/ Motoring

Is the driving test starting to show its age?

The compulsory driving test celebrates its 80th birthday today. When introduced it led to an immediate drop in the number of road deaths. But is it still a good test for how safe you are to drive on today’s busy roads?

Even though I took my driving test (or rather tests) nearly 20 years ago, I still remember vividly all the myths about how to pass, the easiest test centres, the scariest examiners.

I failed twice for reasons including most embarrassingly ‘failing to make sufficient progress’, and was astonished third time round when the examiner looked up from his clipboard and grudgingly admitted I’d passed.

So I can drive on my own now?

Relief soon gave way to a feeling of ‘hang on, you’re really letting me out on the road on my own now’? Even 20 years ago, it seemed a huge jump between the test and what would happen on the open road. Sure enough, my first solo effort lasted just long enough to reverse into a neighbour’s car – while trying to pull out from in front of our house. A £200 lesson.

But if it seemed an enormous jump from test to real-life then, what about now? The roads seem much busier and other drivers more impatient – does the test really prepare you for this?

What changes should there be to the driving test?

In an attempt to make the test better prepare drivers for today’s roads, there have been calls for driving on motorways and driving at night to be included.

Interestingly, there is currently a trial ongoing at 20 test stations across the UK where the learner is asked to follow sat nav instructions for part of the test.

What was the effect of the driving test?

When the Road Traffic Act was passed in 1934, paving the way for compulsory tests to be introduced a year later, there were just 1.5m cars in use but more than 7,000 people were killed on Britain’s roads. Within a year, the number of deaths had tumbled to 1,000. The annual death toll now is around 1,700 – with about 35m cars on the road.

What changes would you like to see to the driving test? What are your memories of taking it?


I should be interested to know whether people think the preliminary theory test [performed at a computer] has any lasting benefits.

I think the biggest problem with the driving test today is the lack of safe places to execute many of the standard manouevres. I heard they were going to drop the turn-round-in-the-road.

I’ve never been comfortable with the compound roundabouts they have in some towns and I will drive miles to avoid them! They didn’t exist when I first took to the road.

There should be a way for people to take a voluntary driving test to the official standards if they wish to refresh their road skills. Perhaps driving schools do offer that but I don’t know anyone who has done it.

John, they could try the Institute of Advanced Motorists who offer, among other things, driving assessments. An hour’s drive with an assessor costs £49 for a “mature” driver. I’ve thought about it, but don’t know whether I’d like being told my bad habits! Perhaps a good present from, or to, an understanding family member?.

I have never seen the computer theory test but I believe there are multiple choice questions and answers.

How can this be a thorough test of one’s competence because you don’t get a choice of answers when you are on the road.

Alfa – Here is an example theory test provided by the DVSA: http://www.safedrivingforlife.info/take-official-free-practice-driving-theory-test/

It is unbelievably basic, though the two questions on hand signals might catch out a few people and not everyone will know the speed limits for trailers.

When designing multiple choice question tests it is important to make the distractors (the wrong answers) as plausible as possible, but many of the distractors in the DVSA test are absurd. I am not opposed to these tests because they could boost the confidence of novice drivers, but they could be designed better.

Wavechange, thanks for the link, I’ve done the 2 tests and got 46 on one 47 on the other so I suppose not too bad.
I was wrong on trailers (don’t use them) and also didn’t realise there was an amber light at a level crossing (don’t seem to come across them very often). For some reason I thought they just flashed. I also got the triangle distance wrong as where you place a warning triangle is going to be down to the logistics of the road as much as anything.

But you are right about many of the questions being very basic, also many are just plain common sense.

I did not see the second test, but with a correct guess about trailers I managed to score 50. Not having a warning triangle or ever needed one, I have no idea of the prescribed distance. As you say it should depend on the road it is used on.

I don’t know if there are any questions about thinking distance and braking distance, which were considered important when I took my test. While there is no doubt that keeping well back is vital at higher speeds, learning to recite figures did nothing to help me. Perhaps there is a case for learners being aware that kinetic energy is proportional to the square of speed would be useful, though I’m not sure how best to explain this to those who have little knowledge of school science.

If you go the first test then change the address from car-practice-test-one to car-practice-test-two, it will take you to the second test.

Carrying a triangle (or 2) and fluorescent jackets is a requirement for driving in Europe so we always carry them. Never had to actually use them but it does seem a sensible thing to have.

I’d better do the sensible thing, even though I don’t drive abroad. I keep meaning to.

Sylvia says:
7 June 2015

ROSPA Advanced Drivers retake a driving test every three years to be able to continue their membership. The driver will then be awarded a Bronze, Silver or Gold pass in accordance with the standard of their driving. Why not contact ROSPA to find the nearest group to you and become a member?

Very few people seem to be capable of reversing into a parking space, both parallel parking and in car parks. Both manoeuvres should be part of the driving test. Motorway driving should also be included, as far too many drivers seem to think that the basic “drive on the left” rule doesn’t apply to motorways.

I had the benefit of living with a car in London and Paris soon after passing my driving test. It was in these cities that I really learnt to drive properly. The UK driving test was far too basic in comparison.

I think the driving test should be made extremely difficult so that only the best drivers can pass. This would reduce the number of vehicles on the road and increase safety at the same time. Unfortunately there’s a big loophole with this. People can go to take their driving test in any of the following countries and then exchange their licence for a UK one: all European Union countries, Andorra, Australia, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Falkland Islands, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland and Zimbabwe.

I agree with you on parking. It seems to be quite an acceptable practice in some foreign countries to bump cars out of the way in an effort to get into a parking space. I currently have a claim against someone scraping my bumper when they reversed into the space behind me and yes they were foreign.

I also know someone who passed their test abroad where his description of the test was “If you knew how to start the car, they gave you a licence”. He exchanged that licence here for a UK licence. I think you should have to pass a UK test to get a UK licence or if residing in the UK on a permanent basis.

Adrian Tucker says:
6 June 2015

You mention reversing into a parking space but I would take this further.

There are many narrow roads lanes near where I live and many people seem tunable to reverse confidently, I have a neighbour who refuses to reverse.

Back when I took my test you just had to reverse a short distance around a corner, perhaps this could be made a longer distance say 100 feet of turns? This does seem to imply the need for test tracks of sorts to ensure like for like standards, which I believe will never be paid for. The test is better than nothing and so long as loopholes like obtaining a licence after passing a test abroad exist it will never be satisfactory, we should all have to pass a foreign countries test before being allowed to drive there. Does anybody read the updates and amendments to the highway code, not many I suspect including myself because there is not a need to, and if it is not necessary (just advisable) is it any surprise that people can only dimly remember a test that they passed many years ago which is a little similar to school exams, pass the test and never look at the subject again.

There is a ‘Safety code for new drivers’, which you can find if you look up the Highway Code online.

The first item states: “It’s most dangerous driving at night – don’t drive between midnight and 6am unless it’s really necessary.”

No doubt this is backed up by statistics, but I feel much safer driving on major roads when it is dark and the roads are quiet.

I can think of couple of reasons. You are more likely to be tired at night so there is the possibility of falling asleep at the wheel. Also wild animals come out at night and are more likely to dash across the road or even just wander about on them when it is quiet.

I presume that tiredness is the major factor, but I cope by avoiding setting off after a big meal and stopping frequently for a break. You are absolutely right about wild animals, but that’s more of a problem with minor roads in my experience.

Had a fox run into the car at night on a motorway once. Poor fox didn’t survive and it caused quite a lot of damage to the car.

At night, you are also less likely to notice objects that have fallen from vehicles in time to take avoiding action.

Alfa, you mention bumping other cars out of the way to get into a parking space. In my experience, this was accepted practice only in Paris. When I lived there with my UK-registered car, I partook in the tradition by leaving my handbrake half off so that others could push their way in, and I would similarly shunt other cars to get into a space. It was totally normal and cars never suffered any damage. Once painted bumpers and car alarms became widespread, the Parisians abandoned this very effective practice. It’s a shame, as bumpers are supposed to protect the bodywork and not be part of it.

The driving test should ensure that those passing it are capable of driving alone in any given circumstance. To be fit for purpose it needs to include everything that a driver will do or encounter on any particular journey. He/she needs to recognise and interpret signs and instructions and, of course, be able to make the car do what is required to conform to traffic laws. These may not be signed on the road, so some kind of written test is useful or, maybe a viva-voce to show competence. Dual carriageways are a good substitute for motorways. One assumes!? that those on the motorway are able to drive correctly, and thus one doesn’t have to make allowances for learners, who may get things wrong as they learn. (Some will point out that there are plenty of idiots on the motorway, but that is a separate issue) . It shouldn’t be difficult for an experienced committee to design a test using the above criteria. The fact that roads are busier now, simply makes proving one is capable that much harder. The motorist still has to do the same things and cope with the stress when it occurs. The actual test is a measure of competence and dealing with traffic is one element of that. There is no need to make the test harder or easier, the driving and knowledge are either acceptable, using proven assessment tools, or they are not. There must be an optimum time to prove whether one can drive, and that is the time that the test should take. Maybe the current test does all these things correctly as it stands. A little research on how newly qualified drivers perform might prove whether we need to do things differently.

I believe every driving test now has to include a section of driving on a trunk dual-carriageway with at least two lanes on each carriageway and with the same kind of acceleration and deceleration lanes at junctions as found on motorways. The only significant difference from motorway driving is that all classes of vehicle [including pedal cycles and mobility scooters] might be present, otherwise the speed limit, lane discipline, overtaking,and signalling are all the same.

The test now also includes a period of independent driving where the examiner asks the pupil to follow a route using the traffic signs and gives no instructions on where to turn or which exit to take at roundabouts etc. I guess that must weed out some pupils who have merely memorised the routes that their instructor will have taken them around during their tuition.

A neighbour’s daughter recently failed her driving test because [among a few other things] she came unstuck during the independent driving section of the test. Apparently her instructor had not included such experience within the tuition so she had never had to cope with looking at direction signs in advance of junctions and had always been told which lane to get into. The muddle she got in on a roundabout put her right off her stroke for the remainder of the test.

I understand that it is permitted to have a companion or the instructor in the rear seat during a driving test nowadays. I would not have wanted a friend or relative with me but I can see the merit of making the instructor witness their tuition deficiencies.

As Vynor says, it is well worth looking at the performance of newly qualified drivers to help recognise where improvements can be made.

I think it is important to take drivers out of their comfort zone during the driving test. Anyone can learn how to drive on familiar roads but by testing them on unfamiliar roads you can see how they cope. Like experienced drivers on unfamiliar roads, they may find themselves in the wrong lane at a roundabout or junction, but how they handle this situation may reveal whether or not they are fit to drive alone.

I would also like to see drivers do basic checks on a car – but not the one they may have learned how to check. A driver should be able to check over any car.

It should be made compulsory for all drivers to be retested at some intervals .I am willing to be tested at anytime .I am 76 and still enjoy driving .I don’t consider myself a good driver now but a reasonable good driver

I would not mind drivers being re-tested periodically, but only if there is evidence that this would help avoid injuries and deaths on the roads.

As I see it, a major problem is the aggressive and arrogant behaviour of some drivers, such as those who stay in the wrong lane of motorways, routinely ignore speed limits and show little consideration to other users of our roads, including cyclists and pedestrians. Even if they behave themselves during a re-test, is it likely to have a lasting effect?

I’ve always been of the opinion that 17 is an extremely young age to be given such huge responsibility, and that’s from someone that passed themselves at 17 at the first attempt. The main complication is that you are preoccupied with ‘the test’ to the degree where you are taught how to pass it, rather than how to drive. That’s because it’s a one-off, which again, I’ve also found very odd.

I’d never been on the motorway when I passed, nor had I encountered countless situations that I’d be faced with everyday because they’re simply not covered – it’s all about getting you through the test, after that you’re out on your own in every sense of the word.

I’d have preferred (though probably not at the time) a test drawn out over a number of days in order to prove yourself in differing situations (motorways, night driving, busy traffic etc). Perhaps a set period of lessons to ensure comprehensive covering of those situations would be best too – there’s simply too much at stake for it to be left almost up to chance.

” you are preoccupied with ‘the test’ to the degree where you are taught how to pass it, rather than how to drive.”

I could not agree more.

Perhaps it is worth looking back to times past, when the driving test was introduced in 1935.

As reminded in the following video, don’t flick your cigarette out of the driver’s window as your signal could confuse other motorists: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbbERUEsQ4Q


I passed my test in 1972 when I was 29years old. I was a good driver until after I stopped working, which had involved doing around 1200 miles a month.
Since then my abilities have declined. I only drive locally doing under 4000 miles per year.
I feel all drivers over 70 years should have compulsory resits of the driving test, and have to have medical checks in addition.
So much has changed in the test and on the roads in the years since I passed, that I doubt if I would pass a test now.
Ideally I should go myself and relearn and resit voluntarily if that is possible.
I have a low income so it is difficult to pay for that now. Make it free ?

I have many friends in the 70 to 80 years age group and worry greatly at their driving ability.

With one friend her ability to judge the speed of traffic coming towards has diminished, resulting in her pulling out onto a road, forcing the driver on the left to swerve off the road to avoid her.Nearly killing him and us. Yet she did not understand what she had done wrong !

dave says:
6 June 2015

One person mentioned drivers knowing how to do basic checks and also know where fliud resovoirs were. Drivers of both sexes should know where the spare tyre and tools to change a tyre. Unfortunately this does not help a person like myself had a puncture last week, both myself and a good samaritan could not get the wheel nuts off because when serviced the mechanic had tightened them that tight it needed a garage to get them off

I suspect that your friend had a problem with removing the wheel nuts (often wheel bolts these days) was simply because they had rusted or stuck since they were installed. My solution – learned from my father – is to put a very small amount of grease on the threads (but NOT where the nut or bolt contacts the wheel). Some say you must never do this but I’ve never had a single nut or bolt come loose and I don’t know anyone who has. A trace of grease on the back of alloy wheels where they contact the hub will prevent them sticking to the hubs, so that you don’t have to fight with the wheel when the car is supported only by a jack.


Applying part of the GDL system to license holders from other countries might be considered.