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Driving licence reform for ‘rural hermits’

Political Correspondent, Paul O’Brien on a plan to address rural Ireland’s transport woes

IN THE summer of 2002, following the death of Sylvester Barrett, tributes were paid to the former government minister in the Dáil.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern praised Mr Barrett’s dedication to public service, and listed some of his accomplishments, among which were two that helped make the roads safer: making compulsory the wearing of seatbelts and introducing the breathalyser test to tackle drink driving.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny similarly paid warm tribute, but accurately pointed out that Mr Barrett would mostly be remembered for one thing: the driving licence amnesty.

As environment minister in 1979, Mr Barrett was facing a huge backlog of people waiting to sit their driving test. In order to cut the backlog, he announced that all those on second or subsequent provisional licences could obtain a full licence without sitting a test.

The amnesty was short-lived, but tens of thousands of provisional licence-holders benefited. The amnesty is regarded as one of the worst policies in recent political history. As a result, Green Party deputy leader Mary White is insists that her "restricted" or "tiered" licence system is nothing like Mr Barrett’s amnesty.

For a whole variety of reasons, she says, thousands of people living in rural communities either do not drive or do not hold a full licence.

The former group faces the problem of being unable to access family, friends, or local services. The latter could face it from July next, when the exception whereby holders of second provisional licences can drive unaccompanied will be no more. All provisional holders will have to be accompanied by a full licence-holder.

Ms White wants to make it easier for both categories to drive around their local communities. She believes that many of those involved — particularly the elderly — wish only to access shops, schools, the church, the post office or nearby relatives.

She is therefore proposing a restricted licence, holders of which would be allowed drive only within their local area and only at certain speeds.

Currently, to obtain a full licence, a motorist needs to pass both a driver theory test and a practical driving test.

Under Ms White’s proposals, a motorist would still have to pass both to obtain a restricted licence.

However, the practical driving test for restricted licences would also be "restricted" — essentially to knowledge of local roads and driving conditions — and therefore be an "easier" test.

Ms White’s goal is unquestionably well-intentioned — she wants to reduce rural isolation and the situation whereby persons without a car are "condemned to be rural hermits".

Her argument is that, in rural communities, an older person wishing to drive just a half mile to the shops, or a parent wishing to collect his or her children from the local school, should not need to undergo the rigours of the full practical driving test.

Provided they agree to drive only within their community, and within certain speeds, a restricted test should do, she says.

But the word "easier" is where the political difficulties will surely lie. City drivers will argue they should not be obliged to sit a more difficult test than their rural counterparts — even if the holders of restricted licences would be limited in where they could drive.

And the Government, amid continuing criticism of its efforts to reduce the number of fatalities on the roads, is unlikely to open itself to further attack by allowing for an easier test.

None of this is deterring Ms White, however. She believes that a restricted licence system makes perfect sense in rural Ireland, given the lack of public transport. With the blessing of her party, she has made a submission to Transport Minister Noel Dempsey, and says she will be "pushing hard" on the issue.

"What do you do in rural Ireland if there is no bus or train, and the hackney is an expensive option?" she asks.

"This tiered licence could enable thousands of people, who [would] have sat a restricted test, to access local services in their area. It is a winner."

In her submission to the minister, Ms White cites the success of tiered driving licence systems in a number of countries as examples of how such a system could work here.

New Zealand, for instance, operates a graduated driver licensing system involving three stages: a learner licence, a restricted licence, and a full licence.

To obtain a restricted licence, a motorist must pass a practical driving test, but one easier than for the full licence.

Restricted licence holders must abide by a number of conditions, one of which is that he or she cannot drive unaccompanied between 10pm and 5am. "Between these times [a restricted licence holder] must have a supervisor in the front passenger seat who holds a full New Zealand car licence, and has held it for at least two years," the New Zealand government states. Similarly, restricted licence holders can only carry as passengers their husbands, wives, children or relatives who live with them.

Ms White believes similar conditions could be attached to a restricted licence system here.

"It works in other jurisdictions and if the drivers had an ‘R’ for ‘restricted’ or ‘RL’ for ‘restricted licence’ on the rear window, people would know the category of driver," she says.

"In rural Ireland in many areas there is no public transport. People without a car are condemned to be rural hermits. This is a solution, not an amnesty."

But it remains to be seen whether the minister and his officials will agree.