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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 3 Mar 2005

Vol. 599 No. 1

Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

As I have only three minutes left to contribute to this debate, I will not have an opportunity to read the remainder of the speech I commenced on 14 October last, a copy of which I have again circulated to Deputies. The remainder of my speech deals largely with a summary of sections 10 to 35 of the Bill. I see the establishment of the Driver Testing and Standards Authority as a crucial step in improving the delivery of the driver testing service in the face of a continuing and unprecedented high level of demand for the service.

The authority will be established outside normal Civil Service structures and should be in a position to deliver a more focused and flexible service that will be able to respond more readily to customer needs and future demand. In the light of the authority's particular duty to raise driving standards, I envisage such a body having the necessary flexibility to take an innovative approach to driving standards that will have long-term benefits for road safety in future. Such benefits will not be as immediate as those resulting from the targeting of the offences of speeding, seat belt wearing and drink driving but it is important that we foster the development of driving standards to underpin the overall strategy for road safety.

The establishment of a separate public sector body to deliver the driver testing service and take responsibility for other functions relating to the testing and control of drivers, driving instructors and vehicles that would be more appropriate to an executive agency than to a Department is also an opportunity for other functions relating to road safety in general to be assigned to the authority. Those that may be assigned to it will ensure that the authority will play an important part in improving road safety in general. In this context I am considering what additional functions might be assigned to the authority in the long term to enable it to fulfil its role more effectively. As part of this process, I propose to bring forward appropriate amendments on Committee Stage.

The process of recruiting a chief executive officer for the DTSA is at an advanced stage and I expect the post to be filled at an early date. It will be based in Ballina and will be at a level equivalent to the assistant secretary grade in the Civil Service. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to the Minister's contribution. Before I took up this brief, the significant waiting lists for driver testing defied explanation. I still wonder in this economy of limitless resources and capabilities and technological prowess why the Government cannot organise something as fundamental and simple as a driving test. I acknowledge the problem did not arise during the tenure of this Government. I vaguely recall an amnesty introduced by a former colleague of mine 30 years ago. However, this problem was foreseeable and there has been no excuse in recent years for the waiting lists given that it was recognised that the problem would get worse. Our GDP has increased and car sales since the mid-1990s have increased. Our demographics should have acted as an early warning system to highlight the demand for driving tests and to acknowledge that waiting lists would expand unless something was done to ease the problem.

One can hold a driving licence at 17 years. The State, therefore, has 17 years notice that people will require driving licences. The demographics should give the Government the opportunity to organise this simple process, given that it does not involve rocket science. Resources have never been a problem. While driver testing is not entirely self-financing, a few adjustments could make it self-financing. It is difficult to work out what has been the problem.

I welcome the introduction of the legislation because that, in itself, acknowledges there is a problem but, unfortunately, it does not contain proposals to resolve it. Responsibility will be given to a new body to address the issues but that is as far as it goes. The legislation implicitly acknowledges that what went before failed and that a single focused agency whose primary function is to deliver a driver testing system and issue certificates of competency could potentially do a better job.

I am a little sceptical because this will be the third home of the driver testing system in as many years. It languished for years in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government before being hived off to the Department of Transport where it was expected to get more attention. The system has only been under the Department's aegis for two years but it is being reborn under a new arm's length agency. I cannot help feeling that, similar to the health service, new structures are assumed to equate with reform.

I broadly subscribe to the Bill's objectives, which are to deliver a driver testing system and to promote and develop an improvement in driving standards, which is urgently required. Nobody will deny driving standards in Ireland are absolutely woeful. However, I am perplexed and sceptical because the legislation does not outline how an improvement will be made. The new body's brief is vague and open-ended and I do not know how it will do better than what went before. How will waiting times and the numbers of untested drivers be reduced?

Approximately, 117,000 applicants are waiting for a driving test while 367,000 people are driving with a provisional licence. How will that be addressed so that these drivers can take a test and be issued with a certificate of competency? It is an absolute outrage that 367,000, a significant proportion of the population, are driving without a qualification, some illegally.

The Minister stated there was no evidence to suggest drivers who had failed the test were less competent than fully licensed drivers. Perhaps he is correct because such evidence is not even collected. We do not know when road accidents and fatalities occur whether the victims were driving with provisional licences or had done the test and failed it. Such information is not available. However, this gives the completely wrong signal about road safety and it undermines everybody's respect for the law.

Every day in the House we pass legislation designed to further control, limit and manipulate behaviour and we intrude into ever more obscure areas of human activity through various fines, rules, regulations and penalties to regulate behaviour. However, while regulation of driving behaviour is the norm worldwide, the Government has made it impossible for people to comply with the law. When they do a test and fail, they may continue to drive indefinitely. That sends the wrong signal to the population.

How will the legislation change this? Will a change in structure be confused with a change in the system? Structural change was undertaken by health boards and local authorities, but it is never a solution on its own and it hides the lack of solutions. For instance, the establishment of a traffic corps was announced with great fanfare prior to Christmas. The people in the corps are doing the same work they always did and nothing has changed. No budget, strategy or plan has been put in place.

This is a large Bill, given that its aspirations are extremely modest, as it comprises 37 sections. It provides for all eventualities. The new authority can be given a wide range of additional functions by the Minister. It is enabled by powers conferred on it to engage in a wide range of activities in pursuit of its specific and general objectives, according to the explanatory memorandum. The authority's remit is potentially so wide and vague that nobody involved in the drafting of the legislation had the slightest idea how it will undertake its duties and effect an improvement. The authority is an all-singing, all-dancing body empowered to do virtually everything. It can buy and hive off resources, borrow, outsource and set up subsidiaries. While these powers are worthy, they reflect a lack of understanding of what the authority should do. The range of possible solutions often masks the absence of a solution.

The appalling waiting lists, which have been in existence for years, are a national joke. The authority's first task should be to address the backlog of applicants for driving tests and then introduce a system to prevent the recurrence of backlogs. Perhaps it is a simplistic approach but that can only happen if more testers are appointed. Will more testers be recruited? How will their appointments be funded, given that no allocation was provided for the authority in the budget? How will the individuals be trained and tested? What qualifications will they require?

One of the new authority's tasks is to agree service agreements and standards of performance with the Minister. What benchmark will be used? According to the Minister's reply to a recent parliamentary question, the number of driver testers has remained the same since 2001, at approximately 120. However, the number on contract has increased. Is it significant in light of the Minister's intentions for the new authority that testing itself should be outsourced? It is hard to see how they might do a worse job than currently. I would like to know about that. I have raised concerns about the privatisation of aspects of the justice area. When something is connected with enforcing the law, one needs specific safeguards before one allows it to be privatised. It is among the matters to which I seek responses before this Bill is passed into law. Those are the kinds of fundamental questions that we need answered.

It is simply not acceptable to force onto long and expensive waiting lists people who want to sit a test. I saw a figure that the profits of insurance companies were up by approximately €4 million to €5 million annually as a result of charging people who had not got a full driving licence because they awaited a test. No one expects people to be able to ring up and get a test tomorrow, but there must be a reasonable timeframe and a guarantee that, once one has applied for a test, one will be given one within a given period, be it a week, ten days or even a month. In some cases it is over a year and it has been even longer. That is unacceptable.

Quite apart from people waiting, what I also find unacceptable and a glaring omission is the absence of a penalty for failing one's test. If the purpose of testing is to establish that a person is a competent driver and someone persistently fails, it is a reasonable conclusion that he or she is not competent. After all, the certificate one receives when one fails says that one is not competent and has not passed. If one passes, one receives a competency test certificate, and if one fails, an incompetency certificate. Despite this, we let those who have failed their test straight out onto the roads again with no penalty. We let them in charge of a potentially lethal weapon.

Why are they allowed out again? Why are there no consequences other than perhaps slightly higher insurance premia? Even those are reduced over the years if one does not have an accident. There is no incentive even to try to pass the test. I realise it is not like that for the majority of people who want to pass their tests quickly and get on with their lives. However, some people do not give a hoot, and why should they? That must change. At the very least, there should be an obligation to take lessons from validly qualified and recognised instructors. That is another story that needs to be regulated and examined, and I will return to it.

The number of tests that people may sit should be regulated. I am not saying that people should not be allowed sit their driving test three times, but to go on doing so and make a lifetime's work of it is utterly ridiculous. They should be limited in where and how they can drive. They should not be allowed on motorways or to drive faster than 30 mph. After a certain number of failures, there is no doubt that the fee should be increased. Why should we continue to allow such people create backlogs and clog up the list? There must be some cut-off point. That may seem harsh, and I accept that, but this is about road safety and they are putting other people's lives at risk. There are others to consider. If one has consistently proven oneself to be incompetent, it is reasonable to say at some point that enough is enough and that one may not drive on the road.

I know a small group of people exists who cannot sit tests because they apparently get very nervous about sitting exams and so on. Perhaps an alternative test might be devised for them. I am sure it is not beyond human ingenuity to devise such a test for someone who genuinely says that he or she gets very nervous. I am sure that such cases are particularly obvious to testers. However, that does not detract from the principle that there must be a penalty. If one fails consistently, one should eventually be put off the road. Otherwise, the purpose of the test is negated and it makes no sense to have one.

I also heard the Minister say that the backlog of driving tests was partly due to people not bothering to turn up. That is related. Why would one bother turning up? Why would one bother cancelling? There is no real incentive or penalty. What is another year on the driving testing list and the provisional licence? If the State does not respect the requirement that one have a driving licence, why should the public? The unacceptable consequence of this rule is that, to add to the problem, a person must resit the test each year after the first two-year provisional licence. The perpetual failures constantly add to the numbers who fail each year. I understand that, incredibly, there are 1,300 each week, accounting for almost 50% of all tests. I do not know if many of them are repeat tests since that figure is not available. However, if there is a failure rate of almost47%, something is seriously wrong with the test.

As I say, I do not know how many are habitual failures adding to the backlog, but large numbers are added to it each week. They will stay in the system as long as they are allowed and there are no consequences for them, although there should be. The system must be graduated since one should not bring down the guillotine straight away. However, they must know that, ultimately, if they do not perform, they will be put off the road.

It is self-evident that we must have more testers. Equally important is the quality of the training and education of people on the road. We have introduced the theory test, and my Fine Gael colleague, Deputy Naughten, has developed a policy programme on how better training and testing might be introduced, something I recommend to the Minister since a great deal of sound work has gone into that. I do not want to go into the details of it now, but if 50% of applicants fail, either the test or the preparation for it is wrong. Probably it is a combination of the two.

The test itself must be updated and modernised to be more applicable to contemporary driving conditions. In many cases, conditions on the road — certainly, since I did my own test — have changed. There are now road conditions and markings that simply did not exist then. We now have motorways, and I am not even sure that we had roundabouts when I sat my test. I believe that there was one dual carriageway in the country. Those are all new conditions that are not part of the training or testing.

As a matter of interest, the Deputy is right about the high failure rate, but it is in line with the average in every other country. The problem is not a uniquely Irish phenomenon, although I am not excusing it.

Perhaps what is unique is the fact that we let them back on the list.

And on the road.

That is what I mean. There are no consequences. That is the real objection. I do not object to their sitting the test, rather that, by virtue of the certificate we give them, they represent a danger to everyone else.

Experiences such as night-time journeys, emergency braking and so on are not part of the test, yet they are part of everyday driving and should inform both training and testing. The preparation for the test is a vast, uncharted landscape. I know we have all had communications from instructors. However, the truth is that anyone can set up as an instructor at the moment. Bizarrely, one need not even have a full driving licence to set oneself up as a driving instructor. It is mad that someone with a provisional driving licence, who may have failed the test several times, can do that.

At the behest of the Department some years ago, a voluntary register of driving instructors was set up by the industry which required a minimum level and standard of performance. The industry has itself gone to considerable trouble and expense to clean up its act. Will the Minister ensure that the authority capitalises on what work has been done by the existing instructors who set up that register in addition to the extra standards that the authority may require to be observed by driving instructors? Obviously, it is not comprehensive but it is a beginning and we must recognise the efforts of those driving instructors who take an interest in the industry and are in it for the long haul rather than the fly-by-night operators.

I want to refer to the danger of motorcycles, about which I feel strongly. Every mother feels strongly about the number of deaths from motorcycle accidents, and I am sure we all think, "There, but for the grace of God, go I". The number of deaths from motorcycle accidents is unacceptable. The road safety strategy up to 2004 promised to introduce mandatory training for motorcyclists prior to their being allowed on the road, but that did not happen. I understand it is in the new strategy, but mandatory training is still not in place. I stress the importance of that training. I have no doubt that the number of deaths from motorcycle accidents is largely due to poor training or, in many cases, no training, which is in turn compounded by poor testing. The problem of poor training and poor testing must be tackled.

Many motorcyclists are young drivers. They regard a motorcycle as a cheap alternative to a car. Young people are attracted to speed and the ease of transport a motorcycle appears to offer. That is the reason the testing and training must be rigorous. This problem must be tackled. It will require additional resources. The testing alone — I am sure the Minister is familiar with the problem — involves a different set of skills from those needed for car driving and testing, but there is nothing in the budget to indicate that something will be done immediately in this area. There is no escaping the urgency of this matter and the unacceptable number of deaths.

Every weekend we hear of another young lad killed in a motorcycle accident. The figures up to last weekend indicate that 69 people were killed on our roads this year, 32 of whom were car drivers and ten motorcyclists. In two months, ten motorcyclists were killed. This appears to be an uninsurable activity, which is unfortunate because the many enthusiasts involved in motorcycling are extremely good drivers who do special training, abroad in many cases. This activity attracts people who have an interest in the sport and who are very skilful drivers, but they are being penalised because there is not a proper system in place to ensure the necessary skills are made available to young people and that they are tested thoroughly. We must stop reckless young men driving on our roads who are a danger to themselves and others because of a failure to inculcate in them the seriousness of what they are doing when they take a motorcycle on to the road.

I would like to think this measure will make a difference to road safety but the proposal is so vague and open to interpretation and so market-oriented that it is impossible for me to predict how this authority will operate or what it will try to achieve. I support market freedom in all circumstances but when it comes to road safety and enforcing the licensing system, an area inextricably linked with the justice system, it is not an area for unbridled commercialism of the kind that appears to be permitted in the Bill.

It would be wrong if the testing system structures were to be administered or arranged in such a way as to be influenced by revenue raising circumstances. We discussed this issue previously in the context of speed cameras but for the system to have credibility and the confidence of the public, it must be transparent and have nothing to do with potential profit for an outside body. That is very important. I do not know if that is what is envisaged but it is permitted under the Bill. Revenue raising considerations should not supersede the purpose of the legislation.

Whether the legislation will work remains to be seen but what is certain is that another quango is being set up, apparently at arm's length from the Minister and, therefore, from the Dáil. This body will not be answerable to the Dáil through the Minister. Questions are tabled to the Minister every day about the driver testing system and he answers those questions. Will the Minister answer such questions in future or will we be told they are matters for the new body which will contact us in the fullness of time? That would not be acceptable. The fact that so many questions are tabled is a reflection of the inadequacy of the system but at least the Minister of the day is accountable for this body and must explain why the system does not work and respond to all queries. That accountability cannot be taken away. Too much accountability to this House has been given away. I support this legislation but I ask the Minister to give a guarantee that he will remain accountable to the Dáil for the activities of this new body.

I welcome the Bill. It arises as a result of a review carried out by the Comptroller and Auditor General of the mess that has become the driver testing system. The review recommended that the area of driver testing should be established under a public sector agency. That makes some sense but I share the concerns of Deputy Olivia Mitchell that this initiative may be used by the Minister as an attempt to hive off his responsibility in terms of setting policy in the driver testing and licensing area and accounting to the Dáil for what is happening in that area. I hope that under the terms of this legislation the new agency will be accountable to the Minister and that the Minister, in turn, will be accountable to the Dáil for the performance of that agency. If that is not provided for clearly in the legislation, we will seek to amend it to provide for that because it is a critical aspect of the road safety plan and it is not acceptable for the Minister to attempt to off-load his responsibility to a separate agency. We have seen that happen in regard to many aspects of public life where different agencies and quangos were set up and the Minister concerned could keep them at arm's length and not be accountable to the Dáil for performance in that area.

This initiative is long overdue and has been promised for many years. In 2002, the Taoiseach was asked about it on the Order of Business and he promised that the legislation would be available in mid-2003. It was not until July 2004 that the Bill was published and now, in March 2005, we are debating Second Stage. It is clear there has been considerable slippage in terms of undertakings given in the area of driver testing. That is as a result of a lack of priority given to this area by the Minister and his predecessor.

The issue of driver testing and licensing is fundamentally about road safety. When we consider what has happened in regard to road safety in recent years, following the initial positive effects of the penalty points system, we see now that road deaths and serious accidents are again increasing significantly. That indicates a failure on the part of the Government to give adequate attention to the issue of road safety.

The road safety strategy was published in late 2004, over a year late. It replaces the 1998-2002 strategy but throughout 2003 and for most of 2004, a current road safety strategy was not in place. It appears the previous Minister, Deputy Brennan, was too busy meddling in semi-State companies and issuing meaningless press statements to give attention to this area, and we have had to deal with the consequences of that neglect. The number of deaths and serious injuries caused on our roads continues to rise and no serious initiative has been taken in the past two years to tackle that problem.

Unfortunately and inexplicably, the review of the road strategy 1998-2002 did not consider the impact of inexperienced and unlicensed drivers on road accident figures. That is extraordinary and I wonder if it was because it might have been too embarrassing for the Minister or his predecessor to tackle this problem. No serious work appears to have been done in preparation for the current road safety strategy, particularly in terms of reviewing its predecessor.

As regards speeding, the review of the previous road safety strategy shows that an initial target was set in terms of reducing the incidence of excessive speeding by 50%. That seems a reasonable target. It is regrettable, however, that during the course of the strategy, it was refined and became an objective merely to reduce the number of vehicles exceeding the 60 mph speed limit on single carriageway roads from 51% to 40%. In my view it was pathetic to aim to have a situation where only 40% of drivers were exceeding the limit to which I refer. It was, however, indicative of the extent to which people completely disregard road safety legislation and speed limits. It also provided evidence of the scale of the turnaround that needs to be achieved in terms of road safety. In that context, it is unacceptable and unforgivable that the Minister and his predecessor have paid so little attention to the area of road safety.

The fact that the Second Stage debate on this legislation commenced last October and that we are only returning to it today is again indicative of the lack of priority the Minister is giving to this area. In October, the Minister suggested, incredibly, that there is no correlation between unlicensed drivers and road accidents. One wonders on what planet he lives. I accept that data relating to this matter do not exist. Questions must be asked as to why this is the case and why this area has not been examined. The Minister's statement that there is no correlation because there are no data is meaningless. It stands to reason that if there are large numbers of inexperienced and unlicensed people driving on our roads, they will contribute to the accident rate. Any attempt by the Minister to negate that correlation is disingenuous. There is no basis, other than the fact that these specific data are not collected by any agency, for the Minister to make such a contention. Inexperienced drivers, particularly those who have failed their driving tests, represent a hazard on the road and are much more likely than others to be involved in accidents.

I discovered some interesting data which appears to deny the contention the Minister made in October. The National Safety Council produced data in 2003 which seem to indicate that there is a relationship between unlicensed or provisionally licensed drivers and road accident rates. The council found that 66% of accidents involving fatal and serious injury are due to driver action. It also discovered that speed is the single largest cause of such accidents. The NSC considered this matter in greater detail and it emerged that 78% of speed related accidents are caused by people under the age of 34. It is, therefore, perfectly reasonable and logical to draw the conclusion that a significant number of those driving on provisional licences — these people are, by their nature, young and inexperienced — fall into the category of people who cause serious accidents which result in death or serious injury. If the Minister is determined to deal with the area of road safety, he must ensure that data relating to serious accidents and the driving status of the people who cause them should be collected either by the Garda or the National Safety Council. Action in that regard should be taken immediately.

The existing driver testing system can only be described as a shambles. There are 380,000 drivers on provisional licences. Of these, 178,000 are on their first licence, 107,000 are on their second licence and 95,000 are on their third or subsequent licence. It is clear, therefore, that more than half these people — 202,000 — can legally drive alone. I do not know how the Minister can justify this. I am not aware of any other country where a person can obtain a provisional licence when they turn 17, never drive a car and subsequently obtain a second provisional licence and legally drive alone. We have set a dangerous precedent in terms of people who have had two provisional licences and who fail their driving tests because these individuals can legally drive alone for a further two years. That is an intolerable situation and there is no way the Minister can stand over it, particularly if he has any interest in the area of road safety.

This situation has developed because of a complete lack of responsibility on the part of the Minister and his predecessors to tackle seriously the areas of driving, driver safety and driver testing. The system has been brought into serious disrepute. Many young drivers no longer even bother to obtain provisional licences and a large number of other individuals drive on such licences indefinitely. A car is the equivalent of a lethal weapon. For that reason, it is incumbent on the Minister of Transport to ensure that respect for good driving is cultivated among young people. Little has been done in this regard in recent years.

The failure of the Minister and, in particular, his predecessor, Deputy Brennan, to address the area of driver testing and put in place a system that works has led to widespread disregard for good driving standards and the consequent unacceptable levels of death and serious injury on our roads. The obvious dangers associated with allowing unqualified drivers to drive alone was recognised by the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Brennan, in late 2003 when he announced his intention to end the practice of those on provisional licences being allowed to drive unaccompanied.

In December 2003, Deputy Brennan said:

I have made it quite clear that this practice of driving unaccompanied has to finish. The legislation is being finalised and very soon it will be compulsory to pass a test in order to drive on our roads.

Applications for driving tests had increased dramatically during 2003, following a number of statements by the Minister off the top of his head about his intentions to sort out the mess. These statements, like so many others from the former Minister for Transport, came to absolutely nothing. As the Minister responsible he said:

The waiting lists have been swelling up big time. The average wait is now 42 weeks and a year ago it was only half that.

The same Minister did not appear to realise that he had any role or responsibility in creating that mess. He went on to say that despite the problems the backlog in applications had caused, he was glad to have "flushed out" the thousands of people who had no intention of ever taking a driving test.

He created chaos and there was a mad rush by people to do their driving test. Unfortunately, the same Minister who had responsibility for dealing with this area, did nothing whatsoever in terms of putting in place a modern system that could deal with the demand that exists for driving tests. That report, following the Minister's comments, went on to say: "A driver testing agency, run as a semi-State agency, would be established in March, Mr. Brennan said, to run the system with a more professional commercial approach." He was so interested and hung-up on making every aspect of transport commercial that he did not do any groundwork in terms of setting up the agency.

I have some sympathy with the current Minister because he has inherited a mess as regards driver testing as well as so many other aspects of transport policy because of the complete and utter negligence of his predecessor in office, Deputy Brennan. It was all about spin and hype and daily press statements that caused chaos. There was little or no follow-up. He was saying that the legislation would be in place by March 2004, and 12 months later we are only on Second Stage of that debate.

I requested figures recently from the Minister's Department. They show that there is only one driving tester for every 1,000 applicants waiting to sit the driving test. The data shows there are currently almost 120,000 people on waiting lists, but there are only 116 testers available at the various test centres around the country. That is completely inadequate. More interestingly, in spite of all the comments made by the current Minister and his predecessor, and the spiralling numbers of road deaths, a year ago there were 130 examiners at the 48 test centres around the country compared to 116 today. Incredibly, as the waiting lists expand the number of personnel available to deal with them decreases. I ask the Minister, again, to explain how that could be possible. Is it not indicative of serious negligence on the part of both the Minister and his predecessor, Deputy Brennan, that this has been allowed to get to crisis point along with the fact that the number of personnel required to deal with the problem has been decreasing over the past year? Furthermore, the average waiting time for a driving test at many test centres is extremely long. In Thurles, for example, the average waiting time is 43 weeks and in Nenagh and Carlow, 42 weeks. The national average is over 30 weeks.

It seems the Minister and his predecessor have reiterated time and again their desire to see the number of provisional licence holders on our roads reduced dramatically. However, the personnel have not been put in place to deal with this backlog. It would seem that in spite of the road fatalities and serious injuries arising, and despite the many press statements and promises, nothing whatsoever has been done to sort out the chaos in the driver testing system.

I am sure the Minister, like other Deputies, has had a good deal of correspondence from driving instructors who are quite concerned about the implications for them of this legislation. It is important for the Minister to clarify that. I welcome the fact that there is a move to sort out the system as regards instructors. As Deputy Olivia Mitchell said, it is intolerable that anybody may set up a driving school, regardless of whether he or she is a licensed driver. That area needs to be sorted out urgently. From the viewpoint of people learning to drive and consumer rights, clear safeguards should be in place to ensure adequate quality standards and to guarantee that if someone signs up with the local driving school, it is a reputable operation. The person giving the instruction must be fully licensed, initially as a driver, and also qualified to be an instructor. Currently, no such system is in place and I urge the Minister to urgently introduce a licensing system in this regard.

The Minister also needs to clarify the position of people already in the industry who have taken steps to reach a quality standard, which is relatively high at present, because they are quite concerned. Another predecessor of the Minister, Deputy Bobby Molloy, indicated earlier to them that they would be included in the system if they signed up to the voluntary register. They find themselves in a limbo at the moment and do not know where they stand. It is important the Minister recognises the standards they meet at present and clarifies the position as regards future eligibility or qualifying criteria.

I am concerned with a number of other areas with regard to how the existing test system operates and the perception among the public that it is a mess. Why, for example, is there such variation in pass rates in the different test centres? We talked about the average pass rate and I accept the Minister's word that this is around the European average. However, there is quite a variation between the test centres, from a high pass rate of 66.4% in Shannon to a low of 47.3%. Again, the Minister needs to find out why that is the case. Is it a case of different standards being applied within driving schools or in the catchment areas for those centres? Why is there such a wide variation? It is unacceptable for people who come along for tests in good faith, if their chances of passing depend on the actual test centre they go to. This needs to be clarified and sorted out.

Another area of urgent concern is the rules of the road. Two years ago, in March 2003, the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Brennan, was asked a question about the rules of the road handbook and when it would be updated.

There are even older handbooks around, going back to the time of previous Ministers for Transport.

That handbook is now so old that the Minister on the cover is Deputy Howlin. It is a 1995 publication.

I found that out. I agree with the Deputy.

The Minister, Deputy Brennan, was asked when the book would be updated. He said he was very conscious of the fact that it needed to be updated, he had set up a review group and he expected that the consultative process he had established would report shortly and that the new handbook would be produced. That was two years ago and is another indication of complete disregard for this whole area. I have a copy of the Rules of the Road booklet that is on sale today from the Government Publications Office and available in all book shops. It is ten years old. It makes no reference at all to the considerable amount of road safety legislation which has been passed by this House in the meantime. Neither does it make any reference to metric speed limits.

I have asked them to produce a new one.

That is not good enough. The Minister's predecessor said, two years ago, that he was dealing with this as a matter of urgency and now Deputy Cullen is saying he has asked them to produce an updated one.

I have only just become aware of it.

It is not good enough. The only available handbook on the rules of the road for learner drivers is ten years old, which is not acceptable. If the Minister had any interest at all in road safety, he would have dealt with this as a matter of urgency. It is not acceptable to have ten year old booklets available.

In most cases, less than two weeks' notice is given to a candidate for a driving test. There are cases where people are on holidays or where they find it difficult to get time off work or other responsibilities. Some indication should be given to people so that they can have an idea of when the test is to take place. The people who have access to the website can find that, which is fair enough. However, not everybody is in that situation. I have come across people who have only had about one week's notice. That causes much difficulty so I ask the Minister to look at it.

Another area deals with the extension of the test to cover certain minor mechanical aspects of the operation of a car. In September 2003, the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, spoke about these mechanical tests and stated that the radical new regulations were being introduced within weeks to bring Ireland into line with European requirements. The current Minister made a lot of this in his speech as it was embarrassing when the EU decided to take action against Ireland for its failure to comply. He made a lot of it in his speech, but he played it down. Yet in September 2003, his predecessor stated that it was an urgent matter and would have to be done in a matter of weeks. Like so many aspects of the work that the former Minister supposedly carried out in the Department, nothing further was heard of it.

It is in now. The Deputy should know that.

I know it is in now, but it is in very belatedly.

I can only do what I can do.

He only did so after the EU drew his attention to it and threatened to take action against him. It is inexplicable that the Minister has dropped the requirement for people undergoing a test to have a valid tax disc. There is no sense in that at all. We are trying to get compliance on licences, tax and insurance. This is one area where learner drivers could undergo some screening process as they must have an up-to-date tax disc. I cannot understand why the Minister has removed that requirement and it should be reinstated.

Another area deals with gender balance among testers. I am sure that due to equality legislation, those posts are available to females as well as males. I have not yet heard of anyone that has been tested by a female driving tester. I would like the Minister to provide the House with the figures on that when he is summing up. He should take positive steps to ensure that we have got to a stage where there was an equality of male and female testers within the services. That is important.

There is a general shortage of testers.

Many women undergoing the test would prefer to be tested by a female. We should have the same balance among the testers as there is among those sitting the test.

The Minister intends to bring the operation of the NCT under this new agency. I welcome that because there is much concern among the public about the standards of the NCT. There is also a lack of accountability because it is privately operated. Some newspaper investigations have uncovered practices that are not acceptable. I am glad that the new agency will take responsibility for that. I hope that there will be greater responsibility and clarity on the pass rates and the various hurdles through which people have to go to get their car passed.

It is all very well to set up a new agency and I welcome that. Unless the Minister provides the resources necessary for that agency to increase significantly the number of driving testers and to put in place acceptable standards for driving licensing, no improvement will be made. The Minister's predecessor made a complete dog's dinner of driver testing. It is far worse than it was when he came to office.

The figures for serious accidents on our roads are worse than they were two years ago. It is not rocket science to draw a relationship between those two facts. The Minister must ensure that this new agency is in a position to put in place a modern driver testing system that is adequately resourced and staffed. This must be done to meet the great demand that is out there, which will continue over the next few years. We need forward planning from someone who can secure the resources from the Minister for Finance to ensure that we have a modern driving tester system. The current situation is inexcusable and it is highly irresponsible of the Minister and his predecessor to have allowed this situation to develop. The Minister must show his mettle to get the resources for the new agency. Unless they are provided, we will be back to square one and there will be no improvement in the existing system.

My first comment on the Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill 2004 is about the ridiculous backlog of people waiting to sit their test. Current pass rates at national level are approximately 55%. Not only does almost every second person fail, but candidates have to wait six months for the privilege of doing so. Waiting times for driving tests are up to 42 weeks. A temporary visitor to Ireland may legally drive here providing he or she holds a valid licence or an international driving permit, issued in his or her country of residence. That period is for six months for those residing here or 12 months for visitors. If someone happens to be one of the unlucky candidates who cannot simply exchange his or her licence, that person must join the lengthy queues in Ireland and pass a driving test before an Irish licence can be granted.

The only positive aspect to the Irish system is that before undergoing this test, a provisional licence may be obtained from the appropriate regional licensing authority.

Let us hope that the new driver testing and standards authority will accelerate delivery of an enhanced and customer focused driver testing service to the public. It should bring a new focus and a wider flexibility to driver testing with the initial emphasis on reducing the waiting time for driving tests.

I call on the Minister to provide for the recruitment of additional testers and to give testing priority to individuals who can produce documentary evidence of their urgent need to have a driving licence for health or work reasons. The high volume of applications is unacceptable and more has to be done to reduce waiting lists. With the new standards authority in place, I hope that we can look forward to more people attending a driving test appointment and that people will comply with the requirements, considering that the majority are legal requirements. If we do not place strong emphasis on these requirements, some people may feel that they can continue to drive with a provisional licence. That is a key priority to road safety and should reduce the long-term reliance on provisional licences. The authority must cut the waiting time for driving tests and lay down strict targets in areas such as the length of waiting times, the number of tests carried out annually and the improvement of both driving testers and instructors.

Why is there a waiting time of 12 months for a driving test? Why are 300,000 people in Ireland still on a provisional licence? We cannot expect to feel safe on our roads with such a high number operating on provisional licences. We think we live in a modern society, yet we are failing to make any real impact in reforming one of Ireland's most important systems, to move with the times and get rid of provisional licences that are a problem and a hindrance to motorists.

The standards authority should have a standardised system for all instructors and testers to avoid the embarrassing variations in driving test pass rates among different counties throughout Ireland. The Minister must immediately provide for more testers and instructors with a standardised qualification. This must be done to avoid the inevitability of people speeding, driving through stop signs and yield signs and improperly overtaking. We continue to point the finger at alcohol for most accidents on our roads, but surely driving errors are also a contributory factor. Given a penalty points system which is clearly falling into disrepute and failing to deliver positive results as people continue to die on the roads, it is time the standards authority delivered on its promise to implement the real changes we deserve.

Ireland's dysfunctional driver licensing system has made the roads more dangerous as people who fail their tests continue to drive unsupervised on provisional licences. The practice dates back to a slower paced rural Ireland in which cars were luxuries and roads were quiet. In today's urbanised and traffic-clogged country, provisional drivers compete for space with qualified drivers while State-run licensing centres are unable to keep up with demand. Will the Minister reduce waiting lists immediately by providing extra instructors and testers? He must ensure that private driving instructors and testers comply with a standardised education system in addressing the problem.

If the Minister were a resident of Carrigaholt with a provisional licence who had to travel to work in Galway or Ennis, he would find it very difficult to have a qualified driver with him at all times. It is a 70 mile round trip to Ennis which places an unfair burden on people in the area who must wait months on end for a test. They are well qualified to drive but cannot get the piece of paper which allows them to do so alone. Will the Minister consider the backward areas of the west whose people cannot afford to wait and wait for driving tests? Some people are losing employment as a result of their lack of a full licence.

The Minister for Finance came to the Chamber and then slipped out again. I presume he was under the impression that his questions were coming up. Can I assume there is no obstacle to continuing through our slot?

Questions are not scheduled until 3.30 p.m.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and to make a number of points. There is a need to question the process involved in the delivery of services by the State which involves the separation of functions among the Civil Service and publicly owned agencies. We must ask whether the process necessarily guarantees improved service delivery. The main objective of the Bill appears to be a mere restructuring of the process rather than the introduction of innovative new approaches to driver training, safety and instruction.

It has been fortuitous for the Government that the strategic thinking which directed the State over the last 50 years has brought great benefits and economic success. While the thinking which began with T.K. Whitaker and our investment in education have helped to bring us significant success, the current Government in particular has failed to deliver services locally. The Civil Service has been unable to deliver services effectively for which incredible failure at a time of economic plenty the Government receives and deserves a great deal of appropriate criticism. Driver testing is a prime example of the anarchical circumstances which have developed. There are extremely long waiting times for tests as a result of our inability to organise our simple affairs.

I acknowledge a certain justification for the maintenance of the central Civil Service Departments as the strategic planning element of State services coupled with what might be termed "delivery agencies". I am seriously concerned, however, that there is a risk Parkinson's law will apply whereby the creation of agencies leads simply to the creation of extensive bureaucracies which are expensive to run and duplicate services and resources. Such agencies are not necessarily more efficient or better at providing services than existing systems.

A board is to be established through the legislation before the House. As a Deputy who has considered the operations of various boards, I identify the creation of boards as the area in which we have been least effective. Politically appointed boards in Aer Lingus, An Post and a range of other State agencies with which I am familiar have failed to recognise and anticipate problems. The board of An Post failed to involve itself in any real strategic thinking within the company. When I see the establishment of a plethora of further boards, I must ask whether they constitute an extension of the Fianna Fáil machine and apparatus. For what gain will the 11 members of the board of the proposed driver-testing authority be provided with compensation for expenses and whatever other financial provision is made?

The Minister said the strategic planning function will remain within the Department, which I agree is appropriate. If the civil servant at assistant secretary level appointed to run the proposed agency must report to the Minister every year, what will the board do? If the Department can provide strategic planning, what will be the function of the board? What does the Minister believe the 11 members of the board will provide that cannot be provided from within the Department or which will not represent a duplication of Civil Service expertise? The initial sections of the Bill provide for the elaborate establishment of boards which I fear will constitute simply another jobs-for-the-boys arrangement within the Fianna Fáil Administration.

I could not agree more with Deputy Shortall's analysis that we face a crisis of delivery which was created or at least exacerbated by the previous Minister. The wording the current Minister used to describe the way circumstances arose was quite sweet. He indicated that the waiting list problem emerged in 2003 as a result of concerns about stiffer regulations due to reports in the media as if those reports emerged out of thin air. He implied that the media made a sudden decision that there would be stiffer regulation which had nothing to do with the previous Minister who was well known to air his thoughts on Sundays on the national airwaves if he felt for whatever reason that it was too quiet in RTE or the constituency of Dublin South. Deputy Shortall was correct to identify the mess we are trying to sort out as a politically created one.

In sorting out the mess, I urge the Minister to go a great deal further than he proposes. I noted in his contribution that he intends to introduce on Committee Stage wider provisions on the remit of the authority in the area of road safety. I encourage him to do so. It is difficult on Second Stage to debate a Bill when we do not know what further provisions will be included. I encourage the Minister to add a number of further provisions as I wish the Bill had been more radical in the first place.

Systems are in place in other countries which we should examine. Rather than provide for a simple system in which an L plate leads to a full licence, we should consider introducing a system in which one must sit a test before receiving a licence which allows one to drive. The initial test should entitle one to an L plate licence and, after due instruction and testing, one should obtain a provisional or P licence which would apply for two years. In such a system, specific rules would apply to a provisionally licensed driver during the first two years on the road. Many accidents involve people who have recently passed their tests and driven away from the testing centre like Michael Schumacher under the impression that they were kings of the road.

Under an alternative system, a person driving away from the test centre would do so with a P plate on his or her car to indicate that he or she is only newly tested and approved as a driver. If speeding or other penalty-point offences were committed in the first two years of driving, especially stringent punishments would be applied. After two years as a provisional driver, a person would be entitled to a full licence. To introduce such a system would have been to make a radical and appropriate change. I regret very much that the opportunity provided by the Bill was not used to review innovatively the driver-testing system.

If we are to establish a bureaucracy with a board of directors which incurs expenses driving to Ballina, we should provide it with a slightly wider remit. The Minister referred to safety and penalty points issues, but the authority could also be involved in the introduction of electronic tolling which requires a national approach. Given the amount of toll roads being introduced around the country, they should be free flow and variable in order to manage traffic demand in addition to raising revenue, the function for which the Minister has designed them. There should be a transponder in every car so that it can be operated electronically wherever one goes. This will help stop ridiculous delays at toll booths and the costs involved in their construction. The authority could also examine electronic tolling on the West Link and other roads. Otherwise, what will the board do?

I wish to address the important and frustrating issue of democratic accountability specifically to the Ceann Comhairle, with whom I am in more regular correspondence than with the Minister. No matter how many appropriate questions I ask regarding road or rail policy I never hear back from the Minister. I hear instead from the Ceann Comhairle telling me it is not a matter for the Minister but the NRA. This has been the most frustrating experience in my time as a Member of the House. It does not strengthen or prove the quality of our democracy, rather it is one of its biggest threats. We are increasingly restricted. Members on both sides of the House have a valuable and useful role in overseeing and checking the effectiveness of our expenditure and delivery. The inability of this House to question organisations such as the NRA, as well as this new institution given the similar manner in which it has been established, is a profound reversal of our democratic institutions. Will the Minister consider this and respond to the question on Second Stage?

I look forward to Committee Stage when we will perhaps look to expand, improve and add to the provisions of this Bill, which currently represent a very limited and poor response to the chaos left behind by the previous Minister.

We must welcome any measure which helps to standardise and bring driving tests under one uniform regulatory body. It is also welcome if it helps address some of the more common complaints relating to the test. The Irish driving test is internationally regarded as one of the most difficult, as proven by the large number of people, currently 54%, who fail on their first attempt. The issue of differences between various centres could also be examined. It might be anecdotal evidence but people who sit the test always talk in terms of which days are worse. Is it down to the quality of the test and the people sitting it? There is a belief that testers must fail a certain amount of people per week.

It is good that drivers must prove themselves competent before receiving a full licence. Statistics relating to road deaths prove that too many accidents and deaths are caused by fault on the part of one or more drivers. However, most of these are probably unrelated to the standards required to pass the test, especially when people are driving at high speed or have consumed too much alcohol. The solution to this lies mainly outside the scope of the test.

Many complaints regarding the test concern what people believe to be technical demands which drivers are unlikely to meet in real life. Perhaps, as part of this review of how the system works, we could take another look at the content of the test to ensure it relates more closely to the basic necessities of driving. If somebody is competent in those skills it is unfair that they should fail because they are unable to execute a more difficult manoeuvre to the satisfaction of the tester.

Other Deputies referred to the NCT. One need only go to an NCT centre to see people who are worried sick in case their car does not pass. People do not talk to each other and there is not a happy atmosphere. The driving test can be very nerve racking. Deputy Shortall mentioned the issue of gender, and it can be more worrying for a woman to get into a car with a strange man. There is also the issue of the driver asking the tester to clarify something and the tester being reluctant to answer because he or she is not supposed to get involved in a discussion. The atmosphere surrounding the test is an issue which could be considered.

There is a regular complaint regarding the long period of time it takes to get a test. The current average waiting time is eight months, and in some cases much longer. It depends on the area in which one lives. I have heard of some people who were given an initial indication that their test would be in three months, only to be later informed they would have to wait a further three or four months. There are big differences in the time one must wait depending on the part of the country in which one lives. This relates to the number of testers available. According to the Department's statistics supplied in a recent reply to a parliamentary question, there are currently 114 testers compared to 97 at the beginning of 2000. Some areas with high demand have not experienced an increase which is reflected in longer waiting times. This is a particular problem in the south west where Limerick and Killarney have one less tester and Tralee still has two. Perhaps the authority or Minister could examine this when looking at resources.

What powers will the authority have with regard to those engaged in commercial teaching of drivers to prepare them for the test? Will it devise a standard teaching system which requires that driving instructors are subject to an acceptable standard? The issue of standardisation for driving teachers has been raised and there is a need for clarity. The authority could also examine the conditions under which some instructors are employed. While some of this is more properly a matter for the Department responsible for working conditions, safety issues are involved. A driving instructor in my area told me he was working up to 11 hours per day. That would not be acceptable for any driver in a commercial concern, and it is doubly unacceptable when a person instructing another is suffering from the effects of long hours. They are out on a public highway and will not be able to competently show anybody the rules of the road. They are possibly half asleep. It is not acceptable and there is a need for regulation.

The changes to the test in line with EU regulation, as recently announced by the Minister, appear straightforward and require a minimum basic understanding on the part of the driver regarding how to check oil levels, the working of indicators and so on. The more familiar a person is with his or her vehicle the more competent he or she will be and it will contribute to safety.

The introduction of speed limits in kilometres rather than miles has caused some controversy. It is similar to the introduction of the euro when people experienced something of a culture shock. However, the adjustment to kilometres will be a central part of both driving lessons and tests.

With regard to the Bill, perhaps the Minister could clarify a number of issues regarding the appointment of the board and the chief executive of the authority. Section 12(iv) cites the criteria for membership which includes a broad and comprehensive range of experience in areas related to all aspects for which the authority is responsible. However, it does not make clear the procedure with which the Minister will select members. I listened to Deputy Eamon Ryan’s points regarding the boards. When we have a problem we set up a board or an agency to sort it out. Will the positions be advertised so as to allow open competition and public scrutiny? How will the board be appointed?

Clarification is required with regard to the issue of driving instructors. We need more testers, and figures suggest that numbers have not significantly increased in recent years. There is a crisis and the waiting list, which was at 230,000, is increasing. In particular, it is affecting young people who are awaiting driving tests. Many young people who do not have access to public transport face crazy car insurance costs. The only way to shorten the waiting time for driving tests is to hire additional testers.

A previous speaker referred to people who drive to the testing centre, fail their test and then drive away. It is a crazy system which makes nonsense of the law and represents one of the low points of the testing system since people can drive away with a failure notice.

The quality standards are currently unacceptable and must be improved. I welcome the proposed establishment of the driver testing and standards authority but its narrow remit will have to be widened. The number of learner drivers on the roads is unacceptable but we cannot reduce the numbers until we have more testers.

I am grateful for the opportunity to comment on the Bill. I have listened to the last four speakers with interest. Like Deputy Crowe, I am concerned that the 54% of drivers who fail their tests are allowed to drive away. However, if the Minister introduced a regulation forcing such people to leave their cars at the testing centre and take a taxi home, would Sinn Féin support that change? The problem needs to be examined but such a measure would require widespread support.

Everything that has been attempted to deal with this problem has attracted sneering and sniggering. In such cases, people are happy to have a go at the Minister but not in a helpful fashion. Deputy Crowe mentioned the issue of people awaiting their NCT test and suffering a culture shock when their vehicles fail. I assure the House, however, that it is a far bigger shock when a car hits your vehicle on the road at 70 mph. I had that experience as a back-seat passenger. The accident put me and my two colleagues off the road for five or six months. It is a far greater shock than that suffered by people who are waiting for their NCT tests.

If I drive to Cork this evening after dark I will meet at least ten cars on the road with only one headlight working, despite the fact that there are fewer old cars on the road. The idea of the NCT test was to remove dangerous vehicles from the roads. People may argue that the NCT test is depriving them of their vehicles, but that is the difficulty — the béal bocht excuse is used against every change that is introduced. The sneering and sniggering that has gone on concerning the driving test and the NCT test is unhelpful.

Deputy Shortall and other Opposition speakers said the Minister was wrong and there was almost an element of gloating in their comments. The bottom line, however, is that we are losing 400 people a year in road accidents and the Minister is trying to do something about it. Every time the Government tries to do something there is opposition to it. Everyone in opposition has a view as to what should be done but when the Government tries to do something it is opposed. Deputies should be helpful and supportive instead.

The common thread in the last four contributions to this debate was that everyone bar the driver is at fault. According to previous contributors, the national testing authority, the testers, the Minister, his predecessor and everybody else was at fault except the drivers who are causing the accidents.

In the past, I heard the same arguments used against safety helmets and reinforced boots in dangerous situations. Every possible reason was used as to why people could not wear such safety gear. Approximately eight or nine years ago, I participated in a seat belt initiative with the local Garda chief superintendent in Cork. At first, I did not believe the Garda statistics that 54% of people did not wear seat belts. I felt that the figures could not be correct. I was fascinated later, however, at the number of friends and colleagues who told me why they could not wear seat belts. The answer is the same in both cases: if one cannot carry out the required safety procedures, one should not be able to drive or work in an unsafe environment. Let us get real about this. Testers are not causing road crashes and neither is the Minister for Transport. I am sure that his driver keeps within the speed limit most of the time.

Those of us who have been involved in road accidents or near accidents know what it is like. I recall seeing another driver approaching me at approximately 70 mph on the wrong side of a narrow country road in County Waterford. It was a harrowing experience.

Two days ago, I was driving towards a bend in County Laois when an articulated truck came towards me on the wrong side of the road. The driver was on a bend and had to cross a continuous white line to pass another articulated truck. It was on top of a hill near a bend where there were signs warning drivers not to overtake. If Laois County Council had not put hard shoulders on that road during the past 18 months, I could have been killed on Tuesday morning. That is a fact, and it has nothing to do with driving testers, it concerns drivers.

Deputy Pat Breen was correct in saying that we have a problem with the waiting list and we must deal with it. The purpose of the Bill is to establish the driver testing and standards authority.

Deputy Eamon Ryan said we were setting up a Fianna Fáil grouping but I do not know whether all the driving testers are in Fianna Fáil. Such cynical and gloating remarks have led us to a situation where we have the worst record in Europe, way ahead of anybody else. Such sneering and sniggering may be grand for Deputy Eamon Ryan on his bike, but the rest of us who decide to drive are entitled to a safe journey. I will not tolerate that kind of commentary. We are demanding that something be done about road safety and the Minister is tackling it. He is establishing the new authority to co-ordinate testing and safety standards.

At yesterday's meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts I asked the Secretary General of the Department of Transport about the €2.7 million funding for the National Safety Authority. I noted that it was a small amount of money considering the level of road fatalities and the value of one life, let alone 400. The Secretary General explained that a further €45 million went to the National Roads Authority to deal with safety and that other funding is scattered around also. It is time we had a body such as the proposed driver testing and standards authority that will be able to take the initiative on safety as well as other issues.

A previous speaker referred to the role of the Garda Síochána, but its role is not to prevent road fatalities, although hopefully that is a by-product of its job. The Garda Síochána's job is to enforce the rules of the road, but individual gardaí cannot police every single driver. We need to get real about the problem of poor driving standards, which annoys me. Most of all, I am annoyed that every time we discuss road accidents, people say they are caused by everyone but the drivers concerned. I am a responsible driver and know that I must drive within the speed limits, although it may not happen all the time. For instance, I would not drive while watching the speedometer to check if I am one or two kilometres per hour over the limit, but I am always within range of the limit and try to drive safely. The issues of drink driving or using defective vehicles are the responsibility of drivers and these matters must be enforced. It is annoying that people shy away from their responsibilities. It is always somebody else who is at fault. Accident levels are bad but we are not getting the point across. It is always somebody else's job to ensure accident prevention. Everyone must look at what he or she can do in this regard.

It is incredible that 54% of people do not accept the need to wear seat belts in cars. That is just one aspect of the problem. People still drive at reckless speeds. Last Thursday, I witnessed four incidents of dangerous driving within two miles of the Red Cow roundabout. The first took place at Newlands Cross where a young female driver crossed the Naas Road at least two or three seconds after the green light had come on for traffic on the main Dublin-Cork road. She took a chance to cross that road at full speed. A man turning right, again across the Naas Road, caused the second incident. He went into the median strip without any indication. This resulted in everyone having to jam on their brakes.

These are the kinds of incidents which are causing fatalities and they must be dealt with. Driving instruction has a big part to play in this matter. People are talking about the 54% driving test failure rate as if it were due to the testers. Deputy Crowe said the failure rate was due to bad Mondays, bad Fridays or bad testers. How stupid can we get? The reason is that people were not properly prepared for their tests or had not been properly trained. It is not the case that testers were wrong. That is typical of the general approach to road safety and it will have to change. As public representatives we will have to change as we are supposed to be leaders in the community. If a person comes whingeing to us about failing their test we should ask them the reason. We should ask what they did wrong and how many driving lessons they had before taking their test.

Another speaker referred to the need for a licence to drive a car. If one went to buy a gun or another dangerous weapon there would be all sorts of conditions attached to it. The difference with a car is that it is many times bigger and in most cases it is more lethal and more dangerous. A greater number of cars than ever before are on the roads. More cars were sold in the previous two months than ever before in an equivalent period, in spite of the claim by vehicle distributors last year that sales would fall dramatically because of our tax regime and that they would all go bankrupt. Lo and behold, we have seen the highest sales figures ever for January and February. We will have to provide a road network to cope with this increased capacity. We can all help by driving within the speed limits, avoiding drink driving, ensuring our cars are roadworthy and so on.

Insufficient lighting on cars is a particular problem. People ask how that can be the case with the stringent level of testing that is in place. Unfortunately, a car driver may not be aware that his or her headlight is gone. This is a crazy situation. They used to be called one-eyed monsters in the days when we had bad cars but we should be able to do better nowadays.

Observation of the rules of the road and generally showing courtesy are crucial. Unfortunately, manners on the road have disimproved significantly. People tend not to stop at orange lights. It is a stupid cliché to say that accidents will happen — they do not just happen; they have a cause. I respectfully suggest that in most cases the driver is at fault.

A TCD academic has made the case that up to 10% of fatalities could be as a result of suicide. I do not know and I do not have the expertise to comment on the matter. However, every fatality should be forensically analysed to discover the cause, in so far as that is possible. Where drink is involved this should be made known, albeit tragic for a family when a son or daughter is killed. In this way we can try to prevent it happening in future.

We are not dealing with the matter seriously enough at present. It took 3,636 deaths in Northern Ireland before people really knuckled down and became serious about preventing more deaths there. How many more people must be killed on the roads before we do something about it? I do not refer to the Minister and the Secretary General of his Department who are facing up to their significant responsibility in this regard; it is everyone's responsibility to ensure something is done. Everyone who drives is equally responsible for ensuring we do not have crashes resulting in serious injury or fatalities.

Perhaps we could frighten people more, as was the case in Northern Ireland where the financial cost of fatalities and serious accidents was pointed out, let alone the personal hardship. We must remember that in all cases accidents are caused. At some stage all drivers have probably thanked God they got away with something, be it overtaking carelessly or whatever. Driving is not getting any easier as the road network increases. I ask Deputy Eamon Ryan to take note of a point I made yesterday to the Secretary General of the Department that drivers are much safer on a dual carriageway or motorway than on a secondary road. I am entitled to have money spent to ensure my safety.

If one or two people were killed due to an environmental problem such as a poisoned water supply or whatever, an inquiry would be set up and we would take immediate action. We would work in a unified manner to prevent others being affected. Why cannot we do the same to prevent further road deaths? We must look seriously at the matter. I do not care what anyone says, we have not been taking the matter seriously enough.

The Minister sensibly introduced changes to the driving test to the effect that a driver should know something about the mechanical aspects of cars. Mr. Walsh from the Irish School of Motoring, which is one of the top driving schools, stated that the ability to change a wheel should also be included in the driving test. I accept this and I hope the Minister will alter the test in this regard in due course. It is probably the most common cause of stoppages for motor vehicles.

Let me refer to the response of some party spokespersons on this issue. Senator Morrissey stated that the changes were cosmetic and farcical. Deputy Olivia Mitchell stated the changes were farcical and amounted to tinkering at the edges. It is plain stupid to take that approach when somebody tries to improve matters. If only one life were saved as a result of people knowing more then it would be worthwhile.

The analogy with a gun can also be applied in this context. A person would be taken through all the dangers before buying such a weapon, yet if a person has enough money, he or she can buy a car without difficulty. That has to change and I urge the Minister to do something about it. He has a common sense approach to things. I hope he will do something about it.

The issue of people failing their test and driving away on their own is important. It was the case that one needed to have a fully qualified driver in the car. If a person fails the test, by implication he or she is incapable of driving safely on the road. This issue must be dealt with.

According to statistics, at least 10% of those killed on the roads hold provisional licences. The indication that cars are being driven by holders of provisional licences is the display of L-plates, back and front. The Minister for Transport has given us a good run on the motorways and so on so that one can now drive at 62.5 mph in one area and 73 mph in another. However, it is daunting to be overtaken by a car displaying L-plates travelling at 90 mph or 95 mph. This issue must be examined because the credibility of the signs has gone.

Most drivers treat L-plates with respect so that, when they encounter a car with L-plates trying to cross a junction, they tend to give them due courtesy and recognition for the fact that they are learning — a position they might remember themselves. However, when one is passed on the Dublin to Cork or any other road at that speed, the learner driver is exceeding the speed limit or the plates are being misused and should be removed from the car. This is an issue which the Minister must examine in the context of safety.

In 2002, of the 346 people who were killed in fatal crashes, 313 had full licences and 33 had provisional licences. This represents more than10%. I am concerned about the plethora of groups dealing with safety issues. I have a particular hobby horse which I have raised on three occasions with the National Roads Authority which concerns pedestrian islands. Most of them feature a bollard which is erected for traffic calming purposes. I guess that 50% of these bollards — the blue boxes one can see on the roads — are levelled, which indicates that something is wrong. The problem is that people do not see the islands because the lighting in the area is usually bad. However, the NRA has refused point blank to fix reflective studs in the base of these islands. I raised this issue in the debate on the previous roads Bill so perhaps the Minister would examine the matter.

This is a topic which deserves everyone's attention. The Minister is correct that the new body will be more focused and flexible in taking initiatives because some change is needed. I wish the Minister well in his endeavours and commend the Bill the House.

The general objectives which this Bill wishes to promote are to be welcomed, namely, quicker driving tests and better driving standards. However, one must ask why this Bill is necessary. Is the Government losing confidence in the Civil Service and its ability to control and direct public servants? The Department of Transport has, or should have, all the necessary powers and that this Bill is being proposed exposes the fact that the Department must not be competent to deal with these issues in the Minister's opinion.

Whatever about the Department's ability, it is the Minister's responsibility. That both he and his predecessor have failed to manage the Department to get the desired results has led to the introduction of this Bill. When an issue becomes too troublesome and too difficult to handle, the immediate reaction of Ministers in this Government is to set up a quango to distance themselves from the problems. This approach has the added advantage for Ministers of helping them avoid direct accountability in the Dáil.

The first question the Minister must answer is why he thinks this authority, with a new chief executive, will be more successful than the Department of which he is the chief executive. Either he must admit the incompetency of his predecessor or admit that he is not capable of managing this section of his Department. Is he blaming his civil servants, which seems to be a developing trend within the Government, or is the Minister just commencing a new public relations exercise which will portray to the public that the passing of this legislation is a job done as far as he is concerned and that from now on the new authority can be blamed for any problems which arise?

This is a cynical exercise. The Minister knows well that this relatively small administrative job could be done well by his civil servants if the resources were made available to them. He and the Minister for Finance have no intention of making these resources available in the Department so he needs someone else to do the job for him and take the blame for this issue. The previous Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, made this one of his priorities on entering the Department of Transport.

We have heard recently that yet another bonus scheme to encourage testers to work extra hours is to be introduced. That funding request has again been sent to the Department of Finance and negotiations are ongoing with IMPACT to facilitate this. We have been told that under this plan, 117 full-time testers will be offered a bonus if they meet a set quota of tests in six months. The Department hopes that 80 testers will be attracted by this bonus scheme which will lead to the possibility that approximately 40,000 extra tests will be carried out this year. A similar scheme failed in 2003 and the scheme was not available in 2004 due to lack of funding and financial constraints, even though the scheme was only estimated to cost €2 million.

Some experts have suggested that the use of simulators could be used as a training or even testing device. The airline industry has used simulators for training pilots since the Second World War. Skid pads are also an excellent training facility, particularly for young drivers. However, again the resources were not made available. The logic for driver testing is to try to ensure a better standard of driving to save lives. This is the same logic which was used to introduce the penalty points system which worked very well in the beginning until motorists realised that the passing of the law was about as far as the Government would go.

Just as the Minister starved the driver testing section of his Department of funds to implement an effective test system, the Garda Síochána was deprived of resources to implement the points system. A great idea that saved lives was diminished by the Government's refusal to provide the resources necessary to implement its own proposals. The recent introduction of metric speed limits was a good idea but again it was put into operation without due planning and assessment.

The Department has stated that regional roads are to be reassessed with the clear implication that speed limits will be increased on the better ones, with which I agree. However, this should have been done before the introduction of the system. How is the public to have respect for these limits when the Government which introduced them immediately admitted that regional roads needed to be reassessed? This is another good idea for road safety which has been diminished because of the Government's continuing incompetence.

To solve the lack of implementation of the penalty points system and other responsibilities which are clearly the Minister's, it is to be placed in private hands. A network of speed cameras is to be operated by private companies. Needless to say, the reclassification of regional roads will not be the responsibility of the Minister. This job, and the blame if the occasion arises, will be passed to local authorities. At least on this occasion those responsible will be accountable to the electorate. Much of the road safety strategy was initially promised at the launch of the previous road safety strategy in 1998. The strategy clearly set out a timetable of enforcement, education and legislative organisational measures, which included the deployment of additional mobile speed detection units by 1998. Few of these have yet been provided. Garda equipment in the information technology area was to have been completely upgraded by 2000. We are now told this might happen in 2006.

Debate adjourned.