The History of the UK Driving Test

Don L. Gates

L Plates - UK Driving Test

1935

The history of the UK driving test begins in 1935. The driving test was first introduced on 16th March by the Road Traffic Act of 1934. At first it was a voluntary test in order to avoid an initial rush of candidates.

The first person to actually pass this test was a Mr R Beere.

On the 1st June 1935  the driving test became compulsory for all people who started driving on or after 1st April 1934:

  • around one quarter of a million people applied to take the test
  • the pass rate was 63%
  • 250 examiners conducted up to 16 tests each per day.

Anyone passing the motorcycle test also received a car licence!

Examiners in those days actually went out to meet their candidates as driving test centres did not exist. The improvised test routes were generally very short!

World War II

Fuel rationing during the second world war temporarily interrupted the history of the UK driving test. It recommenced in November 1946.

1947

In this year, the driving and motorcycle tests became separated into two categories which had to be taken individually. Those lucky enough to have held a provisional licence prior to this, you could upgrade to a full licence!

1956

This year saw another suspension in the history of the UK driving test owing to the Suez crises. It resumed when the crises was over on 15th April 1957.

1958

From 1st March 1958, provisional licences were only valid for 6 months at a time and had to be renewed.

1959

Examiners had been trained on the job until this year, when a new training facility was used at Stanmore in Essex.

1962

From 1st April this year, anyone who had held more than seven provisional licences had to take the driving test. If they failed to do so, the licensing authority could refuse any further applications for another provisional.

1964

Under the Road Traffic Act 1962, a voluntary register of ‘approved driving instructors’ (ADIs) evolved. This was to combat the unprofessional nature of the driver training industry. It failed however the situation unfortunately still prevails to this day!

1969

From 2nd June 1969 changes to the driving test included:

  • candidates had to show their driving licence to the examiner at the start of the test and sign the examiner’s attendance sheet
  • vehicles used in the test could not have a dual accelerator control unless this had been rendered inoperable
  • manual and automatic transmission now each had their own category of licence.

In November the first version of the official ‘Driving’ manual was published under the title ‘Driving – the Ministry of Transport Manual’.

1970

All driving instructors now had to be officially registered.

HGV qualified examiners began to take over the testing of large vehicles which had previously been carried out by ‘inspectors.’

1973

The driver licencing system became computerised introduced from 1st March. New green paper licences replaced the old-style red booklets. A full driving licence still had to be renewed every three years.

1975

The need to demonstrate arm signals was no longer a part of the test.

1976

To avoid constant renewing of full licences, they were now valid until the age of 70.

The Stanmore driving examiner training school moved to new purpose built premises at Cardington in Bedfordshire.

1981

The government introduced changes to motorcycle laws to try and cut down on the large number of road accidents:

  • the maximum size of bike a learner could ride became limited to 125cc
  • a two part riding test was introduced which included performing off-road manoeuvres in addition the on-road testing element
  • the provisional motorcycle licence entitlement became limited to 2 years.

1982

Provisional, as well as full licences became valid until the age of 70.

1989

On 1st October a new accompanied motorcycle test was introduced. The part where an examiner stood by the roadside to watch the candidate was replaced by a ‘pursuit test’. The examiner was now to follow the candidate on another motorcycle and to give instruction by radio during the test.

1990

The Driving Standards Agency (DSA) came into being as an executive agency of the Department for Transport on 1st April.

Because of high levels of accidents amongst motorcyclists, compulsory basic training (CBT) became compulsory for all new learner riders. Riders could still go about on ‘L’ plates, the training however ensured that they had a basic level of skill before doing so.

From 1st May, examiners for the first time gave candidates a brief explanation of faults committed during the test instead of just handing over a marked sheet.

1995

The ‘Pass Plus’ scheme popped up its ugly head. The idea of the scheme was to help newly qualified drivers gain driving experience and reduce the risk of them being involved in an accident. To some, this was an open admission by the DSA that the standard of training people received was not good enough; and nor was the standard required to pass the test high enough.

1996

In July the Theory Test began, replacing the Highway Code questions at the end of the practical test.

1997

1st January

  • this year saw the introduction of a new test category for cars towing a large trailer (B+E), previous to this any qualified driver could pull a trailer
  • the theory test also became part of the LGV and PCV tests.

1st March

Photographic ID became a requirement at both practical and theory test centres.

1st June

If a new driver gained six or more penalty points during the first 2 years of driving their licence would be revoked. In this case both theory and practical driving tests must be re-taken.

September

Waiting times between tests for unsuccessful candidates became mandatory:

  • a minimum wait of 10 days between tests for car drivers and motorcycle riders
  • a minimum wait of 3 days between for lorry and bus drivers.

1999

6th April

Cars used for a driving test now required a front passenger seat belt, head restraint and rear-view mirror for the examiner.

4th May

The driving test gets longer. The emergency stop is now carried out in only 33% of tests; and candidates would fail for committing 16 or more driving faults.

1st July

Photocard licences replaced the paper licence.

2001

Candidates could now go online to book their theory test.

2002

The hazard perception element became part of the car and motorcycle theory test for the first time.

2003

‘Show me tell me’ vehicle safety questions became part of the test in September.

Candidates could now go online to book their practical test.

2008

Examiners were now assessing ‘eco-safe’ driving during the test from September. This pointless exercise literally ticked a box to justify the DSA’s stance on green policies but did not attract a driving fault.

2009

The EU launched the Second Directive which required new and more demanding manoeuvres to be tested for motorcycles. Therefore the UK brought in a new 2-part modular motorcycle test which started in April.

A ‘case study’ became part of the theory test in September, resulting in candidates reading a short passage of text before answering questions related to it.

2010

From 6th April, examiners asked candidates if they wanted to take their instructor with them on their test.

Independent driving became part of the practical driving test in October. Candidates had to drive for 10 minutes following a series of directions to show an ability to drive without direction, however, diagrams used for this proved a problem.

2014

DSA and the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) were merged to create the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA).

In April, driving test candidates could no longer use foreign language voiceovers and interpreters on their theory and practical driving tests. The change was made to cut down on widespread fraud (which is still rife), and to make sure that all drivers could read road signs and fully understand the rules of the road.

The ADI ‘Standards Check’ came into being to replace the ADI ‘check test’. This actually made it easier for poor quality instructors to cheat their way through a test which was already far too easy to begin with.

2015

CGI animations replaced the original film clips in the hazard perception part of the theory test in January resulting in it looking more like a video game.

2017

The independent driving element of the driving test changed. Candidates now had to follow either a series of traffic signs for around 20 minutes or to follow directions from a ‘sat nav’.
The ‘show me tell me’ questions also changed, candidates need to give a practical demonstration of controls whilst on the move.

The history of the UK driving test continues….

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