Saturday 20 July 2019

Gardai not told of L-plate crackdown Dempsey forced to row back on plan after outcry

Fergus Black and Tom Brady

SENIOR gardai were not told in advance about the crackdown on learner drivers, it was learned last night. The revelation came as the Government was forced into an embarrassing u-turn in the face of a bitter and widespread public backlash.

The original plan was to automatically prosecute those driving alone on second provisional licences from midnight on Monday but gardai had not been informed.

A senior garda officer told the Irish Independent: "We were as much in the dark as anybody else until the strategy was about to be unveiled on Thursday.

"We had no prior notice, either of the minute details of the move or the intention to bring it into force immediately after the bank holiday, and were very surprised when we learned that it was about to be announced publicly."

The lack of communication is certain to be highlighted as an example of the confusion which surrounded the rollout of the plan.

The proposals yesterday sparked a deluge of complaints from a raft of lobby groups. These represented businesses, young drivers and the elderly.

And such was the ferocity of the attacks that the Government felt compelled to make its embarrassing u-turn.

Transport Minister Noel Dempsey had to concede that gardai would approach each case with "discretion and common sense".

His coalition partners the Greens piled further pressure on him by announcing they would put their concerns over the L-driver debacle in writing. And government backbencher Michael Mulcahy called for the whole proposal to be postponed for six months. It is now expected that automatic prosecutions will not be enforced until the New Year at least.

Mr Dempsey said that for an initial period of a few months, garda efforts would be aimed at "cautioning and advising" unaccompanied drivers of the new legal requirements.

The Road Safety Authority (RSA) last night pledged to prioritise driving test applications from drivers with a second provisional licence "who have an occupational requirement or a special reason of hardship" and would give them a test as a matter or urgency.

RSA chief Noel Brett said the aim of the new law was to "prevent death and serious injuries on our roads". And he appealed to learner drivers to ensure they took lessons and prepared for their tests.

Consternation about new law coming into force next week manifested itself at driving test centres and on the radio airwaves:

l The driving test website crashed under a sudden deluge of applications which flooded in at the rate of 300 an hour.

l The Road Safety Authority and radio chat shows were jammed by anxious callers.

l The Irish Independent's comment website was inundated with opinions.

l Some 11,000 voted in an RTE Radio One Liveline telepoll with 64pc against the licence ban.

l The insurance industry moved swiftly to reassure provisional licence holders that they would continue to enjoy full cover.

l Rank-and-file gardai warned that policing the measures without proper preparation was a "recipe for chaos".

RSA chairman Gay Byrne acknowledged a great number of people were upset by what the authority was trying to do but he urged people to "get rid of the hysteria".

While enforcement would be a matter for the gardai, the authority wanted to make the public aware of it and "they better get with it", he warned.

The RSA confirmed yesterday that since lunchtime on Thursday -- when the new measures were announced -- they had received 3,000 applications when normally they would handle 800 a day.

Among the lobby groups who reacted angrily to the surprise change, Age Action said it would add further to the isolation of some older people living in rural areas and urged the government to introduce a taxi voucher system in areas not covered by rural transport schemes.

INTO general secretary John Carr said the move would make it very difficult for many young teachers to get to schools, especially in rural Ireland.

"Hundreds of teachers who started teaching this September are on second provisional licences and need their cars to get to work.

Option

"They accepted jobs on the understanding that they would be able to drive to school. Public transport is not an option for most of them," he said.

Opposition parties rounded on the Government's turnaround and called for the new licence reforms to be deferred until the driving test backlog was cleared.

Fine Gael said Mr Dempsey had "made an ass of himself and of the law".

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