Seanad debates

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Driver Test

9:00 am

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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This matter is exercising the minds of many people, particularly young people. I accept that because of a Cabinet meeting this morning, the Minister of State is filling in for various Ministers. I appreciate that this is not his area of responsibility but I am sure he will convey the message to the Minister for Transport.

The issue of the driving theory test has been in the public arena for some time. My frustration at this stage stems from the number of young people who have approached me about their test having been cancelled up to five times, which is causing deep frustration. Many of those young people are relying on passing the test and have been for some time. They may rely on it for summer work in the agricultural sector to drive farm machinery or in order that they can move on to the driver test and get their summer work. Quite a number of students and young people have summer jobs, and if nobody in their family is available to take them to work, they are missing out. Some of them have even had to give up their summer jobs.

I am not trying in any way to dilute the importance of road safety and of the theory test, but we have to look seriously at the possibility of some type of amnesty. I do not know whether the Minister of State is aware of the current backlog but it is significant. I am not an expert but I will propose a way in which the issue could be resolved. Given that candidates must complete driving lessons before taking the driver test, many of the theory test questions could be taken into account during that process with a driving instructor. Many of the theory test questions relate to road signage, yielding at junctions or stopping on motorways. They are pertinent questions that I am sure arise frequently when people take driving lessons with instructors. Many of the instructors I know are thorough and careful about going through the process with the person taking the lesson.

Will the Minister of State bring this suggestion to the Minister and his senior Cabinet colleagues?I am afraid that if we do not something now this matter will go on and on.

Again, I am very anxious to point out that I do not seek to dilute road safety issues. I know the importance of testing, lessons and to go through the process. It is important that we all know the different road signs so that we know what to do at junctions. I do not say that we should get rid of that. I ask that in the short term we add this to the period of the 12 lessons that a person must undertake before doing a driving test. I acknowledge that all the Minister of State can do today is take my message back. I do not want this issue going on for many months so I hope that he can bring my message back to the Ministers and the Cabinet, and that we see some sense.

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising the matter of the possibility of a temporary amnesty for the driver theory test. Every Senator and Deputy is acutely aware of the serious backlog in theory tests and the impact of same. Certainly anybody in that situation has my sympathy and staff in my constituency office in Wexford are acutely aware.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton. She cannot be here and sends her apologies.

The driver theory testing service is the statutory responsibility of the Road Safety Authority, RSA. As the Senator will be aware, the gradual reopening of in-person driver theory test centres commenced on 8 June and as test centres have reopened they will be permitted to conduct 25,000 theory tests monthly. The centres have extensive Covid-19 measures in place to protect both customers and staff, and ensure a safe delivery of the service. It is planned that capacity will be increased to approximately 50,000 tests monthly when public health guidance permits. A gradual reopening was possible due to the detailed work undertaken by the RSA and its contractor, in conjunction with expert medical advice, to examine each aspect of the testing process, and ensure to the maximum possible that the resumed tests would be safe for the public.

The RSA has been working to deliver online theory tests as well with a pilot online test under way for trucks and buses. The pilot service has now been extended to include a limited number of car and motorbike tests. The new offering will see 4,000 online theory tests available for all categories of vehicles for the month of June. From July, the authority plans to offer up to 10,000 tests per month. Tests are available on a first come, first served basis with the new online service becoming more widely available later in the year.

It is important to emphasise the limits of an online test. While convenient for test candidates, tests must be monitored closely thus making them far more staff intensive than tests in centres. When the RSA and Prometric, which is the test operator, get approval to extend capacity in centres to 50,000 tests they have indicated that they will prioritise staff for the test centres and may have to reduce the figures online from 10,000. This will have a positive impact as the test centres are far more efficient and can deliver a greater number of tests.

The Department of Transport is conscious of the significant number of people waiting to take their driver theory test. While we can appreciate a suggestion of a temporary amnesty to alleviate the backlog, the Minister for Transport will not make changes to the existing legislation for the learning to drive process. A test is required by EU law. While the EU requires only that theory be tested before a person receives a full licence, national law requires that before applying for a learning permit, candidates must complete and pass a driver theory test. This applies to anyone applying for a first learning permit in any vehicle category. The test is designed to check knowledge of critical issues such as rules of the road, risk perception, hazard awareness and good driving behaviour. Upon passing the theory test, an individual can then apply for a learner permit. We require the theory test before issuing a learning permit for the safety of all road users, including the learners themselves. Until a person successfully completes a driver theory test and demonstrates that he or she has attained a sufficient level of road safety and motoring knowledge, he or she cannot commence driving on our roads. Almost 25% of all those who undertake a theory test do not pass. By allowing individuals to bypass this vital step in the learning to drive process will only put their safety and the safety of others at risk, which I know is not the Senator's intention, and risk further pressure on other services.

It will take time for the driver theory testing service to return to normal and for the backlog to be cleared. The new online service is still in the pilot stage but the intention is to offer the service more broadly to customers in the coming months. The increased physical capacity, when permitted, coupled with the new pilot online service will help manage the backlog of customers and shorten waiting times. Every measure has been put in place to ensure that the maximum number of customers can be served while public health guidelines are strictly adhered to.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State. I am disappointed with his detailed reply because I feel that it will take a long time for us to clear the backlog if we do not take exceptional measures.

I stand to be corrected but I have been told that one cannot get an online test as none are available. I do not know whether that is true or whether the Minister of State has up-to-date information. If we are going to give online theory tests, we certainly need up it from 4,000 a month. We should consider introducing emergency legislation.

I reiterate strongly that I do not suggest that we dilute road safety. I also reiterate that much of the material in the theory test is covered by instructors when giving lessons. I am concerned that the backlog is having a significant effect, particularly on the young population, and the constant cancellation is highly regrettable. I understand where the Minister of State is coming from. I would be very thankful if he conveys to the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and that both of them convey to senior Cabinet colleagues to at least see can we do something to increase the number of online theory tests. I appreciate that much of the backlog is due to Covid and unforeseen circumstances but we need to act.

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate the Senator's very real concerns around this matter. I know that he would not in any way suggest that road safety should be compromised and that it is certainly not the angle he is coming from on this matter. He has a genuine concern about the backlog, which many of us have, in terms of people trying to get access to theory tests. The backlog is having a very real impact on all sorts of people's lives, especially young people who want to get out whether it is for college or work purposes.

I assure the Senator that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, takes this matter very seriously and it is a matter that exercises the Government. Every step that can be taken will be taken to ensure that the backlog is cleared as quickly as possible and that the people who need driver theory tests get them so they can get their driver's permit, and get on the road as quickly as possible but in as safe a manner as possible both for themselves and for all road users.