I am joined by my colleagues, Mr. Liam Duggan, director of fatal testing and enforcement, and Ms Katheleen Callanan, who is responsible for enforcement operations. I thank the joint committee for the opportunity to address it on the matter of safety of the school transport fleet.
The responsibilities of the Road Safety Authority in respect of buses are confined to implementing and enforcing particular regulations for roadworthiness, drivers' hours, tachograph, operator licensing and driver certificate of professional competence. We also provide high-quality and reliable information to inform decision making, positive development and so on, and we collaborate with An Garda Síochána and other State agencies to improve enforcement and advocate improved road safety. From an institutional perspective, the school transport scheme is operated by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills.
The institutional, funding and contractual arrangements for delivering school transport, including services for children with special needs, are matters between the Department of Education and Skills and Bus Éireann. Aside from the Bus Éireann transport scheme, there are also instances where school transport services are delivered through a private arrangement with parents or schools outside of the Department of Education and Skills scheme.
From a large public service vehicle licensing perspective, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the National Transport Authority and An Garda Síochána each administer particular regulatory functions in respect of passenger vehicles. The role of the enforcement unit in the Road Safety Authority is to check the roadworthiness condition of buses at the side of the road in conjunction with the Garda and to act in an advisory capacity to An Garda Síochána by providing mechanical and expert assistance where required. In addition, we conduct inspections at operator premises to verify compliance with maintenance obligations for vehicles, driver and operator compliance with tachograph and driver hours and operator licensing as well as driver certificate of professional competence checks at the roadside and in premises.
RSA data for roadworthiness relates to buses generally rather than specifically buses involved with school transport because there is an overlap. We have set out in table 1, which is before the committee, the results of the past four quarters in compliance rates and compliance at first visit at roadside and during premises inspections. Committee members can see that for the year from July 2017 to the end of June 2018 there were 873 school bus inspections at the roadside. This resulted in an average compliance rate, excluding minor items, of 68%. Of the 873 inspections, 268 buses or 30% had a major defect and a further 37 buses or 4.3% were deemed to be dangerously defective. These roadside inspections involve a visual examination of the vehicle without the use of equipment. The most common defects detected related to tyres, brake lights and steering leakages. In the same period, we undertook over 1,063 premises inspections looking at maintenance obligations and their compliance. The average compliance on the first visit in these instances was 52% and this increased to over 63% at a follow-up inspection. This compliance data is not indicative, and should not be taken as reflective, of compliance of the national fleet. Rather it reflects our enforcement findings derived from applying a risk-based approach. Effectively, we go after the riskier operators in cases where we deem vehicles require further attention.
In the determination of defects detected during inspections our inspectors use the EU classification of defects. Under the EU classification a major defect is one that may prejudice the safety of the vehicle, one that has an impact on the environment, one that puts other road users at risk or where other significant non-compliance issues are at hand. A dangerous defect is one constituting a direct and immediate risk to road safety or having a direct impact on the environment such that the vehicle should not be used on the road in any circumstances. All our vehicle inspectors undertaking inspections are qualified mechanics and undertake continuing professional development.
In developing our strategic approach to enforcement we have a combination of regulatory tools to promote and encourage operators and drivers to improve compliance with legislation. The efficiency of these tools is kept under constant review and some new instruments may be needed particularly in respect of options for fixed charges, which must be effective and dissuasive. The tools available to us aim to put road safety first and encourage operators to apply good safety practices in their day-to-day activities. Such practices include walk-around checks, regular preventative maintenance and other measures to prevent collisions and incidents where vehicles breakdown and cause delays at the roadside.
A key part of this strategy is the application of a risk-based enforcement approach, as I have already mentioned. This operates at the roadside and at operator premises. Effectively, this means we are targeting those operators thought to be most at risk of non-compliance based on previous encounters and encounters based on the annual check. I have put together a table of the measures we operate in our toolbox with other stakeholders, including the Garda, the NTA, the Department of Education and Skills and the Health and Safety Authority. By applying this risk-based approach, compliant operators are inconvenienced to the least extent possible and thus our scarce enforcement resources are used where they are most needed. We are not stopping compliant operators on the roadside needlessly. We apply a risk-based approach in line with European and international best practice. Where defects are found in the course of roadside inspections, our inspectors, in conjunction with An Garda Síochána, may take steps taking account of the severity and nature of the defect. The steps may include taking the vehicle off the road, requiring the operator to present the vehicle for an immediate commercial vehicle roadworthiness test or requesting evidence of repairs or potentially required repairs to be completed at the roadside before we permit the vehicle to continue on its journey. Our inspectors highlight any major or dangerous defects detected to the garda attending the inspection so that consideration can be given to issuing a fixed charge or taking a prosecution against the vehicle operator concerned. Issuing of fixed charges is a matter for An Garda Síochána.
Our testing data show over 14,057 buses were tested under our commercial vehicle roadworthiness testing regime during the period from 1 July 2017 to end June 2018. The average pass rate of the vehicles was 59%. This shows an improved trend but it is disquieting that during this period 307 buses or 2.2% were identified as being so defective as to be deemed to be dangerously defective. Our data show that the older the bus, the higher the fail rate at the annual test. Hence, the importance of ensuring a proper and adequate preventative maintenance regime is in place for school vehicles.
It is evident from the number of dangerously defective vehicles detected at the annual test that there are several unscrupulous operators who fail continually carry out preventative maintenance. This is a systematic failure by the owners concerned. It is unacceptable practice and clearly a blatant disregard for road traffic law. It also reflects a failure to appreciate the potentially adverse road safety effects for the general public of using such a vehicle. Operators have a clear obligation to ensure vehicles being used on the public road are roadworthy at all times and not only for the annual test. It is an offence to use an unroadworthy vehicle on the public road. We take a stepped approach to enforcement involving an advisory approach first of all followed by other enforcement tools such as direction notices. That opens up the possibility of prosecution in cases of continued failure to comply with the legal obligation. In the vast majority of cases operators respond positively but the authority will not hesitate to initiate proceedings in circumstances where there is evidence of continuing non-compliance.
We have continuously reviewed the measures we use to improve compliance. I have set out eight such measures for the committee. These include direct awareness campaigns on the importance of roadworthiness and preventative maintenance. We have specific programmes on social media as part of the overall back-to-school awareness campaign. We focus on those directly hiring buses, whether they are parents or young people. We encourage them to seek assurance from the operator concerned about compliance and assurance that the operator is compliant with road transport law, including commercial vehicle roadworthiness law. We have a continued high level of roadside roadworthiness enforcement. We operate on a multiagency basis, including with An Garda Síochána. We have continued enforcement at the premises. Enforcement is targeted at those who we believe to be higher-risk. We use this to the maximum effect by using our commercial vehicle operator risk indicator. We have an enforcement presence in conjunction with An Garda Síochána to check the roadworthiness at key events, for example, at concerts and popular tourist destinations. We have continued engagement with Bus Éireann and the Department of Education and Skills to ensure all buses operating under the transport scheme are fully compliant with all relevant road transport and traffic law.
Arising from this engagement the RSA understands that Bus Éireann has updated the tendering process for the school transport scheme and now requires all bus contractors to submit a detailed questionnaire that includes specific questions regarding that operator’s maintenance regime. It has also updated the tendering process to a centralised model rather than being completed by local and regional offices, which Bus Éireann has advised should bring greater standardisation and consistency in the procurement of school bus services. We have engaged with the road transport operator licensing unit of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to agree a formal process for sharing of information by RSA with the road transport operator licensing unit. This information may be useful to the Department in the ongoing work in the area of operator licensing monitoring.
Bus transport is generally recognised as being one of the safest modes of surface transportation. The national bus fleet provides passengers with remarkably safe travel compared with other road vehicles. The children and students who use buses every day to travel to school or other venues, either through the school transport scheme or other privately operated services, are precious cargo and parents, children and students deserve the safest possible transport system. Every day parents and guardians put their trust in bus operators and drivers to get their children to and from school or other activities. This is a heavy responsibility and one that the authority, as well as other agencies and bus operators and drivers, must take seriously. We all remember the tragedies of the Kentstown and Clara crashes in 2005 and 2006, respectively, where young students were killed arising from issues relating to bus safety and maintenance.
Bus safety is a key part of our overall commitment to road safety and operators have specific responsibilities under road traffic legislation to operate safely and to use buses that are roadworthy all the time and not just on the first day of school and the day of the annual test. The majority of school bus operators take their responsibilities seriously and implement good practices in respect of the maintenance and roadworthy condition of their vehicles but there is no room for complacency. The authority encourages the public to tell it about any concerns they have about the standard of roadworthiness of buses. Despite high standards for safety and statistics that indicate bus collisions are rare in Ireland, any collision or incident involving any bus is a cause for concern, whether the incident is a minor one or a more serious event resulting in injuries or fatalities.
We and the Garda Síochána are working closely to improve bus operator compliance. We will be continuing our enforcement campaign and making use of new powers available to Road Safety Authority vehicle inspectors to prohibit, detain, immobilise and seize dangerously defective vehicles. Finally, the Road Safety Authority is dedicated to promoting improved standards of bus roadworthiness and improving overall compliance within the bus sector by collaborating with other agencies and stakeholders to achieve that objective.