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The great driver-licence give-away

County View

County View
John Healy

Readers of a younger vintage (to me, anyone under the age of 60!) would hardly be aware that there was a time when a driver had no need to pass a test before taking to the road. And most would know little of the bumpy, stuttering start to driver testing before we reached the streamlined system of today.
Up to St Patrick’s Day of 1964, all you needed to be issued with a full driver licence was to be over sixteen, fill out the form, sign your name, hand over a one pound note, and away you went. You could apply for a one-year or a five-year licence, at the expiry of which you simply re applied in the same way, and carried on as before.
The cut-off date was announced by the Government several months in advance, with predictable results. Every second man and woman in the country – many of whom never sat behind a wheel in their lives, and were unlikely ever to do so in the future – decided it was best to avail of the old system while they could, just to be sure. For weeks beforehand, queues would gather outside motor tax offices in order to beat the regulations. In the final week, over 10,000 people were issued with fully fledged driver licences.
Whether it was an error on the part of the Department to publicly announce the cut-off date, or (as some suspected) it was a ruse by the exchequer to raise much-needed revenue, opinion was divided. In any event, the cash flowed in and half the population overnight became fully accredited drivers, meaning in turn that it would be a couple of years before a new cohort of young adults would come along to undergo the new testing regime.
The first ever test was carried out on the day after St Patrick’s Day when the Minister for Local Government Neil Blaney, took the test at what was then the first and only operational test centre in Ireland, located in north Dublin. Blaney, who had been driving for 16 years, passed the one hour test “with flying colours” (you bet he did), and proclaimed that anyone who knew the rules of the road would pass without any difficulty.
Ten years later, the testing regime ran into a major problem when a prolonged postal strike meant that new applications for the test could not be submitted, nor could notifications of proposed tests be posted out. As the huge backlog of applications built up, the new minister, Sylvie Barrett, took a bold decision. He would declare an amnesty for all those who held a second provisional licence, and automatically issue them with full licences, without the need for a test. This amnesty elevated 25,000 to full status, in spite of a nationwide campaign of protest by driving school owners, who picketed every event at which the minister officiated.
Nor did that solve the problem. Some insurance companies then refused to reduce the premiums for ‘amnestied’ drivers on the grounds that they had not passed the test. When the aggrieved drivers then sought to do the test, in order to get around this difficulty, they were refused on the grounds that they now already held a full licence.
It took many years for the current driving test to evolve, a key change being the addition of the theory test in more recent times.
But the call to make it mandatory for the elderly – who had availed of the lax regulations of half a century ago – to take an advanced driving test never quite got official traction.