Tuesday, 13 July 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for choosing this issue and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, for being here this evening. The latest figure I have is that there are 119,253 people waiting for a driver theory test. There are nearly another 100,000 people waiting for the actual old-style driver test but tonight I am going to focus on the theory test. For the past number of weeks my office, as I assume the office of every Deputy has been, has been inundated with complaints from people who cannot get detail, who have had test cancelled four, five, six, and on one occasion, seven times, who cannot get jobs because they cannot get on the driver licence waiting list and who cannot get information from either Prometric or the Road Safety Agency, RSA, about what is going on. Surely as a Government committed to a digital strategy we can put this online for a much greater number of people than we are currently doing. Third-level colleges and fourth-level institutions are doing exams online with appropriate supervision. We can do driver theory tests online with appropriate supervision. I have also had many complaints from people who are getting emails on the morning of the test, or even when they are outside the centre, informing them their test is cancelled. The backlog due to Covid is one thing, but the manner in which people, and young drivers in particular, are being treated is unacceptable. The House is going into recess and we have no other way of knowing how this is going to be dealt with. I insist we have a response this evening.
I have been engaging with driving instructors across Lucan, Clondalkin, Palmerstown, Newcastle, Saggart and Rathcoole since the beginning of the year. I have been using their feedback to help shape my requests to the Department of Transport. I thank the Minister of State for taking action on some of the suggestions I have made on their behalf, in particular the move to online driver theory tests. Young people have suffered greatly during this pandemic. They have had to sacrifice an awful lot for the common good and getting on the road and learning to drive is a rite of passage for young people, which has been almost completely taken away from them since the beginning of this pandemic. The backlog of tests created by the pandemic has made getting on the road an even more difficult task than usual. I have been contacted by so many frustrated young people who have had their theory tests cancelled and rescheduled more times than they can count this past year. There are young people who purchased their 12 essential driver theory lessons from a driving instructor more than 15 months ago and who have not been able to sit behind the wheel for their first lesson yet. The Minister of State can imagine how disappointing this is for these young people who see driving as the first big step towards independence. What assurance can she give them and our driving instructors that the backlogs will be cleared?
I concur with my colleagues regarding young drivers, in the main, who are looking for driver theory tests. I speak tonight on behalf of one young gentleman, Mr. Liam Mooney from Malin Head. He is a 19-year-old man who applied for his driver theory test in September 2020. It has been cancelled five times. He is a young man with a disability. Once he gets the driver theory test he is going to have to wait for the test itself and then apply for a primary medical certificate and go through further assessment and delay. On behalf of young people with disabilities who have been through the mill with the delays, the bureaucracy and who have had their expectations knocked so many times, I ask the Minister of State to ask the officials to look not just at this individual case but at those of all young people with disabilities to see how we can try to enable them to get through this process. It is an elongated process and an exhausting one for them, so I am asking for a special intervention here in respect of young Liam Mooney from Malin Head, County Donegal.
I thank all the Deputies for raising this important matter. Delivery of the driving test and the driver theory test, DTT, service are the statutory responsibility of the RSA and I have no power to intervene in individual cases.
The gradual reopening of in-person driver theory test centres commenced on 8 June. The SRA reopened test centres and introduced capacity to increase the number of tests from an average of 15,000 tests in normal pre-Covid times to 25,000 tests monthly to tackle the backlog and shorten waiting times. The test centres have extensive Covid-19 measures in place to protect both customers and staff and to ensure the safe delivery of the service. The Department is working to increase capacity to 50,000 tests per month over time, if public health guidance permits. The service provider has sourced an additional 40 temporary team members to support the expected increase in capacity to 50,000 in-person test appointments. A pilot online driver theory test has been running for truck and bus categories and has been extended to include car and motorbike tests. The new offering saw 4,000 theory tests available for all categories of vehicles during June. The RSA has increased this by a further 6,000, bringing the total to 10,000 online tests that will be conducted during July. Tests are on a first-come, first-served basis with the new online service becoming more widely available later in the year.
The current number of confirmed bookings on the system is 116,024 scheduled tests. During the five weeks up to 5 July, 37,303 theory tests were scheduled to take place, 28,945 tests were taken and, of those, 22,603 were passed. The number of people who failed to pass was 6,342. It is clear that the service is back up and running.
However, I am concerned at the number of applicants who do not show up for their test. The no-show figure is notable at 5,351. It is hugely disappointing that nearly 15% of candidates for the theory test are no-shows on the day, especially when there has been such high demand for the service.
This puts an unnecessary strain on the service and further complicates matters for the many people awaiting a test and who will ultimately be delayed as a result. I know the Road Safety Authority, RSA, is concerned about this too and I understand it is looking at communications and reminders in order to reduce this number.
Due to the suspension of driving testing services in the initial pandemic response, along with the health protocols required since the resumption of services, a significant backlog has developed. Driving tests for essential workers continue to be a priority for the driving testing service. However, in line with the gradual reopening of services, driving tests for all those who are eligible to take the test and have been waiting longest have recommenced in a limited fashion since the end of May. The further reopening of driving testing services will be the subject of discussions between the Department of Transport and the RSA in the coming weeks.
The RSA driver testers are undertaking driving tests in extremely difficult conditions in an enclosed space where physical distancing is very difficult. They are using vehicles provided by the test candidates, which are not controllable environments. An additional 40 temporary testers were recruited in the second quarter of the year and 18 of the new recruits have completed training and been live testing since the week commencing 7 June. There are 21 more who have successfully completed training and began live testing yesterday, 12 July. Sanction was recently received for a further 40 temporary testers.
I thank the Minister of State for the detail. When is it intended to get to 50,000 tests per month? I know the RSA has statutory responsibility for this but will the Minister of State address the service matters and the lack of service with the authority? Is there any way we can put up numbers regularly on the RSA website of how many people are awaiting tests and how many are being done? The Minister of State indicates there were 28,945 tests done in June and the start of July and that number should be more widely available instead of having to be sought in the Chamber. We will not be able to seek it here from next week but such numbers could start building confidence that the backlog is being addressed.
Are there any plans to increase the number of tests available for people for reasons of employment or other urgent reasons, such as family support? Deputy McHugh referred to one case and we have heard similar cases. I urge the Minister of State to take a very strong hand with the Road Safety Authority on this issue.
I thank the Minister of State for the reply and I am really glad there is such progress being made for prospective drivers, with the acceleration of theory tests from 15,000 per month to 25,000 per month being a huge help, especially when combined with the 10,000 online theory tests. It is great to hear plans to accelerate that further to 50,000 tests per month. The fact that one in every six theory test applicants is a no-show is certainly not helping matters. I encourage anyone who cannot make the theory test appointment to cancel it in advance.
I am particularly pleased the move to the online theory test is working well. This was a key recommendation in the proposal I sent to the Minister of State's Department based on feedback from local driving instructors in my area in Clondalkin, Lucan, Palmerstown, Newcastle and Rathcoole. Getting a driving licence is a rite of passage for many young people and we must do what we can to get them motoring.
I appreciate that the Minister of State cannot make individual interventions but I reiterate my request to make a special case for people with disabilities who have been waiting or who have been let down. They have to go through a longer process than others because they have to go for the primary certificates as well. I am making this intervention on behalf of a cohort of people rather than an individual, and it emphasises the importance of this for young people with disabilities. They had to spend so much time at home in lockdown, like others, but the difference is this cohort must go through a longer process. The least we can do is look at a policy to highlight the important point that there is a cohort of people who have been let down and have had to go through a longer process. We should give them priority. It would not require much imagination but rather a policy intervention on the part of the Minister.
I thank the Deputies for raising the matter. I completely understand the frustration and concerns, particularly with young people who want to get on the road, get driving and through the theory test.
In my opening remarks I highlighted that the online service is up to 10,000 tests per month but the real way to expedite the processing of the backlog is through in-person theory tests in testing centres. That capacity pre-Covid was 15,000 tests and it is now 25,000 tests per month. Deputy Calleary asked about the timeline for increasing this to 50,000 tests per month and it will be based on public health directions. I know the Department of Transport is working with the RSA on that. There are 116,000 scheduled theory tests so once 50,000 tests per month are allowed, it will get through the theory test backlog pretty swiftly.
Deputy McHugh highlighted a case and I know it is very frustrating for many young people who are trying to access services. Special cases are operational matters for the RSA but I know the driver theory test provider makes special arrangements on the day for people with special needs. Concerns were also raised around the closure of some centres and I can follow up in order to get details for the Deputy.
There is progress in the online theory test process. The fastest way to get through the backlog is by using the in-person theory tests in centres, and the RSA has said the operator will supply extra staff in order to try to get through the backlog as quickly as possible. The Deputies can rest assured that I completely understand their frustrations and the Department is working in conjunction with the RSA on whatever we can do to expedite the matter.