The Story of The Driving Test

So what is a driving test?

Boy passing his driving test

It is a test of driving competence, judged on what the examiner sees at that exact time and place. Essentially, it is the same test it has always been however, it has evolved to meet the ever-changing conditions.

The test can be described as self-regulating. This means that while in itself, it’s pretty much the same, the extra traffic on the road makes it more and more difficult.

The test means different things to different people. Here we will take a quick look at what those differences are.

People crowed to gether

To Society: It’s a right of passage from which you receive your freedom. Even The Queen has a Driving Licence. The fact she doesn’t need to drive, as she has 8 chauffeurs from the Royal Household to call on is neither here nor there. She still learnt and learning to drive is one of the things that binds us together as a people. A common experience that is shared by most.

The houses of Parliament

To Government: The DVSA are the people who run The Driving Tests. Their aim is for you to be consistently safe with a bit of confidence in your driving. As we are all equal in the eyes of the law, all driving tests are as similar as possible. Obviously, we can’t all do the same test route with the same examiner but all tests will be to the same standard over similar routes. Another common experience.

Nervous young lady

The Candidate: If you’re ready, The Driving Test is easy, it’s the examiner that adds the pressure and makes it difficult. The way to cope with the pressure and for the best chance of passing is by giving the DVSA what they want. Being consistently safe but showing confidence in your driving. How do you know you’re ready? Would you be happy driving by yourself the day after you pass your test? Make sure you have an honest conversation with your instructor before you book your driving test. They will know when you’re ready.

driving instructor with his pupil

The Instructor: It’s a bittersweet moment when your pupil passes. You have grown to know and love them, and then they leave you! The knot in your instructor’s stomach becomes a feeling of joy when a pupil passes their test. For an instructor, the happiness that comes with a test pass surpasses the sadness of saying goodbye to a pupil.


The Examiner: These are the people who conduct The Driving Test. What might they be thinking? Their job is to see that you are consistently safe and driving with confidence. But how? Think about what an examiner might ask themselves during a test. Maybe it’s questions like, would I want them driving my car or would I want them driving near my car?

The Law

The origin of the Driving Test comes from The Motor Car Act 1903. The act meant that both vehicles and drivers had to be licenced. In those days, the licence cost was 5 shillings which is only about 25 pence! Once The Motor Car Act was brought in, you could be fined £5 for not having a licence.  It also brought the speed limit up to 20 mph and made sure that the brakes met a certain standard.

The next major piece of legislation was The Road Traffic Act 1930. This abolished speed limits for vehicles with less than 7 seats and brought in various offences like dangerous, reckless and careless driving. The Road Traffic Act 1930 also introduced The Highway Code. It made Third Party Motor Insurance compulsory and required driver testing for the disabled.

So the driving tests for the disabled were the first driving tests for ordinary car users. What they wanted to know was that the disabled driver was able to control their vehicle and the control of the vehicle is the basis of all driving tests today.

Road Traffic Act 1934:

Now that all drivers had to be licenced it was decided that they should also all be tested, not just those with disabilities. This was introduced by The Road Traffic Act 1934 and was a direct response to the level of road casualties. The other major provision was the re-introduction of the 30 mph speed limit.

For about 2.5 million cars there were 7,300 road deaths, of these deaths over half were pedestrians with three-quarters of these occurring in built-up areas. Compare this to the 30 million cars nowadays with about 1,700 road deaths of which only 470 are pedestrians casualties.

Dog enjoying being in a car

Naturally, motoring organisations like the RAC and The AA resisted this new legislation. Moore-Brabazon MP rallied against it in the House of Commons.

“Yes, he conceded, 7,000 people a year were being killed on the roads, but it is not always going to be like that. People are getting used to new conditions. Older members of the House will recollect the number of chickens we killed in the early days of motoring. We used to come back with the radiator stuffed with feathers. It was the same with dogs. Dogs get out of the way of motor cars nowadays and you never kill one. There is education even in the lower animals. These things will right themselves. Why such concern over 7,000 road deaths a year?”

He also said more than 6,000 people commit suicide every year, and nobody makes a fuss about that!

The thing is, he was a decent bloke for that time.  Served his country both in peace and in war. Decorated for bravery during the first world war and served as a minister during the second. Was a pioneer in the words of aviation, yachting and motoring. But he had a certain view and it’s opposed to what we would think today. But also not entirely uncommon amongst his peers either.

What do you think? Was Moore-Brabazon right or wrong?

1st June 1935

The law changed on 1st June 1935, making the Driving Test compulsory, but in order to not create too big a rush, voluntary testing was introduced on the 16th March 1935. The first person to pass was a Mr R Breere who did so at a cost of only 7/6d (37.5p) on that day!

This change of law meant that compulsory testing was for all drivers and riders who started driving on or after 1st April 1934.

Driving test sign

The Examiners were trained ‘on the job’ and were responsible for handling the booking of driving tests. They used to meet candidates at pre-arranged locations such as car parks or railway stations because there were no test centres. The first overall pass rate was 63% which seems slightly scary considering that some of the people who failed were already driving!

When World War 2 arrived, driving tests were suspended from 2nd September 1939 until 1st November 1946. During the war, the examiners were redeployed to traffic duties and supervision of fuel rationing.

10/- driving test

By 1950 the pass rate had gone down to 50%. Remember, we mentioned that the driving test was and still is self-regulating? Well more traffic and more interactions with other cars mean more chances to fail. All the time the pass rate was falling the test fees were rising. In 1950 the test cost 10/- (50p) and by 1956 it was £1, the equivalent to almost £25 in 2019. You’ll have probably noticed but the pass rate falling and the test fee rising are a theme throughout the story of the driving test!

Motorway sign late 50's

Driving in the UK started to evolve rather quickly after the 50s. Did you know that the M6 Preston bypass was the first stretch of motorway built in December 1958? The M1 officially opened on 2 November 1959 but in the early days it had none of the following:

  • speed limit
  • central reservation
  • crash barriers
  • motorway lighting

Moving into the 60s…from 1 April 1962, people who had held more than 7 provisional licences were required to take a driving test. If they failed to do so, the licensing authority could refuse a further application for a licence.

The Law and driving tests

In 1964 a voluntary register of approved driving instructors (ADIs) was set up under the Road Traffic Act 1962. In order to become an ADI, you had to pass stringent written and practical tests.

New drink-drive laws came into force on 8 October 1967 where the legal limit was 80mg alcohol in 100ml blood. In 1968 the test fee was increased to £1 and 15 shillings (£1.75p) and changes to the driving test from 2 June 1969 included:

  • vehicles used in the test must not have dual accelerator control unless this had been made inoperable
  • a separate driving licence group for automatic vehicles was introduced
  • candidates were required to produce their driving licence to the examiner at the test and sign the examiner’s attendance record – examiners could refuse to conduct a test if these requirements were not met

It’s hard nowadays to imagine not having a motorway, not having a drink driving limit and only paying £1.75 for a driving test! But as our roads got busier these changes were essential. Motorways kept traffic flowing and drink driving limits saved lives. Imagine what our roads would be like if these things weren’t implemented?

By 1970 all driving instructors now had to be officially registered and from May 1975 candidates no longer had to demonstrate arm signals in the driving test.

From 1st May 1990, examiners started to give feedback, they gave candidates a brief explanation of faults committed during the test, plus advice on areas for improvement. From October 1990, under the new legislation, anyone accompanying a learner driver had to be at least 21 and must have held a driving licence for a minimum of 3 years which is still true to this day.

Lady taking driving test

In April of 1991 reverse parking became part of the driving test, this was as a result of more and more traffic on the road and people passing their driving test but not being able to park!

On 1st July 1996, the (separate) theory test was introduced. It replaced questions asked about The Highway Code during the driving test. A lot of people tried to beat the deadline meaning the driving instruction industry boomed and then, of course, slumped.

Photographic ID was required for both practical and theory tests from 1st March 1997. From 1st June 1997, if a new driver gained 6 or more penalty points during the first 2 years of driving, they lost their licence and must retake both the theory and practical driving test before being allowed back on the roads.

On 29th September 1997, waiting times between tests were reintroduced for unsuccessful candidates. For car drivers, there was a minimum wait of 10 days between tests.

In February 1999, the newly revised Highway Code was published, with current advice and up-to-date legislation for all road users.

Bay park space

On 5th May 1999, the Bay Park was introduced. Glen Robbins of driving-pro lays claim to being the first test pass on that day in the South of England, if not the whole of the UK.

As you can see, as the roads got busier the rules had to evolve more quickly. Imagine today not having to learn how to park your car or not having to take your theory test. Yes, it might be easier but do you think you’d be a safe driver?

In 2002 a hazard perception element was introduced into the theory test; this uses video clips to test candidates’ awareness of hazards on the road. The ‘Show me’ and ‘tell me’ vehicle safety questions that we always go on about were added to the beginning of the driving test on 1 September 2003.

following road signs

It was only since 6th April 2010, that driving test candidates have been encouraged to take their instructor with them on their test. Then on 4th October 2010, independent driving became part of the practical driving test, this is when candidates have to drive for 10 mins making their own decisions.

On 7th April 2014, driving test candidates were stopped from being able to use foreign language voiceovers and interpreters on their theory and practical driving tests. The change was made to cut out the risk of fraud, to make sure that all drivers can read road signs and fully understand the rules of the road.

Following satnav

Some of the biggest changes to the driving test were introduced recently on 4th December 2017. These included following directions from a sat nav and testing different manoeuvres. We said goodbye to the corner reverse and the turn in the road. In came, driving into a bay and pulling up on the right. Fast moving country roads were also included in the test in response to the accident rate on those roads by new drivers. Show Me Tell Me questions and how they are conducted changed, these questions are now asked on the move. All in all, it’s a lot more like real life although some driving instructors predict that these changes will mean the end of western civilisation as we know it.

The latest change on 4th June 2018 was for learner drivers and not the driving test. The change in law meant that learner drivers were allowed to take motorway driving lessons for the first time, although they have to be with an ADI and driving a car with dual controls. The welcome change in law was made to help to make sure more drivers knew how to use motorways safely and confidently. Driving-pro instructor Liam Greaney lays claim to being the first instructor with a learner on the motorway. He even made it into the local news!

All in all, since the driving test was introduced it has responded to the needs of society, as have the roads and the law. As roads become more congested the test becomes harder to pass but at the end of the day, the driving test is a test of competence and to evaluate if you will be safe on the roads. Yes, it’s frustrating to fail a driving test but it’d be devastating if you were to cause an accident because you weren’t ready to drive.