Perverse incentives reward those who drive around for years without a full licence

Lackadaisical approach to unaccompanied learner drivers adopted by the Government seems to indicate a general acceptance of the practice

The news that almost 6,500 people booked and paid for a driving test but didn’t show up to take it is just the latest example of the absurdity at the heart of the provisional licence system. There are of course plenty of reasons why someone would pay for a test and decide not to take it, but one of them jumps out: to get another provisional licence.

We don’t know how many of the 2023 no-shows fell into this category, but we do know that as many as 30,000 people who are on their third or subsequent provisional licence have never sat a test, and some people have been driving around for more than 30 years on a provisional.

Under the letter of the law, you can renew your first provisional licence once by just applying. After that you need to show evidence of having sat and failed a test. In practice, merely a booking for a test is accepted. Given the waiting lists for the driving test, this sort of discretion is understandable. In truth, most people sit the test because they want to obtain a full licence.

But it has created a loophole through which thousands of people, for whatever reason, choose to step through. They would appear to have no real interest in getting a full licence – or just can’t be bothered.


On the face of it, this seems a little hard to understand. Who wants to spend 30 years driving around with a qualified motorist in the passenger seat; one of the stipulations for driving on a provisional licence? Likewise, who wants to drive around with learner plates and have to stay off the motorway?

Graphic by Paul Scott

The answer to this question is of course nobody. A very significant number of people driving around on provisional licences are doing none of the above. Why? Because they can.

The first reason why this makes sense is that penalties for unaccompanied driving are relatively light – certainly for first offenders. It is a fine of €160 and two penalty points on your licence. If you get more than seven penalty points in three years you are automatically disqualified for six months. So, if you pay your fine and take the points, you can afford to be caught driving on your own with a provisional licence once a year. Not bad odds.

Insurance companies are understandably reluctant to say it, but if you are driving unaccompanied on a provisional licence and get into an accident, you are still insured

If you don’t pay the fines, then it gets more serious. The fine fees go up and you can be taken to court. Gardaí have the power to impound your car, but getting it released from being impounded costs €125 plus €35 per day.

Driving without a licence of any sort – your other option if you don’t sit a test – carries a fine of €2,000, so going through the charade of booking tests and renewing your provisional has a certain financial logic from this perspective.

But the real incentive for gaming the system by constantly renewing your provisional licence is to obtain insurance. Driving without insurance carries severe penalties; a fine of up to €5,000 and five penalty points, plus the possibility for going to jail for six months.

This is perhaps the biggest loophole of all. Insurance companies are understandably reluctant to say it, but if you are driving unaccompanied on a provisional licence and get into an accident, you are still insured.

This may seem a little counterintuitive, but driving unaccompanied on a provisional licence is, at the end of the day, just another traffic offence, such as speeding or driving under the influence. You are still insured – and for good reason.

The logic of the legal requirement for car insurance is third-party liability – ie, to cover any damage or injury you cause to others through your actions. It makes little sense to exclude reckless or illegal activities such as speeding from the cover.

And even if for some reason your cover was invalidated, the insurance companies, and their policy holders, pay anyway via the Motor Insurers Bureau of Ireland, which operates a fund to compensate people who experience a loss as a result of the actions of uninsured drivers.

The various motor insurance companies all pay into the fund, but ultimately the cost is passed back to policy holders via their premiums. According to the last set of accounts for the MIBI, the fund paid out more than €75 million in 2022.

While all the constituent elements of the process by which learner drivers are regulated and insured might make sense, when you put them together it creates a series of perverse incentives to not bother to get your full licence. And for a significant number of people, these incentives seem to trump the obvious advantages of getting a full licence.

Every complex system has, or is capable of, creating such anomalies, and they are often – as is the case with unaccompanied provisional drivers – baked into the societal costs via insurance. Indeed, the rather lackadaisical approach adopted to unaccompanied learner drivers adopted by the Government seems to indicate a general acceptance of the practice. Conversations about the topic generally involve a bit of eye-rolling and the Father Ted-style equivocation that greets most uncomfortable truths.

The problem behind it all of course is that unaccompanied learner drivers kill and injure people – including themselves.