Like a lot of things throughout history, the driving test has gone through its fair share of amendments, alterations and updates. What we're used to now certainly looks a lot different to when compulsory driving tests were introduced back in 1935.

Now, with a pandemic to deal with and new measures to adhere to, driving tests have once again undergone further changes. Alongside social distancing measures, a range of new updates have come into effect, which could mean an early end for exams for some drivers.

Here, we'll take a look at what the new changes are in more detail, and what this could mean for future approaches. We’ll also explore how the driving test has changed throughout history to get to where we are today.

What are the new driving test changes?

As of July 2020, the new driving test rules are as follows:

  • If a student makes a major error during the test, the test will end and the student will automatically fail, at which point they'll be told to drive back to the test centre. This is to minimise the time that drivers spend in the vehicle; time that could subject both occupants to germs. Note: tests will still continue if the student incurs a minor error.
  • Students must bring and wear face coverings, unless there is good reason not to.
  • Arriving at a test centre without a face covering could see a test cancelled unless motorists have declared this when they arrange the exam.
  • Instructors will ask students to stop their car during the test to adjust face masks should the students have issues with it while driving.
  • Examiners can end the test early if they feel a face covering has become a safety issue in any way.
  • Examiners will ask students to get out of the vehicle before they offer any test result feedback.
  • Drivers must not come for a test if they have any coronavirus symptoms, have been in contact with someone who has the virus, or have returned to the UK in the last 14 days.

How has the driving test changed over time?

Even though we've been driving cars since the 19th century in this country, it wasn't until 1903 that driving tests were introduced, and even then, they weren't made compulsory for another 30 years! But how else has the driving test changed over the years? We'll take a look at the key moments below:

  • 1931: The first edition of the Highway Code is published, offering advice for both car and motorcycle drivers.
  • 1935: Voluntary tests are introduced to minimise the rush of applicants before the test becomes compulsory in June of the same year.

The first person to pass their driving test is a Mr J Beene, which he did so for the princely sum of seven shillings and sixpence, or £22 in today's money. Of the 246,000 candidates that apply, 63% of them are passes. And because test centres don't exist yet, candidates have to meet at pre-arranged locations such as car parks or railway stations.

  • 1956: The test fee doubles from 10 shillings to £1, which would be an increase from £10 to £21 in today's money.
  • 1962: Those who have held more than seven provisional licences (as of 1958 they were only valid for six months) are required to take a driving test. Failure to do so could result in further applications being refused.
  • 1963: A voluntary register of approved driving instructors (ADIs) is set up, requiring applicants of which to pass stringent written and practical tests.
  • 1965: A centralised licensing system is set up at a new centre in Swansea, shifting control to them rather than individual councils. The distance from which a driving test candidate must be able to read a number plate is changed to 67 feet.
  • 1968: Once again the fee is increased. This time it goes up to £1 and 15 shillings – or around £25 today.
  • 1969: More changes to the test come in, including the introduction of a ban on dual accelerator controls unless they've been disengaged. A separate category for automatic cars is also introduced.
  • 1970: All driving instructors must now be officially registered. Additionally, a total of 3,500 people are prosecuted for driving on a forged licence or wrongfully attempting to obtain a licence.
  • 1975: Candidates no longer have to demonstrate arm signals in the test from May.
  • 1988: Driving tests are now conducted under the provisions of the Road Traffic Act 1988.
  • 1990: From May, examiners now give candidates a brief explanation of any errors made during the test, along with advice on areas for improvement.
  • 1996: A separate theory test is brought in, replacing the Highway Code during the practical test. The pass mark is also raised from 26 to 30 out of 35.
  • 1997: Photographic ID is required for both practical and theory tests. New rules also mean that if a driver collects six points or more during the first two years, their licence is revoked. The theory and practical test both have to be retaken before being allowed back on the road.
  • 1999: From April, cars used in driving tests must have a front passenger seatbelt, head restraint and rear-view mirror. The length of the test also increases, the emergency stop manoeuvre is done on a random basis, and candidates are failed for committing more than 16 or more driving faults.
  • 2000: The touchscreen theory test is introduced.
  • 2002: The hazard perception test is introduced into the theory test, which involves video clips being used to test candidates' awareness of hazards on the road.
  • 2003: ‘Show me’ and ‘tell me’ vehicle safety questions are added to the beginning of the practical test.
  • 2010: Candidates are encouraged to bring their instructor to the driving test, while "independent driving" is also introduced which requires students to drive for 10 minutes while making their own decisions. This has since doubled to twenty minutes.

What might future driving tests look like?

Pandemic aside, it's clear that driving tests in the not-so-distant future will be different from those we know now, whether it's alterations to the test itself or more stringent safety measures.

For one, road safety campaigners are calling for tougher procedures and newer advancements to come into effect. Since many accidents are caused by the inability to react in the appropriate manner to obstructions or approaching hazards, some people have suggested it should be made compulsory for drivers to have regular eye tests.

In certain US states, for example, their eye tests include a part that examines a driver's field of vision to check whether they can see and respond to what's going on around them within a safe reaction time. Could the UK soon follow suit?

Road safety campaigners, Brake, have been calling for a Graduated Driver Licensing programme to be introduced in the UK. Effectively, this would mean that learner drivers might eventually have to pass two practical driving tests before they can hold a full licence. They propose a two-year "novice" period should be introduced, in which newly qualified drivers are unable to carry passengers under the age of 25, with parents and carers being the exception.

With the advent of autonomous vehicles set to take place – 10 million driverless cars are expected to be on the roads by 2025 – it's likely that this will affect the driving test too. While we won't know for sure if any qualifications or procedures will play a role in driving in such vehicles, it's worth suggesting that driving tests and licences could well soon become a relic in the near future.

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