I assure the Deputy that the safety of children travelling on the school transport service is of paramount importance to my Department and to Bus Éireann. In recent years, a range of measures to enhance safety and to improve the quality of the school transport service has been put in place, both in the vicinity of and on board school buses. These measures include the phasing out of the 3 for 2 seating arrangement on primary and post-primary services and the provision of an individual seat equipped with a seat belt to all children. Over 80% of buses in the school transport fleet are owned by private operators on contract to Bus Éireann while the remaining vehicles are owned by Bus Éireann. Private operators are contractually obliged to keep their nominated vehicles in a safe and roadworthy condition at all times. In addition to the standards required by Bus Éireann, contractors are required to meet an extensive range of regulations and standards set out by the Department of Transport for the use of buses in public places. Bus Éireann has a wide range of checking procedures in place in addition to the statutory vehicle examinations to ensure, as far as reasonably possible, that a safe and reliable service is delivered. These procedures are reviewed on an ongoing basis to ensure that appropriate standards are maintained and improved upon, where possible.
In 2005, my Department gave approval to Bus Éireann to acquire 111 modern second-hand buses and 50 new dedicated school buses. In addition, the Bus Éireann school bus fleet has some 400 large capacity buses that were transferred from the general service fleet into the dedicated school transport bus fleet. Some 110 buses have been transferred in the last two years and they represent another valuable source of replacement buses over this period to continually improve the age profile and condition of their school bus fleet. The average age of the large capacity school bus fleet is 12.5 years, while the average age of all vehicles including minibuses and cars is about nine years. With regard to the age and condition of buses, I emphasise that an older bus does not mean an unsafe bus. All vehicles operating under the School Transport Scheme are required to meet the statutory regulations as laid down by the Department of Transport. As long as they continue to meet these requirements and are maintained regularly to a good standard, there is no reason an older bus should not be used for this purpose. Where vehicles have over eight adult seats and are more than one year old, they are required to pass that Department's annual roadworthiness test.