The operator of the National Car Test is facing fines due to what has been called an unacceptable backlog of 375,000 vehicles currently without an NCT certificate.

The Oireachtas Transport Committee heard today that the backlog is 170,000 above the norm for this time of year.

The operator of the NCT, Applus, has blamed Covid, staff shortages and no-shows for the unprecedented delay.

Minister of State at the Department of Transport Jack Chambers said today the delay is "absolutely unacceptable".

He said the Road Safety Authority (RSA) is in a process of applying penalties to Applus because they are not delivering the level of service that they have been contracted to do.

Fianna Fáil TD James O'Connor said he was disappointed and angry at the current situation and he said the backlog amounted to a "crisis".

Applus told the committee that 3,500 customers are foregoing appointments each week. It said 2,500 vehicles do not show up, while 1,000 will cancel just before the test.

Applus managing director Mark Synnott said this resulted in customers cycling through the booking process repeatedly, increasing lead times and inflating waiting lists.

Applus also blamed an aging fleet of cars for increasing demand on tests.

On staffing, Mr Synnott said a shortage of skilled mechanics is contributing to problems.

The company had tried unsuccessfully to hire across Europe and instead, sent a team to the Philippines to employ 44 staff who arrived in October.

A plan to have new staff deliver the automated part of the test failed following a ballot on a Labour Court recommendation.

The RSA, which has oversight for the service, said during Covid, it had suspended the obligation to provide free tests following delays.

That requirement was reinstated last October, but so far no free tests have been provided.

Mr Synnott said there was a constraint next week with the public holiday on St Brigid's Day, which meant 500 vehicles were likely to get free tests.

The RSA also said that robust discussions are under way with Applus around non-performance of service level agreements.

RSA Chief Operations Officer Brendan Walsh said they were at odds on the interpretation of this and independent lawyers may have to come in to resolve the dispute.

Minister Chambers has said that the delay in the NCT car testing system is absolutely unacceptable.

He said the RSA is in a process of applying penalties to the company operating the NCT system because they are not delivering the level of service that they are contracted to do.

The minister said that the NCT operator is trying to rebuild capacity and by the end of May they will be back to the waiting time that is in the service level agreement.

"But it is completely unacceptable as there is a risk around the road worthiness of specific vehicles," he added.

He said that there are now weekly meetings with between officials at the Department of Transport and the RSA and are trying to make sure that Applus fulfils its commitment on recruitment and to make sure that they bring the waiting time back to acceptable levels.

He stressed however, that motorists have an obligation, notwithstanding the NCT delays, to ensure that their vehicle is roadworthy.

The minister also advised that in addition to the normal NCT booking system, he would encourage everyone who is due an NCT to go on the priority waiting list and they will be prioritised.

Additional reporting George Lee