75 Years of the UK Driving Test – Is the system working?

Every year, around 2 million driving tests are conducted in the UK of which over 98% are carried out in a ‘driving school’ vehicle. That means over 98% of new drivers have had some contact and, one would hope, input from a ‘qualified’ driving instructor. Despite having received input and influence from their chosen ‘professional’ instructor 57% of all tests will result in a fail.
Regardless of whether the candidate passes on their first or their umpteenth attempt, the newly licensed driver is at least 5 times more likely to be involved in a serious motoring incident, in the first 2 years after passing the test, than a driver with more than 2 years experience. It is a fact that more teenagers die as the result of a motoring incident than from any other cause.
Although much research has been done by various bodies in the last 20 years to identify some of the causes, some of the findings have been obvious for many years. Unfortunately the obvious conclusions and the implementation of the necessary solutions may not be popular in many quarters, particularly the commercial end of the business.
There are a number of reasons why so many test candidates achieve such abysmally poor results when they present themselves for their driving test and why the so many of the drivers who have passed their test become involved in so many serious motoring incidents.
After 75 years of testing why do 53% of all tests result in a fail? Is it that the test is too difficult? Who or what is to blame?
The attitude of the ‘new drivers’? Parental behaviour and example? Society attitudes?
The Instructor? The company that trained the instructor? The training syllabus?
The test? The assessment criteria? The testing agency? The government?
We could go on and on but, in fact, all are responsible to some degree and the combined irresponsibility contributes to the overall appalling, yet very avoidable, situation.
Let us review a few contributing factors and consider what is being done or could be done better, to minimise the number of potential incidents that ‘new’ drivers are exposed to.
In no particular order: –
ATTITUDE
At last, after more than 15 years of research, the it appears to have become accepted that driver training should not just concentrate on teaching the driver how to handle a vehicle in certain situations, (mainly to pass the test!), but that more emphasis should be placed, belatedly and quite correctly, on the cultivation and development of ‘driver’ attitude, prior to and during training, and that ‘road user’ education should be delivered in the curriculum in schools from a very early age.
Absolutely brilliant, but, this will only work effectively if parents also accept responsibility for the attitude of their offspring by displaying a more responsible attitude as ‘parent drivers’ when chauffeuring their kids around to during their early formative pre-licence years. This means that parents must demonstrate proper attitude and brush up their own powers of anticipation and, for instance, respect and understand the use of speed, parking and other traffic regulations, drinking habits and attitude and consideration for others, to mention but a few!
Also, ‘New’ drivers, and their parents, must accept that a driving licence is a privilege and reward that can be withdrawn – not a birth rite – and accept that the system of professional training, development and assessment is a necessary element to protect themselves and others in society.
TRAINING
So, let’s heap the blame on the instructor.
Let’s face it, after 75 years of regulation and standards setting, since the implementation of the driving test and over 40 years of regulation under the Approved Driving Instructor registration plus 20 years where the DIA, MSA and DSA have ‘tirelessly’ tried to regulate the training of Driving Instructors through ADITE, DIARTE and ORDIT schemes, things haven’t worked out very well. A 57% failure rate for the basic driving test and a 72% failure rate for ADI part 3 does go some way to prove the point!
Let us be absolutely honest, some instructors should not be on the register – they come into the ‘driver training’ business because they need a job, have a licence and their friends say they can ‘get on well with people!’
Some unsuspecting, genuine potential instructors are misled by glossy advertising, false promises and big names but cannot qualify because their chosen training organisation (including some on the ORDIT register) hasn’t got a clue and is more interested in selling courses and selling franchises than the quality of instruction and the welfare of their clients.
DSA figures indicate that 90% of all persons training for the ADI qualification fail. Over 40000 ADI’s on the register, around 40000 in training in any year (up to 2010) and yet only around 4000 qualify!
Some dedicated instructors try hard to do a good job but, unfortunately, are still not ‘good’ instructors because, again, they received very poor and in many cases, incompetent training, yet, still qualified as an ADI.
Some, but only a small percentage, do a thorough and effective job.
So, is that the fault of the individual instructors, the ADI training organisations, franchise organisations who make millions a year by pretending to be Driver and Instructor Training Organisations yet, in reality, are just a driving lesson marketing agency, or is it totally the fault of the regulatory and driving instructor representative bodies?
REGULATION & REPRESENTATIVE ORGANISATIONS
The bodies representing the ADI do not want to lose members. Any changes DSA may wish to introduce to realistically and effectively raise standards of instruction would be resisted by the organisations if they thought any member may lose their ADI qualification because they could not meet new higher standards.
The DSA have their hands tied. On one side by the ADI organisations resisting improvement of instructional standards if it would affect their membership numbers and on the other, by the government of the day resisting any change that may cause a drop in pass rate – after all, if it fell too much it would be a vote loser. Road Safety can’t afford narrow minded and commercially orientated views.
SOLUTIONS?
So what has been done in recent years to address the problem?
‘We need a theory test’ everyone shouted some 15 years ago. DSA introduced one that has generally only required the new driver to match the correct answer (which is in front of you) with the question. Don’t bother to understand the Question or the Answer – just match the two up.
‘I know, Hazard Perception is the problem, lets introduce a Hazard Perception Test!’ everyone shouted a few years later. So, after much experimenting, a test was introduced that only roughly measured that a person could actually spot a hazard – brilliant.
‘Oh dear, the statistics have revealed that things aren’t improving. Why is that?’ Perhaps it’s because the HP test doesn’t actually confirm that a driver knows how to avoid or respond to a hazard.
‘What can we do next? I know, let’s think about a graduated licence scheme’. Let’s tell the new drivers that they can’t drive in the dark, can’t carry passengers, ask them not to speed or drink and if we restrict the power of the vehicle that should do the trick. Let’s face it, after 12 months of voluntarily behaving themselves those that survive should be OK, don’t you think?
‘I know, in the meantime, lets introduce independent driving into the test. I’ll bet that will do the trick.’
So what should we do?
Should we continue to allow ‘new drivers’ to needlessly kill and maim themselves and others at the same rate, or, should we consider that the problem might actually be due to poor driver attitude, general parental apathy and, in the majority of cases, a distinct lack of availability of good quality training for new instructors and new drivers.
Perhaps we should accept as fact that the tweaks to the driving test and the threat of additional restrictions on ‘newly qualified drivers’, have and will not work on their own?
Parents must be made to realise that they are predominantly responsible for the cultivation of driver attitude in their offspring and the DSA, the instructor training organisations and the majority of driving instructors, must accept responsibility for the appallingly low standard of professionalism and competence that exists in the instructor training and driver training industry today.
The good instructors do not receive support from any quarter by virtue of the fact that the bad instructors and incompetent instructor training organisations, are allowed to exist.
For new instructors and new drivers – survival is a lottery.

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About Barry Jones

40 years experience in the ‘driver education’ industry as driving instructor, DSA Assistant Chief Driving Examiner, driving instructor trainer and driving simulator designer and consultant. Barry is available for assessments and coaching for any driver or 'new' or 'experienced' driving instructor. Barry has always had a passion about cars and remains a lifelong follower, and previous competitor and organiser, of a range of motor sport activities including circuit racing and motor rallies. If anyone wishes to discuss any aspect of driving, training or motoring in general please do not hesitate to contact via email.
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