I will call on the Deputies who tabled questions on the tragic bus crash in County Meath to the Minister for Education and Science in the order in which they submitted their questions to my office.
Private Notice Questions.
Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Science the steps she intends to take to review the safety of the school bus fleet in view of the shocking accident involving a school bus in which five young girls lost their lives; and if she will make a statement on the matter.
Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Education and Science if she will review the safety of school transport in the wake of the bus tragedy in County Meath in which five persons died; and if she will make a statement on the matter.
Ms O. Mitchell asked the Minister for Education and Science if, following the tragic accident that left five persons dead and many more critically injured she will immediately end the practice whereby one out of every three children is permitted to stand in a moving bus; if she will commence a programme of seat belt installation in all school bus services; if she will end the practice whereby buses considered unfit for normal passenger services are diverted to the transportation of schoolchildren; if she will ensure a full, speedy and transparent investigation into the cause of this accident and the lessons to be learned from same.
Ms Shortall asked the Minister for Education and Science to outline the steps she will take to address the issue of safety on school buses in light of the tragic accident in County Meath yesterday.
Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Education and Science the response of the Government to the horrific school bus crash on 23 May 2005 in Navan, County Meath; the need to revisit the recommendations of measures to improve safety in school buses made in relevant reports published by various bodies including the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science between 1990 and 1999.
I offer my sincere sympathy to the parents, families and friends of those who were killed in the appalling and tragic road accident at Cannistown yesterday. I also sympathise with those who are injured and their families. The country has been shocked by this event which has cut short the lives of five girls who had everything to live for and who were journeying from their close-knit school communities to their homes and families. It is a heart-rending tragedy which has left no one unmoved.
I extend my gratitude to the emergency services, which responded so quickly and magnificently to this accident. Their contribution has been tremendous and has alleviated much pain and suffering. The speed of the response and the degree of co-operation between the ambulance service, doctors, nurses, the Garda and all concerned was exemplary. Similarly, the level of support the people affected have received from their communities has been a source of inspiration to everyone. It has been a terrible time for those local communities but their cohesion and sense of neighbourliness has offered real solace to the families involved.
Psychologists from the National Education Psychological Service visited the local schools affected this morning to support teachers and pupils through this traumatic period. The best advice given to us is that these pupils need a secure place and familiar surroundings in which to grieve and to come to terms with the effect this accident has had on their young minds. We are all conscious of the affect such a horrific experience would have on these young people and are doing all we can to counsel and support them. The NEPS personnel have been trained to cope with this type of situation and know the best way to deal with the various reactions such an event will evoke in young people.
In regard to the accident, its causes and the issue of safety, I must be circumspect in terms of making any premature judgment before the results of the Garda, Bus Éireann and Health and Safety Authority investigations are available. The factors which have contributed to this devastating accident must clearly be analysed and examined before we consider the appropriate action to take. The safety record of the school bus service is very good. The regulations and the underlying policy governing buses in general and school buses, in particular, take this record into account. It is also a good record because of the skill of school bus drivers and the expertise of Bus Éireann, which administers the service.
Bus Éireann operates the school transport service on behalf of the Department of Education and Science. It is a massive transport operation which covers over 40 million miles each year. More than 138,000 children, including 8,000 with special needs, are transported every day to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country. If, following the three investigations to which I have referred, it is found necessary to change existing regulations or policies because of the outcome of this incident, I assure the House that this will be done.
Existing regulations which do not require the fitting or use of seat belts in buses, including school buses, and permit seating three school children to two seats have been criticised in the past and have been the subject of recommendations for change. Having regard to these, my Department has been in discussion with Bus Éireann about its proposal to phase out the three for two arrangement in the next two or three years. This is not just in response to yesterday's tragic accident; it has been an ongoing process. We would like to see the changes implemented, particularly because many more older students travel on school buses than did so when the policy was adopted more than 30 years ago. The fact remains that safety on school buses has been vastly superior during this period to the general level of safety of children in respect of other forms of road transport.
EU Directive 2003/20 requires seat belts to be used where they are fitted. This directive must be transposed into national law by 9 May 2006. From that date, the three for two rule will no longer apply in respect of any school buses that are fitted with safety belts. No date has yet been set for proposals which are being progressed at EU level that will extend the requirement for seat belts to be fitted to all seats in all vehicles, with the exception of buses used on stage-stop routes. When this requirement becomes law, all new school buses registered from that future date will require to be fitted with seat belts. It is not expected this directive, which is in preparation, will provide any mandatory retrofitting of seat belts in existing buses. The practicality of retrofitting on safety grounds is questionable.
In regard to the use of seat belts, the investigations to which I have referred will deal with this issue and I am reluctant to pre-empt their finding. However, the use of seat belts on school buses is not as straightforward as some people imagine. Designing seat belts to fit four year olds and 17 year olds which can be easily escaped from if a bus is inverted or on fire and ensuring compliance in the use of such belts are problematic issues which must be addressed. The existing safety record of the school bus service has provided the rationale for the existing policy. If that policy needs to be changed, this will be done.
Measures are being taken to improve safety. In January I initiated a warning flashing light pilot scheme on school buses. These lights reduce the risk of accidents in the vicinity of buses as pupils descend and where safety research has shown the majority of accidents occur. It is planned to roll out the scheme on a phased basis to other parts of the country following a successful evaluation of that pilot project. The question of introducing legislation to require motorists to slow down on approaching a school bus showing flashing lights is also being examined. This can be done by statutory instrument.
I emphasise that an older bus does not mean an unsafe bus. All buses in the school transport fleet, both those operated by Bus Éireann and those privately owned, are checked annually for road worthiness. No bus which is unsafe or dangerous is allowed on to the road to carry children. This tragic accident has been a traumatic experience for all affected.
I sincerely wish all the injured students and their families well. Our thoughts, prayers and condolences are particularly with the families of those young girls who went out to school yesterday but who, sadly, did not return.
I thank the Minister of State for her response and I acknowledge the visit by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, to the area last night. All our thoughts are with the families, the children who were in the bus, their friends, school colleagues, teachers and the communities affected.
I acknowledge that there is no indication that alterations to the school bus would have made any difference in regard to the accident. We await the results of the three investigations. However, people expect us to raise questions today. Listening to the Joe Duffy show today as I was driving to Dublin, people, while thinking of the families, were raising questions about the safety of school buses for the children who travel on them every day.
In the spirit of trying to ensure the House can collectively reach conclusions on this issue, I wish to raise some questions with the Minister of State. In reply to a question tabled on 26 April, she informed me that the review of the school transport scheme was at an advanced stage. When does she expect that review to be completed? In regard to the EU directive which is to be implemented from May 2006, I am seeking an assurance that the Government will not seek a derogation. I understand there is a possibility of derogations being allowed. People want assurances that whatever measures are proposed will be implemented.
What is the projected cost of getting rid of the three for two system, whereby three children can occupy two seats in a bus, and the related question of installing seat belts in school buses? A figure of €57 million was suggested but I am not sure where that figure comes from or whether it is the €14 million per annum suggested following the Oireachtas joint committee report in 1999. Will the Minister of State clarify whether that is the appropriate figure? I believe I echo the views of everybody in the House and of people in general when I say this is not a large amount for ensuring the safety of children in school buses. I acknowledge the points made by the Minister of State that there may be technical issues to be examined but nevertheless these should not be an obstacle to ensuring children are safe in school buses.
A letter received by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science in response to questions raised about school transport stated the average age of the fleet is 15.5 years. The committee was also informed the cost of retro-fitting seat belts would be approximately €38,000 per bus. Will the Minister of State clarify those points?
There is a strong feeling that whatever the cost, the Government would have the full backing not only of all parties in this House but also of all the people. Lessons must be learned from this tragic accident. I acknowledge it may not have made the slightest difference if changes had been made to the bus in question but it would be a fitting monument, if that is the right word, if lessons were learned from this tragic accident.
The Deputy has raised a number of very salient points. Before I address those I wish to update the House on events in Navan. I went to Navan hospital today at 9.30 a.m. to attend a meeting with the principals of the four schools, their career guidance counsellors, hospital staff, the health professionals from the region, representatives of the vocational education committee, Bus Éireann and the National Educational Psychological Service from the Department of Education and Science. The meeting was chaired by Boyd Dodds, the child care manager for County Meath.
The first priority of the meeting was an update on the medical condition of the pupils concerned and then to draw together the counselling strands. Everyone is concerned for the siblings of the children who, sadly, have died or have been injured, their parents, the pupils who were on the bus and those in the school community who may also be affected. Concern was also expressed for the teachers, who are in the difficult position of having to show leadership while also suffering from trauma, and the members of the small community. There was a desire that the many strands to the counselling services would not be used only on a short-term basis in the school or hospital situation but would be available on an ongoing basis for as long as any individual needed that counselling. It is important to ensure that counselling is not an intrusion into the lives of families or individuals as it may suit some people and others may not wish to avail of it.
For the information of the House, 12 psychologists from the National Educational Psychological Service of the Department of Education and Science attended at the four schools this morning. Two extra counsellors will link in as a floating resource. It is proposed that not only will counselling take place within the secondary schools affected but also in local primary schools because many siblings may need that help. The question of examinations was raised at the meeting because, sadly, four of the students who died in the crash were due to sit State examinations. This will obviously impinge on their friends and colleagues within the school.
With regard to the questions raised by Deputy O'Sullivan, the directive to which I referred in my initial remarks has a bearing on both the Departments of Education and Science and Transport. The Department of Transport lays down the rules and regulations with which the Department of Education and Science must comply in running the school bus system. There is every intention that both Departments will get together on this directive and I do not believe there will be any wish for derogation but rather a wish to implement the directive.
On the question of the retro-fitting of seat belts, like the Deputy, I believed this was possible until I received oral reports from those with engineering experience in Bus Éireann. They explained it was neither possible nor wise to attempt to retro-fit buses with seat belts because this could be more dangerous and could lead to more accidents. The best way to supply seat belts on buses is at the manufacturing stage.
The issue of seat belts and the issue of the three to two system of seating are inextricably linked. As I stated in my initial reply, I and my officials have had discussions with Bus Éireann on the phasing out of the three for two seating within three years. It is a question of phasing out the seating arrangement and phasing in seat belts.
The review was referred to by Deputy O'Sullivan. The Department is awaiting clarification on ongoing issues such as the interpretation of the directive from the Department of Transport. The other issue is the information on the retro-fitting of seat belts. We want answers on those issues because they are very pertinent to the question being asked.
The age of the school bus fleet is of concern to the public. There is no question at any time of any bus being used as a school bus that is not perfectly roadworthy. An independent maintenance check is performed annually on all school buses.
There has been an increase in funding over the years for school transport. The provision of a younger batch of buses has been achieved. In 1999 Bus Éireann purchased a large number of vehicles as part of an ongoing programme for replacement of the school bus fleet. From 1999 to 2003 Bus Éireann transferred 400 large capacity buses from the general service fleet into the dedicated school fleet. The bus involved in this tragic accident was a 1993 bus. There is no question of putting any bus on the road at any time if it is not safe for the carriage of young students to school.
The Deputy referred to an amount of €57 million, but I believe it is probably in excess of €60 million at this stage. Naturally new buses will need to be brought on stream once the one seat for each passenger rule is introduced, at which time the requirement for seat belts should also be introduced. It could cost considerably more than that figure, which is merely an estimate at this stage. I hope that answers Deputy O'Sullivan's questions.
I join other Deputies in expressing my deepest sympathies to the families of the five children who died yesterday. I recently spoke to a colleague of mine, one of whose children was on the bus. As other speakers have said, as well as expressing sympathy we also have a responsibility to assess what needs to be done and if possible to prevent a recurrence of such a tragedy. I welcome what the Minister of State has said about counselling for the parents, pupils etc. I accept the emergency services acted quickly. The difficulty is that for local people it is still very raw and at this stage people do not want to go into the detail of exactly what happened. They want to think more in terms of burying their loved ones and trying to come together as a community. However, we have a responsibility not only to these families but also to other families in the future.
The Minister of State spoke about the bus fleet including some 15 year old buses, which are checked annually. Is the Minister of State confident that it is sufficient to check them once a year? While it is not related to this accident, I have talked to some bus drivers who talk of the maintenance and safety record within their garages. The Minister of State should inquire as to how often inspectors from the Health and Safety Authority visit the bus garages where such maintenance takes place. A separate outside body usually checks trucks and other vehicles on the road.
However, in the case of buses, Bus Átha Cliath and Bus Éireann usually carry out their own checks. As part of the safety review, the Minister of State should consider this aspect.
I asked a similar question about safety belts in the past and we are all wondering whether this was a factor. In 2003 I asked the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, his views on the serious implications for children travelling on school buses without seat belts and he replied that after an extended consultation a large number of responses were received, which he said were being reviewed with a view to identifying a range of specific proposals for implementation. Were such proposals identified and if so which, if any, were implemented? I know I am putting the Minister of State on the spot. However, if a report was completed, I would be interested in knowing its proposals. I accept that the Minister of State has stated that seat belts will be introduced on 9 May 2006. In light of this accident will the Minister of State bring forward their introduction?
While it is not specific to this case, it is pertinent to the debate. Some drivers and their shop stewards have told me of cases where drivers who report sick, even with a letter from a doctor, may come under pressure from management to go out and drive a bus. While this may be a question for the line manager, the matter needs to be reviewed, especially in cases where children travel on those buses. If drivers express concerns about the safety of a bus in which something might not be working, does that bus go out or is it up to the management or drivers to decide whether the bus should go out? I understand the pressure on management; if a bus does not arrive the children do not get to school.
I will understand if the Minister of State needs to kick to touch today. However, as part of any inquiry, questions about health and safety in particular need to be answered. I ask the Minister of State to use her good offices to talk to the Health and Safety Authority to ascertain how often its inspectors visit such premises.
As the Deputy will appreciate this case is under review and the Health and Safety Authority will complete one of three investigations to take place. The Deputy can be assured that safety is a priority within the Department of Education and Science, as it must be. In any general overview we will reconsider the procedures regarding testing. The survey by Bus Éireann of the seating capacity on school buses estimated that just 14% of passengers were being carried on buses with a three for two seating arrangement. I believe this statistic puts matters in a certain light in this debate. I was asked about the cost of abolishing the three for two seating arrangement. I am advised it would cost €18 million over two years.
I inadvertently failed to mention the average age of the buses in response to Deputy O'Sullivan's question, and Deputy Crowe also asked about it. My information is that the average age of buses is 16 years. However, this is the lowest average age since 1990.
I thank the Minister of State for her initial statement. I am conscious that this is a time of intense heartbreak for the families of the girls who were killed and a time of heartbreak and huge worry for the parents of those children who were injured and whose outcomes are still unknown. I also accept the Minister of State's comment that it is far too soon to understand the circumstances that gave rise to the accident or to decide what specific action is required as a result of any investigation that might take place. However, it raises the question of the general laxity in respect of road safety, particularly in this regard.
I ask the Minister of State to refer back to the many reports both from her Department and the Oireachtas joint committee report completed by my colleague, Deputy Naughten, as far back as six years ago, which recommended the ending of the three for two arrangement. While I very much welcome the fact that the Minister of State has said that she now wants to phase it out within three years or so, if that report had been heeded we would have been ten years into that programme by the time it is now envisaged this will be completed. Many lives could have been saved if the report had been heeded at the time.
I am concerned at the suggestion that seat belts are not safe for children. When I carry passengers, including children, in my car, I have a duty of care to ensure they are strapped in. Is it not strange that the State does not have a similar duty of care when it moves children in public buses that provide school transport services? If it is regarded as safe to require me to strap children into my car, why is it suddenly suggested that it is not safe in buses? I accept that children are different sizes, but so are adults, and that applies to cars also. Whether in cars or buses, one would imagine that the same safety considerations would apply.
I would also like to refer to the question of the coming EU directive. Much has been made of it in the media, which suggested that it would require the use of seat belts in those vehicles that have them and that, in future, buses would need to be fitted with them. Since we have had many reports recommending the same thing, why should we have to wait for the EU to tell us what to do in that regard? Is it not absolutely imperative that we start now? I understand that it cannot be done overnight, but a beginning must be made. There have been various estimates of the amount that it would cost, but they were extreme, being based on the idea that 880 buses would be required. That is only if every single route were carrying the maximum number of passengers, and that is clearly not the case. A beginning could be made for far less than the media are currently suggesting.
The other point that I wished to make concerns the retro-fitting of seat belts and the age of buses being used by the school bus service. It seems perverse that what is not good enough to carry ordinary passengers in the public bus service is considered all right for the transport of children. I accept that an MOT examination is conducted each year and that the buses are mechanically safe to go on the roads, but is it not possible that, as no test is carried out on the bodywork or the vehicle cabin in which passengers are transported, they may not be of an acceptable standard? The Minister of State may recall examples of children falling out of the back of buses because they pushed out a window. Standards that might have been acceptable for bus bodywork ten, 15 or 20 years ago might not be acceptable now and would certainly not be acceptable in the cars or buses being manufactured today. Although they may be mechanically roadworthy, that is different from saying that they are safe for transporting children.
As a result of this accident, perhaps the Minister will examine the decommissioning of buses not manufactured to accept seat belts. That seems an absolute minimum move. Other moves may be required, such as the mandatory use of seat belts and the ending of the three for two system. We should remove from the roads any of the older buses unfit even for the retro-fitting of seat belts. Their bodywork would no longer be of an acceptable standard, regardless of their mechanical safety.
Regarding the testing of vehicles, they must obviously be roadworthy. The Deputy referred to the retro-fitting of seat belts, and it is very important to make the point once again that I have been told that it is not a solution, in the sense that it is much safer to have buses with seat belts installed as part of their manufacture. I certainly take on board what the Deputy said regarding enforcement, but that is a lesser issue. On the three for two system, it is not only now in light of this tragedy that we are pushing the issue along, talks are ongoing between the Department and Bus Éireann to phase it out within three years.
The question of not having seat belts is relevant not only to school buses. There is no law to say that seat belts should be installed in any such buses, regardless of their use. I mentioned that I had brought about the flashing lights initiative because all the research told us that the greatest danger for students was not when inside the bus but when getting on and off. I contacted the Department some time ago to ask it to conduct a trial of new buses fitted with seat belts. One of the buses was manufactured in Ireland and the other in Turkey. They were run in counties Meath and Kildare and tested by the children for their suitability. The children certainly accepted that seat belts had to be worn. There did not seem to be any great problem with enforcement. There has therefore been movement on those issues.
Regarding Bus Éireann's acquisition of other buses and lowering the age of the fleet, the company would contact various British cities to buy some of their used buses. However, that procedure is to be discontinued since those buses would obviously not be fitted with seat belts. We have decided to look elsewhere to fulfil that provision.
It has tentatively been suggested that, regarding the three for two system, the cost of replacing the Bus Éireann fleet with new school buses would be approximately €100 million. There will be additional costs when private contractors are taken into account. Another practical problem is that the sourcing of a large number of new right-hand-drive buses could present a major logistical problem, at least in the short term.
I thank the Minister of State for her reply to our questions. I hope that there will be an element of common purpose between all parties in learning lessons that should be clearly spelt out following the investigation, which is of course at a very early stage. This is a sensitive time, given the tragedy regarding which we expressed our sympathy on the Order of Business, the loss of five children's lives and the injury of many others.
As is well known, in 1998 or 1999, Deputy Naughten and I put forward a large number of recommendations on behalf of the Joint Committee on Education and Science following a meeting with many interested parties from transport and education, including parents, and taking account of school children's interests. Perhaps the Minister of State will say how many have been acted on to date. The most basic was the abolition of the three for two system. Was that taken on board at the time? Has it been the subject of debate since 1999 or was it left aside until recently? Does the Minister of State acknowledge that the report that was published in 1999, under the then chairmanship of Senator Michael Kitt, was agreed by all parties and that it was urgently requested that its recommendations be implemented? Will she indicate the extent to which the recommendation on one to one seating has been taken into account, whether the recommendation relating to adequate storage for baggage — particularly that of children attending secondary school — on buses has been taken into account and whether the recommendation on harnesses for children with special needs travelling on school buses has been fully implemented? Regardless of the financial constraints relating to the fitting of seat belts fitted to all buses, we were of the view that the provision of such harnesses should be dealt with immediately. Where stands the recommendation relating to certificates of roadworthiness? I accept the assurance of the Minister of State and that of Bus Éireann that the buses are well maintained. However, parents should, by merely looking at the windscreen of a bus, be in a position to see that recent maintenance work has been carried out and that all safety standards have been met.
The Minister of State referred to flashing lights when school buses stop. Is she aware that the recommendation in the report was to look closely at the practices in the US? When a school bus stops in the US to allow children get on or off, all traffic in the vicinity must come to a halt. Red strobe lights flash to indicate that the bus has stopped and that children may be getting on or off. When will these recommendations re-examined?
I listened carefully to what the Minister of State said about the EU directive that must be transposed into national law by 9 May 2006. She indicated that she wished that there be no derogation. I accept that her wish is heartfelt. Is she, however, in a position to indicate whether there will be a derogation? May we rest assured that there will be no derogation beyond 9 May 2006?
There will be further discussions between my Department and the Department of Transport in respect of the directive. The position relating to regulations depends on that Department but I am aware of the feeling of the House on the issue, particularly in the aftermath of yesterday's events.
The Deputy pointed out that there were many recommendations in the report published in 1999. One of these dealt with the age of school buses, which we are trying to reduce. I am informed that the average age of buses is 16 years, I reiterate that this remain the lowest since 1990.
A handsome budget of €117 million is provided annually for school transport and 30% of this is specifically aimed at students with special needs. Of the 138,000 school children who use school buses, 8,000, or 6%, have special needs.
The Deputy made the point that in the US, cars come to a halt behind school buses. The whole purpose of implementing the initiative with flashing lights was to remind motorists that they had to take extreme care as children would be alighting from buses. There is a mechanism that we can implement to introduce legislation to ensure that due care is taken by motorists. I will consider the point raised by the Deputy that cars should come to a full halt. As far as I am aware, the requirement to wear seat belts in school buses only applies to three states in the US.
As a parent of a child who attends one these schools, I would like to acknowledge the fantastic service put into place yesterday to help those who were injured in the accident. It is a traumatic time for the neighbouring parishes because there are 3,000 to 4,000 children involved. It has not been an easy morning but we appreciated the visits of the relevant Ministers last night who called to houses in the area. I encourage Members to visit the people of the area, particularly those in Beauparc.
This is the second time that a school in the Navan area has had to suffer the death of loved ones. This happened in an area where road works were taking place. Can the Minister of State ask the relevant Departments to ensure that all precautions are taken when road works are being carried out? Nobody knows what happened. However, what happened twice can happen three times. Help given to the area must be extended to the Drogheda area, as many boys from Beauparc go to school in Drogheda and they will definitely need support. Everything must be done to ensure that children sitting their exams are given adequate support. No money should be spared to facilitate these children.
Any psychological help needed will be forthcoming in the short and long term. As the Deputy pointed out, areas further afield have also been affected. Where pupils, teachers and members of the community need counselling, it will be provided. We are not yet sure if the road works in the area had any part to play in the accident but that will be part of the investigation. I understand why the Deputy is making that point, particularly in view of the nature of the other accident to which he referred.
I sympathise with the bereaved and wish the injured a speedy recovery. Yesterday was a black day for County Meath. We all recognise the effect this will have on the bereaved families and the other pupils. Like previous speakers, I compliment the staff of the emergency services on reacting so rapidly. Those to whom I spoke last night and others who were interviewed for radio had the highest praise for the services supplied by the Health Service Executive, the county council, the Garda Síochána and so on. The hospital staff, in particular, have worked tremendously through the night to tend to the injured.
I also compliment the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, and those other Ministers who travelled to Navan last night and ensured that services were in place for the students this morning. Will the Minister for State indicate when the three reports will be completed?
The relevant investigations are under way but I am unable to say when the three reports to which the Deputy refers will be available.
I join colleagues in offering my sympathies to the five bereaved families, their communities and the schools affected by this dreadful accident. I support the point made by Deputy Olivia Mitchell that Ireland should move ahead, with or without the relevant EU directive. We should go forward in whatever way we can, particularly in regard to the seat belt issue. I accept the Minister of State's point about the difficulties involved in retrofitting. However, I am sure that in light of modern engineering methods there are ways to circumvent these. Such methods may be more expensive but I ask the Minister of State to investigate them.
In February 2004, Deputy Naughten and I asked the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, about the review of school transportation which he was undertaking at that time. I was told in November that this review was being finalised. When is it likely to be completed? How far have discussions on the three for two seating arrangement progressed between the Department and Bus Éireann? We do not yet know the circumstances of yesterday's accident but there is a general issue in terms of supervision on school buses. Difficulties are likely to arise in situations where the driver is the only person in authority. Will the Minister examine this issue?
The dates for the leaving and junior certificate exams are set far in advance but I ask that everything possible be done to bring some relief to those students who must endure the aftermath of yesterday's terrible events.
I share Deputy Enright's concern in regard to her final point and it is the reason I have put so much emphasis on the need for counselling. All Members agree such counselling will be vital in the coming months and beyond for many of the pupils affected. The period before the State examinations is particularly difficult for students in normal circumstances.
My Department is engaged in ongoing discussions with Bus Éireann on the three for two seating arrangement. We are working towards a situation where this system, which only applies to some 14% of school buses, will be gone within three years.
The question of discipline on buses is perhaps a matter for separate discussion. It is an issue I am sure will be debated in this House in terms of our consideration of how best to ensure the provision of a satisfactory school transport service.
In regard to the report to which Deputy Enright referred, I already pointed out that we require clarification of a number of issues, not least the question of retrofitting. The issues that will undoubtedly arise out of the three investigations may well form part of that review.
I echo the sentiments of all Members in extending my sympathies to the families, relatives and friends of those who sadly lost their lives yesterday. We must go through due process in regard to this tragedy and it important that we do not jump to conclusions. There must be a full and thorough investigation into all the circumstances surrounding the accident.
The focus of today's discussion relates to seating but the Minister of State is correct in her observation that the vast majority, more than 90%, of accidents happen within the vicinity of, rather than on, school buses. In this context, I ask her to consider the introduction of legislation to make it illegal for any vehicle to overtake a school bus when children are boarding or alighting.
I understand the annual maintenance check does not include the passenger area of a school bus. This is a significant weakness in terms of the maintenance of safety standards. Are any of the second-hand school buses purchased from a scrap yard in Singapore still in service? If so, is it planned to decommission them?
There has been much comment on the EU proposals in regard to seat belts. Will the Minister of State indicate how many of the 12,000 school buses currently in service, other than those catering for pupils with special educational needs, are fitted with seat belts? I understand the percentage is quite low.
The second EU proposal that is currently under consideration relates to the provision of seat belts on all newly registered school buses. I understand it is nearly 30 years since a new bus was registered for the general school service. Does the Minister of State agree that legislation is required to stipulate that all newly commissioned school buses which are transferred from the passenger fleet must have seat belts fitted retrospectively?
I also extend my sincere sympathy to the families bereaved by this terrible tragedy. As the father of young daughters, this accident affects me deeply. Some may argue that now is not the time to investigate the cause of this tragedy. However, we have to highlight these dangerous situations for other road users.
On 24 February, I spoke about the case of a young girl called Aisling Gallagher who was killed on 22 December 2004 in a traffic accident on a road which was covered in dense bitumen macadam, DBM, and to which no surface dressing was applied. The circumstances of the accident in County Meath are similar. Aisling Gallagher's father informed me earlier that he had visited the scene of yesterday's tragedy and found the setting to be a replica of that of his daughter's accident. The road had just been tarred. It is stated in one of this evening's newspapers that "In the hour before the crash, which happened near Kentstown at around 4.20 p.m. yesterday, there were serious rain showers and sources said the bad weather and fresh tarmacadam would have made the road surface very slippy." Roads covered in DBM should have a surface dressing. Otherwise, they are very slippy after wet weather. There should have been clearly visible signs on this road to notify motorists that they should not exceed 50 km/h. There were no such signs on that road.
How many more people must die before something is done about this? In reply to a question I put to him on this issue, the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, said that only 2.5% of accidents are due to road conditions. I contend that this is a significant underestimation. I was told that 377 people died on our roads in 2002. If 2.5% of this figure, nine people, died for any other reason we would need to know the cause. While I am not saying road conditions were the total cause of the accident, it may well have been so. It appears that the driver braked going around a bend as two cars were travelling along the other side of the road.
Will the Minister of State review this situation and examine road conditions throughout Ireland? How many more have died and will die before this situation is resolved? While this is a time for expressions of sensitivity to the families concerned, the issue remains extremely important. A lack of action after the last incident was highlighted on the Pat Kenny show. The Minister of State, Deputy Callely, asked for more information on the accident in Mulranny, County Mayo and I gave it to him. Five died in yesterday's accident. We do not want any further accidents, especially those which arise because somebody forgot to lay surface dressing where it was clearly required.
To alleviate the fears of Deputies with regard to maintenance, the structure of buses is tested as part of the process of determining roadworthiness. My information is that the fleet no longer includes Singapore buses. Bus speeds are controlled in that they cannot go faster than a certain limit determined by the proper procedures for driving a school bus.
Ba mhaith liom an deis a ghlacadh chun mo chomhbhrón pearsanta a ghabháil le chuile dhuine. I pay particular tribute to all those involved with the emergency services last night, not only for the medical care they provided but also for the social concern and care that was shown to everybody at the scene of the incident and in the hospitals. My sympathies go to the families of the five young girls who tragically lost their lives and to all the injured.
As Minister for Education and Science, I particularly mention the leadership shown by the principals and the courage and strength shown by the teachers who, despite being traumatised, prepared themselves for the role they knew they must play in the schools over the next few days. They will work with the National Educational Psychological Service and the other services which are co-operating in an unprecedented manner to ensure that a co-ordinated plan is put in place. We will be happy to provide all the support we can to the school staff in their work to protect these young students.