01 July 2008

New Rules on Irish Roads - or not...?

Today - July 1st - sees the official introduction of new rules on Irish roads. The main change is that from now on any driver on a second provisional driving license will have to be accompanied in the car by a holder of a full driving license.

This new law, introduced already last year, was postponed by Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey (right) until the 1st of July because there were too many Irish drivers still on provisional licenses and not enough driving instructors and test centres in the country.
Massive protests from drivers forced Dempsey to extend the deadline and to provide more facilities. He promised to do that, and indeed the number of driving instructors and test centres has increased over the past months. However, there are still more than 92,000 Irish drivers with a second provisional license today, and so far only 92 approved instructors with a national road safety certificate.

It is obvious that at a ratio of 1000 drivers per instructor the problem will not disappear over night, regardless what the law is. Waiting lists for driving tests are still long, even though the overall situation is better than it was a couple of years ago, when some Irish drivers had to wait up to two years for their driving test.

Strictly speaking all remaining drivers with a provisional license will have to find from today on a person with a full license to be their passenger. But that, of course, is impossible and everyone - including Minister Dempsey and the Garda Siochana (Ireland's police) - knows it.

So it will be interesting to see how the new law is applied on our roads and streets. If the Gardai are to be strict, they would have to stop and control every car with L plates (which mark a car whose driver has only a provisional license) with only one person in it.

For many drivers the situation is difficult, as they need their car to get to work or earn a living in various ways, while they still wait for their test.
Quite a few of them are determined to keep on driving and have today removed the L plates from their cars. This is a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem. And it does neither improve road safety nor confidence in our government and law makers.

Far too long has the government dithered with road safety and failed to reform the system once and for all. Ireland was only one of two European countries (the other being the UK) allowing provisional driving licenses. But after a change of the law in Britain some time ago, Ireland now is the last country that uses a two-tier system for driving licenses.

In most European countries drivers have to go through rigorous training and pass a tough test - both written and practical - before they can drive a car. This is in my opinion not more than proper and sensible and leads to much more safety on the roads and streets. But as with so many things, Ireland is very slow in catching up with the EU standards. There are thousands of drivers - most of them now elderly - who drove for decades without ever having passed a test. For them the situation is especially difficult, and they will remain a hard core of problem drivers for some time.

Surprisingly the deadline has seen very little media coverage today, and no statements from the Department of Transport. It seems that for Noel Dempsey and his civil servants silence is truly golden. He can hardly extend the deadline again, having been very harsh and determined the first time he did it. But there are neither enough Gardai to control every car, nor enough test centres and instructors to make the still 92,000 provisional drivers disappear. Realistically this very Irish problem will be with us for at least another couple of years.

In my opinion it is more than time to scrap the provisional license altogether and introduce the same system that is operated in Europe so successfully for almost a century. We might have said NO to the Lisbon Treaty, but we should be happy to embrace European standards of driving and road safety.

The Emerald Islander

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