Driven to despair

rural roads


Living in the country got a whole lot harder on February 27 this year.

That’s when changes to the restricted and full driving tests were brought in by the New Zealand Transport Agency.

By mid-April, after almost 9000 attempts, more than half of those sitting the tests were failing, said Fairfax reporter Michael Forbes.

“The overall pass rate is 41 per cent, up slightly from 38 per cent after the first month of testing under the new regime, but well below the pass rate of about 80 per cent under the old system.”

That, he said, is almost 600 failed tests each week since the tougher tests were introduced.

Putting a face to the stats

What tends to be forgotten with the statistics is the human face behind the numbers.

My young friend James is one of the 600 struggling under the new regime. He’s just failed for the fourth time.

His name’s not really James, but he is a considerate, careful driver – I can say this, because I taught him.

For the last few months James, a family friend, has been boarding with us in Gordonton, 15km north of Hamilton.

There is no public transport into town. For our household, this has meant rising early to get him to work by 8am, battling rush-hour traffic. And then we repeat the process at day’s end.

On his third attempt James failed without even driving. I dropped him at the testing station, headed off on a walk – an hour is a long time to wait – and received a call saying he’d failed. A rear brake light wasn’t working; it was fine when he checked it in the morning. I offered to get another car, a friend lived just minutes away, and was told we were two minutes over time.

That will be another $86 please.

Standing outside the AA testing office, I talked with two other parents. One almost in tears, both distressed.


Marcella has only been in the country six years, and struggles with English. Her son was on his third attempt. She has to drive him in from near Cambridge to attend university and take his driving tests. He failed this attempt.

The other parent – let’s call him Bob – was articulately ropeable. Two sons in his family, five failed tries. Older son Matthew was out on his third attempt while I talked with him, and the younger son, Jim, had failed twice before passing.

That afternoon Bob emailed. Matthew was successful. Relief all around, he said.

But he’s still fuming.

The whole exercise has been hugely stressful, depressing and expensive. The week prior was particularly tough.

“Matthew’s work required two 5.30am starts… I had to get up at 4.50am to be his licensed passenger. Between the two of us we managed to wake the rest of the household.”

The younger son – we were calling him Jim remember – is studying at Wintec, with many 8am starts.

“Up until now, I would travel north at 7.40am with Matthew and my wife would go south to the city, with Jim. In our case the public transport system was inadequate.”

Young people failing

Living Streets Hamilton’s Judy McDonald is concerned at the consequences of the tougher new driving test. She has just made a submission to the Waikato Regional Council on the issue.

“Young people are sitting the test multiple times, failing multiple times; the failure rate is roughly 60% and until they gain their restricted licence, they are completely unable to transport themselves. This poses a huge burden to their families, both financially and in terms of time. It would not be an issue at all if alternative transport was available, as it is almost anywhere else in the world.”

Living Streets feel that the government has an obligation to the public to provide adequate funding for public transport services so people can still get to school, work and other essential services.

The changed test has impacted on his whole family, says Bob.

“I have lost work time in having to be ‘there’ as a licensed passenger, and the loss of work or study time for our sons as they need to take time off to do and redo the test.”

One of the times Matthew was so distressed at being ‘unjustly’ (his words, says his father) failed, he couldn’t face going to work the rest of the day – and didn’t want to tell his boss.

“Parent/son stress ensued as I told him to get a grip on himself and think about how this may affect his employment.

“The whole thing has created a sense of hopelessness, sadness, frustration and decreased self-esteem. This has been added on top of the young adult’s emotional roller coaster of life. It’s also created an increased dislike for ‘the system’ and caused unnecessary quarrels in our family on how unjust the test is now.”

Reporter Michael Forbes talked with a driving school director who said people were failing on what she considered minor criteria. “Some of the test failings are pretty pedantic. We had one lady, in her 60s or 70s, who said she was failed for not checking her mirror every two seconds. That seems far too often to be checking your mirror.”

The test now lasts an hour, 45 minutes of which is on the road. The number of errors an applicant can make has been reduced – the test is terminated if the driver commits at least two errors, regardless of severity, rather than one very bad error, as was the case before. It’s a bit confusing to get one’s head around, frankly.

Marcella was not sure why her son failed a third time. Possibly it was because he had a momentary lapse of concentration and didn’t indicate coming off a roundabout.

Bob talked with her while I retreated inside with James, where he handed over another $86 for another test.

He says her son is naturally gutted about it. “My understanding is these extra driving test costs have impacted on this family very badly. They haven’t very much money and I think the costs are coming from their food bill.”

The new driving tests are turning out to be very expensive, he says. “I can see a likely scenario where the lower socio-economic class will simply forgo their opportunity to become a licensed driver, thereby increasing their barriers to succeed in life. This has to be a negative factor for the long term New Zealand economy.”

In Bob’s case, Matthew had two non-critical errors. One was accidentally flicking the indicator while turning; the other hesitating too long at a Give Way.

On his recent test, his fourth time, James also made two errors; failure to indicate coming out of a parallel park and ‘poor gap judgement’ – not using a median strip when turning right from a T-junction during rush hour.

I haven’t been poring through the road code lately, but I’m sure there’s no rule requiring the latter. And isn’t this the kind of skill that comes with time?

The NZTA say the changes have been brought in to reduce needless road deaths and improve the standard of young and novice drivers.

Yes, yes, boy racers and bad driving abound – and not just among the young. But after my experience of what this has meant to James and those near him over the last few months, I think we’ve got it all wrong.

This, I am certain, is not the best way to educate our young people about the perils of the road, or how to be responsible, safe drivers.

James will get his licence. But at what cost?

By Annette Taylor

  • If you’ve had a similar experience or have an opinion on this, discuss it in the comments section below.
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33 thoughts on “Driven to despair

  • May 24, 2012 at 9:40 am

    Thanks this help me with a project article thing at school!

    • May 24, 2012 at 9:51 am

      Glad it’s of help, Emma!

  • May 24, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    It looks to me as though both young men were failed for not taking enough risks. This is bizarre. As an experienced driver (forty years come Christmas), I wouldn’t dream of pulling out into a median strip at a busy intersection. It gets done, and it’s bloody frightening to be involved in if you are driving along minding your own business and someone apparently pulls out in front of you. You have no idea that they intend to sit in the middle of the road. You just expect to get hit by someone who has failed to see you! And I’d far rather see a young driver hesitate too long at a give way than pull out in a panic and kill someone. What on earth sort of judgement is being applied by the testing officers?

    The underlying problem seems to me that it is a matter of opinion in both these cases. Who decides what is “too long” or “poor judgement of gaps”, especially when the failure is for being too cautious rather than too rash? Do the testing officers even consider the driver’s knowledge of their own car? Our daughter got her full license in our distinctly underpowered 1300cc Lancer, which is notably slow on take-off at intersections. She had the good fortune to get her licence under the old rules, but did feel the need to point out the car’s vagaries to the testing officer. In her case, they must have decided she was talking sense! Basically, it feels as though the testing officers are operating at cross purposes to NZTA’s own stated aim: improving the standard of young and novice drivers.

  • May 26, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    I agree with Judy, it looks like there is a lot of individual discretion being applied instead of the letter of the road code, as is evident from the pass rates (or should I say, “fail rates”) across the country, which you can see for yourself at Woe betide you if you live in Northland (29% pass rate), but celebrate if you live in Taranaki (52% pass rate). I wonder how they account for the difference? Are they trying to tell us that Taranakians are just better drivers than Northlanders for some odd reason! (Superior breeding maybe (???)).

    My other comment is that the test will likely fail anyone who is easily intimidated. Ever tried typing (or doing anything) with someone standing over you? We are talking about learner drivers tested for 3/4 of an hour next to someone who can fail them for the slightest mistake they make whatsoever. Stressful? So the meeker drivers will be punished whereas the brash will pass. Good show! I’m sure that’s targeting the irresponsible drivers! (coff coff!). I sat a test many years ago with an officer who obviously didn’t like me – he was gruff and clearly unfriendly from the onset. I failed of course. The next test I specifically requested to have anyone other than him. I sailed through, which was no surprise, it was a resit and I had been driving safely for years. The difference was in the attitude of the tester who didn’t have a grudge against me for my age/hair style/skin color or whatever it was. I pity those who are being tested now, the system is clearly wide open to individual interpretation and hence prejudice.

  • May 28, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    A further contribution to this issue from Joanne Black at the NZ Listener:
    “The Black Page”, (page 94, June 2), as follows:

    My son has just failed his full driver licence test….[he] failed, the examiner told him, because when asked to identify hazards, he simply said, “There are roadworks ahead and I must watch out for anyone unexpectedly stepping out”, but did not say the roadworks were on the right-hand side of the road. The same went for whatever other hazards he identified. His failure to identify the position of a hazard is on his form as the only reason for not passing the test. He asked the examiner if he would have passed had he been more specific about where the hazards were and the examiner said, “Oh yes, your driving was fine.” So, if it’s not driving that’s being tested for a driver licence, what is it exactly? Commentating? If he passes a sports field on his next try, I’ve suggested he gives the score.

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  • May 28, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    My daughter also just failed her full license, for the second time, and again, for some pretty pedantic criteria, from what I can tell. We spent $225 on a defensive driving course, and $180 so far on tests. The guy who failed her today, who also was the guy who failed her previously, told her both times that she was a good driver if not for these small errors. Sorry, NZTA, but this is all starting to feel a bit like revenue gathering. And they wonder why people linger for years on their restricted licenses …

    • May 29, 2012 at 8:43 am

      Sorry to hear that, Barbara. She’s not alone, I’m hearing more and more similar stories. My friend James sits the test again this Friday…

      • May 29, 2012 at 3:33 pm

        Good luck to your friend. I feel very bad for young drivers trying to pass any of these tests now. I have actually contacted NZTA today and requested a complaint form. I have questions about the way my daughter’s test was conducted and the criteria for passing or failing. The practical test guides, which you can find online, are very vague about what constitutes passing or failing. The testers give people a handwritten form with brief reasons for failing, but to my mind there is nowhere near enough detail. They might also talk to them, but honestly, most people who have just failed a very expensive and stressful test are likely to be disappointed/upset/angry etc, and frankly, probably not likely to remember much of what they are told. Nor is there enough transparency to the testing process, given what we are asked to pay for it. If people aren’t given written, specific feedback on why they failed, how can we be certain that our testers are unbiased and competent? I can’t think of any other form of testing where this is allowed. No wonder the govt is talking about requiring restricted drivers to have R plates. How else are they going to force young people and their parents to keep paying for these demanding tests, which they will repeatedly fail for some small infraction perceived by some bureaucrat who is not required to provide any solid evidence for their decision? And yet again, it’s the law-abiding citizens who get reamed …

  • May 29, 2012 at 9:28 am

    Hey, this scares hell out of me! In a matter of months I’ll be lined up for retesting as an octogenarian. What are my chances?

  • May 29, 2012 at 9:38 am

    You needs a button so that I can ‘like’ this on FB & spread the word more widely among my friends & acquaintances 🙂

    & good luck to ‘James’ for Friday!

    • May 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm

      Hmm… technical stuff. Will get the IT support person (Iris!) on to it!

      • May 29, 2012 at 8:44 pm

        Yahoo! Ok, modern technology has been engaged with, which means Iris has put back the share stuff. Cool! (No idea where it went, but that’s technology for you.)

  • May 29, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    This style of testing has been standard in the United Kingdom and Sweden since the early 90’s. It is the enforcing of scientific standards in driver training. Fight say the civil libertarians fight!

    But there is method in this otherwise apparent madness. There has been a huge amount of research into accident prevention resulting in cars which are now near death proof if you are belted and air bagged. The focus then fell on the drivers and their training..

    James will get his licence but only quickly if he pays for tuition by a company employing teachers trained in the modern “art” of defensive driving. In the UK youngsters routinely fail two or three times before they pass and only training at £22 an hours with sometimes 40 to 50 hours of road time gets you there.

    Most of us “older”drivers do not know how to drive this way, for instance turning the wheel a few inches at a time sliding and touching from one hand to another incrementally rather than just “right hand full turn” or “left hand full turn”. It means you have to go slow around corners. We were never taught to look at the mirrors every few seconds – over looking – we would say.

    Go for a drive with a modern trained instructor or a police officer and you will think they are robots. Everything is so slow and systematic.

    The answer for James and other youngsters is to get Mum or Dad to do all the basics, then get in half a dozen lessons from the experts and do what they do.

    And seniors need not worry – no-one is trying to teach them new tricks. As long as a senior can drive as well as he always did then, even if he does not follow the “new book”, he will pass.

    And the benefit? Sadly for those upset at what seems another pointless government intrusion the simple truth is that England and Sweden are the safest places on earth to own a car or be a pedestrian – the lowest mortality rates per 100,000 in the world.

    Worth it….?

  • May 30, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    Hi everyone….I’m the “Bob” mentioned in the above article…Interesting repy from Peter, I can’t disagree with your post.. except I’m not your “a civil libertarian” typecast. I too have centre (sway from fractionally right of centre to fractionally left of centre) idealisms like the majority of Kiwis..I’m acually of the age (61) that maintains the “system” not one that fights it.. I leave that sort of thing to the younger generation :>) ……After going through this new restricted driving test procedure with my sons …I ‘ve been thoroughly convinced that this part of the system is broken…Peter if you had been through this emotional nightmare what we have been through these last few months you would come around to the same conclusion..Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not against a more thorough driving test procedures…It’s the insensitive, impersonal, unhelpful, uncaring (at times uncalled for verbal abuse), inflexible, inefficient and a highly expensive system we have in place atm. For example paying $86 (for an hour test) to be failed within one minute is highly expensive. What does the tester do for the rest of the 59 minutes that they are paid for….nothing!! What does it do to the distraught learner and their Parent/Support person?…nothing postive I can tell you.

    Government funding a learners day at Wintech for example would be a far more productive use of Government money than spending it as an expense to pick the carnage debris off the road.
     So what can we do?
    The “body” that the Government has put into place are (believe it or not) listening for feedback from people who have gone through this new procedural experience and will act upon it if they come to the conclusion it needs improvement …However improvements will not happen if the Government receive little to no feedback. ..I think the Government realises that any Country adopting copycat systems should have the flexibility to modify built in…Countries are unique in certain ways, what works for one Country may not work nearly as good in another.

     I Googled what other Countries are like..As Peter said UK and Sweden have very low traffic related deaths as for most of Europe…However it seems obvious that money not driving tests is the major correlating factor for road deaths…..Quote……” 90% (deaths) occurred in low and middle income countries, with South-East Asia and Africa having the highest rates. . This quote is from the link

  • June 3, 2012 at 8:40 am

    I think Bob’s comment about providing feedback to the government’s ‘body’ dealing with the new licencing procedure is very important. The contact details for this group need to be publicised widely, and everyone who feels that they have been failed for reasons that do not relate to dangerous driving should make their case to this group. One or two responses can be regarded as sour grapes. Twenty or thirty start to look real. A couple of hundred indicates a major problem. My particular concern is that young drivers are being failed for being too cautious. They should be cautious! The roads are busy, and ‘accidents’ are usually caused by one or both drivers involved having missed something important. This is always going to be more likely if the drivers concerned feel pressured to keep moving no matter what.

    NZTA’s policies are designed to minimise traffic delays on the roads, which is why it is so difficult to get pedestrian crossing facilities on NZTA-controlled roads even when they are in heavily residential areas of towns. One hopes that they are not involved in the licencing policies and suggesting that drivers who impose any kind of delay on ‘traffic flow’ should be failed as being public nuisances!

  • June 12, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    Thanks Bob – I had no idea that the New Zealand test system allowed for an $86 fail at one minute in and the test procedure was over. Not so in England. First the fee is only £31 (about $60) and the test runs the whole allotted time with a full report at the end. Then there is even a bit of a debriefing and explanation for those who need it.

    What is missing from this standardisation of NZ driver testing is standardisation of the testing process. It is crazy to end a test in one minute! The law should mandate the test to be a standard time and a standard prefigured series of operations always carried through to the end. The only exception is if a driver is actually dangerous. Then the test, if failed, becomes a learning tool and preparation for the next test. Many people fail their first few tests because of test nerves, not inadequate driving skills. The tests are practice in themselves.

    My advice is start up an online petition and lobby for a regulatory change. Letters to the Editor.

    Peter (just a boy at 59)

    [P.S. If anyone wants to film Mad Max 4 on the cheap come to Dubai and go for a drive on the freeways here]

  • June 18, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    Very interesting reading. My son has just failed his restricted for the second time and both times the reasons are very predantic. He has been driving for over a year with either my husband or I with him and both of us feel very confident as a passenger with his driving skills. The first time he failed was for misjudging a gap at a giveway on the way back to AA after nearly 45 minutes so ok that was annoying but being told there was a 60% failure rate and his driving is good and next time he should pass he didn’t feel too bad. So Mum pays another $86.60 and he rebooked for another try. This time he was failed 25 minutes into test (different instructor) because he hit the kerb parrellel parking…well isn’t that a choice if you driving whether you want to parellel park or find a easier park (angle) further away and walk. I know drivers that still won’t parrellel park so why should that be part of a restricted test… going for your full license maybe…Now I have a son who doesn’t want to go back and try again as I think his confidence has been knocked (and having two sisters who passed restricted and full licenses on their first attempt but then tests were easier) and that another $86.60 has to be paid and which he could still fail. Son comment was to wait until the tests are changed again as too many failing and public opinions could cause a change … he could be right there. So overall I do agree that yes, New Zealand had to do something and yes it is good that things have been made harder but no to the reasons that the failings are happening on.

    • June 20, 2012 at 1:45 pm

      Sorry to hear that, Lee. It is so frustrating and distressing. Tell him he’s most certainly not alone. Our young friend is going to sit the test (for the sixth time) in Taupo. Growl.

      • June 21, 2012 at 8:01 pm

        We’ll kept fingers and toes crossed for them…

  • August 20, 2012 at 10:14 am


    Similar experience. I am 26 and have now attempted to sit the restricted test twice, and failed both times.

    First time I was extremely nervous, and didn’t drive as well as I should have and 100% deserved to be failed (I panicked at once point and did something silly). However I was able to sit the whole test.

    The second time I felt great, I drove great, everything was great, but the guy failed me after the first 20 minutes (wtf?!). He told me my “lateral positioning” was off… basically I wasn’t positioning my car “correctly” at intersections, even though I was driving safety.

    I was in complete and utter shock.

    I know I drove worse the first time, but the tester was obviously a lot more lenient, where as the second time I drove HEAPS better, but the guy was a total nazi and I failed. It sucks!

    Not to mention I am severely out of pocket 🙁

  • September 10, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Hi…..Article in NZHerald
    Thanks to Cherie Howe from NZH.
    Lets hope the Public becomes aware of this flawed system and forces these folk in denial to start some fine-tuning. There have been some good suggestions mentioned on this thread. Peter suggests using the English system should be looked at.

    Another (only briefly touched on) involves compulsory ongoing Educational courses through school with NCEA merits in preparation when reaching the driving age.

    If we want to change the driving culture of NZ drivers to make roads safer, surely years of learning through school would be far more effective than a draconian few months of “Nazi style” driving license tests…

    • September 10, 2012 at 12:26 pm

      Well said, Bob. Totally agree.

  • October 12, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Hey well i totally agree with you guys i am 25 and have been driving for 8 years. i went for my restricted the other day i had been on my learners since i was 17 and thought i better get my a into g and get it done (silly i know waiting now to do it should of done it years ago when it was easier) so i was nervous as hell and 1st off i had to do parallel park which i did the lady said “well that was cheating” i said “hows that” she said “u backed back to far what if a car was behind you”. I said “well there wasn’t what was i suppose to pretend there was” she gave me a filthy look.. I got failed in the end because i didn’t use the medium strip to merge into traffic and for speeding up a little bit early before 70k sign. i think its ridicules what they are failing people for. Plus driving for 45min is a long time and really if you think about it they make us pay $137 for the test when what dose the money go on? we use our own car our own gas (that is not cheep these days) and all they have to do is print out a card that cost about $5 to in the end i re booked it for another 2 weeks which was another 88bux i have 2 young kids and other expenses. its so much money to pay out for a licence but if i fail again than thats it im not going for it again just cant afford it. still feel horrible for failing as i know im a good driver

    • October 12, 2012 at 1:07 pm

      So sorry to hear this Kelly. I wil do an update on the situation in coming days, but it looks very bad for learner drivers out there. The impacts on job prospects and study, without adequate public transport, are dire.

      Best of luck for next time.

  • October 27, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    so just a up date i went for it again the other day and to my surprise i passed but i cut a corner and few other things but he said that wasn’t critical and it didn’t mean it was one of the 3 errors but yet when i have had friends go for it cutting a corner was a critical error.. everyone i know has failed there restricted once or twice before they get it now … i think it all depends on who you get as well. I got a lovely old guy that did my test and made me feel relaxed and wasn’t all up tight like how the lady was that i had last time .. good luck to everyone out there going for it.. bring back the old days when you just had to drive around the block and you got ur license lol 🙂

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  • February 25, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    My daughter failed the second time. She has had 3 hours of driving training and I have been Helping her. She is a good driver, I don’t have any questions about that but after the second time she failed her self confidence isn’t too good. I know she is a good driver… I am not saying that because she is my daughter but because I am a bad passanger and I am very calm with her driving. The errors sound very pedantic. One tester said she slowed down while going through the intersections. What?? I always slowing down at intersections and I have had one accident in 40 years of driving. I am pretty sure this is a money making scheme for Land Transport. I am getting very angry about this.

    • March 24, 2013 at 2:00 pm

      My daughter just failed a second time because she stalled the car whilst parrell parking in a public carpark. No hazard created and no panic. She restarted the car and completed the parking. The instructor said her driving was excellent in all other respects. The first btest was she stalled while parrell parking on a hill. I think this is wrong and its ridiculous that we have a Canadian import and an ex repo agent setting the driving standards for NZ. This is pure revenue raising and may require Court intervention so we can recover some of the fees the same as the case against the Banks

  • August 25, 2014 at 9:26 am

    From reader Terry Noble:

    This Driving Licence farce is still going on.
    I first came across hearing about it when I was watching FairGo one day and
    someone failed because there was dog hair in the car.
    The Test Centre was Westgate.
    Since then I have heard from my daughter at her high school nearly everyone
    fails that goes to Westgate.
    My son who is now 20 and has been driving virtually every day since 15 when
    he first got his learners and then restricted.
    In no real hurry he finally went for his full licence and failed at Westgate
    about a year ago.
    He finally got motivated and yesterday sat it again at Manukau.
    Do you think he wants to go back and try again?
    Do they think these youngsters drive just themselves in the car?
    Do they think they drive after 10pm?
    If you want better drivers on the road – make all youngsters do a defensive
    driving course prior to getting their licence.
    No wonder people aren’t driving with full licences.
    The people testing them seem to have a negative attitude as if they want
    them to fail.
    It seems to be just a money making business.
    My son is an apprentice on $11.40 an hour.
    To get full licence around $100.
    Resit test around $50?

    The first thing they said to my son – “your brake lights and indicators
    aren’t working”.
    He replied I am sure they are.
    And yes there was nothing wrong with them!

    How can someone that has been driving 6 years fail?
    Shouldn’t they be trying to encourage?
    Point out things – hey you did this wrong – next time do this!
    Etc etc,
    No ­ they aren’t interested – they want to fail them!

  • May 2, 2018 at 3:23 pm

    I just failed my test today, for being too slow. I had read the new restricted guide many times over, and noted that I couldn’t go 10km/h under the speed limit for 2/3 of the test or more. I never even drove 10km/h under the limit. I drove at around 44km/h in 50km/h zones, as my in my professional lessons, I was told it is better to be slower than too fast. The testing officer failed me at the end for doing this, despite the fact that what I did was not even wrong.
    There needs to be some sort of standardization. We can’t just have grumpy old testing officers telling people that they ‘think’ the driver was too slow. Was I illegal? No. Should I have even got a critical error? No. Should I have passed? Yes.
    It should be up to the testing officer to tick off everything I do right and wrong, not what they think is right and wrong.

    • May 4, 2018 at 9:18 am

      Very sorry and angry to hear this Callum. You are totally right – this needs to be reviewed urgently. 🙁


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