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Opinion Why is the Irish driving test so hard and so expensive?

The driving test is not really a test of your ability to drive safely; it’s a test of your ability to drive flawlessly for one session, writes Barry Dunning.

NO SOONER HAD I passed the driving back in 2008 than I was busy forgetting the whole ordeal.

The skills you learn to pass the test have little relevance for day-to-day driving, and in no time at all I’d forgotten how frustrating, expensive and lottery-like the test was. I’m sure most people are the same.

A recent trip back home (I’m currently based in Jakarta, Indonesia) brought these long-buried memories of the test back. A family member was due to sit her test and was conscripting anyone with a full license into the car with her while she practiced. Talking with her about the upcoming test, it became clear that things haven’t gotten better for learners in the past decade. If anything, the system is even tougher and more ridiculous than back in 2008.

Passing your driving test is challenging, expensive and stressful in many countries (except Mexico where you don’t have to sit a test), but it seems to me that it’s worse in Ireland.

It’s got to the stage that there are now open discussions of the best ‘tactics” to keep examiners happy. It’s also standard practice to have your instructor drop you at the test centre, because, apparently, you are more likely to pass if the examiner will see you exit from the instructor’s vehicle.

Are country drivers really better than city drivers?

Since 2011, learners are required to undertake 12 Essential Driving Lessons (EDL) before they can sit a test. These lessons are not cheap. A recent survey found the average cost for 12 EDL lessons was €400.

On top of the sky-high learner insurance premiums, and the cost of purchasing and running a car, this acts as another financial barrier preventing some people from learning to drive.

With all these mandatory lessons you would expect most drivers would now sail through the driving test. But that’s not what the statistics show.

Road Safety Authority figures show the national pass rate in 2016 was actually lower (at 53.95%) than it was in 2008 (57%), the year I got my license when there was no requirement for EDL classes. And there is a huge degree of variance in the pass rates depending on where you sit your test.

For example, learners are almost twice as likely to pass in Ennis (73% pass rate) when compared to Churchtown (42%).

This raises plenty of questions. Are today’s learners worse at driving than people a decade ago? Do people in Clare have an innate ability to drive better than people from Dublin? Are instructors not doing their jobs properly? Is there is a predetermined pass rate unrelated to the skill of learner drivers?

Safer roads worldwide

The official response to any criticism of the driving test is usually to defend the system as helping to deliver safe drivers on our roads and to point to the fall in the number of fatal crashes on Irish roads over the past 10-15 years. Everyone wants competent, safe drivers on the road and fewer crashes. But there is little evidence that mandatory lessons and a wickedly tough driving test are a key factor in this fall.

There has been a significant global reduction in fatal crashes across most countries in the developed world over recent decades. This has been put down to a combination of safer cars, mandatory seatbelts, better roads and less tolerance of drink driving (Danny Healy Rae notwithstanding).

A better path forward

There a number of relatively simple, concrete steps that could be taken to deliver a more transparent, cheaper and effective system than what’s currently in place.

The massive discrepancies in pass rates between test centres are crying out for an official investigation. It’s far-fetched that drivers in certain areas of the country are better or worse than others, so there must be other causes.

Are the examiners being influenced by local conditions (and therefore making the test an uneven playing field across the country)? Or is the outcome influenced, like judges in the UK according to one experiment, by when the examiner had their lunch? In Australia, test examiners were “sent back to school over odd pass or fail rates”, something it might be worth investigating in Ireland.

Far more worrying than arbitrary examiners though is the fact that there might be a predetermined pass rate for each centre. That would mean a candidate could be doomed to failure based solely on an arbitrary quota for a test centre. Surely that’s the type of issue a TD (or wannabe TD) would be interested in looking into?

Secondly, since mandatory lessons have not increased the number of people passing the test, and there is no available evidence that they have helped to make our roads safer, this expensive requirement should be reformed, if not scrapped.

Overhauling the system

Finally, the authorities should be overhauling the system so learner drivers are trained to have the skills to safely and competently navigate the challenges you face behind the wheel everyday, rather than just the skills to pass a single test.

There are a number different approaches from around the world that Ireland could adapt. Driving (and cycling for that matter) skills classes at second and third-level. Less focus on a single test balanced by reduced speed limits or other restrictions for learners and newly qualified drivers. Or zero blood alcohol limits for learner and newly qualified drivers.

With a bit of public pressure and political will, the system could be overhauled and improved. Because right now the driving test is not really a test of your ability to drive safely; it’s a test of your ability to drive flawlessly for one session. Ireland deserves a better system, which delivers safe and competent drivers without the rest of the nonsense.

But the first step is for everyone with a full license to remember what a stressful shambles the whole process was when they had to pass. Something I’d forgotten until recently.

Barry Dunning is originally from Kildare. You can find him on Twitter here.

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