Frustration over long waits for licence tests as demand skyrockets

Full driver's licence.
Full driver's licence. Photo credit: Newshub

By Maia Ingoe of RNZ

Demand for practical driver licence tests has skyrocketed since re-sit fees were scrapped last October, and prospective drivers are struggling to book a test.

Records from NZTA Waka Kotahi, provided through the Official Information Act, show people living in the worst-affected areas were waiting more than four months to sit a full or restricted licence test.

And the very thing designed to make it easier to get a licence appeared to be now having the opposite effect.

Lives on hold

For more than six months, 20-year-old Jamie Clumpas has been trying to book a test for a full licence during trips home to Auckland in university breaks.

"It's impossible. I can't find anything at all a lot of the time when I go to look, and then when something does occasionally pop up, it's usually on the other side of Auckland, and months away," he said.

He said being unable to get a licence was affecting his job options.

"A lot of jobs that I want to do, require me to have a driver's licence. It's very frustrating then, to almost have my hands tied behind my back, because it's actively getting in the way of me getting jobs, applying for work that I want to do," he said.

"My local area is the North Shore, and there's four VTNZs here, and anytime I go on the site, I can't find anything. It's not even that they're a while away or inconvenient times, most of the time when I go and look, there is literally nothing."

Yvonne Hook's daughter took a defensive driving course, which carves six months off the restricted licence period - only to find the testing centres in her area in Auckland were entirely booked out for months.

They decided to book a test in Cambridge at a sooner date instead.

"The fact that we had to spend the money to go out of Auckland for her to sit the test is just ridiculous. Not everyone can afford to do that - time of work, petrol and everything - and why should we have to do that just so our child can get her full licence?" she said.

"The impact of her not being able to drive is that after 10 o'clock, we have to go and pick her up from the bus station, which is a half an hour drive from our house, quite late at night, to pick her up and bring her home. Whereas if she was able to sit her test, she'd be able to drive herself."

Rod Walker said his granddaughter waited three months to get a test.

"It's frustrating for the parents and the grandparents alike, and for whoever teaching them, and the trainee or the person who's gonna sit a licence as well. In some cases it probably puts children's life on hold for a little while because they just can't do the things they want to do."

Four-month waits

Extra costs to re-sit driver's tests were scrapped by the last government eight months ago, reducing the cost to re-sit a full licence test by about $70, and by more than $50 to re-sit a restricted.

The extra cost to re-sit was seen as a barrier to getting a licence - but now long wait-times are the barrier.

In February and March 2023, it took just 11 days to get a test, but during the same period this year, the average waiting time for a full licence test has rocketed to about 49 days.

Since December, the national monthly average wait time has topped 40 days, each month.

Restricted licence tests are even worse - at or above 55 days wait for every month since February.

During the same period last year, the longest monthly wait time for a restricted was 15 days.

As recently as September, the month before re-sit fees were scrapped, the national average wait times for a full licence test was nine days - after October, it began climbing.

Drivers in South Auckland and Canterbury wait the longest for full licence tests at averages of 57 days and 54 days respectively, while wait times in Hastings and Taranaki were slightly less, at an average of 29 days.

NZ Institute of Driving Educators president Mark Revill-Johnson said the problem was that people were treating tests like a trail run.

"Since the removal of re-sit fees, more and more people are coming back who've previously failed. The demand on the system has increased, and because resits are free, people are sometimes not turning up, and turning up unprepared."

Fees to re-sit back on the table

In a statement, Minister for Transport Simeon Brown said the problem was being addressed, with 26 extra testing officers hired since December, taking the total to nearly 200.

Additional theory test sites have been set up, hours for testing officers extended, and two more training courses for testing officers have been set up.

The Ministry was looking at further options to address the problem, one of which could be to reintroduce the re-sit fee.

Revill-Johnson said the fee is having an impact, but having access to drivers licences is still important - instead, he suggested funding driving lessons.

"If you fund the lessons, then the natural outcome is you get better prepared people, better prepared people pass tests easier, they also turn up for them because they feel confident. And the overall ongoing road safety benefit then is that you have safer drivers out on the road after a test."

But that was of little comfort in the short-term for prospective drivers who continue waiting weeks or months to sit their test.