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Last Updated: Monday, 14 March, 2005, 11:26 GMT
Testing times
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Driving test success
Drive time: The number of driving tests peaked in the 1960s
How badly can you fail a driving test? How about not being able to remember where you parked your car?

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the driving test - and since that first test, taken by a Mr Beene, there have been 87 million nervous test entrants trying to show that they are safe to take to the streets.

Most people fail the test, but some have failed more spectacularly than others.

Mike Ambrose, former registrar of the Register of Approved Driving Instructors and test examiner, says that among the most unusual failures were candidates who couldn't find their car after they'd arrived at the test centre.

"You might say to them, 'perhaps you could show me where your car is parked'. And they couldn't find it, or else by the time they did manage to find it so much time had elapsed that it was too late."

Now a road safety adviser to the BSM driving school, he says that on another occasion a candidate arrived at the testing centre without a car. "Possibly he came by bus," he speculated. But he seemed "awestruck" to find that the test wasn't going to be much use without a car.

There were other test-day disasters where the driver locked the keys in the car.

But crashes on driving tests were rare, he said. Although he could still remember the lay-out of the Hillman Minx in which, during a test, a candidate drove straight towards an oncoming lorry. Mr Ambrose grabbed the steering wheel and they went through a hedge, with only pride injured.

Saving lives

Although driving tests have become a set-piece for sit-coms, they have had a very serious impact on road safety - and were credited with reducing road deaths by a thousand in their first year.

Provisional licence from 1947
Eyesight test
Highway Code questions
Emergency Stop
Arm signals
Reverse left
Turn in the road
'General driving'
Source: Driving Standards Agency

The introduction of compulsory tests in Britain came at a time when car ownership and fatal accidents were rising sharply and causing public concern.

In the early 1930s, there had been a 50% increase in cars on the road, up to 1.5 million. And there were more than 7,000 road deaths per year - about twice the present level, when traffic levels are 12 times higher.

In an attempt to regulate this rush of traffic, the early 1930s saw a flurry of safety measures.

Along with the compulsory driving test (fee 10 shillings), the Highway Code was published for the first time, drivers had to be aged at least 17, Belisha beacons were set up on pedestrian crossings, "cat's eyes" were invented and learner drivers were required to put up L-plates.

The decade also saw safety glass being made compulsory for windscreens - after "terrible injuries" had been caused by accidents involving cars with ordinary glass in their windows.

But there were still major differences from anyone taking a test today. There were no seat-belts to fasten - they didn't appear until the 1950s and were not compulsory in the front seats until 1983.

Lowest pass rate

And rather than a Star Trek dashboard of controls and switches, there were tests in arm signals out of the window. These were only withdrawn from the test in 1975.

1930s car
There were twice as many road deaths in the 1930s as at present

More modern additions to the test have included a theory test, introduced in 1996, a "hazard perception" test in 2002 and questions about vehicle safety and maintenance in September 2003.

Not only has the test become more complicated, fewer people are passing. In the first year of tests, there were about a quarter of a million candidates - and almost two-thirds of them passed.

In the 1960s, the pass rate dipped below the 50% mark - and in the current decade, the numbers passing have slumped to an all-time low. The figures for last year showed 1.3m candidates took the test - and only 43% passed, the lowest proportion on record.

The Driving Standards Agency, which is in charge of tests, says 32 million people in the UK currently hold driving licences. And that rigorous testing has helped to reduce deaths and injuries on the roads.

Edmund King of the RAC Foundation agrees that the driving test really has become more difficult.

"It's not like A-levels where people complain that it's got easier over time. I don't think you can say that about the driving test - it has got quite a bit harder," he says.

Straight ahead

But Mr King thinks that there should be a further evolution of the driving test - with more training for drivers after they have passed their test.

1970s cars
Until the 1970s, drivers were tested on hand signals

In particular he wants to reduce the high level of accidents involving drivers who have just passed their test. And he wants more experienced drivers to be encouraged to refresh their knowledge of driving - as a survey for the RAC Foundation found a widespread uncertainty about road signs.

He suggests that an effective incentive would be a substantial price reduction in insurance for drivers who take advanced tests. Insurers could afford such discounts, he says, because better-trained drivers are much less likely to have accidents.

Mike Ambrose also wants to see drivers' skills upgraded after the test, for instance to give them experience of night driving and motorways.

And maybe this should include having to remember where you left the motor.

Have you had any driving-test disaster stories? Do you think that the current driving test is harder than it used to be?

One of my friends at university passed her driving test on something like the 5th attempt. One of the times she drove out of the test centre, up to a roundabout, and then straight over the roundabout - and no it wasn't a mini-roundabout, it was a full-size one! She said it was awful having to then do the full test knowing she'd failed at the beginning!
Jessica , UK

On my test, the car leaving the test centre in front of me pulled straight into the road without looking and crashed into an oncoming car. My examiner merely commented, "Better not do that or I will fail you here and now!". I passed.
Paul, UK

In the early 1960s my father failed his driving test the first time after knocking a village policeman off his bicycle during the test, narrowly escaping a fine for dangerous driving before he had even passed!
Julian, UK

Motorcycle tests used to be conducted with the examiner sending the rider off on a route whilst he wandered round observing from street corners. The emergency stop was tested by the examiner suddenly jumping out in front of the rider waving his clipboard. In Stockport one examiner testing a rider on a blue scooter jumped out in front of a blue scooter - the wrong one - and was run over.
David Walker, UK

I close friend of mine who shall remain nameless, decided he would turn the radio on during his driving test, he thought he might as well have some music on while he was doing it. Not surprisingly the examiner took a dim view and he failed.
kev, Uk

On my driving test I swerved to avoid an injured pigeon and ended up in the path of an articulated lorry. At this point I did the sensible thing and closed my eyes. My instructor took the wheel and deposited us in the roadside ditch. Upon opening them I discovered my instructor was nearly in tears and shock horror I had failed!!!!!
Kathryn, UK

I was once in the Hendon testing centre waiting to be taken out for my motorcycle test. We were having a quiet conversation when from behind we heard an almighty crash. Someone returning from their driving test made a misjudgement and went into the gatepost of the test centre. We heard later that apart from that she would have probably passed her test.
Nick Ward, UK

I clipped the curb twice on my first driving test - and still passed! I think being relaxed and confident has more to do with passing than outright skill. Also, I learnt to drive in the winter and at night which helped me a lot during my first year of solo driving. Didn't reduce my insurance premiums though!
Liz, UK

A friend of mine failed his test twice - once by running over the foot of a policeman and then the second time by taking his wing mirror off on a milk float. All in all though it seemed safer being in the car with him than outside it!
Kate, UK

My driving test was 10 years ago. On that day, the examiner was ill and one from outside of the area was drafted in. As the replacement didn't know the area, I was instructed to drive where I wanted for the next 40 minutes. I subsequently avoided the more challenging areas and had a nice leisurely drive (and pass).
rich, woking , surrey

Having spent two hours every week since March 2003 having driving lessons I was pleased when I felt confident enough to put in for my practical test in November 2004. It was not to be though as my examiner never turned up, apparently he had turned up at completely the wrong test centre and I had to go back to work feeling deflated Thankfully I retook the test in January 2005 and passed!
Hayley Wookey, United Kingdom

I was a nervous wreck and my T-shirt was wringing wet (with sweat) before the test. My instructor turned up - a nice guy but he must have weighed at least 20 stone. When he got into the car it leaned alarmingly to the left and made going round right hand turns a bit tricky (as the car seemed to be on two wheels). You can imagine the fun I had trying to go round a roundabout. During the emergency stop exercise he had to shift himself forward to slap the dashboard, so I knew when it was coming. Consquently, I hit the brakes almost instantaneously with him hitting the dashboard, resulting in the instructor banging his head against the windscreen. Apart from all that I actually passed that day.
Phil Broeders, UK

I took my first test in 1963 in an Austin A40 -and failed just because I was signalling to turn right using hand signals and changing gear with my other hand at the same time!
Alan Glenister, UK

It may not be common to have an accident on your driving test but sadly i was one of those who did. It was 1988 and in Harrogate. I was coming up to a cross roads and i had right of way, sadly a driver from Leeds didnt realise this and overtook a car at the junction to smash right into me (well actually i smashed into him!) I did swerve but it was all to late and the car was a right off, luckily noone was injured though i couldnt stop laughing, through nerves. Quite a few passerbys stopped and had a giggle at my expense and no matter how much i said it wasnt my fault they didn't believe me. The test examiner said that if i had completed the roundabout section then he would have passed me. I hasten to add i didn't pass or fail this test it was just stopped.
Mike Cassar, UK

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