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Senator Timmy Dooley Photograph by John Kelly

Shortage of drivers sees Clare school bus services cancelled

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ANXIETY levels for young families usually rise as the summer ends and school returns, but an already stressful time has been worsened in many homes this week as a number of school bus services around Clare have been cancelled.

With full employment the retention of bus drivers is now far more difficult than it was just a few years ago and a number of services had to be cancelled at the eleventh hour.

Parents who had expected their children to use the services have been left to scramble, in many cases having to take time off work or look to family members for help with drop offs and collections.

This week East Clare based Senator Timmy Dooley found himself trying to act as a recruiter, as he posted on social media asking people licensed to drive buses to get in touch with him.

On Wednesday he told the Clare Champion that the school bus service crisis is quite widespread. “There’s a huge problem dotted around the county. There are areas where they are unable to put services on. There’s one in Tulla, there’s one in Cratloe, there’s Sixmilebridge, there’s Ruan, there are others pending because bus companies who have won contracts to provide services are unable to get drivers. We’ve known about this for a while and companies have been trying to get people.”

He feels the problem would not be as serious but for an ageist policy, completely excluding anyone aged over 70 from driving a school bus.

“At the moment Bus Éireann have a rule that a 70 year old can’t drive a school bus, on safety grounds. But if you’re able to drive the bus the day before you turn 70 there’s no reason you can’t drive it the day afterwards. Because of the crisis we are in, I have asked the Minister to up it to 73, I think that would solve the problem in the short term. To ensure safety they should be given a rigorous health check every six months. It’s farcical that just on the basis of age you deem somebody ineligible. It should be on their physical fitness and on their health. People are living much longer and are living healthier lives, with modern medicine life expectancy is much longer. I think this is antiquated, it’s arbitrary and it needs to stop. I think it would solve the immediate problem.”

Senator Dooley said that after he posted on social media looking for people eligible to drive buses to get in touch with him, a number of contacts were made, which may see some drivers recruited.

He acknowledged that the Government should have done more to prevent the problem emerging. “I would be critical of the approach of Government that allowed us to get to this point. Bus Éireann and others have been identifying this problem for a while. It’s not good enough for parents to receive a note by email to say ‘we’re sorry we can’t provide the service but we’ll give you a couple of euros in compensation’. It’s not about compensation, not about cost. Parents are working, they need their children collected and brought home. I’ve had parents on all week who’ve had to take time off work. It’s just not acceptable and it needs to be addressed.”

The expansion of Local Link bus services has exacerbated the scarcity of drivers, and he says such a situation should have been foreseen. “Because those are full time jobs they have taken a lot of the part time drivers that would have ordinarily been available for the school bus routes. Government should have planned better, they should have known that as they were offering more Local Link services it was going to use up the drivers that were already there.”

Senator Dooley also suggested that the army be used to head off the problem, in the short term. “The army is populated with suitably skilled people who have D and D1 licenses and would be well capable of driving school buses. I think their skills should be utilised until there is a supply of drivers from the civilian population to meet the demands from schools.”

Nollette Darcy from Coolycasey, Sixmilebridge, has a daughter in secondary school in Shannon. It was only on the day before she was set to return to school that Nollette was informed the bus service would not be running.

Nollette said that since then local parents have been under serious pressure. “We’re all up in arms every day. Every day there are group messages between all the different parents, who can drop, who can collect. I’ve got a husband who works away, he’s gone four days a week so I’m on my own for drop offs and collection. I carpool with another parent. Yesterday I had to drop my younger kids to my mother in the village, who would take them to primary school. That meant dragging her out of bed at 8am. I then had to carry on to Shannon, drop the kids at two different schools in Shannon and then try to get to Limerick. I should start work for 8.30-9am, but I didn’t get in to Limerick until 9.20.”

She said that a number of parents have jobs that require them to begin work at defined times and doing school runs creates an even greater problem for them. “You have some parents who are chefs and they start work at 6.30 or 7 in the morning. You’ve got some who work in call centres, you’ve got teachers.”

Meanwhile, Clare TD Cathal Crowe also urged Bus Éireann to suspend its ban on people over 70 driving school buses.
“At the moment, there is a crisis in terms of trying to provide enough drivers to fulfill all designated bus services throughout the country and in many instances, private coach operators who have contracted themselves to the Department of Education and Bus Éireann have highly competent drivers over the age of 70 who are unable to fulfil morning and afternoon school runs.

“Bizarrely, these same drivers are allowed during the day to bring children to and from school matches or swimming lessons – so long as it’s not a school drop-off or collection.

“It makes very little sense to me and has left so many communities strung out as we begin a new school year.
“The obvious change that needs to happen here is that Bus Éireann change their policy so that drivers over the age of 70 can continue to drive school buses, subject to regular medical check-ups.

“A change to this effect would immediately free up several hundred drivers who could readily slot into morning and afternoon school bus services.”

Owen Ryan
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Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.