Belgium's driving examination centres have seen a spike in waiting times for practical tests as people rush to get on the roads like never before, in part caused by a reluctance to return to public transport.
The delays began when the coronavirus crisis and the consequent measures forced many examination centres to close during the two lockdown periods, according to Steven Raes, Manager of Driving Licences at GOCA Flanders.
"This meant that in 2020 we were unable to conduct exams for more than four months," Raes told The Brussels Times.
The backlog of tests was exacerbated by the recent influx of candidates for a category B driving licence, which allows people to drive a four-wheeled vehicle with an engine, "because many people preferred not to travel by public transport."
Further adding to the strain on the examination centres, Flemish legislation regarding learning periods changed at the start of the lockdown, going down from nine to three months. This made many candidates eligible to take their exams earlier than planned, which many were keen to do.
"This combination of factors lead to an increase in waiting times," Raes explained. With more people trying to sit their driving test and in less time, the number of tests being taken in the region increased by 40% once examination centres were open again.
"In the first six months of 2021, we already saw 20,959 more category B exams than in the whole of 2019. In 2019, 51,371 practical exams were booked, whilst there have been 72,330 practical exams taken at our centres so far in 2021," he added.
New examiners have been recruited to respond to the influx of tests booked, while active examiners gave up parts of their leave or worked on days off. Training courses were also postponed to make space for exams.
Even if there are no new closures due to lockdowns being imposed, Raes doesn't expect waiting times to return to normal levels until spring 2022.
As a result, the Flemish government has extended the validity of theory tests and provisional licenses several times to prevent them from expiring before a practical test can be taken.
Under the latest extension, theory tests and provisional driving licenses due to expire between 16 March 2020 and 30 September 2021 will now remain valid until 31 December 2021.
Those due to expire between 1 October and 31 December 2021 will now remain valid until 31 March 2022.
In consultation with the government, it was agreed that examination centres would prioritise candidates whose provisional driving licence is due to expire soon. This would mean that candidates whose provisional driving licences are valid for longer will have to wait a bit longer to sit their test.
Although Raes believes that extending validity periods should lead to a decrease in waiting times, he stressed that prospective candidates that wait until the last moment to book a test can prolong and increase the backlog.
The federal and Flemish mobility ministers Georges Gilkinet and Lydia Peeters have also urged candidates to book their tests as soon as they can to help decrease waiting times.
"We also ask candidates to come to their exam as prepared as possible since too many candidates (or those accompanying them) have arrived with incorrect documentation and have been unable to sit their test as a result," Raes explained.
He added that there are also many candidates who "come to try" the exam even if they are not yet ready. "This must also be avoided," Raes added.
When it comes to preparing for future lockdowns or pandemics, Raes explained that there is little the examination centres can do: "These are one-to-one exams and there are not many options in case of a new lockdown."
"We are constantly optimising and updating the schedule to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible, but every exam must be taken in a car," he explained.