On a close, overcast Tuesday morning, a despondent Cathal Carthy stands outside the Raheny Driving Test Centre. He has just failed his driving test. It’s his second time.
When he took the test the first time, two years ago here at Raheny, he says he shouldn’t have passed, but this time, this time, he felt he was close. “It was really touch and go.”
He completed the Essential Driver Training (EDT) course, a mandatory 12-lesson programme introduced by the Road Safety Authority (RSA) in April 2011.
He says it cost him about €35 a lesson, but that he’s done “loads more” on top of that. Frustratingly, though, he knows people who have passed without having had any lessons.
Does he feel you should have a better chance at passing, having done EDT? Yes. “If you do the 12 lessons, because they’re mandatory, you should be given a better opportunity to pass than the fella who hasn’t.”
The RSA recently released its driving-test pass rate figures for 2014. Once again, they don’t make for good reading.
Statistically, the chances of hopefuls passing were marginally better than fifty-fifty. Of the 106,989 people who sat the test last year, just over 53 percent passed.
This was down from 2013, which saw 55.27 percent pass, which was down from 2012, when just over 56 percent made the grade.
There’s nothing unusual in the figures themselves. Since 2010, the national average pass rate has been 54 percent.
What is unusual, strange even, is that the falling trend of pass rates in recent years comes on the back of the RSA’s introduction of the 12 mandatory lessons in EDT.
If you had a learner’s permit issued before 4 April 2011, you could and still can rock up to your driving test without having done a single lesson. But from that date on, all other learner drivers must complete the Essential Driver Training course.
The 12 one-hour lessons are done with an Approved Driving Instructor (ADI), who records the pupil’s progress in a specially issued logbook.
According to the RSA, you should also have a sponsor: an experienced driver, who can supervise your driving practice outside of lessons. Pupils are encouraged to “practice with your sponsor as much as possible to get comfortable behind the wheel.”
The reason for introducing EDT was not to improve test results, according to the RSA website, but rather to improve road safety. However, it says that even if you’re not required to complete EDT, you may still choose to take the course “as it can help increase your chances of passing the driving test.”
This sounds awfully familiar to those ads that tell you that eating a bowl of our cereal can help lower your cholesterol.
Going on pass rates since the introduction of EDT, there’s a lack of evidence to suggest this is the case.
Testing the Testers
Even if it wasn’t designed to improve test results, by its mandatory, universal nature, the EDT should have brought uniformity to the huge disparity in pass rates between test centres. Shouldn’t it?
The poor consistency of driver testing was highlighted by a 2010 Comptroller Auditor General report.
It compared RSA test centres with those of Swiss company SGS, which had been hired by the government between 2006 and 2009 to reduce waiting lists.
Over the period, the national average pass rate for drivers tested by the RSA was 49 percent, which compared to 62 percent with SGS.
Average pass rates between test centres varied from 39 to 60 percent with the RSA and 51 to 77 percent with SGS.
The report also found that some testers consistently passed or failed significantly more candidates than other testers working in the same centres.
It was noted in the report that “the required level of supervision of RSA testers [which was one supervised test per month for each tester] has not been achieved in recent years.”
Some of the then recent measures that had been taken by the RSA, the report said, had the potential to address variations in pass rates. These included the publication of the standard procedures and guidelines of the test, publication of up-to-date Rules of the Road, and “the introduction of an Approved Driving Instructor Scheme.”
Five years on, pass rates haven’t much improved and variations in results between test centres are wider now than they were.
Last year, the Carlow test centre had the lowest average pass rate in the country at 42.79 percent. Sligo had the highest at 68.54 percent.
The four Dublin test centres of Tallaght, Finglas, Rathgar and Raheny are continually among the lowest ranked in terms of pass rates in the country.
Rathgar, with an average pass rate of 41 percent since 2010, is bottom of the pile.
Raheny, though, with an average of 43 percent over the same period, is never far away. It was tied for lowest with Rathgar in 2010 and lowest in 2012.
Pass rates have almost flat-lined despite changes to the driving testing regime.
Back at Test Centre
A few minutes behind Carthy, another one bites the dust. Adam has just come out from the centre and he too has failed. It was his first time.
“I thought it went well,” he says. “I was nervous, but I thought it went well.”
He cut a junction too close and clipped a wheel on a small roundabout. The instructors, he feels, could be more lenient.
He also did EDT, which he feels helped him. The 12 lessons cost him €290. This is a little under the average of €300, but prices range from €280 up to €370.
Adam says he won’t be buying any more for when he re-sits the test.
Next out of the test centre is Christine Legrange. She too failed; it was her second time. She failed on observation.
Legrange got her learner’s permit before 4 April 2011 so she didn’t need to do EDT. She did a few lessons with Instructor Ian Daly prior to the test, and will definitely be doing more before she re-sits it.
The morning before, I meet John Healy coming out from his test. He failed. It was his seventh time.
His permit was also issued before 2011, so he didn’t have to do the mandatory 12 lessons. He says he doesn’t drive that much, but still felt he should have passed.
“It’s petty what they fail you on,” he says.
The next time, he says, he’ll take his test in Monaghan, where he thinks he’ll have a better chance of success.
He may have a point. Monaghan’s pass rate for last year was 58.4 percent.
Half an hour after I spoke with Healy, Sharon Hutton emerges from the test centre smiling brightly, having passed her driving test. It’s her third time taking the test.
Like Healy and Legrange, she didn’t need to do the EDT. She did five lessons with instructor Thomas Howard and says she owes all her success to him.
Howard is there to greet and congratulate her.
Howards admits he didn’t know whether Healy would pass, but he knows the people who’ll fail.
For him, there is no conspiracy.
“The testers genuinely want you to pass,” he says. “If you’re good enough to pass, you’ll pass.”
He says the 12 lessons of EDT, while a good start, are not enough.
Practice is needed in conjunction with the lessons and if people don’t have access to a car outside of the lessons with an instructor, they can’t get that practice, he says. But once they complete the 12 lessons, they’re eligible to take the test, regardless of how ready they are.
Karl Walsh, general manager of the Irish School of Motoring (ISM), couldn’t agree more.
“The people who fail the driving test, it’s very simple, they’re not prepared for it. It’s perfectly possible to pass a driving test if you’re prepared for it,” he says.
“People think, after 12 hours [of EDT] I can do my test. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says.
Pupils need to practice, a recommended three hours for each lesson, with supervised driving throughout that, he says, “but the problem is with insurance and all the rest not everybody is a named driver on the parents’ policies, so a lot of people in that cohort who have to do 12 lessons, they can’t practice.”
The Minimum Becomes the Maximum
Walsh has been in the business 26 years and says that the majority of beginners before EDT went for a package of 10 lessons. Very often, he says, they opted for more lessons after the ten.
Whereas “nowadays, if you say to someone after the twelfth hour, you need more hours, and most of the time that is the case, they’ll say, “But, hang on, I only have to do twelve.”’
“So, the 12 lessons can be a negative, can actually stop people from doing more training hours with a qualified ADI.”
As he sees it, people are doing less driving lessons than they did before.
This is one of the reasons why Walsh doesn’t believe the EDT programme should have an effect on pass rates.
He takes issue with effectiveness of a couple of the modules themselves. In particular, Lesson 12: night driving.
“It doesn’t get dark in June and July till half ten at night,” he says. “How can you cover for people doing lessons during those months? You can’t. It’s impossible.”
The instructor has to cover it in theory, he says. “You inform the pupil of the pitfalls and dangers of night-time driving.”
Time to Raise the Bar?
Walsh would like to see the programme better structured and extended to 20 hours. He doesn’t believe the argument that people wouldn’t be able to afford the twenty hours.
“When they brought the EDT in at the height of the recession, there was a few people saying, ‘Another expense on people.’ Not the case,” he says, “it’s road safety at the end of the day.”
When the EDT was introduced, the number of lessons you needed went from zero to 12, he says. “People still did it,” he says.
“The 12 hours goes a long way, but it’s not enough,” he says. “It’s not enough to teach someone road safety. You certainly can’t teach someone proficiently and competently for the rest of their lives in 12 hours.”
He may have a point, but at current prices, his proposal of a mandatory twenty EDT lessons would come in around €600. That’d be more money than some of his students would have paid for their cars.
The RSA didn’t respond to queries about the EDT and pass rates before deadline.