The eternal signs of summer in Northern Ireland: marching disputes, incessant rain, and frustrating delays at your local MoT centre. Last week the Belfast Telegraph revealed that once again a backlog is building up in the system for vehicle safety inspections. Delays have become a fixture in this essential service, and it's important to stop that.
The Department of Environment says that 85% of motorists seeking an MoT test should get a date within 21 days of their application. The reality is that most test centres currently cannot offer tests within that time, and a significant proportion are telling drivers that they must wait until September.
These delays mean considerably more than a test of public patience. MoT tests are required by law, for the simple reason that they are the best way to ensure vehicles taking to the road are as safe as they can be. The tests may sometimes seem stringent, but they routinely turn up faults that, if not addressed, could easily become fatal. The death toll on our roads
is already severe. How much worse would it be if cars were not subjected to regular inspections?
The Government considers the MoT so important that they have been introducing a measure to police the system better. Inspected cars are being required to display certificates, similar to tax discs, to prove they are roadworthy and legal.
But with the other hand, the delays are undermining that safeguard. Proof of a valid MoT is worth a little less when a section of the motoring public can say that their discs have expired — through no fault of their own — simply because they can't get an ap
pointment in time. There are remedies. The DoE says it is hiring 40 more inspectors, and will begin Sunday inspections to help alleviate the problem. Existing inspectors are already working overtime.
Getting the inspectors to work harder is not a long- term solution. Their managers could and should do more.
First of all, it seems reasonable that in the age of information technology, it should be possible to forecast peak demands. If the holiday season is the problem — in that fewer staff are available to conduct inspections — the DoE could stagger first ap
pointments so more are carried out in the spring or autumn.
Appointment delays are a repeat problem. To leave that problem unresolved would strengthen the argument that we should switch to the sort of system used in England, where private garages conduct the tests and carry out any necessary repairs.
That would be a retrograde step. While the private sector has a history of running many things more successfully than government, the English system is too open to abuse. Drivers can be ripped off by being required to make unnecessary repairs.
We have an inspection system that is independent of the repair process. It's important to keep that, so let's get obvious problems repaired.
Would the MoT system pass the sort of rigorous test our cars are subjected to? In most respects, yes, but the booking system is showing worrying signs of rust. Environment Minister Sammy Wilson would have to book a re-test — providing he could get an appointment.