New temporary centres will open this month to deal with Northern Ireland’s driving test backlog, Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon has said.
During ministerial question time, the Assembly heard about one case where a young man had passed his theory test in May, but the earliest practical test date he could book was in October.
Theory and practical tests were cancelled when lockdown was re-imposed in Northern Ireland on December 26 and reopened for priority groups in April, before reopening to all in May.
The DUP has consistently challenged the SDLP minister over the backlog, and has stated that more than 20,000 people are waiting for a practical test.
Last week, the new DUP chair of the Stormont Infrastructure Committee, Jonathan Buckley, said the backlog has “veered out of control”.
He added: “It is devastating for all young drivers but especially those young people who own a car, have insured and taxed it but have never been able to pass their test.
“On day one in the role of chair, I will be making this a priority and asking the committee to back a detailed inquiry into driving tests.”
Speaking at Stormont on Tuesday, Ms Mallon detailed the efforts taken by the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) to address the issue.
She said: “The DVA has made additional test slots available between now and the end of August, and bookings for September and October have also been released to accommodate more learners.
“Since the reopening of services, up to May 31, the DVA has conducted over 6,700 driving tests, of which 5,500 were category B private car driving tests.
“This is 35% over and above the normal monthly average.”
The minister added: “The DVA has identified four additional departmental buildings in Belfast, Coleraine, Cookstown and Omagh which can be used as temporary driving test centres if they are needed in the local area, and there is sufficient driving examiner capacity.
“Arrangements are being finalised and the DVA anticipate that those temporary test centres at Cookstown and Omagh will open for appointments later this month.”
She added: “The DVA also continues to offer driving tests on a Saturday, and at certain centres on Sundays.
“Overtime will also be used to provide further capacity.
“All driving test services across these islands are experiencing high demands with longer than usual waiting times.”
Sinn Fein MLA Emma Sheerin said: “This is one of the issues since the beginning of the pandemic that I have received most correspondence about. There is a lot of frustration.”
The MLA said that she had been contacted at the end of May by a parent whose son had passed his theory test, but the soonest slot available for the practical test was in October.
UUP MLA Roy Beggs asked: “Given the level of the current backlog and that new students will be completing their theory tests, what has been the estimation of how long it will take before a more normal waiting time will be there for someone applying for a test?”
In response, Ms Mallon stated: “It is very difficult to estimate precisely the volume because we don’t know when people pass their theory test when they will be going for their practical driving test.”
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