The UK driving test has undergone a number of changes over the years. Those sitting the test today will have a very different experience from their parents. As driving conditions have become more challenging and driving technology has evolved, the test has adapted to meet the needs of modern drivers and prepare them for everything they might face.
Driving licences were first issued back in 1903 but no test was required and they were issued to anyone who was willing to pay the five shillings. The first test was introduced at the start of 1935 on a voluntary basis, which became compulsory in June of that year. In 1996, a written theory test was introduced to replace questions about the Highway Code given during the practical test. By the turn of the millennium, drivers were faced with a stricter practical with the duration increased to 40 minutes and candidates would now be failed for committing 16 or more minor driving faults. In 2000, the theory test was computerised with touch screen technology and two years later a new component was added to the test with video clips used to test hazard perception.
Today’s driving test comprises two main elements – the theory test and the practical. The theory test must be passed before you are allowed to sit the practical.
The theory test
There are two parts to the theory test – hazard perception and a multiple-choice examination.
The multiple-choice test lasts 57 minutes and there are 50 questions to answer. For some questions, more than one answer should be selected. Case studies are incorporated into the test and multiple questions may be based on one of these scenarios. In order to pass, you need to score 43 or above. Following this section, you can have a break of up to three minutes before starting the hazard awareness section.
The hazard perception now uses computer-generated images rather than a conventional video. Up to five points are given for spotting developing hazards (something that would cause a change of speed or direction) as they happen. To gain maximum marks, you must identify the hazard as early as possible. To pass the hazard perception test you must score 44 points out of a possible 75. You don’t lose points if you click at the wrong time but continuous clicking will mean no marks are awarded for that section.
If you pass the theory test, you have two years to pass the practical before it becomes invalid.
The practical test
The practical driving test lasts around 40 minutes and incorporates five elements. As well as observing your general driving ability, your examiner will also give an eyesight check, ask ‘show me, tell me’ questions, test on reversing and observe independent driving. The independent driving section lasts 10 minutes and involves the examiner asking the driver to follow road signs or verbal directions to a specific destination.
In order to pass the test, you must make no majors (serious or dangerous driving faults) and fewer than 15 minors (driving faults).
In its infancy, the driving test was by no means easy to pass. In 1935, just 63% of the 256,000 candidates passed but it would be fair to say there has been a general downward trend since then. By 1950, the pass rate had dropped to just 50%. The fall continued, although not significantly and by 2009 it was 46%. There has been a slight increase in the intervening time with a 47% pass rate in 2016 showing that, although there has been a fall over the last 50 years, it’s only slight.
The theory test, first introduced in 1996, has also created a further barrier to gaining a driving licence. This test has become tougher since its introduction. In 2007, the number of multiple-choice questions was increased from 35 to 50. In January 2013, the question bank was refreshed meaning that few of the actual questions now appeared in practice papers, meaning that real knowledge had to be applied. This has reflected the pass rates which were at 65% in 2008, had dropped to 59% in 2013, then dramatically down to 52% the following year. Today the pass rate is below 50%.
There have been consultations to change the driving test yet again. This would see an increase in the independent driving section to 20 minutes and would involve following a sat nav rather than instructions or signs on the road. This move will better reflect modern driving with most cars fitted with navigation systems or people using apps on their phones.
The manoeuvres section would also be adapted to include more real-life scenarios, for example, driving into and reversing out of a parking space. Finally, safety questions could be asked while the candidate is driving.
Based on the increased length of the test, the expanded elements required and the fall in pass rates, it would be fair to conclude that the driving test is harder than ever before. What that should mean in practice is that this generation is far more prepared for the challenges of today’s roads when they do gain their licences.
It is more difficult to pass today and for good reason. Road collisions remain the biggest killer of young people accounting for a quarter of all deaths of those between 15 and 19. Further to that, drivers aged 17–19 only make up 1.5% of UK licence holders, but are involved in 9% of fatal and serious crashes where they are the driver. With the proposed extended test routes, examiners will be able to observe drivers on the more challenging rural roads and see how they cope with more complex junctions, in the hope that this will prepare them for a lifetime of safe driving.