The UK driving test recently celebrated its 80th birthday, having been created when the government of Ramsay MacDonald passed the Road Traffic Act 1934 following a big increase in road deaths.
Testing began the following April, although the test wasn’t made compulsory until June 1 for fear of a rush of applications. Between nine and 16 tests were carried out every day by 250 driving examiners, with Mr J Beene the first person to pass his driving test, for which he paid the princely sum of 7/6d (37p).
Before the advent of test centres, instructors met candidates at car parks, railway stations and similar areas and they would assess motorcyclists by standing at the roadside and watching them ride around the likes of a town square or common. Amazingly, it was only in 1989 that this was replaced by the current “pursuit test”, in which the rider is tailed by an examiner.
Swansea came to the fore in 1965 when the then Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre took responsibility for the UK’s driving licences from local authorities, and by the end of the decade there was a separate test for automatics and you’d part with £1 and 15 shillings (£1.75p) for your examination.
The falling cost of motoring led to a 20 per cent rise in applications in 1972 and another 15 per cent the following year, creating a huge backlog. Two years later, you no longer had to perform hand signals as part of the test because indicators were, by that point, the norm on all new cars.
The UK’s Transport Research Laboratory is an advocate of graduated licences / Photo: Rex Credit: Monkey Business Images/REX
Arguably the biggest change in the test’s history happened on July 1 1996 when the written theory test was brought in, although it became more hi-tech in 2002 when a touch-screen hazard perception video was added, and an environmentally friendly element arrived in September 2008 when examiners began assessing “eco-safe” driving.
It might have a long history, but those who have recently passed the driving test, particularly young drivers, remain the most at risk on the road, so it raises the question whether an 80-year-old examination method remains relevant today.
“Not really,” says Kim Stanton, managing director of Young Driver, a scheme designed to get youngsters aged between 11 and 17 behind the wheel well before they hit public highways. “You can take your driving test the day after your 17th birthday if you’ve passed your theory test beforehand. Get lucky in those 40 minutes and you pass, then you’re out on the road without much experience.”
Ford is attempting to address this, offering free Driving Skills for Life courses across the country to qualified drivers aged between 17 and 24. Designed to highlight the dangers young drivers are exposed to and how they can be minimised, it includes defensive driving and hazard perception training, along with time in a specially developed “drunk suit” that simulates the effects of being under the influence of alcohol.
In an effort to address concerns that its own test was failing young and newly qualified drivers by limiting their experience, the Swedish government reduced the age at which people could learn to drive from 17½ years to 16 in 1993, and created a two-year practice period before they could take the test. The drivers who started earlier were found to be 15 per cent less likely to have an accident.
Ford Driving Skills For Life Fiesta
Ford’s Driving Skills For Life scheme helps young drivers improve their skills / Photo: Philip Hollis
A 1999 study, also in Sweden, revealed that 120 hours of supervised driving before being let off the leash resulted in a 30 per cent lower crash risk among novice drivers.
Neil Greig, director of policy and research at the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM), claims that a graduated driver licensing system is what’s needed to bring the UK’s test up to date. “This usually means you delay and postpone a full licence,” he said.
“In Australia, you have to log the hours you do on different roads, so you do a couple of hours at night time, at high speed, in bad weather – and you actually put all that in a logbook. They say about 120 hours are required, which in the course of a year isn’t that much. But there’s a huge amount of evidence that proves this is successful.”
A report published by the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory in 2013 described the benefits of graduated licences as “indisputable” and claimed that if they were implemented they could “result in annual savings of 4,471 casualties and £224 million” for drivers between 17 and 19 years old – and more if they were applied to all new drivers.
In fact, graduated driving licences were primed to replace the current UK system following the Government’s own research, but politics got in the way.
“This was all supposed to happen in the UK this year,” says Greig. “The current Government published a Green Paper that was going to bring in graduated licensing, but it was postponed and postponed and postponed, and now it’s unlikely to come in with an election this close. The feeling was it was too unpopular.”