Could you pass your driving test?

The British driving test has remained largely unchanged for the 61 years since it began. Tomorrow, a multiple-choice theory exam will be introduced: but is it a valid test of driving skills? Matthew Gwyther reports
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The Independent Culture
AS IF struggling with GCSEs and A-levels during a heatwave was not enough to make a teenager's summer miserable, along come the grey men from the Department of Transport to make passing your driving test even more difficult. (Sir James Goldsmith, Bill Cash and friends will not be surprised to hear this is a result of The Second European Directive on Driving Licences.)

From tomorrow the opportunity of taking to the open road free of L-plates will be barred by a further hurdle as the Driving Standards Agency (DSA) adds a 40-minute multiple choice theory exam to the existing practical driving test. It's enough to make any British youth with a bit of initiative take off for Egypt where, to pass, all you need prove is that you can drive 15 metres forwards and backwards without making a hash of it and then reverse between two traffic cones. But, there again, if you've ever seen Cairo in the rush hour, maybe not.

The British driving test has been around largely unchanged for 61 years. The first individual to pass on 16 March 1935 was, believe it or not, a Mr Beene, although he was behind the wheel of a Morris Ten rather than a Mini. Since then millions of us have suffered the torture of bored, sarky driving instructors sitting there at the dual controls as we kangaroo our way up the street, clip the kerb on left hand turns and make a monkey's lunch of reversing around the corner.

For some, driving is as easy as walking. Take Gerty Edwards-Land, who at 90 passed first time in 1988. But not every one is a natural. Ask Git Kaur Randhawa from Middlesex, who finally passed in 1987 after 47 failures. Faced with the new theory test, maybe Git would have called it a day and gone by bus.

The exam, which can be sat in one of 152 centres around the country, will consist of 35 multiple choice questions taken from a pool of 600. To pass you can only get a maximum of nine wrong, otherwise it's curtains. The subjects covered will include traffic signs, driver attitude, the effects of drugs, alcohol and fatigue on driver behaviour and the environmental aspects of cars.

With four answer options to each question there is normally one that is completely daft, two that sound vaguely plausible and one that is correct. In answer to the question "You are travelling on a motorway. Luggage falls from your vehicle. What should you do?", candidates selecting, "Reverse back up the motorway and pick it up" go straight to the bottom of the class. (Correct response is, "Stop at the next emergency telephone and contact the police.")

One thing is for sure: there's money in it for someone. The latest exam costs pounds 15, on top of the hefty pounds 28.50 for the existing practical test. The examining has been farmed out to a private company, DriveSafe, on a five-year contract thought to be worth around pounds 70m. And The Complete Theory Test for Cars and Motorcycles from HMSO isn't exactly a snip at pounds 9.99. (The initial print run of 80,000 has already sold out, doing its bit to help fund autumn tax cuts.)

Could this all be some green policy brought in via the back door? A plan to reduce traffic volumes on our choked road system by preventing newcomers ever proceeding beyond a bike? The failure rate for the existing practical test has been increasing. The pass rate for cars and motorcycles was 53 per cent in 1992, went down to 48 per cent in 1994 and hit 47 per cent last year. (When Mr Beene sailed through back in the 30s, 63 per cent of candidates heard those magic words, "I'm pleased to tell you that you've reached the required standard ...")

Kevin Thomas, the DSA spokesman, denies any conspiracy. "There's no policy on this, though we accept there's been a fall and the anecdotal evidence is that it's dropped still further this year," he says. "But we don't work to quotas. In fact we are expecting that the theory test will be passed at a higher rate than the practical test." So why this recent fall? Is today's youth just more incompetent than previous generations? Mr Thomas thinks not. "It's possible that as the cost of lessons has risen, people are taking the test earlier and are less well prepared."

So it's the fault of the driving schools. The largest, The British School of Motoring, is not too impressed with the DSA and its new test. "We welcome it as better than nothing," says the BSM's spokesman, Martin Arnold, "but we see it as 19th-century technology to crack a 20th-century problem. The main causes of accidents among young, recently- qualified drivers are poor judgement and perception. You don't correct those with a multiple choice exam. What they need is video and interactive devices. The technology is there, but the DSA won't employ it because it's too expensive."

And that's not Mr Arnold's only beef with the DSA. "They've planned the whole thing very badly with the result that waiting times are currently horrendous for the test - up to 16 weeks. So, they've been stripped of their government Customer Charter mark." (True, admits a saddened Mr Thomas from the DSA: "They've had to put little white stickers over all their stationery and office notices - but we'll get it back again.") What has occurred is that as soon as learners got wind of the impending head- scratching session, tens of thousands of them have piled in trying to get tests before the July 1 deadline.

So what do those on the sharp end make of all this? The Youldons of Pevensey, East Sussex, have a vested interest - they have triplet girls about to hit their sixteenth birthday, and another coming along behind aged eight. "I dread to think of the cost. It's going to be lethal," says Mrs Youldon. She is right to be apprehensive. At current prices, getting her complete brood out on to the road is going to set her and her husband back around pounds 2,000. Hannah, the triplets' spokeswoman, is unimpressed: "It's not fair. The test isn't that easy anyway. Our friends haven't been getting through and one of them, Rhys, has already failed three times." For the coming generation, car driving looks set to become a privilege rather than a right - which, some might argue, is not a bad thing.

TWELVE QUESTIONS THAT (IN THEORY) TEST HOW GOOD A DRIVER YOU ARE

We have selected 12 sample questions from the database of 600 that will appear in the actual tests. See how well you do. For each question you must select the right answer(s) from the choices available, and mark an X in the box next to it

What does this traffic sign mean?

Mark one answer

Slippery road ahead

Tyres liable to puncture ahead

Danger ahead

Service area ahead

When approaching a right hand bend you should keep well to the left. Why is this?

Mark one answer

It improves your view of the road

To overcome the effect of the road's slope

It lets faster traffic from behind overtake

To be positioned safely if the vehicle skids

You arrive at the scene of a motorcycle accident. The rider is conscious but in shock. You should make sure that

Mark one answer

the rider's helmet is removed

the rider is moved to the side of the road

the rider's helmet is not removed

the rider is put in the recovery position

You are driving a vehicle fitted with a hand telephone.

To answer the telephone, you MUST

Mark one answer

find a safe place to stop

reduce your speed

steer the car with one hand

be particularly careful at junctions

You are at a junction controlled by traffic lights. When should you NOT proceed at green?

Mark one answer

When pedestrians are waiting

to cross

When your exit from the

junction is blocked

When you think the lights may

be about to change

When you intend to turn right

A tanker is involved in an accident. Which sign would show if the tanker is carrying dangerous goods?

Mark one answer

You are driving over a level crossing. The warning lights come on and a bell rings. What should you do?

Mark one answer

Get everyone out of the vehicle immediately

Stop and reverse back to clear the crossing

Keep going and clear the crossing

Stop immediately and use you hazard

warning lights

What does this sign mean?

Mark one answer

Cyclists must dismount

Bicycles are not allowed

You are approaching a cycle route

Walking is not allowed

In which THREE places must you NEVER park your vehicle?

Mark three answers

Near the brow of a hill

At or near a bus stop

Where there is no pavement

Within 10 metres of a junction

On a 40 mph road

Which sign means there may be people walking along the road?

Mark one answer

What does this sign mean?

Mark one answer

Keep in one lane

Priority to traffic

coming towards you

Do not overtake

Form two lanes

Where you see street lights but no speed limit signs, the limit is usually

Mark one answer

30 mph

40 mph

50 mph

60 mph

ANSWERS

1: c Danger ahead. 2: a It improves your view of the road. 3: c the rider's helmet is not removed. 4: a find a safe place to stop. 5: b When your exit from the junction is blocked. 6: b . 7: c Keep going and clear the crossing. 8: c You are approaching a cycle route. 9: a Near the brow of a hill; b At or near a bus stop; within 10 metres of a junction. 10: d . 11: c Do not overtake. 12: a 30 mph.

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