Bus Éireann to conduct drink and drugs tests on staff via private firm

Move follows sacking of driver who failed Garda breathalyser test when passengers aboard

Senior managers at Bus Éireann decided last year to ‘enhance’ testing ‘beyond that required by law’. File photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times

Senior managers at Bus Éireann decided last year to ‘enhance’ testing ‘beyond that required by law’. File photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times

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Bus Éireann is to carry out privately run random alcohol and drug testing on staff after a driver was sacked for failing a Garda breathalyser test while in charge of a bus with passengers aboard.

Until now, responsibility for testing employees for drugs at the State-owned transport company fell solely to the medical department of its parent company CIÉ.

Bus Éireann says none of its 2,700 staff tested positive for alcohol or drugs under tests carried out by CIÉ over the past 10 years, though it has repeatedly refused to disclose the numbers of tests carried out.

For the first time in its history, the company has now given a private firm a €500,000 contract to carry out spot testing on staff at stations and on the road over the next three years. Tests will begin before the year end.

During the “normal course of reviewing and improving systems”, senior managers at Bus Éireann decided last year to “enhance” testing “beyond that required by law”, said the company.

“The enhanced programme sees Bus Éireann moving from a regular employment and ‘for cause’ testing regime to add a programme of random testing for all employees,” said a spokeswoman.

So-called “for cause” testing is carried out after an incident, such as a collision.

The company said it has yet to decide on the number of tests that will be done. General secretary of the National Bus and Rail Union Dermot O’Learysaid the end-year target to begin is “ambitious”.Several practical and industrial relations issues have yet to be resolved with the trade unions, including the unions’ demand that all staff, including management, are tested equally.

“There are practical issues too around some prescription and over-the-counter drugs that have substances in them that may show up as a positive test. I’m thinking in particular of anything that has codeine in it,” he said.

A company spokeswoman added: “There has been no evidence of alcohol or drug involvement in road accidents or other incidents involving Bus Éireann drivers.”

In January, Bus Éireann apologised after one of its drivers was arrested in Cork city on suspicion of drink-driving while in charge of a bus with passengers aboard on New Year’s Day. The driver, in his 50s, was later released without charge while gardaí­ prepared a file on the case.

Bus Éireann told The Irish Times the driver “did not return to driving duties, was dismissed and an employment appeal process is ongoing”.

“The employment appeal process has a number of standard defined steps which are exhausted internally before recourse to any third party process, as is the norm,” added a spokeswoman. “Processes have been slower due to Covid-19 remote working and physical distancing requirements.”

What of the other transport firms?

Earlier this year, Irish Rail, Dublin Bus and Luas all confirmed they had each sacked or sanctioned one driver over the past three years for failing alcohol and drugs tests.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy has previously called for transparency on how testing is carried out at public transport firms given the significant obligation they have of carrying thousands of passengers weekly.

“There is a deficiency of information. But I don’t think there is very significant evidence that there is a wholesale problem and that has to be acknowledged at the same time.”