It’s a scandal. Five schoolgirls die, but no one is named and shamed

JUDGE Pat McCartan of Dublin Circuit Criminal Court fined Bus Éireann €2 million for breaches of the Health and Safety Act in relation to the accident in which five schoolgirls were killed in a bus accident in Navan in May 2005.

It sounds like a grave penalty, but in reality the whole thing represents a great injustice.

The accident happened after the bus spun out of control and collided with cars before ending up on its side after the brakes locked and the driver lost control of the vehicle because its anti-lock braking system (ABS) was not working.

The judge concluded the tragedy would not have happened if the bus’s ABS had been working properly.

Five schoolgirls — Lisa Callan, 15, Clare McCluskey, 18, Amy McCabe, 15, Deirdre Scanlon, 17, and Sinead Ledwidge, 15 — were thrown through a window and killed instantly. We can only imagine the heartache for their families.

Bus Éireann, Meath County Council, Keltank Ltd of Balbriggan, and McArdle’s Test Centre of Dundalk, which certified the bus as roadworthy, were all charged in connection with the accident. The first two promptly pleaded guilty, but the other two contested the charges.

As the trial went on, Keltank changed its plea to guilty and the case against McArdle’s was eventually dismissed on what was essentially a technicality. McArdle’s Test Centre was charged with failing to note the ABS warning light was not working while conducting a test on the bus on March 15, 2005, two months before the tragedy.

During the trial the court heard testimony that Keltank had been contracted by Bus Éireann to service and maintain the bus. The bus had been tested at McArdle’s on March 4, 2005, where it was failed on a number of points. When it was retested 11 days later, those faults had been corrected and it was passed as roadworthy.

Thus the test on March 15 was only conducted to ensure the necessary repairs had been carried out on the faults detected during the initial test. The fault should have been noted during the first test, but it was missed.

Hence the company should have been charged with failing to note that the warning light was not working on March 4 rather than March 15. As a result, Judge McCartan instructed the jury to return a not guilty verdict on the two charges.

The ABS system was found not to be working in eight out of 18 vehicles tested by Bus Éireann four days after the crash and the bulbs from the warning lights on the dashboard had been removed from seven of those buses. The warning light on the bus that crashed was not working either because it had been removed sometime before the crash.

Two years before the crash, the Department of Transport had circulated a letter to all “heavy good vehicle testers” that all ABS warning lights “must be tested before roadworthiness could be established”. This regulation had been in place since 1992. The court was told that when examined after the crash one cable of the ABS system was visibly disconnected from the electronic control unit, which had recorded 11 faults in the ABS system.

The court was informed that the manual for testers stipulated that warning lights of all vehicles fitted with ABS must be checked. Having learned that a number of authorised testers “may not be testing the ABS warning lamps,” the Department of Transport issued a warning in November 2003 that all warning lamps “must be tested”.

After this testimony was heard, Keltank changed its plea to guilty because it had been aware that the sensor leads of the ABS were disconnected. The mechanics at Keltank denied removing the warning light, but they admitted being aware the bus had an ABS that was not working. The company did not have the facilities to repair ABS, with the result that Bus Éireann should have referred the vehicle to another garage.

Judge McCartan concluded that Bus Éireann “must take responsibility” for the accident.

He believed the tragedy would not have happened if the bus’s ABS had been working. Bus Éireann did not ensure its buses were properly roadworthy; the garage it was using was not capable of doing so. This was a case of criminal negligence leading to the death of five young people.

Judge McCartan fined Bus Éireann 2m for breaches of the Health and Safety Act. Keltank and Meath County Council were fined €100,000 each.

After the case a Bus Éireann spokesman stated that the company engaged outside experts after the accident to help undertake a radical overhaul of its operations. Now all school buses must be fitted with seatbelts. That is unlikely to be any solace for the bereaved families.

A fine of €2m seems like a severe penalty that would act as a deterrent. In theory it was being imposed to impress on people that the State will not tolerate such behaviour lightly, but who is being penalised? Ultimately it is the innocent taxpayer, or the travelling public — not those culpably irresponsible people at Bus Éireann. It there anybody in his or her right mind who could honestly call that justice?

The person or persons who removed the warning lights have essentially got away scot-free, as have those people responsible for the disgraceful situation within Bus Éireann. Only a fool would think that punishing the innocent would act as a deterrent on those responsible for this tragedy.

The money should ultimately be paid by those responsible for the selection of a company that was not capable of doing the job for which it was selected and everybody in the chain of command right up to the very top of Bus Éireann. In a private corporation, the management and staff would be held responsible for such a foul-up.

WE HAVE had a whole litany of financial disasters with nobody being held responsible in recent years. The comptroller and auditor general exposed the gross extravagance in purchasing land for a new prison to replace Mountjoy Jail. The land cost 30m, even though the property was only valued at around €8m at the time.

A new computerised passport system was supposed to cost €13m, but it actually cost €27m.

There was the purchase and continuing storage of the useless voting machines, which have now cost the State around 60m, and they are still being stored at enormous expense — for what? The HSE decided to implement the payroll, personnel, and related services (PPARS) computer system, which was originally estimated to cost €8.8m. But extensive changes were introduced and by the time the whole thing had cost €150m, it was still only covering 40,000 of the 140,000 employees it was intended to serve.

The foul-up in relation to the Navan school bus crash may only have cost Bus Éireann a couple of million. That may seem minor in comparison to some of the other things, but what happened in Navan also cost the lives of the five girls. Those were priceless.

Surely, in their memory, we should demand that henceforth, for a change, people in the public service be held responsible for their actions by having the culpable pay. This is the least that should be done.

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