Learner drivers: Delays, backlogs, and exorbitant costs

Learner drivers in Ireland face massive costs at the best of times, but the pandemic has delayed lessons and tests, with almost 65,000 people waiting to sit their driving test 
Learner drivers: Delays, backlogs, and exorbitant costs

Kate Dunlea, Blarney, Co Cork, waited 17-months for a driving test appointment. Picture: Larry Cummins

Learning to drive has long been a rite of passage for young people in Ireland.

It has been linked with maturing, being more responsible and giving people more freedoms as the gap from teen to adult is closed.

But like most aspects of society, the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the driving industry hard.

Due to the nature of learning to drive or sitting a test and being in a small enclosed space, it forced many would-be drivers to put the brakes on their motoring education.

The pandemic has caused delays and backlogs in the queues for people waiting to sit both the driving test and the theory test.

Figures from May showed that more than 200,000 people were waiting to sit either the driving test or the theory test.

The data showed that 101,000 people were waiting to sit their driving test, with a further 105,000 waiting to sit their theory test a little under two months ago.

One would-be driver told the Irish Examiner that she was due to sit a test in March 2020, but only ending up sitting it in July 2021.

Up to May, only essential workers were eligible to sit their test, and the RSA are still prioritising them.

However, some non-essential workers are being invited to sit the test, since the end of May.

As of June 20, 64,679 people are waiting for an invite to sit their test while 9,529 people have a test scheduled “for the coming weeks”.

The RSA said that ‘non-essential’ candidates “are being invited based on the length of time they have been waiting for a test. Those waiting the longest will be invited first”.

One of the measures that the RSA has taken to tackle the waiting lists is the introduction of additional testers while also starting an online theory test programme, allowing 6,000 people to sit the test per month.

However, problems such as cross-platform compatibility have arisen. Applicants must have access to a Windows PC running Windows 8 or above to sit the test, meaning those using a phone, tablet or Mac will all be excluded from the test.

Currently, 100,000 customers are booked in for a driver theory test between now and September.

The RSA said it will be able to deliver 50,000 theory tests per month once services resume fully.

 Driving instructor Darren Mullane of Mullane School of Motoring said that he was “getting a bit of aggravation” from clients “that felt because they paid for their driving lessons that should be entitled to four or five driving lessons a week.”
 Driving instructor Darren Mullane of Mullane School of Motoring said that he was “getting a bit of aggravation” from clients “that felt because they paid for their driving lessons that should be entitled to four or five driving lessons a week.”

Fresh backlog

However, one driving instructor said this might lead to another jam.

Darren Mullane has been a driving instructor in Cork since 2006 and from his experience, a backlog on lessons is going to become an issue.

He told the Irish Examiner that he thinks there will be more of a backlog with lessons than tests in the next 12 months.

“Everyone is demanding lessons,” he said.

“I have parents ringing me saying my kid didn’t get a lesson in 12 months, he needs five lessons next week.” 

Mr Mullane said that it would be hard for him to allocate five hours of his time to just one person in one week.

“If you got onto the RSA and booked a driving test and you got a date for a week or two. You probably wouldn’t find someone to give you a lesson.” 

Mr Mullane said that a lot of instructors are starting with clients who were on their books pre-Covid.

He added that he has stopped selling packages of 12 lessons to potential clients due in part to the backlog and the increased demand of people looking for lessons.

He said another reason he stopped was that he was “getting a bit of aggravation” from clients “that felt because they paid for their driving lessons that should be entitled to four or five driving lessons a week.”

He found that he was taking phone calls from people at 11pm at night from people looking for lessons.

“I’m telling people now, a lesson every two weeks.” He said that only essential workers can sit their test at the moment, and he has found that those people are getting tests quicker than they can get a lesson.

Mr Mullane said one of the reasons for this is the aforementioned additional testers hired by the RSA.

The RSA said that of the 40 additional testers, 19 commenced testing on June 8 while a further 22 will start from mid-July.

Essential workers are being prioritised for the test and they can apply for an early driving test appointment.

Mr Mullane said that he had a client apply for a test on June 21 and they had a confirmed test date for July 1.

He felt putting the theory test online was the right way to go but he had some reservations, stating that he was concerned that someone might have assistance.

“But to be honest about it, the theory test is relatively basic anyway, but definitely you do need to know the basic rules of the road before you take to the road.” 

He added that the RSA were doing all they can to clear the backlog.

He said with the authority adding more testers and opening pop up centres, the RSA are doing “everything in their power” to clear the backlog.

Mr Mullane said that after Covid first hit and he returned to giving lessons, he could only teach essential workers who had a confirmed test date.

“That would have been about 10% of my clients.” At that time, he was doing as little as three or four lessons a week.

He said that he took “a massive knock” when Covid first cancelled driving tests adding that only for pandemic payments he “would have been wiped out”.

No respite from insurance costs

While Covid has played havoc with waiting times, the expense has stayed the same.

Insurance for a learner driver, even under a named driver, can still be quite high and in some cases can cost up to €3,000.

Daragh Cassidy, of insurance comparison site Bonkers.ie, said some people would have been hoping to see a reduction when Covid restrictions came in.

“A lot of people were hoping to see maybe a decrease because with obviously fewer people being on the roads, there would have been fewer car accidents and so on.” 

He added: “I wouldn’t say that Covid has necessarily had an impact on car insurance much either way.” 

Mr Cassidy said that any impact would have been just on premiums.

“Some insurers, obviously give rebates to some customers last year because they weren’t actually on the road, but unfortunately the overall cost hasn’t come down that much.” 

He said the issues facing younger car drivers are the same that they’ve always faced, on top of any Covid-related issues.

"When you’re starting to drive for the first time, typically if you’re under the age of 25, you don’t have a no claims bonus, you don’t have a driving record, so you can still be hit unfortunately with really high premiums in the first few years.”

Some insurers, Mr Cassidy added, are working on ways around that by offering extras such as monitoring driver behaviour.

A number of insurers are jumping on board with telematics, which involves “tracking a combination of on-board diagnostics such as a car's acceleration, location, time of use, average speed and various other metrics so that insurers can analyse how safely you drive.

“It works by fitting a telematics box to the car in question, and importantly for newer drivers can significantly help in reducing premiums,” Mr Cassidy said.

Daragh Cassidy said the issues facing younger car drivers are the same that they’ve always faced, on top of any Covid-related issues. Picture: Larry Cummins
Daragh Cassidy said the issues facing younger car drivers are the same that they’ve always faced, on top of any Covid-related issues. Picture: Larry Cummins

He added that some have raised concerns around data protection, but said you have to ask what you want more.

"Are you worried about them knowing about your driving habits and having data on you, or are you more concerned about lower premiums?”

In terms of the backlog of people waiting to sit the driving test, Mr Cassidy pointed out that driving on any type of provisional license "is going to severely impact your yearly premium as well”.

The Government has really “clamped down” on people driving without a full license or without being supervised and that this is “reflected in the premiums that people are being charged”.

“The backlog to people getting their driving test I think is really unfortunate and it will definitely hit people in the pocket quite hard.” 

He said people who don’t have a full license can be paying anywhere from 30% to 60% more on insurance.

How much?

The actual cost of insurance depends on a number of issues.

“It could be anywhere from, maybe you know €800 or €900, to maybe two or three grand.

“It can sometimes depend on the car that you’re driving, it can depend on where you live.” 

Asking how much the average insurance for a learner driver is can be like asking how long is a piece of string.

Mr Cassidy said anyone looking to buy a car should research what the insurance might be.

“And don’t just look for a general cost, for let’s say a 25-year-old male. Look for the general cost for a 25-year-old male living in Dublin 8, driving a 1.4L Ford Ka. Get really, really specific”.

There is no point in buying a car only to find out that it’s going to cost you an arm and a leg to insure it, he added.

A rough quote sourced online at 123.ie priced comprehensive insurance for a 25-year-old young driver, driving a three-year-old 1.2L Ford Ka and living in the north side of Cork City at €953.36.

A search for a 2018 1.2L Ford Ka shows them priced for between €10,000 and €12,000 on online marketplace websites.

A 20-year old female on a learner permit driving a 1.6l Volkswagen Passat in Charleville could expect insurance costs of around €1,665.05.

If that person had a full license driving the same car, the price would fall to roughly €1,438.21.

A Passat can range from more than €21,000 for a 2018 model up to more than €37,000 for a one-year-old model.

For a 40-year-old male in West Cork, with a clean full license driving a brand new Opel Crosslander, his insurance would be around €336.

The price of a new Crosslander starts at around €23,250.

Taylor Armstrong: 'I can be independent'

20-year-old Taylor passed her test in May and said that while sitting it and taking lessons, she found the wearing of a mask difficult.

“With the instructor that I got, I found it very hard to understand her with the mask on.” She added that for people who have to wear glasses while driving, that could be frustrating as they can fog up from the mask.

Taylor Armstrong: A full license "opens up more opportunities for different jobs in the future". Picture: Denis Minihane
Taylor Armstrong: A full license "opens up more opportunities for different jobs in the future". Picture: Denis Minihane

Taylor had completed her 12 lessons prior to Covid and had been sitting pre-lessons.

She feels that she was lucky as she got a fast test date through being an essential worker.

She applied for her test in April and sat her first test the following month.

After failing her first test, she got a second test four days later due to her essential worker status.

She said that she could avoid all the long waits thanks to her job in retail.

"Getting a full license has had a significant impact on me and has meant that I can be independent, have my own bit of freedom and it opens up more opportunities for different jobs in the future."

Kate Dunlea: 'I thought it was a bit close'

Kate, 23, was not so lucky with the wait for her driving test.

She started learning to drive in 2019 and completed her 12 lessons in February 2020, right before Covid hit.

“I got my first test, I was supposed to take that on the 19 of March, 2020, and then that got cancelled.

“That was cancelled due to Covid.” 

Kate, who wasn’t an essential worker, did not get another test date until July 25.

However, she had to cancel that as she was outside the county and had no way of getting back in time.

“And then I was waiting ages. I thought I’d be called in about August.

“But the next test that I could get was February 2021. And that was cancelled due to Covid.” 

Thankfully, Kate got a call and has a test date for July, 17 months after she had first hoped to sit her test.

Kate said that luckily, she was driving her mother’s car and under a named driver, but insurance is still a huge cost for her.

Most of her practice for the test has been done with a family member, but she said getting an official lesson with Covid protocols in place was strange.

“It was weird that you were allowed to sit that close to someone, right next to you in the passenger seat, and I thought it was a bit close.” 

Learner driver, Kate Dunlea from  Blarney, Co Cork, was due to take her first test on March 19, 2020, which was cancelled due to Covid-19. She now has a rescheduled test date 17 months after she first hoped to sit her test. Picture: Larry Cummins
Learner driver, Kate Dunlea from  Blarney, Co Cork, was due to take her first test on March 19, 2020, which was cancelled due to Covid-19. She now has a rescheduled test date 17 months after she first hoped to sit her test. Picture: Larry Cummins

When the controversial amnesty of 1979 was mentioned – when 60,000 people were granted a full driving licence without sitting a driving test due to a large backlog of applicants – Kate joked that she wished she could get the same.

“Times are so different now.” 

She said that by getting a full license she would finally get “what I’ve worked hard for, for a year and a half.” 

Kate added that a full license would give her “the independence and ability to go places without having to ask for a lift. The parents need their break!” She said that it will also give her more options and opportunities in terms of work in the future.

“As of right now, it gives me the ability to socialise in a much easier way with friends.” 

The numbers

According to the CSO’s latest Transport Omnibus in 2019, there were 3,047,912 Irish driving licences at the end of 2019 with 7.6% of those being learner permits.

186,379 driving tests were conducted in 2019 with an average pass rate of 53.9%.

Figures for the Department of Transport show that the total number of licensed (taxed) vehicles recorded on Irish roads at December 31, 2019 is 2,805,839.

Last year, 84,309 new private cars were licensed for the first time while 78,541 used cars licensed.

According to SIMI, there have been 63,867 car registrations in Ireland up to June of this year,, an increase of almost 21%.

In 2019, according to CSO stats, 24.3% of new cars registered cost between €30,001 and €40,000.

22.4% cost between €25,001 and €30,000.

As reported by the Irish Examiner last November, the average cost per policy was €676 in 2019, down from the average high of €714 in the second quarter of 2018. The figure is well above the average low of €431 at the end of 2013.

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