Other Questions. - Provisional Driving Licences.

Ruairí Quinn

Question:

86 Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Transport the total number of persons holding provisional driving licences; the total number of such drivers who are on the first, second, third or subsequent provisional licence; the measures he plans to encourage the maximum qualification levels for full licences; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2755/03]

John Bruton

Question:

95 Mr. J. Bruton asked the Minister for Transport his proposals for a review of the provisional driver licence system; when he expects the review to be completed; when he expects to have specific proposals in this regard; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2633/03]

John Bruton

Question:

115 Mr. J. Bruton asked the Minister for Transport his plans to abolish provisional driving licences; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2634/03]

Denis Naughten

Question:

116 Mr. Naughten asked the Minister for Transport his plans to reform the provisional licensing system here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2653/03]

John Deasy

Question:

136 Mr. Deasy asked the Minister for Transport his proposals to change the requirements of a provisional driving licence holder; if he has set a timescale to implement such a change; the provisions he is making to ensure people are given every opportunity to obtain a full licence; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2769/03]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 86, 95, 115, 116 and 136 together.

I refer the Deputies to my reply to Priority Question No. 80 on today's Order Paper which refers to the question of changes to the provisional driver licence system.

In relation to statistics on provisional driving licences, the Department of the Environment and Local Government, which holds and administers the national driver file, has advised me that the number of current provisional licences as at the end of October 2002 is 359,400. More up to date statistics are not immediately available.

Some of the licences would be for multiple categories of vehicle and categories may have been added to the licences at different dates. I will arrange to have a briefing note on the numbers of licences, including the numbers who hold first, second, third or subsequent provisional licences, forwarded to the Deputy concerned.

Learner drivers must pass the driving test in order to be eligible for a driving licence. While the current level of applications for the driving test and the resultant backlog is unprecedented, the capacity of the driving test service to deliver tests has increased significantly in recent years. I am considering, in consultation with the Minister for Finance, what other measures can be taken to enable tests to be offered within the shortest possible time.

All Members would agree with the sensible objectives the Minister has set. However, is it not the case that the Minister has jumped the gun in this regard? He has frightened many people, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and caused a rush to the driver testing centres without getting the centres in order by ensuring there is an adequate number of testers available. The Minister says he is working hard on this. What is he doing to ensure that the staff in Ballina will be able to deal with the huge increase in applications and the backlog that now exists? Second, what is he doing about the long waiting times at most of the centres? What is he doing to ensure there is an adequate number of driver testers available in the centres? There is no indication that there has been any increase in the number of testers.

One of the categories of people on the lists are people whose licences have lapsed. The Taoiseach is in that position. Has the Minister considered the possibility of granting an amnesty to people who have already passed the test but whose full licences have lapsed?

I acknowledged earlier that I caused much of the backlog by laying out my intentions in this area. However, I have said many times recently that there is no need for alarm. We will make transition arrangements of some sort, although I have not yet worked out what they will be. It is not the case that somebody could be put off the road overnight.

Will there be more testers?

Yes, that is what we are proposing.

Are they being recruited?

We are looking at a number of options for the driver testing system, including hiring support from Northern Ireland and the UK. I intend to bring forward specific proposals in this area shortly. I listened carefully to the examples mentioned by the Deputy. I am aware a cultural change is needed in this area. It is possible to be driving for eight years without taking a driving test. Some people are on provisional licences for ten to 20 years. The objective is to reduce the reliance on long-term provisional licences.

What about lapsed licences?

I will consider it. I appreciate that it is a problem.

Is it not the case that given the number of recent applications, the driver testers would have to increase the number of tests they carry out by 2,500 to deal with the number of applicants and to remove the provisional licences from the system? It would take 60 weeks for each driver tester working non-stop to do that. There is a deficit in capacity. If the Minister were to recruit driver testers from Northern Ireland and the UK, would not the current failure rate of nine out of 20 increase because there is no structured driver training programme in this country?

On 14 December 1999, the then Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, former Deputy Molloy, promised that statutory registration would be introduced on 1 January 2002 for driving instructors. That has not yet happened. On 10 May 2000, the Minister's predecessor gave a commitment that the driving test would be reformed. That has not happened either and, to the best of my knowledge, the consultants' report on the issue has not been published. When will we see action in that regard?

I am working on these matters as quickly as I can. The introduction of the penalty points system, and I thank the Opposition Deputies for putting on record their support for that measure, has begun to show results and to change the culture generally. That has brought a new urgency to the issues raised by the Deputies, that is, quicker testing, improved pass rates, the establishment of a new agency and proper regulation of driving instructors. I will press ahead as quickly as possible with those measures.

When one gets a driving licence in the United Kingdom one has it for life, and the UK is supposed to have the best system in the European Union. When will we see driving licence renewal reminders being issued? The Minister gave a commitment last June that it would be in place by the end of the year but that has not happened. Will the Minister introduce an amnesty for people whose licences have lapsed? It is possible within the current EU regulations on driving licences to allow them to be renewed, as is the case in the UK. Will the Minister bring forward proposals in that regard? It is causing huge difficulty at present.

I accept that. I will take up the issue of the renewal reminders. The office in Ballina is swamped at present. The number of applications is substantial, many times more than it has ever been previously. There are over 100,000 applications on hand so I am reluctant to put further pressure on the system without getting the additional resources I mentioned. We might buy in those resources if that is possible. I am examining that option at present.

I doubt that an amnesty is appropriate, given the focus on road safety and penalty points. However, I am conscious that there are anomalies and hard cases. There are also social issues, particularly in rural areas. I am equally conscious, nevertheless, that a generation of people have spent 12 to 15 years on provisional licences with no intention of ever applying for the test.

Is it not the case that the Minister has already bought in the resources through the penalty points system? That is tied into the national drivers file. Would it not be possible to issue the renewal reminders through that system? When the Minister made his announcement about the provisional licences he told his colleagues in the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party that he would put short-term transitional arrangements in place. Can he outline the type of transitional arrangements involved? The Minister also said at that time that he intended to have talks with driving instructors about the implementation of statutory registration. His predecessor had such talks a number of years ago. Has this Minister had those talks yet? Has he arranged meetings for them?

A number of discussions have taken place about statutory regulation and we are committed to pressing forward with it quickly. We have not yet decided on the transitional arrangements. If the Deputy has proposals in that regard, I will study them carefully. Giving people time to get their affairs in order will be my guiding philosophy, as it were. In other words, we will make it clear that by a certain date people will have to get their licences sorted out. We will give them time to do that.

Is the Minister thinking of weeks, months or years?

At present a person can drive for between five and eight years on one licence. If one does the test and fails it, one gets into the loop again so one can get up to 20 years on only two tests. That is the situation at present. Timing will be the way to deal with the transition. We will also try to make some arrangements for serious cases, such as those raised by the Deputies. I do not have a solution to it today.

I wish to clarify my point about an amnesty. Deputy Naughten was making the same point. We are talking about an amnesty for people who previously held full licences and whose licences have lapsed. Surely it would make sense to take those people out of the system by re-issuing their licences. Will the Minister outline his intentions in that regard?

The Minister mentioned a long lead-in time but also said that he would introduce penalty points in this regard by the end of this year. What steps has he taken to date to ensure that the system will be able to deal with that huge increase? The Minister says he is looking at the possibility of bringing people in from Northern Ireland. Has he any plans for a recruitment campaign for additional drivers? What discussions has he had with the authorities in Northern Ireland?

What I have actually done in this area is bring the penalty points system forward and get it up and running. I gather that up to 3,000 penalty points have been awarded so far. We have had extensive discussions—

We are not talking about that issue.

It is connected. The Deputy asked me about the awarding of penalty points for not having a licence and—

Is it correct that the Minister will not introduce that penalty until the end of this year?

That is correct. What I have been doing is introducing penalty points in the first instance, holding discussions with the Department of Finance about the possibility of recruiting extra testers and holding discussions with Northern Ireland and UK interests to see if we can do something there to dramatically reduce the backlog. I do not think that amnesties in the general sense are appropriate in this case given the road safety aspect. I will look at what we can do in the types of cases the Deputy has raised. I do not have the answer now but we will address the matter shortly.