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The Ontario government will turn driver examinations over to private companies as part of a general plan to privatize its assets and services, Transport Minister Brad Clark said yesterday.

The goal of privatizing driver examinations is to provide more convenient locations and hours for the testing, Mr. Clark told reporters at Queen's Park after introducing legislation to allow the change.

For several years, the Transportation Ministry has been attacked over testing backlogs that can extend for several months. They have increased since the province introduced graduated licencing, which requires at least two tests for those seeking a full licence.

No timetable for the shift has been set, Mr. Clark said.

When the change is made, he predicted, "We're confident that we will be able to go through the system and get our waiting times down to six weeks or less."

He said private firms will have more flexibility in administering tests. "The private sector can provide longer hours of service, they can open their office at different hours than what we can do now with the collective agreements."

Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty said his party will accept the legislation if it can do away with the delays in administering driving tests.

"Just on the basis of the experience in my constituency [Ottawa South] we've had many, many complaints about the length of time that it took to get a test, about the way that people had been dealt with at the licence bureau."

He added, "What we're looking for is substantive improvement. . . . It couldn't get worse."

Mr. Clark also promised that private operators will not be able to abuse the confidential information about driver licencing to which they will have access.

The private-sector operators will have to have a privacy officer who will answer to the ministry and be responsible for ensuring confidentiality is not breached.

There will be no increases in fees, Mr. Clark said.

At present the first stage of a graduated licence costs $100, including $10 for a knowledge test, $40 for a road test and $50 for a licence. The second stage, to obtain the full licence, requires another road test for $75.

The government has 53 driver-examination centres around the province and another 37 testing locations in remote areas.