Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 24 Feb 1999

Vol. 158 No. 7

Driving Tests: Statements.

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.

Normally in a debate like this when the Opposition stands up there is an exercise in butt-kicking Ministers, that is taking the view that the Minister should have done this or that. However, in view of the fact that the Minister did not refer to having inherited the problem or that it was somebody else's fault, I should not take that exercise on board.

The Minister gave us the facts. This debate is a response to a situation which is getting worse due to a number of factors to which the Minister referred, such as the number of people in this economy who can now afford cars but could not ten years ago. Only the other day this dawned on me when I failed to find a parking space in the college, where I hold another position, and had to park outside. This indicates that students between the ages of 18 and 21 have cars whereas five years ago there was plenty of parking available. This is only a small indicator of the change. The real indicator is that in the past few years car purchase has increased from 1.3 million to 1.7 million and the booming economy is encouraging that. While the Minister has already employed eight additional testers and intends to employ another eight, the number of applicants will continue to outstrip the number provided. The bottom line is that we must employ many more testers to reduce the waiting list.

I want to widen the debate further because the Minister referred to the test. I wonder whether the test is good enough to ensure that a person is a competent driver. I do not believe it is. It is merely a test and the real learning takes place afterwards. Anybody involved in the psychology of learning will tell you that learning is achieved through doing and, unfortunately, in many cases learning by doing turns out to be learning by crashing.

I compliment the Government on one matter. In September 1989 Mr. Conor Faughnan of the AA called for tighter enforcement of road laws. He suggested the imposition of fines for not using safety-belts and on the spot breath testing, as exists in the UK. The Government introduced that measure recently and it is a well worthwhile exercise. I compliment the Minister or whoever was involved in introducing it. These measures are only as good as the way in which they are applied. In other words, there is no use having a law unless it can be applied and unless the Garda, with its limited resources, can implement it. I shall wait to see if this will happen.

It is worthwhile opening the debate to the points raised by Dr. Ray Fuller of the psychology department of Trinity College in his paper which contradicts what the Minister said. The Minister, in his speech, stated:

Neither can we assume 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.

Dr. Fuller's experience and research indicates that is not true. He said that in the developed world young drivers are highly vulnerable road users. They are more likely to kill themselves and pedestrians than any other age group. This is borne out by the insurance costs for young drivers, which are calculated on a scientific basis and which indicate clearly that young drivers are a higher risk and, therefore, are charged higher premiums. This does not bear out what the Minister said.

Dr. Fuller's point is that this is a universal phenomenon, not one confined to Ireland. In spite of huge variations from one country to another in formal training, according to Mr. Fuller the end result is the same. He suggests that to make learning safe requires an extensive experience on the roadway after the driving test has been passed and a licence obtained. In other words, he is referring to a graded test. A number of insurance companies support the view that once one has done the test, there should be another test after certification for which the insurance company would reduce the cost of insurance, and there could be another test at a later stage. Therefore, it should involve pre-testing and post-testing to ensure the cost of insurance is reduced. This is one way to get young people involved because the cost of insurance to them is prohibitive.

Dr. Fuller stated that real learning comes through experience. Unfortunately, experience is also gained by crashing or, at best, through near misses. Dr. Fuller further states that one of the reasons for involvement of young people is that, contrary to what the Minister said, there is no evidence that the difference in national systems produces major differences in the level of casualties. In other words, he is saying that the end result is the same no matter what type of test is run in Europe. There is no major difference at the end of the day. He said that traditional systems of training aim mainly to prepare learners to pass the driver licence examination. This is not learning how to drive; it is merely learning how to pass a test.

In order to develop better driver training Dr. Fuller asked the question "What are young drivers like?" He said that they include a sub-group which tends to be exposed to more vulnerable conditions, such as the dark, as they are usually out between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. They are vulnerable to peer pressure to adopt high risk driving styles and they over-estimate their ability to drive safely – we all recognise the latter point was relevant when we were learning; they are not yet good at reading the road signs; they are poor at identifying distant hazards; they see less risk in various driving scenarios; they are more likely to be in situations where they come into conflict with other drivers; they often find it difficult to control speed; they are less likely to be able to stop within the limits of forward visibility; they under-estimate the consequence of dangerous driving; and their accidents are typically caused by driving too fast for the prevailing conditions.

How can one improve driver education? There was an article in The Irish Times on 1 April which obviously was a hoax although it caught the attention of many people. The proposal contained in it was that the Department of the Environment and Local Government intended to establish computer visual aids to train drivers. I am not sure if the Minister saw the article. It may have been funny, but many people have made this proposal on a more serious level. Trainee pilots do continuous testing on simulators where all possible conditions are reflected. If such a system were in place a driver could, for example, be tested in simulated night driving conditions, which does not happen now. Various conditions which drivers meet such as rainy weather and oncoming traffic could be simulated by the computer. Drivers' capacities and limitations could be tested and the computer could give immediate feedback. Drivers could learn from this simulated experience much more safely than from going out on the road and learning by crashing.

Dr. Fuller, in his paper, referred to group training. He suggests that a group of people learn from each other. Feedback from group members and peer pressure help the learning process. He also suggests learning in pairs. He says that international research has established that human action is a contributory factor in more than 90 per cent of road accidents. The Minister also referred to this fact. He points out that drivers are ultimately constrained by their competence, what they are able to do. This sets limiting conditions for performance. He says, however, that "human performance, irrespective of the level of competence is unreliable. Performance is unreliable because it is vulnerable to a wide range of influences". These influences include age, learning, experience, driver task generated factors such as sleeplessness, fatigue and emotion and non-task generated factors such as sleep loss, alcohol, stress and aggression. These influences are often referred to as human factors. The unreliability of performance arising out of these human factors is a major contributor to crashes on the road and we should require road users to know about them. Although levels of competence set the limiting conditions of behaviour, this is not the complete picture. People's behaviour is, in turn, a function of individual values which provide motivation, social norms and the culture of roadway use within which the road user operates. The culture of roadway use transmits values, rewards and punishments through an enforcement strategy. Dr. Fuller makes the point that the real learning takes place after qualification. Our testing system does not test a person's capacity to drive.

I hope the Minister will consider the idea of a graduated testing system by which a driver can have his insurance premium reduced by passing a test several months or a year after his initial test.

I take my cue from Senator Coogan and I will not disrupt the cosy political situation that exists in Galway. Senator Coogan acknowledged the factual nature of the information laid before the House by the Minister of State who also recognised the waiting lists for driving tests as the Achilles heel of the present system. The Minister of State has stated his dissatisfaction with the current backlog and has acknowleged the need to address this problem.

It is interesting to examine some of the statistics given to the House by the Minister of State. In 1992 the waiting list for driving tests was between ten and 12 weeks. It is the objective of the Department of the Environment and Local Government to restore that waiting period.

The current situation is exacerbated by the increase in the number of cars being registered. This has led to pressure on the driving testing arrangements. All economists are forecasting that this increase will continue for at least eight or ten years. The car population is expected to grow by more than 60 per cent between 1998 and 2008 so that more people will apply to do the driving test. It is essential that steps be put in place to deal with that. The Minister has increased the number of driving testers. This action, which was overdue, will improve the situation annually.

It is difficult to accept the fact that the 6 per cent of drivers under the age of 25 account for 36 per cent of accident fatalities. On the other hand, 24 per cent of current licences are provisional. The Garda say there is no evidence that drivers on provisional licences contribute disproportionately to road accidents. I would like to see the road accident statistics which cause the Garda to come to this conclusion.

I agree with Senator Coogan's view that holders of provisional licences tend to be more cautious than qualified drivers. We all tend, when we pass an exam, to think we know it all. I concur, to an extent, with Senator Coogan's suggestion that drivers should take a second test some time after passing the first. However, given our present difficulties, I wonder how long would the backlog be for this second test? Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of the necessity to distinguish people who have recently passed their test from those drivers who have accumulated experience over many years. Experience is a great teacher and driving is no exception. The Minister might consider introducing a category of improver for drivers in the first two years after passing the initial test. These improvers could be obliged to display a distinctive plate similar to the L plate and would indicate their improver status. They might also be obliged to drive at a lower speed.

The three main contributors to road fatalities are speed, drink and the lack of seat belts. These limitations might make newly qualified drivers more cautious in the early years when they lack the experience to deal with the unexpected on the road. The Minister might leave the speed limit as it is but could consider specifying that someone caught speeding within that two year period would have to repeat the test. That would cut down on the numbers, rather than making everyone redo the test. People do not generally want to repeat the driving test because of the fear of failing, the insurance consequences and the need to be accompanied by a qualified person when driving.

In this way, those who had not obeyed the law would be caused a great deal of inconvenience. It would also inculcate a spirit of compliance with the driving legislation in people in those very formative first few years of driving. That is a variation on the point made by Senator Coogan which might be worth some consideration, although I subscribe to the tenor of what he said. The need to address this issue was underlined by the statistics in the Minister of State's speech.

The view is often put forward that ladies are more careful drivers than men. What proportion of existing testers, and the 16 or 17 recent appointees, are female?

There has been a long delay in introducing this, which is probably due to economic growth and the increased levels of disposable income. An increasing number of young people are now in a position to purchase a car, and are perhaps getting on the road earlier than they should. It is imperative that the State apparatus can accommodate this trend, which underscores our economic development over the past decade. It is unacceptable that the waiting time for a driving test is now 31 weeks, although I know that 31 per cent are within 15 weeks, and it is unfortunate that a backlog has built up.

The Minister of State referred to his negotiations with IMPACT. In order to address the backlog, he is having to discuss with the staff interests the need to contract extra staff. I am a firm advocate of labour being organised and represented. However, there is an equal responsibility on labour. That responsibility is far greater in the public service than it is in the private sector. Those in the public sector are very privileged in that when they secure a permanent job it is a job for life unless they blot their copybook, whereas those in the private sector are always subject to the winds of market forces and economic difficulties and there is no guarantee of a job.

I have some difficulty with the fact that it has taken 12 or 24 months in this case to secure agreement on an issue of the utmost national importance. The issue of driving tests is important from the point of view of road safety. However, it is also important to many young people who need to get a driving licence in order to pursue a career in the transport industry. I have met many young people who are unable to apply for jobs and have been cut off from career opportunities because of delays. I know the system tends to be sympathetic to such cases. However, I know people who have failed to get jobs simply because they did not have a driving licence and their potential employer was not prepared to wait for them to take the driving test. The unions should look at that.

This seems a very suitable area for the involvement of local authorities. I have previously stated in this House that much of our national legislation and services could be more easily and effectively delivered through local government, and driver testing is one such area. The local authorities could engage contract staff from transport associations and organisations, which have the necessary expertise, to conduct this service.

This area is of the utmost importance. The Minister of State has been striving to take initiatives over the past year and a half to tackle the growing number on the waiting lists. I have no doubt that the increased number of testers will make a very significant dent in those waiting lists. However, it is important that the backlog is addressed quickly. I appeal to the Department, the unions and the staff representatives involved to ensure that happens speedily. The number of applications will continue to rise because of the increased number of car registrations; if the backlog remains it will create problems for years to come.

I welcome the Minister of State and compliment him on his very frank statement and the open and honest statistics he gave us. One cannot but admit there is a problem with the backlog of driver test applications which must be addressed. People have their own views on how this problem should be addressed.

I spoke on this matter in the House some years ago when people were waiting three or four months to do the driving test – it was considered a large backlog at that stage. The Government of the day was informed of the problems which were arising but those problems have become more acute over the years, especially given the number of young people who are taking up employment in this country and who are not emigrating. These young people need cars to get to work, particularly in rural areas.

I took my first driving test in the United States. I was flabbergasted when I returned to Ireland to find that one could walk into the motor taxation office, pay the money, fill out a form and get a provisional driving licence. In the United States one had to do a written test on the rules of the road and an eye test before one got a provisional licence. That was half the battle and lifted half the anxiety from the applicant. Having to answer a certain number of questions put by the driving tester on the day of the test puts an extra burden on the person taking the test. I made my view that that was unfair known some years ago in the House. I feel very strongly that a person should have to pass the basic test before he or she gets a provisional licence and then should only have to pass the driving part of the test on the day itself.

I am delighted to hear the Minister of State is in negotiation with contract workers to reduce the number on the waiting list. That will be the answer. If we can get rid of the backlog the current complement of instructors should be sufficient to ensure that waiting periods be kept to a minimum.

I am glad to hear that people who require driving licences for their jobs will be given priority when people are being called for tests. However, a frightening number of people – in the region of 46 per cent of applicants – are failing their first test. There is evidently something wrong there. Perhaps applicants become nervous on the day of the test, given that they must sit in the car with a stranger and the atmosphere may be frosty. A points system should be introduced. If an applicant makes an error, such as hitting the kerb or completing the three point turn incorrectly, it should not result in him or her failing the test. A point or two could be deducted but the applicant should be given an opportunity to carry out the manoeuvre a second time. If an applicant fails the test, having made two or three slight errors, he or she is obliged to wait a further ten months to do the test again. This is placing a significant financial burden on families.

One of the first things a young person wants to do, having gained employment, is to buy a car. Young people want to be independent and one cannot blame them for that; we were all the same. We wanted to buy a car, drive to the dance hall and offer someone a lift home. It is necessary to ensure that young people are qualified to drive cars. I feel very strongly that people should have a certain amount of knowledge before securing a provisional licence.

If people are called for a driving test in a busy town, perhaps on a day on which a mart is held, they may become more nervous than they would normally be in view of the volume of traffic. I acknowledge that tests must be held in populated areas but allowances could be made on extremely busy days and testers could take applicants away from the main thoroughfares.

I welcome the increase in the number of driving testers from eight to 16. If the backlog could be reduced through the employment of contract workers, that number should be sufficient to cope with the demand. At the moment, insurance costs for provisional licence holders is placing severe hardship on families.

This is a useful and constructive debate. To a certain extent, my sympathies lie with the Minister who has inherited this problem which has grown over recent years. Successive Administrations are partly to blame for that, together with the ongoing difficulties of increased numbers of applicants, extra cars and so on.

I welcome the Minister's comments on the employment of additional testers. Has any research been carried out on which areas are the most problematic? I presume Dublin, with its growing population, is quite problematic. The additional testers will hopefully help to reduce the waiting lists.

Has the possibility of holding a certain number of tests at the weekends been considered? Overtime could be paid to testers in order to clear the backlog. I do not know what proportion, if any, of tests occur outside of the Monday to Friday period but perhaps the issue could be considered.

The Minister referred to the Government's Strategy for Road Safety 1998-2002. Provisional figures for 1998 show a decrease of 11 in road fatalities over 1997. Figures for the early part of this year would suggest that the situation has not really improved and certain areas continue to be accident black spots. A litany of fatalities and serious accidents occurred on one stretch of the N11 from Bray to Wexford last year. Greater consideration should be given to prevention and detection measures in regard to road safety. I believe the greatest proportion of accidents are caused by excessive speeding, partly as a result of changes in road structures and the fact that there are more modern cars on the road. Added to that, a growing number of people appear to feel the need to prove their driving skill is on a par with that displayed at Brands Hatch or Silverstone.

Derisory fines are issued for speeding offences, especially when one considers that a person is obliged to pay a £65 clamping fee if he or she fails to pay into a parking meter or parks for a few extra minutes in a particular place. A lesser charge is levied on people whose excessive speed could result in mayhem or carnage. Clamping fees should be looked at as parking in a clearway or on a double yellow line is different from staying slightly over one's time at a parking meter. Some derisory fines have been handed down, and perhaps the Judiciary and the legal profession are to blame to a certain extent.

In some areas there should be minimum fines; I do not think a fine of £100 for doing 80 or 90 miles per hour can be equated to a £65 fine for over staying at a parking meter. I suggest that a greater level of detection is required. People are employed to run around the town looking for cars which are parked illegally or which have over stayed at meters, but the same effort has not been made over a number of years in addressing other problems.

One thing which should come out of such a debate is that there should be more resources and commitment to road safety. We all have friends, relatives or friends of friends who have been in road accidents, some having been killed, others badly injured and others who will never again enjoy life to the full. While testing is important, more emphasis should be placed on road safety.

If I am not the most senior driver in the House then I must be one of them. I have been driving since 1946 when I used an old Ford V8 truck to draw turf from the bog. Thank God and his Blessed Mother I have never had an accident.

Since that time I have seen many changes. The biggest issue to cause problems in the motoring business and in terms of accidents is the "compo" culture. In years gone by when two cars were involved in a bit of a bash, people got out and said "Thank God nobody has been hurt". A garda would come and tell the parties to settle it among themselves and that was the end of the story. Now, it is big business and involves money, something with which we have to come to grips.

Seatbelts, head rests to prevent whiplash, non-jury courts, checking of tyres, speed limits, radar and many more things were introduced to come to grips with the problem, but still accidents happen.

I am glad the Minister put paid to one thing about which I have been speaking for years. Some people and the media are trying to make the point that "L" drivers or provisional drivers are the cause of all accidents. The Minister, other Members and I drive quite an amount but how many cars with "L" plates do we see in crashes? The answer is very, very few.

Testing is no problem. In the very early 1950s I got a taxi licence and I had to have a certificate of competency. After my accident, I had to have a certificate of competency and a medical certificate to say I was capable and fit to drive, despite the fact that my insurance was loaded 100 per cent, although my accident had nothing to do with driving a car – ach sin scéal eile. I suppose I am the only man in Ireland with one hand who has a full licence to drive a fully loaded ten tonne truck. I passed the competency and medical tests to do that. Therefore, I have had much experience of testing. However, just because somebody passes a test does not mean they are a good driver. What we must do is examine other issues.

The House passed legislation allowing gardaí to go to hospitals and travel in ambulances with people involved in accidents. For a while this was a big issue because sometimes those in the ambulance or the hospital could not be blood tested or done for drunk driving. However, I have seen no statistics of what percentage of accidents is associated with alcohol or drugs. The Minister should set up a team to examine this issue. All reported accidents should be investigated to see whether alcohol, illegal drugs or prescribed drugs were involved. It is a well known fact that people are leaving health and medical centres having taken prescribed tablets and that this affects their driving. There should be tests to see if alcohol, illegal drugs or prescribed drugs is the cause of an accident, and I do not believe anybody would object to that.

It is time there was a minimum speed on national primary routes. One is entitled to drive at 70 miles per hour or 65 miles per hour on primary routes but a person with a tractor, a jeep and trailer, or a senior citizen of my own vintage may drive on the white line and not allow anybody pass. Although it would be possible for a ten tonne truck to pass on the inside, that would break the law and a person doing so could lose their licence if the person driving on the white line was smart enough to take their registration number. I repeat, there should be a minimum speed on national primary routes. There are sufficient hard shoulders and slow lanes and those who drive slowly should use those lanes and allow traffic to pass.

Many motorists have bad manners on the roads. I drive quite a lot in England and I holiday there every year. When travelling in England, particularly through towns and cities, I notice that when pulling out of a parking space the first car to come along will generally stop and let me out. Here nobody will stop and a person is stuck in the parking space. It is time there was more good manners on the roads. Civics and good behaviour should be taught in our schools. Bad behaviour on our roads does not apply to any particular group; it can be found right across the board. For example, a person will try to zig-zag their way through a convoy of nine or ten cars and it is the mercy of God that there is not a pile up. This is the type of thing which radar, the gardaí and no one else can catch.

I am not in favour of further restrictions on motorists. Motorists are regarded as the new criminals in society. One cannot park one's car or do this or that with it – it is a burden to have a car given all the laws and regulations. Those who listen to "AA Roadwatch" will notice that the majority of accidents occur between 2 a.m. and 9 a.m. Hardly a morning goes by without three or four accidents taking place in the city, apart from what happens elsewhere in the country, and it is time this was examined. Such accidents are not caused by exceeding speed limits but rather by somebody trying to pass where a bicycle would not fit. I would like to see a minimum speed introduced as travelling at 40 miles per hour on national primary routes amounts to vandalism and holds up everything.

The recent observation by Hibernian Insurance was very interesting. It suggested that people who are heavily in debt seem to be involved in more accidents. That was an interesting statistic but it was not pursued very far. I heard about it on the radio one day.

Those matters should be examined but we should not introduce more laws. God knows, our motorists are penalised enough. I do not believe the MOT we are bringing in will do anything other than provide another platform from which to persecute motorists nor will it lead to more safety on the roads. How many ten year old cars does one see in crashes? It is good cars which are involved in crashes.

This is a very worthwhile discussion. Young people have many problems, particularly those waiting to do the driving test. There are many more young people on the road and many housewives started to drive when a second family car was required to take children to school. Many of those people do not have full licences; they are on provisional licences and have applied to do the test.

These people face real problems as do many families because if someone's son, daughter or wife is on a provisional licence, their insurance costs are higher. Many of these people are trying to get an early test date and a full licence to enable them reduce insurance costs. Given the number of testers and young people coming on stream with provisional licences, we will not be able to reduce the waiting list numbers as much as we would like, even if we appointed more testers.

A few years ago the Department introduced an eye test, this was a welcome move. It is important that people do an eye test before they secure a provisional licence. Testers do their jobs efficiently. However, people who fail the test but who achieve between 50 per cent and 70 per cent – or whatever figure the Department decides – should not have to be accompanied and should get a better rate of insurance. Those who are not very competent, who fail the test and who do not reach the required level should be accompanied by qualified drivers. Such a system must be looked at.

Many young people drive fast and do not have the experience when a difficulty arises. I did not agree with the way the waiting list numbers were reduced previously. On the last occasion, people on their second provisional licence were given a full licence. If there had been a points or a percentage system, a large number of people could be given a full licence. We could spot check 5 per cent or 10 per cent of those people, and that would give us a pretty accurate picture. It would enable us to get the numbers down to manageable proportions and people who apply for the driving test would be tested within six to eight weeks. This would be moving in the right direction and streamlining the system.

People are unhappy about the extra insurance costs. I know many parents who have said they face real problems. A man and his wife on full licences paying £400 or £500 insurance and who have a named son or daughter with a provisional licence on their insurance may have to pay £1,000, £1,200 or £1,400. That is a huge imposition on a family.

We welcome the excellent job instructors are doing. It would help if people doing the test had a certificate of competency from a driving instructor. If people sat the test within two to three months of applying, they would take lessons and would be safer drivers.

I welcome what the Minister said and particularly the Government's target to achieve at least a 20 per cent reduction in deaths and serious injury by the year 2002. The Minister and the Department should be commended for trying to reduce the number of accidents on the roads. There is a spin off in terms of cost from accidents which are not all caused by drivers on provisional licences. We must look at the problems created for our hospital casualty units by crashes, by speed and by alcohol. The road standards are improving and there has been a corresponding increase in speeding.

We have spoken about the problem of drivers on provisional licences. Drivers on provisional licences who are prosecuted for breaking speed limits and the law generally should be severely penalised. We do not like to penalise some drivers more than others but if that threat is there, it will ensure young people with provisional licences will be more careful and will drive at a reduced speed or they run the risk of being prosecuted.

Senator Farrell referred to Hibernian Insurance and what it was doing. If it was giving, or considering giving, cheaper insurance to those who are well heeled and well fixed financially, it is little wonder so many families have moved from companies such as Hibernian to try to get insurance at a reasonable rate from other insurance companies, including companies outside the State. That trend is very worrying.

I thank the Minister of State. We must take major steps to reduce the waiting list so that we can keep pace with the number of applications.

I am grateful to Senators who contributed to this debate. There is much interest in this issue among Members of the Oireachtas, the public and the media. Seanad reports are avidly read by many people and I would like to put some figures on the record of the House. In 1995, 93,443 tests were carried out and 107,840 appli cations received; in 1996, there were 103,512 tests and 129,053 applications; in 1997, there were 103,367 tests and 118,144 applications and in 1998, there were 100,112 tests and 145,000 applications.

About 36 testers have agreed to undertake Saturday testing. This has resulted in an additional 12,600 tests per annum. Under the PCW agreement, 9,000 additional tests will be undertaken by existing testers. A competition run by the Civil Service Commission has resulted in the recruitment of 13 new permanent testers. By early February one had taken up duty. Another six commenced training on 1 February 1999. When those people take up duty, the four vacancies will be filled and the corps of testers will be increased from 70 to 73. This has resulted in an additional 12,600 tests. On average, testers carry out about 1,800 tests per year.

Contract testers were also brought in to try to reduce the backlog. Of these, seven had commenced testing by 23 November 1998. There is agreement to recruit three more contract testers who will start on 22 February 1999. Some of these have taken up duty – one did not turn up on the day. We have sought union agreement for the employment of further contract testers and the issue of permanent testers is also under consideration.

The use of contract testers has resulted in an increase of 12,600 in the number of tests, giving a total of 46,800 extra tests as a result of the special measures taken. We are dealing seriously with this matter in an attempt to eliminate the backlog as quickly as possible. I have outlined some of the reasons the delay occurred. The unprecedented increase in the number of applications could not have been anticipated and has added to the difficulties.

Proposals on driver education are being considered by the National Safety Council. One proposal is for a computer-based simulation of driving hazards which tests the driver's reactions. The new theory test which will commence this year will test applicants for first provisional licences on their knowledge of the rules of the road, risk perception, hazard awareness and good driving behaviour.

The operation of the "R" plate in Northern Ireland restricts drivers who have passed their test to 45 miles per hour. There is no evidence that this restriction has had a significant impact on the accident rate for novice drivers. I do not believe that the evidence warrants my taking action in this regard at this stage.

Some 16 additional testers have been appointed. I am disappointed it is not 17 but one person offered the job did not turn up. We need about another 20 testers and we are taking measures to recruit these personnel. The 56 per cent pass rate is comparable to the Northern Ireland rate and is higher than the UK pass rate which is less than 50 per cent.

Tests for drivers of heavy goods vehicles are generally conducted within ten to 12 weeks to facilitate employment. Senators are aware of the facility to contact the Department if they are aware of constituents in need of an urgent test. These requests have been facilitated in the past whenever possible. The high level of cancellations provides the opportunity to offer tests at short notice.

Three of the recently recruited 16 new testers are female. There is one female tester in the existing corps of testers. The competition held in June 1998 for permanent testers resulted in 1,060 applications, 116 of whom were female. The psychometric test was taken by 870 people, 138 of whom were female. The test was passed by 467 people, 408 male and 59 female. Of this figure, 165 have attended the practical test, 61 passed and 61 were interviewed, 33 qualified and seven have been assigned to date. Senators can see that it is an enormous exercise to go through 1,060 applications, and the various tests, to end up with 33 applicants who qualified. Of the 33, 29 are male and four are female. Of those assigned, six are male and one is female.

I am grateful to Senators for their contributions to this debate. I hope they accept that we are doing our best to try to reduce the backlog but we will not be satisfied until we reduce the waiting list to an average of ten to 11 weeks for every applicant.

Sitting suspended at 4.50 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.