, Pownal, Durham) have accidents on their records, none have convictions for driving violations.

Two of Yarmouth's 12 drivers report accidents and two others have multiple incidents: one with two accidents, and one with an accident and two convictions.

The Cape Elizabeth School Department, which had a month to comply with the FOAA request, provided only drivers' names and did not provide their driving records.

Who's driving

Portland Public Schools Transportation Director Kevin Mallory said the city's 26 school bus drivers drove nearly 413,000 miles last year.

Over the last 10 years, there have been 95 incidents involving the city's school buses, but Mallory said only one of those incidents was a moving violation – a driver who ran a stop sign.

Mallory, who said drivers must file reports even if they only nudge a snow bank, also said one student was hurt in an accident several years ago when a bus rear-ended another vehicle. That bus driver was removed from the staff, he said.

But of all of the school districts, Portland had one of the highest percentages of school bus drivers with recorded accidents or convictions: 62 percent over the last 10 years.

One driver had nine convictions from 2002-2009: driving 53 mph in a 35-mph zone, improper passing, operating with a suspended registration, operating with a license expired for more than 90 days, failure to stop for a red light, failure to produce evidence of insurance, driving 83 mph in a 65-mph zone, driving 38 mph in a 25-mph zone, a suspension for failure to file insurance, and violation of the seat belt law.

"I didn't see anything in that record that was so ridiculous I wouldn't give the guy a chance," Mallory said.

Another driver has seven convictions, mostly between 1988 and 1999: three speeding violations (no details provided), failure to keep in the proper lane, failure to stop at a stop sign, and operating without proper equipment.

Another had two speeding convictions in 2002: driving 51 mph and 60 mph in 35-mph zones.

And another had three accidents since 2010, although the report does not indicate who was at fault. 

Drivers are required to report new violations and accidents to the district, and Mallory said he pulls their records annually to double check.

"We keep tabs on them," he said.

In South Portland, which provided reports pulled in 2010, two drivers have OUI convictions.

One driver appears to have two OUI convictions in the state of Arizona, one for alcohol in 1991 and another suspension for alcohol or drugs in 2000. But that driver does not have any accidents or convictions between Dec. 31, 2006, and May 19, 2010.

Another South Portland driver was convicted of OUI in 1998 and had his license suspended. In 2000 and 2008, he was convicted of failure to display a valid inspection sticker, and in 2005 he was convicted of improper display of registration plates.

Another driver was convicted of failing to obey a traffic control device in 2001, and another, who had accidents in 2009 and 2010, was convicted of driving 15-29 mph over the speed limit.

SAD 75 also employs a driver with a previous OUI conviction, from 1996. That driver was later convicted of operating after suspension in 2002 and for driving 82 mph in a 65-mph zone.

Who decides?

Caitlin Chamberlain, spokeswoman for the Maine secretary of state's office, said her agency is in charge of endorsing school bus drivers and will not certify anyone with an OUI within the last 10 years or three minor traffic violations within a five-year period.

David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said the DOE fingerprints bus drivers and conducts criminal background checks every five years.

After drivers have those endorsements, it is up to local school districts to decide what they're willing to accept on a driving report, except in cases where a license is suspended.

The school districts vary in how vigilantly they conduct history checks and how tolerant they are of what is found.

SAD 75 hadn't checked most driving records since 2004, according to Bradley Smith, the district's new superintendent of schools.

On the other hand, SAD 51, which provided three- and 10-year reports, checks driving records twice a year, according to Scott Poulin, the district's director of finance, human resources and operations.

He said SAD 51 runs nearly 250,500 miles of bus routes a year and each bus is equipped with GPS devices, so central office staff can follow speeds and routes. 

Poulin said there have been nine minor accidents involving buses in the last 10 years.

"I haven't had any incidents where students were injured," he said.

Poulin said when speeding and other convictions, as well as accidents, appear on personal driving reports, he speaks with the drivers before deciding whether the incidents should preclude the driver from employment.

"We're not going to put someone into a bus without a halfway-decent driving record," he said. "If I see someone with an OUI, I wouldn't be able to hire them."

In Portland, Mallory said it is not difficult to find drivers with clean driving records, especially in this economy. But he said he considers several factors when it comes to driving records.

Mallory said he is more inclined to give younger drivers a break, especially if their convictions occurred when they were teenagers. That was the case with the driver with nine convictions, who is now in his late 20s.

"If it happened when they were teenagers, I give them the benefit of the doubt," Mallory said, noting most veteran bus drivers have years of violation-free credits. "(He's) a driver ... who I'm taking a chance with, but I really think it's going to work out well and (his) record is going to improve."

Like Poulin in SAD 51, Mallory said he would never hire a driver who has an OUI conviction.

That standard does not apply in South Portland, which employs two drivers with previous OUI convictions, or in SAD 75, which has one driver with a prior OUI.

Getting by with OUI

South Portland School Business Manager Rafe Forland said the driver who has two prior OUI convictions in Arizona is a long-time employee who only drives a bus when necessary.

"She's rarely getting into a bus anymore," Forland said. "When she does drive, (the transportation director) has full confidence in her."

Forland said the district would not disqualify an applicant from driving a school bus simply because of a prior OUI conviction.

The driver in question was convicted once in 1991 and had her license suspended again for OUI in 2000.

Another South Portland driver's report indicates his license was suspended in 1998 as an administrative action for operating with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent (the legal limit) or more.

"I can't say we'd be blind there was a past history there," Forland said. "But we'd want to make sure we're not punishing someone for something that happened a long time ago."

SAD 75 Transportation Director Bill Donovan said he relies on the state standard regarding OUIs and revoked licenses: The state will not certify a driver with an OUI within the last 10 years or a revoked license with the last six years.

Donovan said he hired a driver with a 15-year-old OUI conviction because the driver didn't try to hide the violation in her job interview and fared well as a month-long temporary driver and during six months as a probationary driver.

"She has had a regular school bus route since her hire, and her driving has been unquestionable," he said.

In keeping track of drivers, Donovan said multiple recent incidents, such as criminal speeding or traffic accidents, would prompt him to speak with the driver and document the session.

"More serious violations would be handled on a case-by-case basis," he said. "What would concern me is any pattern or trend."

Falmouth School Department Transportation Director Topper West also said he wouldn't disqualify a driver with a prior OUI, as long as the driver has a valid endorsement from the state.

West said many years ago a driver was convicted of OUI while driving a personal vehicle and was removed from the staff.

Falmouth police check school bus drivers' personal records annually, West said.

"I just feel we need to keep track of everything we need to keep track of for reasons like this," he said, "and to make sure that nothing is going on that we should be aware."

'I'm proud of my drivers'

Regardless of the way their record-keeping and enforcement policies vary from community to community, school officials unanimously maintain that their bus operations are safe and parents shouldn't be worried.

Mallory said bus safety has improved throughout Maine. He said 15 years ago "anyone that had any license at all was being dragged off the street and put in a bus because the economy was good."

Mallory said that was never the case in Portland, which he says has a track record of safety.

"Four hundred twelve thousand miles with a handful of fender-benders is a pretty damn good record," he said. "I'm proud of my drivers."

Forland said he believes students are safe on South Portland's buses, too.

"We'd never cut corners in terms of who we put behind the wheel," he said, noting the district checks driving records annually. "We feel like we vet our drivers and we monitor our drivers."

'If something happens ...'

Cape Elizabeth Transportation Director Janet Hoskin said her district's buses, which travel 470 miles a day, are also in good hands.

But parents have to take her word for it.

The School Department does not keep copies of school bus drivers' records and, unlike the 10 other school districts surveyed, would not compile them in response to an FOAA request.

Despite that, personal driving reports are considered public records and can be found online – if you have a driver's name and date of birth.

But Bruce Smith, an attorney who represents all the school districts except SAD 75 and RSU 1, would not authorize the release of birth dates. That left it up to the districts to decide whether to supply the documents.

Hoskin said Cape Elizabeth confirms its school bus drivers' histories by calling the town police, who provide the information over the phone. She said she uses those annual, but informal, check-ins to make sure drivers are being honest.

"We have a fairly one-town concept in this district," she said. "The police certainly know the employees who are out on the roads, and they see what happens in other districts ... so if something happens we usually hear about it within a day."

Policy change ahead

Smith, the new SAD 75 school chief, said the FOAA request exposed a flaw in his district's system for hiring school bus drivers.

In attempting to comply with the request, Smith said he discovered some of the district's records were only as recent as 2004.

Smith initially refused to turn over the records because they contained personal information, such as birth dates, license numbers and home addresses. But after consulting with the district's attorney, he agreed to provide redacted copies.

Smith said the district will now be checking its drivers' records annually.

"Part of what's come out of this, in conversations in our district, is we need to be doing that," he said. "Even though there may not be a legal requirement to pull drivers' records annually, we're going to start doing that."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

Photo: Rich Obrey / For The Forecaster
Buses leave Scarborough High School.

Photo: Paul Cunningham / For The Forecaster
School Administrative District 51 buses line up to drop off students in North Yarmouth.

Photo: Paul Cunningham / For The Forecaster
Buses full of students leave Brunswick Junior High School.