Wednesday, 7 June 2006
As I have consistently indicated, the delay in providing driving tests is a matter of regret to me. It not only represents a poor service to the public but it also hampers the development of initiatives which I wish to pursue and which will contribute further to road safety. The driving test and those who deliver it are a key element in the road safety strategy.
It is my objective to eliminate the backlog of driving tests by mid-2007. That means having a waiting list of no more than 50,000 that can be scheduled in a ten to 12 week period.
The measures in place to deal with this are as follows. Seven civil servants from the Department of Agriculture and Food commenced working as driver testers in April this year and will conduct tests in 2006 and 2007. This gives an annual additional capacity of about 10,000 tests. Six further driver testers on two-year contracts are due to commence training on 12 June, with another five being trained shortly thereafter. These will provide additional capacity of about 15,000 in a full year.
A bonus scheme for driver testers has been operating since February 2006. The testers have the potential to deliver up to 40,000 driving tests over the course of the year in the evenings and on Saturdays.
The final element in the package to eliminate the backlog of driving tests was to outsource a block of tests to an outside agency. Negotiations on this aspect reached a position last week where Mr. Kieran Mulvey, chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission, acting as an agreed mediator, recommended proposals which would enable my objective of using this option to be implemented. I have accepted the proposals and I understand these are to be considered by union members this week and I sincerely hope they will accept them. I thank Mr. Mulvey and those involved on both sides for bringing this matter to a conclusion.
The proposals envisage that a contract would be in place by 1 July of this year. This would be a contract solely for the purpose of achieving a defined number of completed tests to assist in eliminating the current backlog of applications. It could be extended to 45,000 tests if necessary. I expect to see a marked reduction in the waiting list by the end of this year and will formally review the position, taking account of all the above measures, at that stage.
The figures the Minister gave are interesting. Has he factored in the signal he gave on what is likely to happen in the case of provisional drivers and the intention to end the unaccompanied rule? We would all welcome that move. We are probably the only country in Europe that allows learner drivers to drive unaccompanied. The new Bill provides for changes to that position. Has the Minister factored in the rush that would be caused in the number of provisional drivers applying to do their driving test, if he were to proceed to introduce those changes? If he were to do that, it would cause quite a rush which would result in a significant additional number to be factored into the current overall numbers. There is an underlying demand for approximately 177,000 tests per year without taking account of the backlog. By my reckoning, by the end of 2007 the waiting time for the driving test will be only reduced to 26 to 28 weeks. Where exactly does the Minister intend going with these proposed changes?
Does he accept that, to some extent, too much emphasis has been placed on the numbers without examining the system and the way it operates? Is he aware that last year 23,000 tests were cancelled and that there is something seriously wrong with a system whereby a person driving on a provisional licence never needs to take a test? Recent figures show that 2,000 people over the age of 70 years are driving on provisional licences. Does the Minister intend to change the system to oblige people to take a test before renewing their provisional licences?
I and the House in general are ad idem with almost everything the Deputy has said. The Deputy is right in identifying the system as being out of date and incapable of handling the demands of modern living as much as the modern requirements for good testing. Many tests are lost each year due to people not turning up. When we go through the system it will be interesting to find the real bubble. We expect it to be smaller than the figures show for a range of reasons.
If someone does not show up for a test we need to be able to contact someone who is known to be available at short notice to come to do the test. This fast system is available in many other countries. I agree that people should not be allowed on the roads without doing a test. This is one of the issues with which we will deal when we do a root and branch redesign of the driving test system. It has been pointed out recently that the test costs less than one driving lesson, therefore people do not value it. People apply and pay the €33 charge but feel it does not matter if they do not show up.
There are a myriad of issues to address. We have thought long and hard about the changes. I sincerely hope the unions will recommend that their members agree to the outsourcing deal brokered by the Labour Relations Commission. I have asked the Road Safety Authority to put the deal into action immediately because the tendering process is complete and is ready to go. I will conduct a review at the end of that process on which I will report back to the Deputy.