There was a time when being caught without a valid NCT involved a nod and a wink and a promise to get the car tested, but that has all changed. Since December 2014, driving without a valid certificate means a fixed charge penalty notice and three penalty points.
Figures show that over 47 per cent of cars failed their NCT in 2021, and the preliminary figures for 2022 were running at 48 per cent. Scary, but the NCT itself is not scary and even the least mechanically minded can follow our simple steps to prepare their car for the test.
1 - Know the dates
The NCT test is mandatory for cars more than three years old and cars aged between four- and ten-years old require testing every two years. Cars older than ten must undergo an annual test. With the average age of cars in the Irish fleet being 8.8 years it is likely your car will be tested every second year. Unlike Motor Tax however, National Car Testing Centres (NCTS) do not auto-notify you when your NCT is due to be renewed; you have to book the test yourself. This can be done up to 90 days before your certificate is due to expire - although see point 10 below for more info on the current delays to NCT tests.
It is also worth noting that there are certain circumstances, related to dates, when NCTS will provide a test for free. If a booking cannot be provided within a four-week period, your car will be tested free of charge (subject to certain terms and conditions) and, if NCTS cancels a prearranged booking without providing five days' notice, a new booking will be provided free of charge. Again, this seems more pertinent than ever given the issues with delays to NCT tests.
2 - Clean the car
This is more than just a case of removing road detritus out of courtesy, but ensuring that items to be tested are clean. So make sure the lights, windows, mirrors and registration plates in particular are clear and undamaged. If possible clean the underside of the car too - most brush washes offer this option.
You should also de-clutter the interior. Empty the boot and remove anything that is likely to get in the way of the tester - and that includes child seats. If they are present the tester is obliged to check they are fitted properly.
3 - Check your lights
Granted, some modern cars make life difficult then it comes to replacing bulbs, but rocking up to the NCT with blown lights is an instant failure so there really is no excuse. With the engine running, check all indicator bulbs, dipped and high-beam headlights, parking lights front and rear, lighting of the rear number plate, fog lights and even brake lights. Ask a friend to help with the latter or check them in the reflection of a window. If you don't know how to change a bulb the best bet is a friendly motor factors, who are most likely to do it for you without charging for their time.
Adjusting headlight alignment isn't particularly taxing either, all you need is a level surface and a flat wall/fence with some sort of horizontal lines that you can use as a guide. Not everyone will be confident enough to do the work themselves though so a five-minute visit to your local mechanic might be in order.
4 - Top up fluids
Check that all the fluids are topped up properly. That includes oil, engine coolant, brake fluid, power steering fluid and windscreen wash. Most of these are clearly labelled under the bonnet and easy to top up.
5 - Don't ignore warning signs
The majority of cars that fail the NCT do so because of suspension issues. You know that knocking or pulling to the left you have been ignoring? Time to get it sorted. Hopefully it is nothing more complicated than a CV joint and getting this addressed ahead of time will save you the inevitable €28 re-test fee.
Likewise, if there are any illuminated warning lights on the dashboard it is time to visit the mechanic. Warning lights for the likes of airbags are an instant failure while NCTS may not even conduct the test if the engine management light is showing.
6 - Inspect your tyres
Since April 2010, all cars presenting for an NCT must have 'E' stamped tyres. These have been certified to comply with EU and other international tyre safety certification standards. Due to this rule finding non 'E' stamped tyres in Ireland is difficult, but if you have purchased part-worn tyres they may have come from outside of the EU and therefore not be stamped.
Inspect your tyres for damage or bulging and replace if necessary. When replacing remember that tyres must be the same size across the front or back axles. The rear tyres can be a different size from the front but the ones on the front must match up. Also check the tread depth; the legal limit is 1.6mm depth across the middle of the tyre, but really, if they are that low, it is time to change them anyway. The tread depth should only be measured when the tyres have been properly inflated. Find out the pressure the manufacturer recommends (usually there's a plaque showing that on the inside of the driver's door frame or inside the fuel filler flap) and adjust as necessary.
7 - Final car checks
The NCTS demand that the wheel nuts are visible, so remove hubcaps or alloy wheel centre caps before bringing your car for test. Have a look at the state of your wipers and replace the blades if necessary, too. Give the car a good run beforehand as well so the engine is up to operating temperature. Arrive in plenty of time for your test.
8 - The paperwork
The importance of bringing the car's documentation with you cannot be stressed enough. NCTS won't even look at your car unless you have the vehicle registration book along with the registration certificate or licencing certificate with you. You will also need documentation for yourself. It does not matter if you are the car's registered owner or not, but you must have identification. Since May 2012 the rules state that an NCT certificate will not be issued unless the person presenting the car for test has identification.
Finally make sure you have a means to pay. The NCT fee stands at €55 for a full test or €28 for a retest and NCTS centres accept cash, debit cards and most credit cards, but not cheques.
Is driving without an NCT legal?
No, it's not and you can be stuck with a fine of €60 and three penalty points for doing so (rising to €90 if you don't pay the initial charge within 28 days). Failure to have a current NCT might also mean that your insurance isn't technically valid, and your insurer might refuse to pay out in the event of an accident.
What about delays?
As with so many services, the NCT is currently being hit with major delays thanks to shortages of staff and, in some cases, equipment. Many motorists logging on to book their NCT test are being given dates many months away, often long after their current NCT has expired.
The best advice is to go ahead and book for the earliest possible date that you can get (bearing in mind that it might be worth checking with other NCT centres that are within a reasonable driving distance - the delays are not uniform across all centres) and then call the NCTS on 01 4135992 and ask to be placed on the priority list for cancellations and no-shows. Incidentally, if for any reason you can't make it to a booked appointment, the NCTS is asking that you let them know as soon as possible, as your slot can then be offered to someone else who needs it.
Technically, if you cannot be given a test within 28 days of your trying to book one, the NCTS is supposed to offer you a free test or a refund, so bear that in mind. If the delay in getting tested means you're worrying about point 9, above, don't be - both the Gardaí and insurers have said that as long as you can show that you've tried to book your appointment, a 'lenient stance' will be taken on lapsed NCT certificates.