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Wayne O'Connor: 'Testing times for learners waiting 19 weeks'

Lack of capacity in the system is to blame for drivers seeking help from politicians, writes Wayne O'Connor

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LINING UP: Learner drivers queue for their driving test applications in Cork County Hall. Picture: Provision

LINING UP: Learner drivers queue for their driving test applications in Cork County Hall. Picture: Provision

LINING UP: Learner drivers queue for their driving test applications in Cork County Hall. Picture: Provision

The Road Safety Authority's failure to meet its own targets is the root cause of letters and representations from politicians on behalf of constituents looking to sit their driving tests as soon as possible.

A candidate should be able to sit their test within 10 weeks of making an application. But, on average, they are waiting much longer.

This can have a significant impact on those who are seeking a full licence as they go about changing jobs or making new commuting arrangements.

A car can be a lifeline for residents in rural areas and it is often these places that have the longest waiting times. Applicants in the mid-west and Cork are among those most impacted by long waits.

Kilrush, Co Clare, is the worst-performing test centre when it comes to meeting the 10-week target. An average wait there stands at almost double the 10-week target at 19.1 weeks, while some have to wait as long as 27 weeks. A wait in Skibbereen, Co Cork, can be just as long but on average it takes 15 weeks to get behind the wheel alongside an examiner.

"We aim to have a national average waiting time of no longer than 10 weeks," says the RSA. "Our ability to meet this target depends on the number of applications received. Accordingly, the average waiting time in driving test centres may vary above or below this 10-week target."

However, it falls a long way short of meeting this target. Only 15 of the country's 48 test centres see candidates go through the system on average in less than 10 weeks.

At five centres - Castlebar, Co Mayo; Donegal; Navan, Co Meath; Portlaoise, Co Laois; and Tuam, Co Galway - candidates come through the system on the 10th week. The remaining 28 centres are all missing the target of a 10-week average.

Conor Faughnan, director of consumer affairs for AA Ireland, said a 10-week target was not good enough.

"That is less than ideal and we would hope for a six-week waiting time," he said. "Ten weeks, were it achieved, would not be unreasonable, particularly that the process of learning how to drive should take a minimum of six months between your 12 compulsory modules and the pre-test period of six months that has to expire before you can go ahead with it.

"If they were to achieve it, it would not be as good as we would like to see but it would be reasonable. The problem is that they are not achieving the 10-week average."

This wait has a profound impact on candidates, especially if they are hoping to go from applicant to candidate and, eventually, qualified driver quickly.

"Those who don't have a full licence are faced with learner restrictions in terms of the requirement to have an accompanied driver and they also face higher insurance costs. They are carrying this burden while they sit in a queue and that clearly is a frustration," Mr Faughnan added.

"We have been flagging this with the RSA for some time, and, to be fair to them, they haven't needed us to do it because they are aware of the problem and are hearing about it from elsewhere, too."

AA members regularly get in touch with the group looking for help to secure a more immediate test date. They then get referred to the RSA. The authority said it recognised that some people need to take the test urgently and candidates are asked to note this on their application forms.

"We can usually facilitate this and it helps if you are available for a test appointment at short notice," the RSA said.

"We often have slots that have been cancelled that are available for a person who can take a test with notice from a few hours to a few days."

It appears this is the loophole politicians are looking to take advantage of on behalf of constituents.

Mr Faughnan said penalties should be introduced for people who failed to show up for a test as a way of making sure availability is maximised.

He also said there was a need to increase the capacity of the system. "Too much capacity is being lost by people who simply don't show up," he said. "If they get more efficiencies into the system they might start eroding those waiting times.

"About 10 years ago some tests were outsourced. A contract was awarded to a multinational to conduct the tests on a one-off basis. They may have to look at something like that again."

Swiss firm SGS, which previously held the National Car Test contract checking the road-worthiness of vehicles, struck a deal with the Government in 2006 to provide driving tests.

However, the move was met with some resistance at the time and a dispute with testers and support staff was eventually referred to the Labour Court.

In 2014, 400 tests due to be carried out by 100 testers had to be rescheduled after they said they would go on strike because of outsourcing plans.

Similar proposals are still likely to be met with resistance.

"It should be one of the RSA's New Year resolutions to get on top of this problem," said Mr Faughnan. "These are people who could have a full licence if the State was in a position to offer them a test."

Sunday Independent