Tá áthas orm a bheith anseo chun labhairt faoin ábhar seo atá tábhachtach san am seo. I thank Senators for raising this issue and giving me an opportunity to explain to the House the reasons for the current delay in the issuing of driving test appointments and the measures being taken to deal with what is clearly an unsatisfactory situation. Since the driving test was introduced in Ireland in 1964, more than 2.4 million tests have been carried out throughout the country. The parameters for the driving test now reflect the high standards laid down in EU directives. This, in turn, facilitates the recognition of Irish driving licences in the EU and internationally.
The driving test must determine whether an applicant is competent to drive a vehicle safely and with due regard for the safety and convenience of other persons. A certificate of competency is granted when the necessary standard of driving is reached. The role of driver testing in ensuring that drivers reach an acceptable level of competence is important in the context of road safety. The issue of driver competence is emphasised in the Government's road safety strategy, which has been debated in this House previously and to which I will return.
Over the years the number of applications for driving tests has seen considerable fluctuations. By 1990 applications on hand had risen to 67,000 and waiting periods were comparable to those reached again in 1998. During 1992 waiting periods were reduced to ten to 12 weeks, with a backlog of under 30,000 applications. This is the quality standard which my Department has set itself and to which it is determined to return as quickly as possible.
The current waiting time problem started in 1996 when greatly increased numbers of driving test applications were made to the Department of the Environment and Local Government, partly at least in response to tighter regulations about the renewal of provisional driving licences. Applications rose 20 per cent over 1995. However, in 1997 the rate of increase in test applications abated considerably. It was not until 1998 that the trend towards greatly increased driver test demand became fully established and the link between this demand and the buoyant economy asserted itself inescapably. In 1998 there was an increase of 23 per cent over 1997 resulting in an all time record of 146,506 test applications. The Department's driver testing service has not been able to adapt quickly enough to this rapid increase in demand, and waiting times have consequently lengthened.
I fully accept this is unsatisfactory. However, the Department has responded by increasing the numbers and productivity of driver testers. Saturday testing has been in place for some time. After extended negotiations, a package of productivity measures was agreed last autumn under the PCW with IMPACT, the driver testers' union, and has now been implemented. An additional 8 per cent in tests per year will result from this agreement.
The service is also being augmented by the appointment of new driver testers, both on a permanent and contract basis. A competition was conducted last year by the Civil Service Commission to recruit additional testers. Eight new testers joined last November and have been operating a full testing schedule since the beginning of January 1999. Eight more testers are currently undergoing training, bringing the total number of additional testers recruited so far to 16 and giving an increase of 25 per cent in testing capacity. In addition, the Department has determined that a substantial further number of contract testers should be engaged to attack the backlog and has begun consultations with staff interests on this.
I am confident these measures will lead to the required reduction in the waiting period for tests. In this context, I must emphasise that, where an individual requires a test for urgent reasons, they will be facilitated as far as possible. At present, 31 per cent of driving applicants are tested within 15 weeks. The national average waiting period for a driving test is now 31 weeks. That is the aspect which is unsatisfactory. I am very conscious of the need to provide a testing service which can offer tests within a reasonable period of time, and I assure Senators that both I and my Department will take the necessary measures to ensure a quality service is provided.
A related issue which is often raised in the context of road safety and the waiting period for driving tests is the number of provisional licence holders on the roads. Some misconceptions exist about the number of persons driving on provisional licences and also about the arrangements governing the number of provisional licences which a person may obtain. I wish to set the record straight on this matter.
There is no limit to the number of provisional licences a person may obtain for any category of vehicle. The first two licences are valid for a period of two years each. However, to be entitled to a third or subsequent provisional licence for any category of vehicle, a person must have undergone a driving test for that category within the preceding two years or, failing that, have a driving test appointment arranged, in which case the provisional licence is granted for one year only.
Another misconception is that the estimated 337,000 provisional licence holders are driving without having undergone the driving test. This is not the case. In 1998 approximately 47 per cent of applicants were undergoing the test for at least the second time. The overall pass rate for driving tests in 1998 was 56.8 per cent and the pass rates for first time and non-first time applicants were of a similar order.
A related concern is the accompaniment of learner drivers by qualified drivers. Provisional licence holders are required by law to be accompanied by a driver qualified to drive the vehicle being driven except where the driver holds a second provisional driving licence to drive cars, or is the holder of a provisional licence to drive motorcycles or tractors/work vehicles. A car learner driver is only exempt from being accompanied during the currency of a second provisional licence, which is valid for two years.
The intention behind the exemption provision on being accompanied is that learner drivers are required to have at least two years' driving experience accompanied by qualified drivers before being permitted to drive unaccompanied. They are deemed to have sufficient previous experience accompanied by qualified drivers to be allowed drive unaccompanied during the validity of the second provisional licence. The fact that they are required to be accompanied on a third or subsequent provisional licence is an incentive to pass the driving test during the currency of the second provisional licence if they wish to remain driving unaccompanied.
Neither can it be assumed that provisional licensed drivers are per se unsafe on the roads. There is no evidence to suggest that holders of provisional licences as a group are disproportionately involved in serious road accidents. International research indicates that age and length of driving experience are more important indicators of the likelihood of safe driving behaviour than the possession of a full driving licence. Young people need to be encouraged to cultivate safe and precautionary driving habits, even after they have obtained a full driving licence. My Department's leaflet, “Preparing for your Driving Test”, is sent to all test applicants and advises them that, having passed the test, they should continue to drive carefully and build up their experience in different traffic, weather and road conditions.
In terms of actual driving practice, Ireland has one of the most experienced driver profiles in Europe, with the average driver having over 20 years' driving experience. Ireland has a relatively small percentage – 6 per cent – of its regular driving population under the age of 25. However, this age group accounts for 36 per cent of driver deaths although, as I stated, the Garda report that there is no evidence of drivers on provisional licences contributing disproportionately to road accidents. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the fact that many provisional licence drivers will have undergone the test, it is recognised that the number of drivers relying on provisional licences, at 24 per cent of total driving licences, is too high. We are determined to reduce this proportion significantly.
I last spoke in the Seanad on the Government strategy for road safety in October 1998. I would like to refer once again to the strategy which sets out a co-ordinated and prioritised range of policies and measures to improve road safety. It establishes demanding targets for achievement up to 2002 which are designed to result in at least a 20 per cent reduction in deaths and serious injuries. Provisional figures for road fatalities in 1998 show a decrease of 11 over 1997. While this is welcome, it is important the measures proposed in the strategy continue to be implemented to achieve the demanding targets set.
Improving road safety is important in public health terms because an average of 35 years of life is saved for each prevented road fatality. This represents a much greater saving of life than the prevention of any common life threatening diseases. International research establishes that human action is a contributory factor in more than 90 per cent of road accidents. The road safety strategy accordingly emphasises policies and measures aimed at improving road user behaviour and establishing a culture of road use that is both precautionary and proactive in relation to road safety. The strategy also aligns itself with road safety plans from other countries in recognising that modification of human behaviour in the areas of speeding, alcohol and seat belt wearing holds the greatest and most immediate potential for realising road safety gains.
The Government and its agencies are actively pursuing the implementation of strategy measures. I have made changes recently to the regulations dealing with on the spot fines which demonstrate the Government's desire for early action on the strategy. These changes bring a number of additional offences within the scope of the on the spot fine system. I am sure this measure will actively discourage a wider range of minor traffic violations and encourage good driver behaviour without necessarily taking up the time of the courts and Garda in servicing court prosecutions.
The road safety strategy proposes improvements in driver training and testing, as well as in educational programmes, as complements to its primary counter-measures against speeding, alcohol and lack of seat belt wearing. Quality certification is being encouraged for the driver instructor register, a theory test will be introduced for first time applicants for provisional licences and a significant reduction is proposed for the longer term in the number of drivers relying on a provisional licence.
I also draw the attention of the Seanad to the number of test appointments which are being cancelled by test applicants. Overall 17 per cent or 17,000 are cancelled each year. Some 60 per cent or 9,000 of the cancellations relate to applicants who must have a test appointment in order to obtain a third provisional licence. While most of these applicants go on to take the test, the volume of cancellations can create difficulties in administering the testing service as about 5 per cent of cancellations are not filled at short notice. That, as one can well understand, means that our capacity to test a further 5 per cent is being denied because of the number of people who are abusing the system by cancelling their test after they are notified of the time and date for it.
I am acutely aware of the present wide concern about long waiting periods for driving tests. While we still manage to provide reasonably timely tests for urgent cases, my Department recognises that much better service is required for our customers as a matter of course. We are committing extensive additional resources to the driver testing service and we will work to restore it to a high and guaranteed quality standard as quickly as possible.
As I explained on a number of occasions in the Dáil when asked about this at Question Time, the discussions with IMPACT went on for a very long time before the matter was resolved. It was the difficulty in resolving the industrial relations issue which was the cause of the delay in appointing the additional testers whom I was so keen to appoint.