mirror, signal, manoeuvre - and tick the box

If someone steps in front of your car with a 'Stop' sign, do you a) speed up, b) drive around them, c) sound you horn or d) stop. Congratulation s! You've just passed the new written driving test. Lucy Banwell has a go
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The Independent Culture
NOT HITTING anyone or anything, and getting back to the test centre with the car undented, will always be an important part of getting your driving licence. But last week, a private company, DriveSafe, unveiled the new written driving test; from 1 July learners will have to sit the exam and pay between pounds 12 and pounds 15 for the pleasure.

I've already passed it: when I took my test in the summer, I was invited to have a go at the written paper. The fiver on offer for "travelling expenses" helped entice me to be a guinea-pig. I sauntered into the Trusthouse Forte coolly confident that I had learned my braking distances (even smugly developing my own little formula) and that I could chant, "Only a fool breaks the two-second rule" and make it last exactly those two crucial seconds to judge my safe distances. I even knew what the sign for low- flying horses looks like.

But I hadn't expected to feel like I was back at school again. That really unnerved me. Gone was the determinedly calm voice of my driving instructor, comfortingly intoning, "Right. Well. You've stalled again. Put it into neutral with the handbrake on and start up again. That's right." Nobody was talking me through this one.

They tried to make the experience less intimidating. No school exam I ever sat had a bowl of mints at every table. Nor a selection of cold drinks. And the adjudicator started off with a couple of stilted jokes. But the big clock on the wall, and the laid-out papers, pencils and erasers were all horribly familiar.

Fifteen people neatly pencil-shaded in the ovals next to the multiple- choice answers on the practice paper.

Then the real tests started. Some of the questions you could answer with a little common sense. If someone steps out in front of you holding a Stop sign, then perhaps the most sensible thing to do is not (a) speed up, (b) drive around the person or (c) sound your horn. So that just leaves (c) stop.

Most people know pedestrian crossings aren't simply there to concentrate the target. And only the most pessimistic would consider it important to wear sensible shoes when driving just (b) "to enable you to walk for assistance if you break down." Me, I find high-heeled boots help me reach the clutch better (no blank oval for the short person's option, though) although (c) - to save wear on the pedal rubbers - did make economic sense.

And this, apparently, is the type of question that is going to reduce the accident rate in Britain. The Driving Standards Agency is particularly targeting young people with this new test. The DSA says drivers aged 17-24 make up only 10 per cent of licence-holders, but are involved in 20 per cent of accidents. But does the agency agree that some of the questions may seem a little ... well ... even silly?

No. The DSA takes itself very seriously. "We think there's a good possibility some people will respond using the 'silly' answers. And that's what these trial runs of the new test are for - to find out which questions are too difficult, which are too easy. Or 'silly'."

Other questions were just so damn technical. "You are testing your suspension. You notice that your vehicle continues to bounce when you press down on the front. What does this mean?" As far as I'm concerned, if I'd even noticed this phenomenon - perhaps while leaning on the bonnet to chat with a neighbour - then that would mean that I'd have to ask someone to check it out for me. Also, none of the questions about skids and breakdowns seemed to have a "Panic!" option.

There were a few that were plain difficult. Do you know that the legal limit of alcohol in the blood when driving is 80mg per 100ml? Or even that a flashing green light on a vehicle indicates a doctor answering an emergency call? Get out your Highway Code and start swotting, then. Because come July, you won't be able even to book your practical driving test without passing this one first. And this was, apparently, one of the easier papers.

All in all, around 4,000 of us would-be drivers have been sitting these trial exams. The kindly-looking examiner said: "If you do really badly then the pass-mark will be lower in the real thing." I suppose that's some comfort. Millions may be thanking us thickies this time next year.

I spent the pounds 5 torture reward on a taxi home. Multiple-choice questions were still three-point-turning in my head.

When a Metro in front of you slows down on the right hand side of your lane but seems unsure of which direction to take and is not indicating, do you:

(a) sigh heavily and tap the steering wheel impatiently?

(b) dodgem right up to the Metro's back bumper and glare intimidatingly?

(c) Wave your hands in exasperation?

(d) Rev your engine and scoot past the Metro on his left, muttering?

But the taxi driver did all four. And you're only supposed to pencil- shade in one little oval. Come summer '96 he wouldn't pass.