How I Failed the British Driving Test

Are the driving tests of some countries more difficult than others? Do the people who do the best on the driving test go on to be the best drivers? Which gender has the higher pass rate? Can Grand Theft Auto make you a better driver? Do tough tests make for a better traffic safety record? Did Jeremy Clarkson and Quentin Wilson both take a tumble on the new-and-improved British driving test? And, what should you do if see a horse and rider in a roundabout?

Watch as I suffer through the “blunt instrument” known as the British driving test. All the gory wrong-side-of-the-road details are in today’s Guardian (here or below the jump).

Wheel of fortune
The driving test is a rite of passage, but is it harder in some countries than in others? Tom Vanderbilt, an American author who has researched driving habits around the world, took the UK test – and found out

* Tom Vanderbilt
* The Guardian,
* Wednesday September 3 2008
* Article history

So you think you’re a good driver? How about taking a crack at this question, from the Chinese driving test: “Categorised according to the specification terms, carriers for agricultural use include: 1. Three- and four-wheeled vehicles; 2. Three-wheeled vehicles, four-wheeled ordinary goods carriers, four-wheeled vans, four-wheeled tank carriers, and four-wheeled automatic unloading trucks; 3. Three-wheeled, four-wheeled, and six-wheeled vehicles.”

This pedagogical gem is courtesy of Scott Kronick, an American public relations executive living in Beijing, and one of the few foreigners to obtain a Chinese driver’s licence (on the second try). Over drinks at the Peninsula Hotel, he recalled some of the test’s more surreal moments. “There was one question about if a person is lying in the middle of the street with a bone sticking out of their arm – do you move them?”

Given the chaotic nature of China’s rapidly filling roads – one in seven Beijing drivers in 2004 was a novice – knowing how to deal with such gruesome contingencies might be wise. But for most of us, these kinds of scenarios are encountered in one place only: the driving test. It is a strange world, marked by an aching pedantry, Talmudic parsings of fine-printed traffic tomes, and ridiculously hypothetical scenarios that tend to have nothing at all to do with the traffic environment in which we will spend our lives.

Any driver, anywhere, can recall the darker moments of these tests. I was told of a nettlesome question from the UK test that has taken on a near-mythological status; namely, what to do when approaching a horse and rider on a roundabout. The correct answer is something of a national refrain, gaily sung from Bournemouth to Blyth: you should expect the rider to go in any direction! On the French test, I had read, lurked this query: “If you are driving down the road and a woman with a pram steps out from the pavement, should you stop or keep going?” The answer, which seems part of some covert Gallic population-reduction scheme, is: “Keep going. This will discourage pedestrians from behaving recklessly.”

In several years’ research for my book Traffic, across many countries, I kept hearing of similarly outlandish questions, usually accompanied by some knowing chatter about the comparative national difficulty of driving tests. The German test, it was said, was an exercise more masochistic than viewing the Eurovision song contest. The Swedes, the story had it, made you do elaborate manoeuvres on a skid-pan. In Tenerife, it was rumoured, no one had ever passed the test on the first try.

Another refrain I kept hearing was that the place where I had learned to drive – the United States – had one of the world’s least stringent tests. My licence, it was implied, was barely worth the paper it was printed on. Determined to see whether any of this held water – and then to find out whether more stringent testing even had any relation to a safer driving population – I booked an appointment with the UK Driving Standards Agency (DSA). I would take the theory test near its headquarters in Nottingham; the practical test, meanwhile, would occur in Pinner (said to have one of the DSA’s higher pass rates).

Before leaving the US, I canvassed driving professionals about whether the bar might be lower for getting on the road in America. Judy Lundblad, the owner of Ann’s Driving School, a San Francisco-based business specialising in first-time adult drivers, as well as foreigners seeking a US licence, reported a common theme. “They find it much easier,” she says. “I’ve heard them say, ‘This is really a joke.'” In California, she notes, budget cuts have trimmed the in-car portion of the test to a mere 20 minutes (the UK is twice that). “They don’t make them parallel park,” she says. “They don’t make them go on the freeway.”

Peter Kissinger, director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in Washington, told me, “I think it’s more than just a myth that it is harder and more complicated to get one’s licence in Europe.”

I was cautioned, however, by Rob Foss, director of the Centre for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina, about drawing direct comparisons between countries. “We can rarely, if ever, fairly compare the US directly to any other country,” he said, “either faulting us for not doing what others do, or for being better than others.”

Driving is safer in the UK, statistically, but it’s also more expensive than in the US, done less, by a smaller proportion of the population, in different vehicles, on different roads – and so on. Trying to tease out the role of the driving test in all that, the implication was, would be nearly impossible. Still, I wanted to know: was the English test more difficult? Were they superior motorists? I wanted to stare into the dark heart of the driving test itself, something I hadn’t done since I was 16.

A few facts about the British driving test. It was inaugurated in 1935, and since then, nearly 92 million people have taken it – 1.8 million in 2006/7 alone. The average time spent preparing is 14 months. Aspirants take an average of 52 hours of professional instruction, spending around £1,200. Even as British roads have grown more crowded over the past decade, the percentage of young people holding a licence has declined (in part because driving has become so expensive, but also because learning how to drive has become so expensive). In 2006/7, 43% of candidates passed the practical test on the first try, while 68% passed the theory test. It took an average of 2.3 attempts to pass the practical. Males have a slight (and narrowing) edge on the practical, while females have a more pronounced advantage on the theory portion. The most common manoeuvre driving instructors asked candidates to perform was “turn in the road”. In one of five failed tests, the Department for Transport noted in a report, candidates actually performed so badly the instructor had to “physically intervene”.

“Before 1935,” I was told by Trevor Wedge, the DSA’s chief driving examiner, “people essentially learned to drive from the person they bought the car from.” While the test is “fundamentally the same” as it was on its debut in 1935, there have been, he notes, a number of “incremental changes”. Hand signals were dropped. Reverse-parking was introduced. The theory test was added in 1996 (before then it used to be a series of oral questions at the end of the practical test). In 1999, about seven minutes – the longest seven minutes of some students’ (and instructors’) lives – was added to the practical test.

“It’s a very blunt instrument,” says Wedge of the test. “But it’s worked well – we’ve got one of the better road safety records in the world.” But the exact relationship between instruction, the test and road safety is unclear (a 1995 Europe-wide survey found no relation between a country’s driver education systems and casualty rates). “I don’t think there’s anything out there that shows it works,” says Wedge of testing. “It just intuitively seems to be the right thing to do.”

Indeed, in a city such as Delhi, it’s not difficult to infer a relationship between the high number of traffic violations and the fact, documented in a study by economists at the National Bureau for Economic Research in Washington, that it’s easier to obtain a licence by paying a bribe than by taking lessons. But raising the driving standard bears its own unintended consequences. In Johannesburg, home of a particularly vexing test, the unfortunate result is that more people, daunted by the difficulty, simply skip licensing altogether (and unlicensed drivers, studies have shown, have higher crash rates than those holding one).

In the UK, the Department for Transport notes that even as the test has become more difficult – with pass rates dropping 10% since the early 1990s – “little progress has been made in reducing the casualty rates for young car drivers”. This is the crux of the problem with learning to drive. Driving lessons, essentially, teach one to get a driver’s licence. Getting the licence, as most people who pass the test admit, bears little relation to driving safety. Someone may learn to “carry out a choreographed performance in a sterile, artificial way,” says Wedge, but that has nothing to do with their formative memories of watching their parents drive – and nothing to do with how they will drive.

Young drivers in particular tend to fetishise driving skills. But typically it’s not skills per se that get them into trouble. Indeed, the DSA, in examining its pass-fail statistics, noted “an apparently perverse relationship”: those who did best on the practical test had the highest rates of subsequent crashes. The “best” drivers were the worst drivers. Wedge points out that Finland had to alter its compulsory off-road driving test segment – rather than increasing safety, it was seeming to produce more would-be rally drivers, in the style of Timo Mäkinen. “The focus has changed to avoiding a skid rather than learning to control it,” Wedge says. Drivers were “letting themselves get into those skids – on the highway you haven’t got as much space as on the skid pad”.

The “big challenge”, adds Wedge, is moving beyond the mere mechanics of pushing pedals and shifting gears, towards the “higher-order” skills, such as assessing risk and making decisions. Interestingly, the only change to the UK test that has seemed to have any measurable effect on safety is the hazard perception component, introduced in 2000, and based on the notion that young novice drivers – despite having faster reflexes – are measurably slower to react to potential danger. “There’s been at least a 3% reduction in accident liability in applicants who have passed the hazard perception,” says Wedge, “and a much bigger reduction in those that scored the highest.”

Armed with all this meta-driving test knowledge, I set off for the theory test. Before I had left the US, the DSA’s Chris Lee had sent me a stack of books and DVDs, which were promptly relegated to an immobile stack on my desk. I figured it would be more interesting to know how my intuition and knowledge, after nearly three decades on the road, would suit me. I shrugged off Lee’s warnings that any number of British television personalities, including Quentin Wilson and Jeremy Clarkson, had failed mock tests. Wedge’s last words hung in the air: “It’s not unusual for somebody who is supposed to be an experienced driver to not reach the standard that we require.”

At the test centre, I was ushered into a small room ringed by computer workstations. A sign advised of CCTV surveillance. I immediately became aware of the nervous breathing and tapping fingers from my fellow (much younger) test-takers. A smell of adolescent desperation hovered about the room, barely squelched by the heavy deployment of bodyspray.

I clicked “start”. I gawped at unfamiliar signs, and tried to suss out whether certain answers were red herrings, “too easy” to be correct. One question asked what a driver should use on a motorway with surface spray: a) hazard flashers; b) dipped headlight; c) rear fog lights; or d) sidelights. I panicked: did my car have sidelights? Weird cultural biases crept in. One question asked about encountering a burns victim at an accident scene. I looked in vain for the only answer a driver in the litigious US could give: “Stay in your car, call 911, and do not touch the victim as you may accidentally hurt him even more and he will sue the shirt off of your back.”

And, there it was, the mythical horse (white, I imagined): “A horse rider is in the left-hand lane approaching a roundabout. You should expect the rider to …” Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet been apprised of this famous question, and if, as an American, my experience with round-abouts was limited, my experience with equine traffic behaviour on roundabouts was nonexistent.

I tried to puzzle it out. “If he’s in the left-hand lane approaching the roundabout … is he in my lane, or the one across the roundabout? Might he not stop to graze upon the grass in the centre of the circle? Didn’t horses as a form of road transport vanish around 1907?” I began to sweat.

I limped to the 50th question, then had to wait, ironically, as my results were beamed to Iowa (where test administrator Pearson has a facility) for processing. The news was not good: I had failed, scoring only 40 out of 50 (you need 43) on the theory. The “road and traffic signs” section was my Waterloo, the uncracked Highway Code my fatal flaw. More disturbingly, I had barely passed – by three points – the hazard perception segment. Was I a near-incompetent, or just an uncaring sociopath? Had I played too many rounds of Grand Theft Auto 4? I had been warned that indiscriminate mouse-
clicking at potential hazards was as bad as under-clicking, but as I drove, I found myself succumbing to the Hyacinth Bucket Syndrome: everything seemed a potential hazard. The man indolently strolling the pavement might rashly bolt toward the road. Keyed up, the slightest flash of another vehicle caused an involuntary twitch in my finger.

Clutching my letter of failure, I headed to Pinner for the practical test (normally one does have to pass the theory to move on). My DSA examiner Mark Winn and I climbed into my hire-car, automatic-transmission Nissan Note (a friend had driven me there) and headed into the suburban streets. Driving on a new side of the road was taxing my brain, but on the quieter streets I tried to plumb Winn for information.

What was the most common fault? “It changes over the years, but typically it’s pulling out inappropriately at junctions.” Is it true that younger drivers have a higher pass rate than older drivers? “They’re immersed in the learning environment, so learning comes more naturally to them.” Do people ever cry? “It’s an important event in people’s lives, it could make a big difference. People put themselves under all sorts of pressure to get their licences.” (I took that as a yes). Has the driving standard changed over the years? “A long time ago, people were taught to change down through the gears sequentially. Now, the preferred technique is selective gear changing – you change to the gear you need. Brakes are for slowing, and gears are for going.” Why are the pass rates so different across the UK? “There are geographic differences. In more affluent areas, there’s more money to spend on lessons, the learner is more likely to have access to a second vehicle or they have their own vehicle to practise in. That all goes into making them better prepared for the test.”

At times, I sensed Winn wanted me to concentrate more on driving. When he asked me to reverse out of a side road on to the main road, I queried incredulously: “You can do that here?” (it’s not generally allowed in the US). He was showing a good-natured resolve in the face of my questions and minor mishaps, rather like the driving instructor in the Borat film who gently advises why his student cannot “make a sexy time” with a neighbouring driver.

Nearing the end of the test, I took a left turn on to a small residential street. My left wheels dragged over the kerb. I shrugged it off to drive-on-the-left spatial disorientation, and the unfamiliar dynamics of the hire car. Otherwise, I thought it had gone well. As we parked, though, Winn turned to me and said, “I’m sorry to inform you that you’ve not passed. Would you like to know why?” It was the last kerb. “You destabilised the car quite a bit. Rather than just bumping the kerb you actually got the wheel up on to it. The level of assessment changes.”

I felt 16 again, remembering the agony of postponement after having failed at my first attempt. The oddity, of course, was that despite having failed to measure up to the UK driving standard, I could waltz into any hire-car agency and acquire wheels with my US licence. To the relief of northwest London, I took the train.

· Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt is published by Allen Lane, price £20.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008 at 5:24 am and is filed under Book News, Cars, Drivers, Etc., Traffic Culture, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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May 19, 2009
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Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
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April 16, 2012
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January 30, 2013
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Metropolis and Mobile Life
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New York State Association of
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September 26, 2013
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September 2008

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