Northern Ireland

Louth coach drivers perform own breath tests

Newport Pagnell coach on its side
Image caption A crash in Newport Pagnell in 2007 inspired Paddy Matthews to bring in breathalysers on his coaches

Luggage, clothing and personal belongings are scattered across the road.

Grim-faced emergency workers stand next to clearly-shaken passengers.

Together they stare at the overturned bus; the passengers in virtual disbelief, the emergency workers with the air of seasoned professionals who know just what a near-miracle it is that they aren't struggling to deal with multiple fatalities.

This was the dreadful scene in September 2007 when a driver for National Express made a seemingly inexplicable error as he travelled along the M1 near Newport Pagnell.

He mistook a service station entrance for a motorway slip road.

His speed all wrong, he hit a kerb and crashed. Thirty-three people were injured, seven seriously. One had to have an arm amputated.

The subsequent investigation by the police found the error was not, in fact, inexplicable.

Just home from holidays, the driver had spent almost all the previous night drinking. At the time of the crash, he was one and a half times the legal limit.

Permanent impression

Hundreds of miles away, in County Louth, those pictures were watched by one man with more than a passing interest.

And they made a permanent impression on Paddy Matthews.

Himself the owner of a coach company, Paddy decided he would make sure such a disaster would never befall him.

Now, the family firm has become the first in Ireland to introduce breathalysers on all it's vehicles.

The process is simple: in order to get the coach to start, the driver has to blow into a breathalyser connected to the ignition.

Fail the test and the engine won't start. Stop for more than 30 minutes and the system resets - another test is required.

"We take passenger safety seriously," said Paddy's son Noel. "Yes, this system is expensive but how do you put a price on the 'cargo' a coach is carrying?"

The Matthews family carry thousands of passengers every week, the bulk of them commuting into Dublin.

Noel said their drivers have happily accepted the introduction of the system and that passengers, once they get used to the perhaps initially disconcerting sight of their driver apparently breathalysing himself, have been reassured.

'Real advantage'

"People are increasingly safety conscious these days," he said.

"This system gives us a very real advantage when bidding for contracts, particularly big corporate contracts."

When asked what's to stop someone else taking a test for a driver who might be over the limit, Noel's answer is simple: "Would you do it? Do you think any driver would do it? I wouldn't do it." It's hard to argue with his reasoning.

The breathalysers are set to a level much lower than the legal limit.

Indeed, they are virtually "zero tolerance".

This caused a couple of problems in the early days with two drivers finding that "the night before" put them, while well under the legal limit, on the wrong side of their employers' somewhat fussier system.

National Express introduced a similar breathalysing system across their fleet in 2010.

So, what about on this side of the border?

Well, it seems our biggest coach operator Translink have no immediate plans to introduce such a system.

In a statement, however, they stressed that they already made safety their number one priority, adding: "We currently have procedures in place to test employees for both drugs and alcohol.

"This includes unannounced tests by an independent testing agency that can take place at any time during normal, overtime and on-call duties."