Every morning before they start their shifts, drivers at Matthews Coach Hire must use a built-in breathalyser in order to make the engine start.
It seems obvious – anyone testing positive for alcohol will not be able to drive the commercial vehicles. But almost two decades after company founder Paddy Matthews decided to install the simple technology, he believes his is still the only company to use it.
“I was watching the news one evening and I seen a horrific bus crash in England,” he recalls, explaining what led him to install the equipment in his fleet at a cost of about €40,000.
“The driver had come off the slip road a bit too early and he’d a full busload of passengers. There was people lost arms and legs and some people died in it. I just didn’t sleep a wink that bloody night. I says: ‘Jesus, if it happened one of my buses how would I live with myself?’”
That bus driver, as Matthews recalls, was three times over the legal alcohol limit. And while a slight reduction in insurance costs and possible crash damage is an incentive, his company, busing 4,500 passengers a day along the northeast coast of Ireland, has been led by the imperative to keep people safe.
On Thursday, he and daughter Majella Lambe, were among a number of recipients at the Road Safety Authority’s annual Leading Light Awards, an event which attempts to focus on the positive in what has become a bleak year on Irish roads.
As of December 7th, 172 people have been killed, already 30 more than the entire of 2022.
Technology will play its role in attempts to cut such spiralling numbers, particularly given Ireland’s ambitious Vision Zero targets of halving road deaths by the end of the decade.
While Matthews Coach Hire has blazed a trail in voluntarily testing its drivers with alcohol interlock technology, there is a possibility this could become more broadly established in the years ahead.
The Medical Bureau of Road Safety is currently completing a report for Government on a trial scheme which would see the self-testing equipment used in a range of public service vehicles.
“They are due to report back to us on how we could commence a pilot so that this could become the norm,” said Minister of State with responsibility for road safety Jack Chambers.
“It would be to pilot it. It could be in ... the public service or other areas of the transport system but they are due to present the worked-up proposal to us early next year.”
On Thursday, mother and daughter Clodagh and Méabh White, who narrowly escaped death in a side-on collision in 2016, won the RSA’s overall Gertie Shields Supreme Award for their tireless campaigning on road safety.
“While [Thursday’s awards ceremony] is a celebratory event it would be remiss of me not to remark that we have had a difficult year in road safety,” the RSA’s chairwoman Liz O’Donnell said.
“People [are] carrying huge grief with them all the time and a grief that doesn’t go away and a void that can’t be filled in their lives.”
Since An Garda Siochana launched its annual Christmas and new year road safety enforcement operation last week, they have arrested more than 140 drivers on suspicion of driving under the influence, and issued fines for 50 seat belt offences, 200 for mobile phone use and almost 1,800 for speeding.