Two transit workers accused of driving their empty, out-of-service buses so recklessly side by side that they scraped together just before one crashed off a busy interstate and down an embankment were ordered Friday to stand trial on charges they endangered other motorists.
Juliann Maier and Thomas Frauens were "racing" 65 mph in a 55 mph zone before Maier's bus veered violently off the interstate in September, Port Authority of Allegheny County police contend.
Maier's defense attorney, Joel Sansone, called the evidence against the drivers "a joke" after the hearing and said his client was nearly killed driving a bus whose steering and brakes weren't working properly.
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"What kind of idiot would try to play tag with a bus like that?" Sansone said.
But a Pittsburgh police vehicle inspector, Officer Ryan Carr, testified he found no mechanical problems that would have caused either bus to lose control.
Sansone showed Carr pictures of a damaged stabilizing bar that Sansone said his expert found on Maier's bus. Carr testified the bar, called a sway bar, didn't appear damaged when he inspected the bus after the Sept. 22 crash and denied problems with the brake lines.
Port Authority Officer Matt Geffel testified about surveillance video from Frauens' bus, which appears to show Frauens, 56, waving to Maier, 46, as he passed her on the left and then holding a hand in the air and making a "buggy whip" gesture before she passed him. The video eventually shows Maier's bus, which was in the right-hand lane of Interstate 279, moving rapidly back and forth within feet of Frauens' before suddenly veering out of the picture.
Motorist Brittany Biddle, one of four motorists police say were close enough to have been endangered by the bus drivers, testified she was pulling onto the highway from an onramp when she saw Maier's bus go perpendicular to the lane and crash over the hillside.
Three other motorists testified, including one who pulled off the highway because he was concerned about the way the buses were jockeying with one another. Another driver said she saw the buses scrape or bump one another just before Maier crashed.
Maier, who's from Ross Township, broke bones in the crash of her bus. She used a cane to walk to and from court on Friday. Frauens, who's from Pittsburgh, wasn't injured.
Prosecutors said Maier and Frauens endangered many innocent people.
"If the second bus had lost control and impacted oncoming traffic, the results could have been catastrophic," Allegheny County district attorney's spokesman Mike Manko said.
Frauens' attorney, Bruce Carsia, made several of the same arguments as Sansone but also is defending his client from charges he wrongly left the scene of the crash. Carsia argued nobody has proved the buses scraped and, even if someone did, Frauens' didn't realize it so he had no legal duty to stop.
"He only has a duty to stop if he knows he's in an accident," Carsia argued.
Geffel testified laboratory tests that would confirm whether paint scrapings from a crease on the outside of Frauens' bus came from Maier's bus aren't back yet.
City Magistrate Eugene Ricciardi disagreed and ordered Frauens to stand trial on leaving the scene charges and both drivers on four counts each of reckless endangerment and several traffic citations. Neither driver commented after the hearing.