What is the driving test for? : Notes on its social function at the 80th anniversary


Churchill in 1911 (Photo: Daily Mail)
“Few accidents arise… from ignorance of how to drive, and a much more frequent cause of disaster is undue proficiency leading to excessive adventure”. Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, responding to a 1911 TUC delegation demanding the introduction of a driving test.

As we approach the 80th anniversary of the compulsory driving test in the UK, there will be some discussion of how there could be modifications of the current driving test. There will be calls for a ”graduated driving test” and possibly even the argument that drivers should retake “the test”.

I take a different approach. I argue that, however much it has been modified or tweaked, the role of the “test” is actually to boost the sense of entitlement of drivers – encouraging the sense of “undue proficiency” that Churchill perceptively noticed. Whatever benefits it may have are thus diminished, and I doubt whether it has a significant – or indeed perhaps any – overall function as a means of controlling road danger.

Saying this is rather taboo, but I think that this taboo needs to be broken. Let’s see how the compulsory driving test for motorists is in many ways part of the problem of danger on the roads. Below I enclose what I wrote about “the test” in 1992 (fully referenced version here)Page 108 – 111, and then I see whether anything has changed since then.DrivingTest1

Congratulatory cards: What is “the great achievement”?

From: “Death on the Streets: cars and the mythology of road safety”

Safety and “the test”

  1. The struggle for “the test”

The driving test which British motorists must pass in order to possess a valid driving licence was brought in only after prolonged campaigning, against bitter opposition. As early as 1903, debate in Parliament and elsewhere had mentioned the need for a means of testing people before they could be entrusted with a motorcar.’° Along with associated demands from a public increasingly concerned about a rising total of road deaths for measures such as speed limits, compulsory insurance, law enforcement, licensing and the registration and numbering of vehicles, its introduction was fought with tenacity by the motoring organisations. As one account of this battle, which is not unsympathetic to the motorists’ cause, states: “What they had to overcome in order to get the necessary legislation on the statute books was the determined, articulate and well-financed opposition of the powerful car lobby.” Considering the road and vehicle conditions of the 1930s, the campaigners’ case for a test seems irrefutable, and the opposition to it an example of how ruthless the motorists’ lobby could be.

Yet there was a good deal of humility in the approach of the campaigners, whether in organisations such as the Pedestrians’ Association for Road Safety or leader writers reflecting public horror at a road toll which had reached an all-time high in 1934, the year before the introduction of “the test”. There was no basic opposition to mass motoring as such from the campaigners. Despite the fact that a minority of road users had completely transformed the road environment in less than two decades, their demands were moderate, to say the least. The call for a 30 mph speed limit, for example, has to be seen in the context of poor and unreliable braking capacity, less reliable road surfaces and road layouts far more difficult to negotiate than now.

Private motoring was exclusively a middle- and upper-class pursuit, cycling a predominantly working class one; but the issue was rarely seen as one of class politics) The campaign for “the test” was, then, a request for motorists to become a little more responsible, rather than a serious attempt at control. Part of a humble and placid approach, it was typified by those campaigners who tried to achieve their ends, like cycling and pedestrian safety campaigners today, by friendly persuasion using their own driving behaviour as an example.

If they could drive with care and respect for other road users, why couldn’t other motorists? Like other approaches skirting the fundamental problems of road danger, the campaign was always going to have limited or even negative results. The dangers of the driving test – so accurately perceived by Churchill were not (and are still not) appreciated. Instead the RAC complained that it would be wrong to demand a test for a driving licence when one was not required for a dog licence. In the event, driving tests became compulsory for new licence holders from June 1935. It was a double-edged victory. Benefits are not only inadequate in terms of screening out incompetent drivers or providing proper training, but are absorbed by encouraging feelings of pride and supposed fulfilment of responsibility.

2. The nature of “the test”

After a period of instruction, learner drivers are required to drive for about half an hour showing knowledge of the Highway Code and the ability to carry out basic manoeuvres. This is probably the last time that many drivers seriously attempt to obey the Highway Code. Roadside observation indicates frequent and regular rule breaking by many, if not most, motorists. And spot checks reveal that most motorists are ignorant of basic elements of knowledge of driving that they may be examined on in “the test”, such as ability to recognise basic road signs.’

The chances of being caught for behaviour which flouts the Highway Code is, as shown in Chapter 7 of this book, minimal, even for those potentially dangerous behaviours which can be seen. if there is no attempt to ensure that people obey the laws they are supposed to follow, why get them to display knowledge of them? Also, as the existence of so-called advance driver training indicates, why test at such a low level? And why the implicit assumption that unlike for any other semi-skilled task people’s ability will not decrease over time (with ‘the test’ occurring once in a lifetime if driving)

There is a defence of “the test” against these charges. It is that about half of those taking it fail, and that therefore it must be a stringent examination of driving skills. The Department of Transport does not bother to compile figures dealing with long term chances of passing. My impression is that those who are determined to gain a driving licence find it quite easy to pass “the test” by taking it again and again, without necessarily acquiring more skills. I would argue that a real indicator of chances of passing for those prepared to take a test, for example, five times, would be nearer 80 to 95 per cent. These are not new criticisms. It should be obvious that taking “the test” is of little value in preventing motorists from being dangerous. Despite this it is still thought of as an important commitment, or even concession, made by motorists which cyclists (or even pedestrians) get away with not making.’

Even a difficult, regularly repeated test would not close the gap in the potential to break regulations or inflict damage that exists between motorists and the benign road user groups. Not only is “the test” a weak control, then, its social function is largely to provide a defence against accusations of antisocial behaviour, whether it actually minimises the likelihood of antisocial behaviour or not. The reason for putting inverted commas around the phrase “the test” is partly to cast doubt on its supposed function as a genuine restriction of dangerous behaviour. It also needs to be seen as an element in the successful completion of a rite of passage. Its role is to confer on the person who passes the idea that they have become a responsible road user, superior to others who have not. In this sense “the test” is dangerous anybody seriously committed to a career of careful driving needs a sense of humility, rather than the pride associated with passing. It is arguable that its existence does more harm than good.

Nearly 60 years after its introduction, initial results were published of research on whether drivers who had passed “the test” would be able to pass it within the following two years. In a survey of 400 such motorists, just under half were unable to pass it. The main reason given for their failure was overconfidence.’

3. A proper test?

To meet the criticisms of inadequate training and testing, and that testing should occur after the driver has some experience of driving alone, various forms of advanced driver training have been introduced. They are also open to criticism. First, there is doubt about the levels of effectiveness of the various tests for those who take them. Particularly at the level of the less sophisticated defensive driver training, there may be no benefit in terms of reduced tendency to become involved in accidents.’

There is, however, evidence that people who pass an advanced driver test will have better accident records afterwards than those who fail it. The most frequently quoted is a 1972 TRRL study of the difference between successful and unsuccessful Institute of Advanced Motorists (JAM) test candidates. Those passing had 25 per cent fewer accidents over a three-year period after the test than those failing. The JAM claims a conviction rate among its motorists of 1.9 per cent as against a national average of 10.4 per cent, although this is not corrected for age and other variables – those who want to take the lAM test may in the first place already be less likely to have accidents than a national average. For this reason the possibility of making such a test compulsory has been raised since at least the late 1960s. It has been opposed successfully on the grounds that “the cost of introducing and maintaining such a test is… unacceptably high.

But this is only part of the story. Training which would teach people how to drive carefully is time-consuming, particularly if regularly repeated. Besides, a substantial proportion of the current licence holders at present on the road would lose their licences if regular testing at a proficient level were required. It is estimated that if the RoSPA advanced drivers test were to be compulsory for licence holders, some 30 to 40 per cent of current drivers would lose their licences, even after being offered appropriate training. The motoring organisations are unlikely to support a measure which would sizeably reduce their membership, revenue and power.

More demanding training and testing are limited for the same reasons that limit all attempts to control the dangers which motorists present to others – namely the unwillingness of motorists to accept them. At present the membership of the 1AM constitutes some 90,000, or about 0.45 per cent of all licensed motorists, with a smaller number of motorists having passed other similar tests. This tiny minority are a self-selected group prepared to admit that their skills might possibly be deficient. Central to the ideology of the motorist is the idea that driving is a personal, private matter. When added to notions of prestige and pride, this is hardly likely to lead to the kind of humility and self-criticism required to accept repeated rigorous training and testing.


So what has happened since I wrote the above over twenty years ago?

A current subject for “road safety” practitioners is “graduated licensing” for new drivers, as those drivers who have most recently passed their test are still the riskiest group on the road, prompting concern that the current testing system is outdated and irrelevant”.

Of course, part of the reason for recent graduates being “still the riskiest group” is precisely the fact that they have passed the driving test and taken on the pride and over-confidence that this means – something which won’t be addressed by graduated licensing. Probably the main reason this group is “still the riskiest group” is that it is composed of young – generally higher risk-taking – people. That would only be changed by restricting to driving to people over the age of 21 (or perhaps higher), but that isn’t on the cards.

Another perennial issue is that of drivers in their old age. The transport planner John Dales has suggested that it is a mark of “how low we have sunk” that people only have to take a driving test once, and can then drive for decades without being re-tested. During that time highway and car environments have changed, and reaction times and psycho-motor reflexes slow. So it would make sense to have another driving test for elderly people, or one every five years or so, to weed out those who become incompetent.

However, a “road safety” organisation advocating this stresses that it “would be voluntary and ‘non-threatening’. Last year I gave an example of a collision I witnessed (Case 4 here) where a “driver education course” was an alternative to the trivial “punishment” likely to follow a careless driving prosecution, with the elderly driver who had injured somebody ending up paying less (from an increased insurance premium following conviction) as well as avoiding a fine and a few penalty points.


Even a mandatory test for elderly drivers would be unlikely to address problems of fatigue and physical decline, as the test could be carefully prepared for. Anything which acted to control danger from drivers, elderly or otherwise, is, again, not on the cards.

Or there is the question of pass rates. The authorities proudly show how many fail the different parts of the test on each try. But how many people have you ever come across who were genuinely committed to getting a driving license who simply found the business of “passing the test” too arduous? Leaving aside some people with learning difficulties and a few outliers, I would say very few at all. Any weeding out which occurs is quite minimal, and more than outweighed by the sense of pride and entitlement – the great achievement shown in the congratulatory card above – resulting from passing. Of course the test could be repeated, but that might involve disqualifying some drivers – so it is not on the cards. The best of all would be to examine drivers without them being aware of scrutiny (through on-board cameras etc). No, that too is not on the cards – how many people would be able to avoid being banned from driving if their everyday driving failed to follow the standards of their behaviour on the one occasion where they have to drive properly?



The social function of the test

All this points towards asking why the test is there in the first place. I find I have to restate the conclusions I arrived at a couple of decades ago: the compulsory driving test is there as part of the structure of a society organised around a culture which is not just characterised by dependence on car usage, but by dependence on more dependence on car usage, and uncritical rejection of any real attempt to address the disbenefits of such a society. It is in thrall to a belief system where motorists can aspire to drive where, when and how they want, for whatever reason, with minimal restriction. Then there is the built-in sense of entitlement and wounded victimhood.

One particularly unpleasant aspect of this is the rampant prejudice against cyclists. Today (26/05/2015) BBC Radio 4 ran a programme asking listeners to submit problems they had had as pedestrians where their safety had been compromised. This referred not to the vast majority of such incidents, where motor vehicles are involved, but instead to the tiny minority where cyclists are. Despite evidence showing the relative lack of threat to pedestrians or others, such mystification myth-creation proceeds apace, while road danger created by motor vehicle users is apparently accepted. And one of the ways it has come to be accepted is by the mistaken notion that drivers have fulfilled their responsibilities by “taking a test”.

This has important implications for those concerned about displays of bigotry from the official national broadcasting organisation. And professionals and campaigners concerned with safety on the road should be concerned – not least since we are told that drivers need all sorts of highway and vehicle engineering because of their propensity to crash, and negative views towards other road users who are their potential victims are the last thing needed and a very real problem. A basic reaction is to argue that it is motorists who need proper regulation and accountability, rather than cyclists.

But this, as with much “road safety” ideology, is a case of getting hold of the wrong end of the stick, not once, but twice over. What is required apart from pointing in the right direction (towards the motorised) is a realisation that “passing a test” – one of the supposed solutions to the supposed problem of mass danger from errant cyclists – is that the driving test is itself part of the problem.


4 thoughts on “What is the driving test for? : Notes on its social function at the 80th anniversary

  1. meltdblog

    Graduated licensing has been showing some good results in Australia:

    Click to access gls.pdf

    One of the major changes being the longer period of supervised driving required, largely gone are the days when someone would get their provisional license at 17 or 18 having never driven at night or in the wet. Beyond that longer period of required instruction the rest of the measures are largely increased penalties or tighter restrictions than those that are placed on all drivers.

    But, passing the initial driving license test to get an unaccompanied (provisional) license starts the decline of the drivers accountability. They are held to an extraordinarily high standard which after passing is no longer required of them, the test in Australia is above and beyond the road rules and requires the driver to demonstrate behaviours which cannot be (and are not) enforced in their future driving. This could well be reinforcing the inflated sense of skill and accomplishment discussed. If we test drivers to such a high standard why should we not require them to then behave in that manner?

    The penalties for poor driving behaviour are slowly reduced as the driver gains experience, backed by research showing the lesser effect to be balanced against convenience/utility but elderly drivers are somewhat of a sacred cow and not to be disturbed. But even simple issues as changes to the road rules are so poorly communicated to the public that someone who passed a license test 10, 20, or 40 years ago would be woefully out of date in their knowledge of the current rules. A recurring test of sorts would be a subtle way to require people to learn something, not just a measure of how they have retained their existing skill. Even without a driving component to such a test, just a small number of difficult multiple choice questions drawn from a large corpus (as used in some Australian jurisdictions for their written tests such as here: http://www.rms.nsw.gov.au/roads/licence/driver/tests/practice-dkt.html) would compel drivers to better understand the behaviour and knowledge required of them.

  2. fonant

    The oddest part of the whole driving-test-to-get-a-licence thing is that, once you have passed the Test (perhaps in your late teens) to gain a full driving licence, you’re very unlikely to lose that licence even if you consistently drive in a manner that would result in an instant failure of the Test. Surely if someone drives in a way that would result in a Test failure, they should lose their licence to drive until they’ve re-passed the Test? That would perhaps help drivers to obey legal maximum speed limits, red traffic lights, etc. Existing drivers *should* find it easy enough to re-take the Test and pass!

    So, yes, I agree, the Test does seem to be “safety theatre” rather than any real attempt to reduce road danger. It is an interesting idea that dropping the Test might result in individual motorists taking more responsibility for their driving capabilities and standards.

    On the new driver risk front, a large part of driving “safely” is down to experience of the types of unexpected thing that can sometimes occur. Like a slow tractor just round the corner on a country lane, or a sports car coming round a roundabout faster than normal. Having several “near miss” experiences does wonders for one’s defensive driving skills, much more so than learning “mirror, signal, manoeuvre” does. Driving is a constant risk-assessment exercise: “Can I pull out in a gap in traffic that long? How fast can I take this corner, given the tiny risk that there’s a solid blockage just out of sight?”. I think there’s a strong argument to raise the minimum driving age to an age when people have more responsibilities in other areas of their life, such as children. That too adjusts the risk thermostat of the driver to a cooler setting.

    1. Kameleon

      As fonant says, “You’re very unlikely to lose that licence even if you consistently drive in a manner that would result in an instant failure of the Test”, I wholeheartedly agree.

      I failed my test twice last year, and am soon retaking it again after getting back closer to test standard. I do not feel completely ready though, not as a driver on the road as I can handle most situations, but I feel unready for the test. I will always be not ready for the test because I hate tests and crumble in test situations. I never crumble with my instructor, and never crumble with my father out in his car. The test itself is invasive, causing a good driver to fail where he may normally be fine. I’m a veteran teacher, and still now I get nervous when being observed by my superiors, it’s just the way it is.

      What makes me actually angry though is seeing bad driving on the road constantly, and I mean consistently. The errors I see would result in a test fail and no licence, but the same maneuvers or much worse are ignored, forgotten, and simply allowed to go on, yet they keep their licences. It’s an atrocious system and a cash cow for the government to profit on nervous drivers or those who make even an unusual mistake that they may never do without an official sitting right next to them with a clip board marking down what you do wrong – yes, all we are are people that make mistakes – we get no, “That was a good turn in the road” whilst driving, we get a pen moving on a board that later tells us how we cannot drive on the road unless under supervision – whilst other drivers pass by, in front of the examiners eyes, making worse mistakes… It’s an awful system.

      The only real way to truly judge a driver’s skill is to make it an ongoing, over the course of your whole instruction review. Video record the lessons, look at the patterns in which the learner drives – are these errors persistent? It may well be time consuming, but you will get a much clearer picture, much more accurate assessment of a driver.

      1. rdrf Post author

        Interesting point, which is often made. Apart from needing a re-design of testing,would it actually deal with the “bad driving on the road, constantly , and I eman consistently” that you refer to. Is this bad driving just “errors” that would be eradicated by your method of trsting? Or would drivers drive in the correct way during the testing period and then drive badly in various ways afterwards as they do after the test now?

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