120,000 drive on thanks to latest u-turn
MORE than 120,000 learner drivers will be exempt from controversial new road safety laws that will come into force at midnight tonight.
It follows admissions by the country's road safety chief that he completely underestimated public reaction to the proposed measures.
In another dramatic u-turn, Transport Minister Noel Dempsey has given holders of a second provisional licence eight months to pass their test. After that, they will have to be accompanied by an experienced motorist at all times.
From midnight, any new driver who wants to get on the road will have to get a learner permit instead of a provisional licence. And they will have to be accompanied by a driver who has at least two years' experience on a full licence.
However, 122,000 drivers on their second provisional licences will breathe a massive sigh of relief after it was announced they will now be exempt from the new laws.
Last week, Mr Dempsey said second provisional holders would automatically be prosecuted if caught driving unaccompanied from tomorrow.
Within hours he came under fire from the public, opposition parties, and lobby groups who criticised the time-frame for the controversial clampdown.
He was eventually forced into an embarrassing climbdown in the face of a bitter and widespread public backlash.
The embattled minister last night faced down calls for his resignation as opposition parties described the latest development as a "humiliating u-turn". Fine Gael transport spokesman Fergus O'Dowd said it was time for Mr Dempsey to "consider his position".
He added: "The Government has had 10 years to deal with the issue and get it right, yet we are left with a fiasco. As one commentator said on radio this morning, this is nothing but a farce on four wheels."
Labour's Tommy Broughan said Mr Dempsey was "fast becoming the 'calamity Noel' of this Government".
"The deferral cannot disguise the fact that this has been a humiliating u-turn for Minister Dempsey, brought about by the unprecedented anger of the public," Mr Broughan added.
However, the minister last night dismissed the calls for his resignation as "the usual old rubbish from the opposition".
Speaking to the Irish Independent, Mr Dempsey admitted he was forced into a rethink on the deadline for second provisional holders after widespread calls for a reasonable lead-in time to enable people to prepare for and take their test, or to make alternative arrangements.
But he vowed there would be no excuses for all learner drivers after June 30.
"It's absolutely ridiculous that you can sit a test, fail it, proving you cannot drive, and then simply drive away," he said.
He added it was vital that the road safety measures rolled out last week by the Government, which were designed to save 400 lives between now and 2012, had the backing of the public at large.
The Road Safety Authority had taken out large advertisements in Sunday newspapers to remind learners of the new rules which were due to come into effect at midnight tonight.
However, the authority and and Mr Dempsey had been in repeated contact throughout the weekend as they tried to work out how to stem the tide of public criticism.
RSA chief Noel Brett last night admitted he underestimated the extent of the outrage from the 425,000 provisional licence holders.
"I had not expected such a large reaction and, given that reaction, I fully support the measure taken by the minister," he said.
Three motorists have already died this weekend, taking this year's toll to 271.