More than one in five school buses in Northern Ireland have been found to have serious defects during spot checks.
The shocking information came to light yesterday during a joint Department of the Environment and Department of Education briefing to Stormont's education committee on school transport.
Results from the Driver and Vehicle Agency bus compliance survey, carried out between January and March this year, found that 22.6% (109) of buses checked were issued with a prosecution or prohibition notice regarding a serious defect.
Commenting on the findings, Jonathan Craig (DUP) said: “That does raise important concerns.”
The Lagan Valley MLA also wanted assurances that if consistent offenders were found to be putting the safety of children in danger then they are blacklisted.
The committee, which expressed concerns for pupil safety, has now called for a comprehensive review of home-to-school transport that caters for 90,000 pupils here every day.
In the Western Education and Library Board (WELB) area alone, and since the beginning of the new school term, six buses carrying hundreds of pupils have been defective — some of them are private buses owned by operators from the Republic whose contracts were only reinstated at the start of the new school year.
According to the DVA, issues detected with the school buses included tachograph, licensing, minor defects and an interior not fitted out to required standards.
However, the situation could be far worse, as the WELB checks less than a third of all licences/vehicles each year.
The DUP's education spokes-man, Mervyn Storey, called for an increase in the number of inspections of school buses.
Education permanent secretary Paul Sweeney said: “There can never be any complacency with road safety at any level”.
The committee's vice-chairman Danny Kinahan asked: “Could we be doing this better?”
Mr Sweeney admitted: “There is scope for a comprehensive review of school transport,” but added that he could not undertake that the new Education and Skills Authority — due to come into effect in April — will prioritise that, as it will “have its boots full”.
Sinn Fein's Michaela Boyle warned: “There is a real need for this comprehensive review,” and further suggested that there should be one overall operator of school buses.
The committee is due to make a submission to the Department of Regional Development on its review of integrated transport.