Drivers are facing waiting times of up to two months to book an MOT anywhere in Northern Ireland, the News Letter can reveal.
And despite the backlog, the Department of Infrastructure at Stormont has said motorists are still committing an offence if they drive a car without a test certificate.
The blame for the waiting lists is being pinned on what the department described as an “unprecedented” increase in demand at all 15 of Northern Ireland’s MOT test centres.
Around 15,000 extra vehicle tests were booked during the first three months of 2019, a spokesman said.
One local businessman, Martin Hamill of Premier Cars NI, urged the department to “get your finger out” and solve the problem.
“It’s affecting my business,” he added. “I’ve got cars sold that I can’t give to customers because they have no MOT.”
On the MOT booking website, the first available appointment the News Letter could find yesterday afternoon for a private car test anywhere in Northern Ireland was July 15 in Enniskillen – nearly seven weeks away.
Every single test centre is fully booked until then, with some centres booked up until the end of July.
A spokesman for the Department of Infrastructure said extra staff are being hired.
But the solution employed back in 2004 during a major inspections backlog caused by industrial action – issuing temporary certificates to allow motorists to continue to use their vehicles – appears to have been ruled out.
Asked by the News Letter whether any consideration is being given to issuing some form of exemption for drivers caught up in the backlog, the department simply said it is “generally an offence” to use a vehicle without a test certificate unless it is being taken to or from either a “place of repair” or a testing centre.
Another local businessman, Terry McWilliams of McWilliams Car Sales in Craigavon, said his employees are spending at least an hour on the phone every day to find appointments.
“I am having to get them to spend an hour to an hour-and-a-half on the phone looking for a cancellation every day,” he said. “That’s time that could be spent doing other work.
“My big problem is that if you have a car and someone is buying it, and it only has four or five months MOT, they want to buy that car with a full year’s MOT.
“My cars are sitting ready to go but I just can’t get them tested.”
Mr Hamill said: “We have our own workshop and my customers are coming in and saying ‘my car is due for the MOT before the end of June’ and I’m having to tell them there’s no way we can get them in before the end of June.
“The earliest I’m getting at the minute is the 22nd of July. So it’s not only my car sales, it’s my returning customers. I’m unable to facilitate them and there’s nothing I can do.
“At this present time I have 16 cars up on my board and another seven still to write up that I can’t get booked in for a test.”
He urged the department to consider issuing a certificate of exemption for vehicles awaiting a test.
“The last time there was a big backlog like this they printed out exemption certificates,” he pointed out. “But because Stormont’s not sitting I think they can’t do that.
“It’s not fair for people who are doing everything right, they’re booking their test as much as a month in advance, and they still won’t be able to drive it because they can’t book the test.”
Asked what message he would give the Department of Infrastructure, he said: “Get your finger out. I’m not being funny. They need to get it sorted.”
A spokesperson for the department said: “The main factor that has given rise to the current increase in MOT booking times has been the unprecedented increase in applications for tests. The volume of applications between January and March of this year has increased by 4.8% when compared to last year – that’s almost an additional 15,000 tests in the first three months of this year.”
Asked what action it is taking, the department said: “In response to the recent increase in demand for vehicle tests, a number of measures have been taken to increase capacity, including the recruitment of additional staff, both permanent and temporary, and opening on the Bank Holiday Mondays in May. Urgent consideration is being given to the possibility of opening on Sundays for a limited period of time to address the current backlog in applications.
“In the longer term, a new additional Belfast test centre, located at Hydebank, is at an advanced stage of development and will be built by the end of 2021.”