'When I tap the dashboard, I want you to stop shouting'

Every day, Britain's driving examiners are bruised and abused by angry learners who are accidents waiting to happen. And all for a pitifully small pay packet. Terry Kirby talks to the traumatised testers who are striking in protest at their salaries for the first time

In 15 years in his present job, Dave Pritchard has been physically attacked and verbally abused, and sustained a permanent neck injury. He risks life and limb on a daily basis in his dealings with the general public.Is he a police or prison officer? A soldier on peacekeeping duties? A teacher in an inner-city school, perhaps? Actually, Dave's a driving examiner in East Anglia. And if this preserve of respectable and largely anonymous middle-aged men is your idea of the ultimate safe and secure kind of public-service job, think again.

"We were at a traffic island when this woman candidate tried to pull away in third gear," Dave says. "She stalled, of course, and we were shunted badly from behind. I had serious whiplash injuries to my neck and was off work for seven weeks, and six years later it still hurts when I turn my head. I couldn't really pass or fail her after that. She got a free second test - and I'm still suffering.''

For facing these daily hazards, Dave, 52, an examiner at the Lowestoft centre, is paid the princely sum of about £20,000 a year by the Driving Standards Agency - far less than the pay of those with equivalent experience in other jobs with less risk. He and his fellow examiners, all members of the Public and Commercial Service Union, are planning an almost unheard-of bout of industrial action this week, simply to get their pay up to the same level as that of other civil servants. The examiners will strike from tomorrow, and an indefinite work-to-rule will commence next Monday. The action was overwhelmingly supported in a ballot of 1,000 examiners, out of the national total of 1,500.

Under the agency's current proposals, the pay range for the basic grade of examiner, in which Dave is at the top end, would rise from £17,600-£20,500 to £18,400-£21,200. But the examiners want to be on the same rate as their colleagues at the Department for Transport - of which the DSA is an executive agency - which scales pay from £19,900 to £24,200.

It is perhaps not surprising that the strike has met with such support. Serious accidents are almost routine for the examiners. Dave reckons he has been involved in about a dozen incidents "where you have to walk away from the car because you cannot drive it." And there are countless minor scrapes and bangs. It's not surprising that most experienced examiners have some kind of permanent back or neck injury as a result of the constant battering, and medical retirements are high. Tailgating, says Dave, is a national disease.

Then there are those candidates who just lose it completely. "Once, I was in this car without dual controls. The women just went into reverse, put her foot down and sped backwards. Straight into this wall. And through it. I had the handbrake pulled back so far it was nearly vertical. We ended up in someone's front garden. That was a 'walk away' one. I had to fail her, of course."

Dave adds: "There's a real feeling of helplessness when that happens. You get the same feeling when someone starts happily pulling out in front of a big lorry at a junction and you have to stop them. You ask them, 'Didn't you see that?' And they say, 'See what?' It would make other people's hair fall out or turn grey overnight.''

There are some, well, lighter moments. "There was this examiner friend of mine who was driven straight at and over a Leylandii hedge. Straight into a garden. Then the hedge sprang back and the car was there and it was as though someone had just picked it up and plonked it on the lawn. He had to leave that one as well.''

One wonders how such clearly dangerous drivers get to the point of taking a test. "Some are just not ready to drive unaccompanied, but they think they are, or they don't want to spend any more money on lessons. I don't think it's the fault of the driving schools because, obviously, they would want people to pay for more lessons.''

Examiners can also suffer considerable verbal abuse, which occasionally becomes physical. "Being physically attacked was one of the worst things to happen. This bloke felt I should not have failed his younger brother. So he head-butted me. It was more the shock than anything else. The police were called and he apologised, but was never prosecuted. You get used to being sworn at, being called all kinds of names - people seem to feel that you are failing them deliberately. But why would we want to do that? It's not in our interests.''

According to Graham Waite, a national branch secretary, pay has fallen behind because of localised bargaining with the agency, which has regularly pleaded special causes as to why it cannot pay as much as the rest of the civil service. Recruitment of new examiners - normally drawn from the ranks of the police, armed services, driving schools or other types of professional drivers - is therefore hampered.

This time around, the DSA's head, Gary Austin, is sympathetic, Waite says, but his hands are tied by the Treasury, which is anxious to keep public-sector pay capped. "He has expressed sympathy for our cause and suggested that if he was in our shoes he would do the same,'' Waite says.

Matters have been brought to a head by an unprecedented increase of almost 50 per cent in the number of people taking driving tests, rising from about 1.1 million a year just two years ago to a forecast of between 1.5 million and 1.6 million this year. This has been caused mostly, it is believed, by the boom in ownership of second cars and the fall in used-car prices. Examiners have had to increase their workloads, with testing hours now extending into the evening during the summer and on Saturdays. Ironically, the boom in tests has boosted the DSA's coffers to the tune of £20m. "We are in the daft situation where we have earnt this money by increasing our productivity, and the agency wants to pay us the money. But the Treasury says no,'' Waite adds. The examiners do not expect parity this year, and are hoping for a commitment to a staggered deal that would achieve parity within two or three years.

The boom in tests is only one of several ways in which the job of an examiner has changed in recent years. Tests now last longer, they are much less formalised than they used to be, and the questions on the Highway Code (now a written examination that acts as a pre-test eliminator) have been replaced by technical ones on such matters as checking brake-fluid levels. Examiners, traditionally imbued with civil-service restraint in their dealings with the public, are now encouraged to engage more with candidates, to relax them by using their first names, and to give reasons when they fail.

But the biggest change is in the lack of respect shown by many young people, who form the majority of those taking tests. It's a common complaint, and one echoed by police officers and teachers.

Waite stresses that the kind of aggravation suffered by Dave Pritchard isn't unusual. He waves a sheaf of reports. "I get about 20 to 30 of these incident reports a week. About half are cases of verbal or physical abuse and about half are accidents.''

He reads out some of the verbal assaults routinely recorded by examiners. "I've not failed, you fucking stupid cow, I'm going to take it up with your boss, you bitch,'' and: "What do you fucking people know?'' are two typical reactions. "People don't bother to report these kind of things any more, because it's so common.''

Waite recalls one of the worst cases to come to his attention, that of an examiner in north London. "He failed this man, who then hauled him out of the car, attacked him and knocked him to the ground. He had a breakdown and long periods of sickness, and was eventually medically retired. And he was an ex-police officer. It turned out that his attacker was a man with a string of violent assaults to his name, and a history of mental-health problems. He committed suicide in prison. It just shows some of the unstable people we have to deal with."

He shudders at the thought of another man he tested. "He was on an international licence and didn't understand a word of English. He drove up pavements and the wrong way round roundabouts. He utterly, absolutely, scared the living daylights out of me. But the worst thing was that after I failed him, he just took the L-plates off his car and drove off.''

A 16-year veteran of the profession, and a supervisory examiner for testing centres in Essex and north London, the sober figure of Graham Waite, 50, isn't that of a typical union militant. Neither is Dave Pritchard. Their action is being taken with a sense of regret and unease. Waite says: "If people want safe drivers on the road - and I am sure they do - you have to be able to recruit examiners of a high standard, which we simply cannot with these scales of pay. We only want equality with our colleagues, nothing more. And we're very reluctant to take action. It really is a last resort for us."

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