Employers are to be made responsible for drink and drug testing staff who drive for them under tough new laws being drawn up.
Officials say the legislation is primarily aimed at larger transport companies carrying passengers or using heavy goods lorries, but they have admitted they are also exploring how it might apply to small firms and single vehicle operators.
The plan — driven by Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann —has come under fire from members of the Oireachtas Transport Committee, who are concerned it is impractical and will place an unfair administrative and financial burden on private firms.
Hauliers say they will strongly oppose it. “Employers are not going to tolerate this. We’re going to lobby very hard against it. It’s an absolutely draconian measure,” said Eoin Gavin, president of the Irish Road Haulage Association.
The requirement is in the new Road Traffic Bill being drawn up by the Department of Transport. It states employers will have a legal duty to have intoxicant tests carried out on drivers they suspect are unfit to drive and to run random tests on all drivers working for them.
Tests will have to be conducted by a doctor or nurse, paid for by the employer, and, where a driver tests positive, counselling provided to help them deal with any drink or drugs issue.
Details of how often testing will have to be carried out have not been finalised and Department of Transport officials were unable to tell the Transport Committee if employers might end up with liability in any drink or drug driving incident involving an untested driver, or a tested driver who took intoxicants subsequent to a test.
Committee chairman, Fine Gael TD John O’Mahony, told department principal officer Fintan Towey he wanted the plan clarified. “In practical terms it sounds crazy,” he said.
A key concern for the committee, which holds its fourth meeting on the Road Traffic Bill today, is that small firms may be brought into the law’s remit.
Chief executive of the Road Safety Authority, Moyagh Murdock told them: “It is primarily geared toward the larger operators who have major fleets,” but she added the question of whether the law would specifically exclude small firms “still has to be worked out”.
“At the moment, it is not prescribed that the one-man band has to test himself but there must be a policy of zero tolerance of drugs and alcohol in place,” she said.
Irish Rail already has a testing regime in place, under the Railway Safety Act, and Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus say they have been trying to do the same but can’t get agreement with the unions without legislation.
Eoin Gavin said the move would have serious implications for the road haulage industry, which employs 50,000.
“If a driver tests positive, you won’t be able to sack him. You’ll have to get him counselling so you’ll be caught for his time off and his counselling.
“If they’re serious about road safety and misuse of drugs and alcohol, why don’t they use the enforcement authorities?
“Why aren’t they out on the road breathalysing drivers? Why are they putting the onus back on the person who is paying the wages and paying the PRSI? Now they want us to do their job of enforcement as well.”
Kevin Traynor, national director of the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland, said the idea sounded good in principle but more detail was needed.
“It’s something we would look on positively but there needs to be engagement with us as the sole representative body for coach operators.”
Mr O’Mahony said his worry after the recent Transport Committee meetings was that an attempt might be made to have a ‘one size fits all’ testing regime: “You have all kinds of side issues emerging but fundamentally it’s important that the random testing is applied fairly without weighing down smaller companies or having too much red tape about it.”
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