A RECORD 16,200 learner drivers have renewed their provisional licence at least six times after failing or refusing to sit their driving test.
The shocking figures obtained by the Irish Independent show that attempts by Transport Minister Noel Dempsey to clamp down on long-term provisional licence holders have failed, as they continue to flout the law and drive without a qualified driver.
The figures reveal a 184-fold increase since 2003 in the number of learner drivers renewing their provisional licence six or more times.
In 2003, just 79 drivers nationwide renewed their licence six times and nine were on their seventh licence.
But despite tens of millions being spent on major road reforms and education programmes, there are now 16,197 learner drivers who are on their sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth or even 10th provisional licence.
The figures show:
New figures also show that the number passing their test has fallen, with a pass rate of less than 50pc. More than half of all drivers who sat their driving test last year failed. While 60,726 passed, a further 65,090 failed, significantly down from the peak of 95,569 passing in 2001.
This gave a national pass rate of 48.3pc, a drop of more than 5pc on the 2006 rate of 53.6pc.
The figures also show that the pass rate in each centre continues to vary wildly, with those sitting the test in Sligo twice as likely to pass as those in Rathgar, Dublin. A total of 67pc passed their test last year in Sligo compared to 30pc in Rathgar.
Opposition TDs and traffic experts last night warned that provisional licence holders -- who are currently under no obligation to go for even a single driving lesson -- are putting the lives of others at risk.
They also warned that road safety policy is "showing regression rather than progress".
Although the overall number on a provisional licence has fallen by almost 100,000 in the past seven years, the figures highlight a disturbing trend of drivers who are either refusing to sit their test -- or are repeatedly failing it.
The problem has also been exacerbated by a loophole which has been in our system for decades. It means those with a provisional driving licence only need apply to do their test in order to renew their licence -- but they do not need to sit it.
"The great bulk of drivers are doing the things they should do, like sitting their test shortly after getting their first licence," said Conor Faughnan, public affairs manager with AA Roadwatch.
"But there's obviously a cohort out there who are going without any lessons or tests. And it's a growing number."
A provisional licence must be renewed every two years. If the applicant can only show evidence of having applied for the test, they are given a one-year licence. If they show they sat the test -- and failed -- they get a two-year licence.
This means some people on the road have been driving for more than 20 years without passing their test.
Last year just 945 fines were issued for driving unaccompanied or without L-plates. Only 11 drivers were disqualified, while a handful of others were given a probation order or ordered to contribute to the poor box.
Labour transport spokesman Joe Costello said enforcement is the only solution to drivers repeatedly renewing their licence.
"Without legislation followed by enforcement it's just not going to be effective," he said.
"Gardai don't seem to be taking it seriously.
A new measure introduced on December 6 requires all first-time applicants for a motorbike licence to undergo 16 hours of lessons. Twelve hours of mandatory lessons will apply to all new car licence applicants from April 4.
However the compulsory lessons will only apply to those applying for a licence for the first time and not those who have renewed multiple times.
Sources said compulsory lessons for would "cause a stampede".