Wednesday 26 June 2019

Philip Ryan: 'Politicians should be told drivers must apply for tests themselves'

Intervention from TDs and senators on behalf of constituents is skewing the driving test waiting list, writes Philip Ryan

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Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

A politician's job is to serve their constituents - or at least give the impression of doing so until the next election.

They will counsel them, try to house them and book them in for medical appointments. They'll also try fix their roads, get their hedges cut and sort them out with a few extra quid from the social services.

A lot of time and resources are put into providing these services. Almost every TD, especially those based outside Dublin, has at least one constituency office.

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They also hold constituency clinics in pubs and community centres, at which constituents can and unload their grievances on their public representative.

Our electoral system means constituency politics rules above all else. You're nothing if you're a local TD who can't get a pothole fixed or help a person get a medical card.

Every representation made by a politician on behalf of a constituent is a potential vote in the bag.

It's how the system works and will always be how it will work unless we decide to change the electoral system.

Today, the Sunday Independent shows how TDs, from all parties and none, are lobbying the Road Safety Authority (RSA) on behalf of constituents seeking fast-tracked driving tests.

There is a massive backlog in the driving test system from a combination of factors. The first is the under-resourcing of driving centres and the testing regime in general.

A significant amount of money is being put into road safety awareness campaigns and promotion but the funding of the driving test system has not met the demand.

The public service staffing moratorium implemented during the recession impacted on the RSA as it did most State agencies.

The second factor is the enactment of strict new road safety laws in recent years. There is a huge pressure on motorists to secure a full driving licence since the introduction of penalty points for unaccompanied learner drivers.

The new penalties were met with resistance in the Dail from mostly rural Independent TDs who could foresee the impact they would have on constituents.

It has created a perfect storm which has resulted in more than 83,000 people waiting for a test at one of the many driving test centres scattered across the country.

In some cases people are forced to wait seven months to sit a test - which they could fail and then be faced with another lengthy wait for a retest.

And this is where our dutiful politicians step into the breach.

Inundated with complaints about the driving test system, ministers, TDs and senators have been emailing the RSA seeking fast-tracked appointments for their constituents.

The emails vary in detail. Most cases involve drivers who need a full licence or at least a test date to secure employment or to get to work or college.

Other correspondence simply ask for an "urgent" or "expedited" test. In most instances, the RSA is happy to help out and a test date is provided to the politician. If a test date is not provided, a promise to place the driver on the cancellation list is made. In some cases politicians are told their constituent's test has been prioritised.

The RSA insists it treats correspondence from politicians in the exact same way as they would a letter from a learner driver seeking to avoid a lengthy wait for a test.

But it begs the question: why not tell the politician to get the person who is seeking a test to personally request a fast-tracked appointment?

If there is no advantage to be gained from a politician making a representation on behalf of a potential voter, why are they bothering to do it in the first place?

The obvious answer is, of course, that there is some advantage. Politicians have a certain standing in society, whether you or they like to admit it or not. An email from a politician, especially a government minister, carries weight.

The internal RSA correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act show several ministers who are working or have worked in the Department of Transport have made representations on behalf of constituents.

In nearly all cases the RSA responded with driving test dates. Opposition politicians are also securing test dates.

But with waiting times at near records level, is it fair on the learner drivers who have not sought out the support of their local TD when applying for a test?

If everyone who wanted to be bumped up the waiting list asked their public representative to make a submission on their behalf, how would the RSA decide on who is most deserving of a fast-tracked appointment?

The RSA did away with the practice of seeking proof of requirement of a priority test because it says there was "widespread abuse of compliance".

There is no central RSA database of correspondence from politicians so it is impossible to estimate the extent of the practice.

Politicians, it should be noted, are merely doing their job in representing their constituents.

So perhaps the onus is on the RSA to tell them drivers should apply themselves to ensure there is an even playing field for all motorists.

Sunday Independent

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