The current public health emergency has had a profoundly disruptive effect on the driver learning and testing system in this country. I can assure the Deputy that the Department is very aware of the challenges facing the RSA as they work hard to further manage the backlog in the Driver Testing and Theory Testing Service.
The driving test service is not currently operating as normal due to the impact of Covid-19. Tests are only available, under Level 5 restrictions, to essential workers. This has had a significant impact on waiting times.
RSA driver testers are undertaking driving tests in extraordinarily difficult conditions. The driving test is conducted in an enclosed space for a period of over 15 minutes, where physical distancing is not possible. Given the significant risk to testers when conducting a driving test, Government has deemed that the driver testing service should be available ONLY for those involved in essential services in Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions.
Due to suspension of driver testing services in the first 2020 lockdown, along with the health protocols since resumption of service and the further curtailing of services during subsequent level 5 restrictions, a significant backlog has developed.
While the service is limited during level 5 restrictions, the Road Safety Authority is examining ways of increasing the number of tests within health constraints with an eye to resuming wider testing after level 5. This includes increasing the number of testing staff to help reduce and, over time, eliminate the backlog.
Following discussions with the RSA, my Department has approved the hiring of a further 40 temporary testers for 22 months. The process of recruitment is now underway. However, it will take some time for people to be selected and trained.
These new hires will be in addition to the 36 temporary testers which I previously gave sanction to rehire during 2020.
The provision of extra testers will not on its own suffice to address the problem. One of the difficulties is with the capacity of test centres themselves, given limits on throughput due to Covid restrictions.
The RSA are also looking at a number of other measures, including whether the number of tests a driver tester can perform each day can be increased. Any decision on this matter will be guided by health protocols.
Covid-19 has also had a profound effect on the delivery of the Road Safety Authority’s driver theory testing service and a significant backlog has developed. Under current level 5 restrictions, the driver theory test has not been deemed to be an essential service. As a consequence, the service is closed while level 5 restrictions remain in place.
The RSA is engaging with its service provider to examine ways of increasing the number of tests within the current health constraints for when services resume. In this regard, the aim is to double capacity at test centres over a three-month period. Subject to decisions on future Covid 19 restrictions, this will mean that additional capacity would be made available in April, May and June 2021.
Normal capacity before the pandemic was approximately 15,000 tests per month. When the service reopened in July 2020, this was increased to 25,000 to deal with the backlog which had developed by that point. Based on the capacity of 25,000 tests per month, the aim is to provide an additional 25,000 tests per month on top of this for the first 3 months of reopening, or a total of 75,000 extra test appointments over the three-month period. This would make substantial inroads into numbers waiting over that time period.
In addition to the increased capacity initiative, the RSA is working to deliver an online driver theory test service. The online service has been trialled on a pilot basis for those taking a theory test for trucks and buses. It is now being evaluated with a view to extending the online service to all test types during 2021. However, scaling up operations to facilitate higher numbers will take time to achieve.
Approved Driving Instructors (ADIs) are entirely independent operators and neither the Road Safety Authority nor the Department can dictate how they run their individual businesses. There is nothing the State can do to stimulate extra lessons. When restrictions are eased and lessons can be conducted once more for all learners, it will be up to the driving schools to employ more instructors and up to the individual instructors to decide whether or not they want to conduct more lessons.