The Origin of the Species

The driving test was originally laid down in the mid 30’s, and has been almost totally preserved in its original form.

There were good reasons for everything that was included in the test. In those days you could buy a motor car, jump in and go for your test, without ever going on the road in between, and many did just that.

The original reasons for the curriculum have now been forgotten. New reasons have been put forward and it has been forgotten why they were there in the first place.

The actual difficulty of the test has evolved naturally due to the increasing complexity of modern conditions. Darwin would have been pleased! However, whether we really still need some of the detail arrangements is debatable. Let us see how it all came about.

The Eyesight Test
In those far off days when the test first appeared, glasses were a luxury. They were often handed down like an heirloom. That they were probably totally unsuitable for the new owner was not understood by the general public. Consequently there were many people who were quite severely affected by bad eyesight, and thought nothing of it. So far as driving is concerned, this is dangerous, and had to be addressed. Hence the crude test of reading a number plate. It is not a proper eyesight test, it is very susceptible to nervous tension and serves no useful purpose any more, for the simple reason that whenever they couldn’t see properly, their driving suffered too, and they weren’t going to pass anyway. I used to get about one eyesight test failure a year. It was nearly always due to nervous tension affecting the eye muscles, sometimes this is made worse by an unsympathetic examiner. Let’s get rid of it.

The Emergency Stop
In the very early days of the test, many cars used thin wire cables or rods to connect the brakes to the brake pedal. These stretched and produced unpredictable, and very alarming and potentially dangerous results. Some only worked properly the first time they were used after setting up. A car could leap sideways several feet under emergency braking, with control not helped by a possible quarter of a turn of free play at the steering wheel. Some just gradually came to a halt. Some would snap a cable, or a rod coupling. It was by no means certain that the candidate had ever done one before. All this had to be sorted early in the test, which is why this exercise was and usually still is, the first one. The reason given now for it being first is “to get it out of the way, because the candidate is nervous about it”. Candidates would be a lot less nervous without it at all. If it was made compulsory that any car coming to the driving test had dual controls fitted, which in my opinion should be the case, there would be no danger.

Corner Reverse
Cars in those days mostly had tall bodies, thick door pillars, and most crucially, sometimes a very small rear window. Rear observation was very poor. It had to be discovered whether the candidate could reverse into a narrow opening successfully. Side roads were not originally always used for this. Gateways were also used. This was the case in my test in 1950. Why does the examiner (usually) pull you up before the opening to be used? To give you the instructions? Nonsense, sufficient warning can be given on the approach, with full instructions when stopped just past the opening. Indeed this often has to be the way it is done, if cars block the kerb before the opening. Why then are you pulled up before the opening? Arm signals, that’s why! That’s what you used to have to do in the 30’s, and much later, of course. Many gave the wrong arm signal for pulling into the side of the road. They gave the turning left signal, instead of the slowing down signal, or a combination of both. Imagine the effect of this on a vehicle waiting to come out of the side road or opening ahead. Thinking you were turning in, it would move off – right across your front! With the brakes of yesteryear, an accident was almost inevitable. Hence the pulling up before the opening. With the visibility of to-day’s cars, this need to test reversing is long redundant.

Turn in the Road
Or Three Point Turn. So what was this for then? In those days the roads were almost deserted. In fact there was a provision for giving the instruction “Throughout the test I would like you to drive as if there is traffic behind, and give the appropriate signals”. This was done because if there was nothing around, you did not have to give an arm signal, because your hands were better employed on the wheel. Also, in those days, normally no traffic jams, no crawling along, no manoeuvering in tight spaces as in heavy traffic. So this is what the Turn in the Road is for – to demonstrate ability to control the car in a restricted space. Hardly needed these days.

Hill Start
And not compulsory, because some areas simply have no suitable hills! Why was it included if possible? Because cars then were very heavy, had extremely feeble power and fragile, fierce clutches. I remember an Austin Seven which had a total clutch movement of about two centimetres or one inch. It was either in or out, no in-between. It was quite a feat of skill to get away smoothly on a steep hill, and if really steep, sometimes impossible. So some sort of test of this skill, on a moderate hill, was included. But now? I think not. I had about three hill start fails in about 30,000 tests.

Reverse or Parallel Parking
This was introduced a few years ago and marked possibly the first major change in the practical test since its inception. The reasons given were to include something that modern drivers had to do on a daily basis., and to bring the test into the 21st century.

It was introduced to give examiners a choice of two out of three manoeuvres. Suitable corner reverses or clear stretches both sides for a turn in the road were becoming increasingly difficult to find. The very same parked cars that precluded a turn, made a reverse park possible, so some of the pressure was off examiners. In my own experience, few candidates had much difficulty in completing this manoeuvre within the wide parameters allowed.


Let’s Get Rif of The Lot

Yes, of course, done. But wait a minute! The manoeuvres at least form an important part of training. Quite so. This is about the test, not the training. All the manoeuvres must remain as a mandatory part of training, like learning the alphabet before starting to read. No English exam asks you to write down the alphabet though, so why should we ask candidates for the driving test to demonstrate a learning aid?

So what would we be left with? Driving. I thought that was what it was all supposed to be about. So what have examiners been doing for the last thirty or so years – largely wasting their time, which is one reason why the most successful group in the test, young males, have the highest accident record. The manoeuvres are about car control, which they, as a group, are better at than the ladies. We only see them for a few minutes, in between pointless manoeuvres which most of them could do with their eyes shut. The ladies get all upset when they think they have done badly at one of the set exercises, so drive less well in between and fail.

Without the pointless, and stressful (for the candidate) manoeuvres, we could devote the full 45 minutes or so to real driving, covering about 18 miles instead of the present 5 and a bit. Sounds good to me.

Except for the tiny minority who continue to improve throughout their driving experience, it can be truthfully said that in most cases, the standard reached during their successful driving test is a peak they never attain again. The general trend is to sink into a sort of morass, where the benefits of experience and becoming “street wise” are lost in a sea of bad habits, and sometimes downright dangerous ones, with the assumption that if the destination is reached without hitting anything, then it must have been done okay.

There is a sort of truth in that, of course, but it is their growing database of experience that is getting them out of the trouble that they increasingly get themselves into. Some abandon the “correct” way of doing it deliberately and immediately after their test, preferring to do it “their way” straight away. It is this group, predominently young males, who form the largest accident group.

I would propose that a re-test is undertaken, not more or less often than every two years, on the same lines as the test proposed above, with a fail meaning back to “L” plates and another full test. I honestly believe this would make an enormous contribution to making the roads a safer place.

I would appreciate hearing your views on this, so please email me by using the link.