Dáil Éireann - Volume 590 - 14 October, 2004

Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill 2004: Second Stage.

  Mr. Cullen: I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

I congratulate Deputy Olivia Mitchell and wish her well. I look forward to working with her in the years ahead, as I do with Deputy Shortall if she stays in her position. I hope to be of assistance to the Deputies in any way possible and will be delighted to facilitate them with briefings and so on.

I am pleased to be in a position to bring this Bill to the House today. It will establish the driver testing and standards authority, the headquarters of which will be located in Ballina, County Mayo, where the existing administrative headquarters of the driver testing service is located. The establishment of the driver testing and standards authority is a crucial step in improving the delivery of the driving test service in the face of a continuing and unprecedented high level of demand for the service. The authority will be established outside normal Civil Service structures and should be in a position to deliver a more focused and flexible service which will be able to respond more readily to customer needs and future demand.

The decision to establish the driver testing and standards authority was taken after detailed analysis and full consideration of the issues involved. Its establishment will not only lead to improved service delivery for the driving test but will also see improvements in driver formation in general as the authority will have a particular duty to raise driving standards and will be assigned functions related to driver formation [667] and control, in addition to the operation of the driving test. A particularly important objective of this exercise is to bring progressive and substantial improvement to the quality of the driving test service provided to the public and in particular to end present excessive and unacceptable waiting times.

The background to the development of this legislation is important to understanding the need to establish a separate public sector body to deliver the driver testing service and assume responsibility for related functions. Since the driving test was introduced in Ireland in 1964, more than 2.4 million tests have been carried out throughout the country. Over the years, the driving test has been developed and the parameters for the test reflect the high standards laid down in EU directives on driving licences. This in turn is facilitating the recognition of Irish driving licences in the EU and internationally.

In this context I would like to clarify the position regarding the transposition of EU Directive 2000/56 in respect of which the European Commission issued a press release on 13 October stating that it is taking Ireland to the European Court of Justice for not transposing the directive on driving licences into national law. The directive amends annexes 1 and 2 of Council Directive 91/439 by substituting some additional requirements and was to be implemented by 30 September 2003. The revised annexe 1 relates to some additional harmonised information codes on a driving licence which indicate restrictions on the type of vehicle to be used in certain circumstances such as adaptations to the vehicle in view of the medical circumstances of the licence holder. For example, codes are inserted on driving licences to indicate whether a person is required to have a modified clutch or braking system to drive. The revised codes are more detailed than the current general code.

The revised annexe 2 relates to minimum requirements for driving tests. The principal changes to the latter relate to technical checks to be performed during the practical test, for example, adjusting rear view mirrors, performing random checks on tyres, engine oil, coolant, brake systems, and so on. The annexe also revises minimum vehicle standards and dimensions for vehicles that can be used in a driving test. Some of these changes will not apply for up to ten years from 30 September 2003. Additional manoeuvres for motorcycles are also to be introduced by 30 September 2008. Draft regulations to transpose the directive have been prepared which I will sign shortly.

I would also like to clarify reports in today’s newspapers which state that the directive requires a clear curriculum and fixed number of hours’ tuition for learner drivers. This statement is not correct. There is no such requirement in the directive, nor is any such measure included in any proposed directive.

[668] The driving test must determine whether an applicant is competent to drive a vehicle safely and with due regard for the safety and convenience of other persons. After successful completion of an oral and practical on-road test, a certificate of competency is granted when the necessary standard of driving is reached. This certificate is then submitted to the local licensing authority who will grant the individual a driving licence for the appropriate category of vehicle. The role of driver testing in ensuring that drivers reach an acceptable level of competence is important in the context of road safety. Driver competence and formation is an important part of the Government’s road safety strategy.

Over the years, the number of applications for driving tests has seen considerable fluctuations. Applications on hand had risen to some 88,000 by 1999. The longest waiting times then were more than 40 weeks on average and were longer than they are now when 121,000 applications are on hand. The average longest waiting time is now 38 weeks. Between 1998 and 2002, considerable additional resources were put into the driving test service and waiting times fell to an average of ten weeks in the latter half of 2002.

However, the current waiting time problem began in 2003 when an unprecedented number of driving test applications were made to the Department in early 2003 in response to concerns about the possibility of stricter regulation of the use and renewal of provisional driving licences which were being reported in the media. In 2003, applications rose to an unprecedented 233,889, which was a 22% rise over the previous record of 192,016 applications in 2002. While applications in 2004 have reduced, we are on target to receive about 175,000 applications this year. Despite this unprecedented rise in demand, the service is in a position to deal with the underlying demand but the numbers on the waiting list are staying stubbornly high at about 121,000 with an average waiting time of 31 weeks. Significant additional resources have been allocated to the driver testing service over the past five years, with the number of testers now at 117 compared to 66 in 1998. Additional staff and productivity, together with Saturday working has increased the testing capacity of the service by over 90,000 tests to some 200,000 tests annually since 1998. Access to the service has also been improved through the provision of some additional test centres.

However, the demand for driving tests continues at a high level and my Department is in communication with the Department of Finance regarding measures to reduce the backlog of driving test applicants, including the recruitment of additional driver testers. A number of retired driver testers have been employed to deliver additional tests and driver testers continue to deliver additional tests by working overtime on Saturdays and at lunchtime. I emphasise that where individuals require a test for urgent reasons, they will be facilitated as far as possible. During the most recent period for which figures [669] are available, 25% of applicants were tested within 15 weeks.

I am conscious of the need to provide a testing service which can offer tests within a reasonable period of time and I see the establishment of the driver testing and standards authority which will have the necessary flexibility to respond to variations in demand as essential to the improved delivery of the driving test. There has been a number of improvements to the driving test in recent years, most notable of which is the introduction of a detailed report sheet that shows the test candidate where his or her driving skills are weak. The facility to apply on-line for a test was also introduced and has been well received. In addition, we will, in the near future, introduce a motorcycle test with radio communication between the tester and the candidate. This will enable the driver tester to carry out a much improved test. Motorcycle tests with radio communication have been carried out on a pilot basis and have been well received by both driver testers and test candidates.

In May 2000, the Comptroller and Auditor General published a value for money report on the driver testing service which concluded, inter alia, that the service was neither cost effective nor sufficiently flexible to meet changing demand patterns. In response to the report consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers were engaged. The brief given to the consultants was to examine the driver testing service and make recommendations on ways and means of making the organisation and delivery of the service more efficient and responsive to customer demands. The consultants’ report recommended that the best organisational structure to deliver the driver testing service was a public service agency that would be self-financing and that significant investment in facilities, financed by an increased test fee, was required to upgrade the service. On this point, the current standard test fee of €38 does not fully meet the cost of providing the testing service, which is estimated to be approximately €11 million. Our testing fee compares unfavourably, or favourably depending on one’s perspective, with a standard fee of 39, approximately €59, that applies in the United Kingdom.

The Government decided to accept in principle the consultants’ main recommendation that a separate public sector agency should be established to deliver the service. Consequently, the Bill before us was prepared.

The purpose of the Bill is to establish the driver testing and standards authority whose primary responsibility will be the delivery of the driver testing service. In carrying out its functions, the authority will also have a general duty to promote the development and improvement of driving standards and will be able to make recommendations to the Minister in this regard. This provision will allow the authority to develop its services in such a way as to encourage better driving, rather than simply testing driver competence. I envisage that this provision will give the board [670] and staff of the authority the scope to be innovative in carrying out their functions. Provision is also being made for other functions that would be more appropriate to an executive agency than to a Department. These functions relate to the testing and control of drivers, driving instructors and vehicles.

I would particularly like to draw the attention of the House to the proposal that the authority will be responsible for the registration of driving instructors. Driving instructors are not currently regulated. Proposals have been developed by my Department for the regulation and quality assurance of driving instruction that will involve a test of the competence of individual instructors. A working group, comprising representatives of my Department and of instruction interests, has formulated the design of the standard that a driving instructor must meet. It will be a matter for the authority to determine how best to fulfil its obligations in carrying out its function in this area. The end result will be a register of driving instructors held by the authority. Instructors on the register will have passed appropriate tests of their competence to instruct which will be the responsibility of the authority to administer. Prospective instructors will have to demonstrate that they have appropriate instructional skills in addition to demonstrating their competencies in so far as driving skills are concerned.

I am aware that many existing driving instructors who have been instructing for many years are concerned as to how the proposals to regulate their profession will affect them. In the interests of ensuring an appropriate standard of instruction applies throughout the country, all instructors must demonstrate that they have reached the required standard. During a period of transition when all new instructors will have to undergo the appropriate tests in order to instruct, existing instructors who can show that they are bona fide instructors will be allowed to continue instructing before having to undergo appropriate competency tests. The length of the transition period and the manner in which the competency of existing instructors is assessed during that period will be considered in the context of the drafting of regulations to require instructors to be registered in order to give instruction for reward on the establishment of the authority.

Responsibility for the driver theory test, which is a prerequisite to getting a provisional licence, will also pass to the authority, as such a test is as much a part of the process of obtaining a driving licence as is the practical driving test. In the longer term responsibility for vehicle testing may also be transferred to the new authority as it would be more appropriate that a service, which is analogous to the driver testing service, be delivered by an agency outside of Civil Service structures.

In the driver licensing area the day-to-day operation of the licensing system, including the functions that involve my Department directly, such as the provision of blank licences and forms [671] etc. to licensing authorities, would transfer to the authority. Policy on these areas and the making of driver licensing regulations would remain with my Department. There is considerable interaction between the driver licensing staff in the Department and local licensing authorities on licensing matters, in particular the application of driver licensing regulations.

I do not see this changing. The licensing system not only controls drivers, but is also the system that records penalty points and disqualifications incurred by drivers for road traffic offences. The licensing records are held in the national driver file which is administered by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and located in the vehicle registration unit in Shannon. The record is updated by local licensing authorities which process licence applications and issue licences.

In the area of penalty points, the record will be endorsed electronically through electronic interfaces between the Courts Service, the Garda Síochána, and the vehicle registration unit. Pending final completion of the IT systems, any manual notifications received from gardaí and the courts are converted to electronic format by a company contracted to my Department for transmission to the VRU electronically. Queries relating to the application of penalty points to licensing records are dealt with by the driver licensing staff in my Department. The transfer of this function to the new authority will not affect this arrangement.

The proposed introduction of a smart card driving licence with a chip and enhanced security features which will be required by the third EU directive on driving licences, now before the European Parliament for consideration, will require greater involvement at central level in facilitating the issue of such cards. Due to the requirement for improved security features on such licences, as provided for in the directive, it is likely that such card licences will have to be produced at a central location rather than locally from motor tax offices, as is the current arrangement with the current paper licences.

The authority would be the ideal body to facilitate such an arrangement given the close connection between driver testing and driver licensing. As part of any such arrangement, I envisage that the current arrangement whereby applications for licences are made to local licensing authorities would continue, particularly in the interests of accessibility by customers.

Before going into the Bill’s provisions, I would like to advise the House on the process which we have initiated to establish the authority. I intend this process to be open and transparent and to go forward in a spirit of partnership with all the staff associations. Consultation with staff interests has taken place. The forum is a sub-committee of a departmental council where staff have been kept advised of developments and have been given an opportunity to voice their concerns. The main [672] concern raised by staff is the retention of Civil Service status.

It is proposed to transfer staff to the authority with a guarantee that their existing terms and conditions will not be affected. I am concerned that the retention of Civil Service status and the consequent alignment of the grading structure in the new authority with Civil Service structures might prove to be overly restrictive on the authority in carrying out its functions, which may require a more flexible staffing structure. Nonetheless I recognise that staff have genuine concerns, which I am prepared to consider with a view to alleviating them in the most effective way without compromising the ability of the DTSA to deliver a quality service.

It is proposed to recruit a chief executive officer at an early date to ensure he or she can drive forward the change process. I expect the post to be advertised shortly. The post will be based in Ballina and will be equivalent to the assistant secretary grade in the Civil Service.

Consultants have also been engaged to advise on the most appropriate organisational structure for the authority to enable it to carry out its functions in an efficient and cost-effective manner, as is required under the Bill. This process will involve full consultation with staff. A new organisational structure should enable the authority to take account of the need to make the service more responsive to customers’ needs and address the need to ensure the testing service will, in the future, be able to respond effectively to fluctuations in demand and deliver a quality service to the public.

Driver formation is an important element of the Government’s road safety strategy. The proposed system of regulating driving instruction should assist in the achievement of improved standards of driving and assist in the formation of drivers.

A related issue that is often raised in the context of road safety and the waiting period for driving tests is the number of provisional licence holders on the roads. Some misconceptions exist regarding the number of persons driving on provisional driving licences and the arrangement governing the number of provisional licences which a person may obtain. There is no limit on the number of provisional licences a person may obtain for any category of vehicle. The first two licences are each valid for two years. However, to be entitled to a third or subsequent provisional licence for any particular category of vehicle, a person must have undergone a driving test for that category within the preceding two years or failing that, have a driving test appointment arranged, in which case the provisional licence is granted for one year only.

Another misconception is that the estimated 380,000 provisional licence holders are driving without having undergone the driving test, but this is not the case. Approximately 48% of applicants in 2003 underwent the test for at least a second time. The overall pass rate was 54.5% [673] with the pass rates for first-time candidates at 52.4% and other candidates at 56.7%. Notwithstanding that many provisional licence drivers will undergo the test, I recognise that the proportion of Irish drivers relying on provisional licences is too high at 17% of all current licences. We are determined to reduce this proportion significantly and the establishment of the authority should ensure we can offer driving tests more quickly than at present and, thereby, reduce the number of provisional licence holders.

As the waiting times for driving tests become more manageable, I propose, as signalled in the current road safety strategy, to bring forward appropriate amendments to the driver licensing regulations to discourage long-term reliance on provisional licences. Necessary changes to reform the provisional licensing system must be phased in and current attitudes towards driving on provisional licences must change. The number of provisional licence holders on their third or more provisional licence was about a quarter of the total of provisional licence holders at the end of 2003. A provisional licence is not a driving licence and it only allows a person to drive for the purpose of learning to drive.

Nevertheless it should not be assumed that provisionally licensed drivers are per se unsafe on the roads. There is no evidence to suggest that holders of provisional licences, as a group, are disproportionately involved in serious road accidents. International research indicates that age and driving experience are more important indicators of the likelihood of safe driving behaviour than the possession of a full driving licence. Young people need to be encouraged to cultivate safe and precautionary driving habits even after they have obtained a full driving licence. My Department’s leaflet, Preparing for your Driving Test, is sent to all test applicants and advises them that, having passed the test, they should continue to drive carefully and build up their experience in different traffic, weather and road conditions.

The driver theory test, introduced in 2001, has assisted in driver formation and has ensured that provisional licence holders have an adequate knowledge of the rules of the road, etc. before being allowed to drive on the road. Success at the theory test is a prerequisite for obtaining a first provisional driving licence. The test covers the rules of the road, risk perception, hazard awareness and good driving behaviour. The operation of the theory test has been contracted to a private company as a public private partnership project. The test is carried out through a computer-based medium with multiple choice questions on a computer screen and is delivered to set performance standards. The delivery of the service has been well received by candidates with customer surveys showing 90% satisfaction.

The authority will have the option of performing its functions by means of outsourcing, the establishment of subsidiaries and participation in companies. It is important that the authority has such flexibility as the driver theory test is deliv[674] ered on a public private partnership basis and this provision will allow such an arrangement to continue.

I refer to the main provisions of the Bill. Section 3 provides for the formal establishment, from a date to be set by order to be the establishment day, of a State body to be known as An tÚdarás um Thástáil agus Caighdeáin do Thiománaithe or the Driver Testing and Standards Authority.

Section 4 gives power to the Minister to require the authority, by order, to carry out certain functions. While the authority’s primary function is to deliver the driver testing service, other functions which may be assigned to it include those relating to driver licensing, vehicle testing, the regulation of driving instructors and the regulation and control of vehicles. In general, the intent of this section is to ensure any functions under the Road Traffic Acts or required by EU directives relating to the control of drivers or vehicles that would be appropriate to an executive agency could be assigned to the authority in the future.

Section 8 enables the Minister, following consultation with the authority and any Minister who is concerned, to confer by order additional functions on the authority, by order to amend or revoke any order made to confer additional functions, and to lay all orders under this section before each House of the Oireachtas. Such additional functions would have to be connected to functions being carried out by the authority.

Section 5 provides that the authority may, with the consent of the Minister and the agreement of the Minister for Finance, come to an agreement with any person for the performance of its functions by that person. This section would facilitate the outsourcing of the authority’s functions and allow the existing PPP arrangement for the delivery of the driver theory test to continue. Such a provision, in common with other provisions in the Bill, is designed to give the authority the maximum flexibility in fulfilling its obligations and delivering the services for which it will be responsible.

The general duty on the authority to promote the development and improvement of driving standards contained in section 6 gives the authority the scope to move beyond the basic task of testing and allows it to be more innovative in its approach to the development of better driving in this country. While ultimately the board of the authority will decide on the best approach to take, I envisage the authority taking a proactive approach towards encouraging better driving standards. This could take the form, for example, of closer liaison with the education sector, better communications with driving instructors — a process which has begun and is proving effective in developing better relations with instructors — and removing misconceptions about the driving test. There are many other possibilities and I do not propose to be prescriptive about how the authority should go about its business. The section also places a duty on the authority to con[675] duct its business at all times in a cost-effective and efficient manner and provides that the authority will have all powers necessary for the performance of its functions.

Section 7 provides that the Minister may issue general policy directions to the authority on the performance of its functions and that the authority shall comply with any such direction. Notice of such direction will be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and published in Iris Oifigiúil.

Section 9 provides that the authority may, with the consent of the Minister and the Minister for Finance, establish subsidiary companies by itself or with another person to perform the functions conferred on it by this Act.

Debate adjourned.