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History of the Driving Test

News Flash:

Bridget Driscoll, 44, was killed by a motor car whilst she visited the Crystal Palace on the
17th August 1896,  The Coroner told the inquest that he hoped her death would be the last in this sort of accident.

Mr Edsall, the driver, had only been driving for three weeks and had not been told what side of the road to keep to.

The jury returned a verdict of accidental death.

When Mrs Driscoll lost her life in the first fatal car accident there were only 20 cars on the roads of Britain, and their speed was limited to 8 miles per hour.  Just 8 years later there were 28,842 cars registered in Great Britain  In 1903 the speed limit had been raised to 20 mph, and remained there until 1930 when it was abolished - there was no speed limit for vehicles carrying less than seven persons.

Cars on the road 1936
Cars on the road 1936. 
The introduction of the driving test made some new drivers very nervous, so Ford produced this video, with commentary by Sir Malcolm Campbell to show them there was nothing to fear. 

The film below shows some of the hazards the driver could expect in 1935. 
During the Second World War the driving test was suspended from the 2nd September 1939 until the 1st November 1946.  Provisional licences granted in wartime could be converted into a full licence without a test needing to be taking.  It was suspended again during the Suez Crisis.

The test has changed over the years to reflect modern driving, modern cars and modern roads.  Until May 1975 candidates had to demonstrate arms signals as part of the test, and reverse parking manoeuvres did not become compulsory until April 1990. 

Until July 1996 the examiner would ask some questions about the Highway Code, but the majority of the test was practical driving.  The Theory Test was introduced in this year.  In November 2002 the Hazard Perception Test was introduced, and in September of the following year (2003) Show Me/Tell Me questions were added. 
To make the roads safer the Driving Test continues to be refined.  The numbers of questions on the Theory Test increased from 35 to 50 in September 2007.

Different governments all have the same aim - to make the test reflect driving in the real world.  Recent changes have been to stop candidates learning test routes before their test, but taking these off the internet.  In January 2012 the Driving Standards Agency stopped publishing all the questions that could be used in the multiple choice test to ensure learner drivers read, understand, and can answer the questions from having a in depth knowledge of the Highway Code.

The Driving Test is harder to pass now than in 1935 - most driving test centres only have a pass rate of about a third.

Did the Driving Test make a difference?

In 1930 there were over 1 million cars on the road, and these caused 7,300 deaths.

By 2004 there were over 30 million cars, but only 3,221 fatal accidents. 

Obviously cars are in themselves safer, pedestrians more aware of traffic (unlike poor Mrs Driscoll who'd never seen a motor car before) and factors such as street lighting and well laid out roads have obviously contributed to the lower number of fatalities.

But learning how to drive and having to reach a certain standard before being allowed to drive unaccompanied must be an important factor in improving road safety.

In this year the number of cars on the road topped 1 million, but there were 7,300 deaths caused by them.  Safety moved to the top of the agenda.  The Highway Code was proposed, and was published a year later.  In an effort to reduce road deaths Driving Tests were introduced in 1935, and in June of that years became compulsory for all drivers who started driving after the 31st March, 1934.  The first provisional driving licences were introduced (lasting for three months only) and learners had to use 'L' plates. 
See also:

Taking your Theory Test
Taking your Practical Test
Pass Plus
Buying your First Car