Driving Test Waiting Times: Statements

I thank the Acting Chairman. I am very grateful for the opportunity to come here today and clear up any misapprehensions which may have resulted from a debate last week. I have been asked to make a statement on the current driving test waiting times, following the Commencement matter discussed in the House on Wednesday, 18 October, which was taken on my behalf by the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Griffin. I understand that Senator Victor Boyhan has queried the waiting times provided by the Road Safety Authority, RSA, in its letter of 21 September, which were different from those provided and outlined to the House last Wednesday, and that he has requested that the waiting times be verified. I am happy to advise that I have since requested this verification from the authority and can inform the Senator that the authority stands over the information provided.

I would like to take this opportunity to clarify, for those who are confused, that the waiting times are averaged over the course of the year. A figure for the average waiting time and the longest waiting time at any one centre is liable to change over time. The date on which those times are viewed is very important and differs weekly. The figures provided by the Road Safety Authority were correct on each of the dates in question. Waiting times can fluctuate due to the availability of driver testers at a particular centre and the number of applications for tests from one month to the next. As was mentioned in the reply to the Commencement matter raised last Wednesday, the driver testing service has seen an increase of almost 20% in the levels of driving test applications over the past four years. This, coupled with the retirements of driver tester staff, has meant that the waiting times for customers for driving tests have, unfortunately, increased.

The Road Safety Authority’s objective is to have a national average waiting time of no longer than ten weeks. However, the current national average waiting time for a driving test is 14 weeks. The authority is working on measures to improve the wait time for the test. These measures include the recruitment of additional driver testers, the delivery of 120 extra overtime tests per driver tester, initiatives to reduce the number of applicant no-shows at the driving test, initiatives to reduce the number of non-conducted driving tests, and a new driving test booking system. I would also like to point out that the authority is committed to working with any applicants who require an urgent appointment. A priority list system is in place whereby cancelled test appointments are made available for such applicants. More than 1,000 tests are cancelled by driving test applicants weekly and these slots are subsequently offered to applicants who require urgent test appointments.

The authority continues to monitor capacity against demand and deploys driver testers to best meet the demand across all test centres. I fully accept that current waiting times remain too high, but I am assured that the measures the authority has put in place will have the desired effect of reducing waiting times to the public. I can advise that my Department has also asked the RSA to examine the long-term staffing needs of the driver testing service to ensure that it can plan in the long term for revision of tester numbers based on demand for tests and to better manage succession planning for driver testers who may retire.

My party colleague, Deputy Eugene Murphy, raised this issue a couple of weeks back as a result of the excessive waiting times faced by those in County Roscommon where there is an almost 17 week waiting time to take a driving test. As he said, many of these people may be waiting for a full licence for employment purposes, or a job application may be hingeing on their having a full licence, while other drivers are paying exorbitant levels of car insurance for provisional licences and they are being left waiting long periods to sit their driving test.

This has not come out of left field.

The Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, and his Government colleagues have stood by and watched while the average waiting times for a driving test have gradually crept up to the point where a person could have to wait over five months for a test. It shows once again how this Government is completely out of touch with the basic needs of the citizens. The surge in waiting times has been linked to staff shortages. The public sector recruitment ban as well as increased demand as the economy picks up were factors that could have been foreseen and there is no reason for inaction. One only needs to look around on the way to work to know there are more cars on the road. In 2016 the number of private cars on the road crossed the 2 million mark, and there were 240,000 learner licences issued. When this issue was raised almost nine months ago, in February 2017, the Seanad was told that additional resources and staff would be put in place to reduce waiting times. It is baffling that the Government has still not hired the additional staff needed to reach this demand. Instead the Department is proud that it has put in place certain overtime arrangements and notification systems for learner drivers to increase the numbers of tests being administered. This is very basic and should have been put in place months ago. There is no joined up thinking in the Department nor is there evidence of any future planning. When will this Government realise that things do not need to reach crisis point before it acts? The situation needs to be prevented from deteriorating further. I call on it to expedite the appointment of additional driving testers to increase the numbers.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, for coming before the House and giving his time to discuss this very important subject. I will try to use my time constructively. There are a number of statistics that the Minister's statement to the House did not deal with. I spoke with the Road Safety Authority earlier today. Today there are 70,000 waiting for driving tests whether for private cars, commercial vehicles or for buses. There are 52 test centres in the country spread across 31 local authorities. The Minister has accepted that what has happened is not satisfactory and says there is a plan to recruit testers. When I spoke to the RSA last week, I was informed that it had not made any appointments; there was one panel in situ but others were needed. The RSA informed me that a substantial number of people had retired this year and that a significant number will retire in 2018. It told me that it takes eight weeks to train someone and today no one is in training, so there will not be one single additional instructor this year. If we did have one it would be in late December. These are the facts.

The current system is not working. The Minister cannot stand over a situation where there are 70,000 people who have paid a fee and are legitimate applicants waiting on a list for tests. These are people who want to go to college or take up employment and they cannot do their tests. It is most unsatisfactory. It is the Minister's responsibility, in his portfolio of transport, to address this. I want him to say how, in co-operation with other agencies under his responsibility, he will increase the number of new testers. Will he assure this House that there will be new testers in place before the end of this year? How will these lists be cut?

I deal in facts. When I spoke to the testing centre in Tipperary today at 9.30 a.m. I was told that applicants had to wait 27 weeks. In Waterford, 26 people have been waiting for 26 weeks. In Wexford they wait 25 weeks and 21 weeks in Cork. Kerry is divided in two with waits of 24 weeks in Tralee and 23 weeks in Killarney. In fairness to the Minister he does accept that this is totally unacceptable that 70,000 people are waiting to do driving tests. It is not an average of 10 weeks. It is a critical issue which must be addressed with resources. It needs to be taken head on. I will bring this back to the House in December for further report. I am committed to sticking with this problem and achieving a resolution.

From listening to the Minister and the Senators, there is clearly a problem. The waiting times are not acceptable. As the Minister noted, ten weeks is the objective. It must be addressed urgently. I understand that a theory test can be had within ten days. I do not know the reason for this. There is obviously more people applying for tests but it does not explain the whole bottleneck.

From speaking to the RSA, the Department and so on, I understand there can be a cohort of up to 29% of people who do not show up for their tests, which is a major issue. The Minister mentioned that the test centres now telephone people to check that they are coming. It is hugely important. On a positive note, I am aware of someone who needed an emergency test because they had got a job and they needed a car. That person got the test within a few weeks but people should not have to depend on that kind of queue jumping or no-show tests. I was told that sometimes when people show up for their test, it cannot take place because the person does not have his or her driving licence, or insurance, the car is not taxed or it does not have a valid NCT certificate. On one occasion someone turned up for a driving test without a car. It is necessary to sort all those issues. I welcome Senator Boyhan's promise to stay on the case and I support him on it. It is in the Minister's interest that this be sorted. A waiting time of ten weeks, which is two and a half months, is better than the situation as it is now but it should be better than that again.

I welcome the Minister. I commend my colleague, Senator Victor Boyhan, who has raised this issue relentlessly in the Chamber. I fully support his efforts. If one looks at the numbers for the three test centres in my own county, Buncranna, Letterkenny and Donegal, they are at the top of the list for waiting times.

I am sure that the Minister will appreciate the matter that I raise. It is the poor public transport infrastructure in rural Ireland which means if people want to stay in their job, avail of education, visit loved ones in hospital and so on they require a car. I am concerned about the considerable time involved which can be as high as six months for a test, and then there are repeat tests, because not everyone passes the first time. That is unacceptable. The Road Safety Authority has known about the shortage of testers for a long time. I am thinking of the number of driving instructors across the State. I cannot imagine there is significant further training to take people to the level necessary to become testers. I ask the Minister to grapple with this matter in conjunction with the Road Safety Authority, with a particular focus on the impact it has on the rural economies.

We talk about the economy moving in the right direction again. When we look outside from the windows of Leinster House, the cranes can be seen across the skyline, but that recovery is not happening in rural areas at anything like the same level. Situations like this, where people have to wait so long to get either their test or their repeat test will not help to develop the economy, it will hold us back. It is an issue with wider implications than mere inconvenience for those who want to pass their test.

The frustration has been brought to my attention time and again by people across Donegal, be they from the Inishowen peninsula, the north Donegal area, the north-east area towards Letterkenny, or south Donegal. It appears that the Government and the Road Safety Authority are unable to sort this issue out. I commend Senator Boyhan and I commend the Minister for attending to deal with this issue today. I appeal to the Minister to intervene to find a solution with the Road Safety Authority.

I welcome to the Visitors Gallery Councillor Ciaran Brogan, former cathaoirleach of Donegal County Council. All the other visitors are very welcome.

Other speakers have spoken about the impact of the waiting time for a driver theory test. When I worked with young unemployed people in Wexford, Wicklow and across the south east, I noted that being able to drive really made the difference between getting work and not getting work. In many cases, it was almost impossible to gain employment if one could not demonstrate that one could drive. I am very much aware of the benefit of being able to drive.

I wish to highlight two slightly related issues, one of which concerns the driver theory test, which is currently delivered by a private company based in America and working internationally. In the discussions we have had in this House on rural post offices, it was asked why we do not seek to ensure rural post offices could be hubs for things such as the driver theory test. In designing requests for tenders, we should recognise the benefits of locating multiple services that are needed in rural communities in central hubs such as post offices.

As of 17 June this year, those seeking to take the driver theory test are required to have a public services card. Given that the Data Commissioner has indicated her dissatisfaction with the arrangements in place regarding the public services card, and having received replies from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, she has now indicated her intention to launch an investigation into how the card has been rolled out, the protections that are in place, or not in place, and how it is being managed. Will the Minister consider removing, or suspending, the requirement for a public services card for those seeking to do the driver theory test? It represents an extra level of bureaucracy for those involved. It is an instrument over which there is a major question mark at present. It is not appropriate to continue pushing people to take up the card while it is under investigation. From May 2018, new European directives on data protection will be in place. They will provide a much more appropriate and safe environment for the rolling out of any of these measures. Will the Minister consider removing or suspending the requirement related to the driver theory test?

I thank the Senators for their contributions. It is quite obvious that this matter exercises people greatly in their own areas but it is universal. It features outside Donegal, on which this debate has largely concentrated. It affects every county and every testing location. The best performance is in Kilrush, where the is an eight-week delay. The delays elsewhere can extend to over 20 weeks. As I have already said, this is not satisfactory. I agree with everybody who said so. It has obviously taken the testers by surprise. One cannot solve this overnight. One cannot appoint testers overnight; it has to be done gradually.

The Road Safety Authority is more than aware of this issue, thanks to the contributions of various Senators. I have spoken to the authority about this on several occasions. I am satisfied the matter is being addressed as a matter of urgency and that the numbers and waiting times could be reduced, not only in Donegal. I believe the measures I have outlined today will have an effect. They were also outlined in the House last week. It is a matter of tracking the number of driver testers and the delivery of 120 extra overtime tests per driver tester. Senator O'Mahony referred to the number of no-shows. It is an extraordinary number. It results from people applying who do not really intend to go for a test at all. Many telephone calls are being made and a considerable number of people are saying they are not actually going to turn up. The slots are then filled extremely efficiently by telephoning people who are regarded as a priority and who want a test urgently. New driving testers are being appointed. A large amount of overtime is being grabbed up by testers. There is a new driver-booking system being introduced. Therefore, the matter is being addressed fairly aggressively and effectively.

I take the points made by Senators on their own areas and the difficulties in those areas. I understand them and the figures that are being given to us here today. They are correct. I must issue a warning about quoting figures, however. The figures quoted here last week were not accurate. According to the Official Report, Senator Boyhan said the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, said the current national average waiting time for a driving test is 14 weeks. The Senator then said, "I can tell him that this is not the case." It is the case. The Senator should be careful about what he says. I acknowledge he is making a case but he should be careful with his figures. The Senator stated: "Nowhere in the more than 50 centres does the waiting time meet the target of 20 weeks." I do not know where the Senator got the target of 20 weeks. There is no 20-week target. He should be careful.

You went on to say: "I reiterate that the waiting time in Buncrana is 19 weeks, in Donegal it is 24 weeks and in Letterkenny it is 21 weeks." That is not correct. All those three figures are completely inaccurate. Those figures that you are quoting are ones that-----

May I make a point of order?

Let me finish because this is very important.

I must allow a point of order to be heard before I decide on it.

I believe we should address the Chair. It is not personal.

No. What the Senator is quoting is the longest single waiting time for any individual. The Senator has been in this business for a very long time and he knows perfectly well that the measure is of the average number of weeks waiting. To come into this House and quote the longest possible waiting time of any individual is not an honest way of producing these figures. What the Senator should have cited, but did not cite, were the average waiting times in weeks. These figures are much lower. They are not acceptable but to cite the waiting time of the one person in each area waiting the longest is misleading. The figures are inaccurate and exaggerated. What you were doing was misleading the people who read the Seanad debate. What is important-----

The Minister should speak through the Chair.

Yes. What is important here is the average waiting time in weeks. There are two categories the Senator got in the letter. The letter, which I read, made those two categories absolutely clear. In every case that the Senator quoted, the average waiting time was considerably lower. There is an obligation on the Senator, as someone who has rightly championed those who are experiencing the problem, not to quote anything but average figures. The figures are measured based on the average.

The problem arose between you and the Minister of State last week because alternative figures were being cited. You and the House know it is right to quote average figures. Average figures will bring one to the same conclusion that all the other Senators rightly came to today, that is, that this has to be addressed.

Do not come in here-----

The Minister knows procedure in this House better than I do. He should address his comments through the Chair and not to an individual. He is addressing the House.

No one should come into this House and quote figures which are not representative. I would certainly be happy to address individual figures with any Senator, because everybody has them in his or her own area. We should give this a little bit of time now, because measures are being taken. I would be happy to come back here in six months' time and inquire of the RSA what progress has been made, and to report on the issues in Roscommon, Galway and Dun Laoghaire. I will not do it every week. This is the second week in a row that we have had the same conversation. Remember when quoting figures, that the figures go up on the website every week. The figures change every single week, and it is important to be up to date.

I do not know the answers to Senator Higgins's questions, in particular the question on the public services card, but I will think about them and come back to her.