15 UK Driving Facts to Mark the 80th Anniversary of the Driving Test

By Gerald Lynch on at

Today marks the 80th anniversary of compulsory driving tests in the UK. That's 80 years of stressed out drivers, sweaty palms gripping their steering wheels while an examiner tuts their way through to a big fat "FAIL" grade.

Parallel parking. I'll say no more.

Of course, a driving test is a very good thing, ensuring a degree of road-worthiness from drivers, no matter if sometimes the UK's road-raged fury roads would give Mad Max reason to pause. As you'd expect, the driving test and highway code have changed dramatically over the years. Here are a few UK driving facts and snippets of trivia that you may not know about the driving test, driving habits, tastes, and UK road laws.

1.) The First Person to Pass the Driving Test Was...

Mr R Beere, back on the 16th March, 1935. Eagle-eyed readers may note that this pre-dates the 80th anniversary of the compulsory test. But Mr Beere actually took part in a voluntary testing programme that was brought in by the Road Traffic Act of 1934. Eventually, all drivers who had first sat behind the wheel on or after April 1st 1934 would have to take the compulsory test.

2.) ...But the First Driving Licence Was Issued Much Earlier

Driving licences have actually been in use since the Motor Car Act of 1903. However, rather than being a means of identifying capable drivers, they were instead used simply to link drivers to their vehicles.

3.) The Pass Rate for the UK Driving Test Is...

47.1 per cent. That's according to Department for Transport figures covering the 2013/ 2014 period. That was the highest level of passes for seven years, though the number of tests conducted is actually dropping. The odds then are not in your favour, with less than half of drivers passing. Compare that to the first wave of tests back in 1934 where the pass rate was 63 per cent and you can see that the modern test has become far more difficult. Either that, or we're all just rubbish these days.

4.) The Highway Code Never Leaves the Bestsellers List

The Highway Code was first launched in 1931, and is constantly updated so that drivers can stay aware of the latest road-safety rules and regulations. It sells hundreds of thousands of copies each year, as people look to brush up on their knowledge ahead of the Driving Theory test. The impact of The Highway Code book was palpable; when it was first introduced in 1931 there were 7,000 road deaths per year, despite Great Britain only having around 2 million motorists. Today, thanks to the improved road awareness that The Highway Code facilitated (and, of course, improvements in technology) only around half that number of road-related deaths now occur, despite Great Britain playing host to 27 million vehicles.

5.) No Driving Tests Were Carried Out During World War 2

The onset of war in Europe meant that all driving tests were suspended from September 2nd 1939 through to the end of the conflict. Testing only resumed on November 1st 1946, with the war having concluded the previous year. Fuel rationing was one reason for the postponement of testing, with examiners often redeployed to manage traffic on Britain's blitzed roads. The driving test would be suspended again in 1956 during the Suez Crisis.

6.) The Motorcycle Test Once Allowed You to Drive a Car

It seems mad now, but one licence once covered both cars and motorbikes -- if you'd passed a motorcycle test back in the Thirties, you could get behind the wheel of a car, no questions asked, despite them being drastically different vehicles. Examiners would assess a motorcyclist's performance by positioning themselves on a common or city square and observe the rider from afar -- which must have been awfully safe for all the pedestrians nearby. It wasn't until the 1947 Motor Vehicles Driving Licences Regulations act that motorcyclists were put in their own license group.

7.) The M1 Used to be an Even Bigger Nightmare

If you think getting stuck in a traffic jam on the M1 now is a chore, at least it's a relatively safe one. When the M1 was first opened back on the 2nd of November 1959, it was a hellish death trap, with no noted speed limit, crash barriers, central reservation or even lighting.

8.) Drink Driving Could Face a Greater Clampdown

Drinking and driving was and remains a major road safety issue, and there are constant calls for laws surrounding it to be tightened up. Drink-drive laws came into force in October 1967, which dictated that the legal limit for driving after a session down the pub be 80mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood.

Deaths and serious injuries related to drink driving have fallen by more than three-quarters since 1979 according to the Reported Road Casualties in Great Britain: 2012 Annual Report. Though accident numbers continue to fall, the limit is still being contested: as of December 2014 Scotland reduced its drink-drive limit from 80 milligrams of alcohol in every 100 millilitres of blood to 50 milligrams of alcohol in every 100 millilitres of blood, and there are calls for England to follow suit.

9.) The Driving Test Cost Has Massively Increased

The first cost driving test cost just 7/ 6d (the equivalent of 37.5p). That's pocket change compared to the £62 fee for a practical test now (going up to £75 in evenings and on weekends), not to mention the £25 fee for the theory test.

10.) Theory Test Gets a Tech Injection

While the rest of the world was worrying about the millennium bug, the DVLA was looking to introduce a new computer-based theory test for the year 2000. This was brought into operation as planned in 2000 when the Y2K bug never materialised, and let test subjects answer questions using a touchscreen computer.

Elements of the driving tests are perpetually being modernised. As of 12th January 2015, CGI clips (above) replace filmed clips for the hazard perception part of the theory test, letting examiners show an-up-to-date, wide variety of hazard examples, using crystal-clear imagery.

11.) Your Car is Safer From Thieves Than It's Been For a Long Time

In the year covering 2013/2014, only 70,056 cars were stolen. This sounds high, but compare that to 2005/2006, in which 203,239 cars were stolen. Similarly, reports of thefts of goods from within vehicles is down from 507,239 in 2005/2006 to just 276,352 in 2013/2014.

12.) The Cornish Like Yellow Cars

Though white cars are increasingly popular, representing 22 per cent of all new registrations in 2014, you're most likely to see silver cars (a 7.8 year-old supermini in silver, to be precise) on UK roads. However, drive down to Cornwall and you'll likely see far more yellow cars, with the county containing the highest concentration of yellow registered cars in the UK.

13.) Most of Us Think That We're Pretty Good Drivers

An RAC report of 2013 found that 92 per cent of British drivers considered themselves to be pretty hot behind the wheel. This is despite the fact that 65 per cent of those quizzed also admitted to breaking the speed limit.

14.) China is the Leading Automotive Manufacturer (the UK is 14th)

And by some margin too. In 2014 China produced 19,919,795 cars and 3,803,095 commercial vehicles for a grand total of 23,722,890. That's a huge amount more than second-place USA, which built only 11,660,699 automotive vehicles in the same year. Fourteenth-placed UK by comparison only produced 1,598,879 vehicles (which actually represented a 0.1 per cent increase in production over the previous year). The UK is the fourth biggest automotive manufacturer in Europe however, behind Germany, Spain and France. 79.2 per cent of all UK vehicles built in 2014 were exported, too.

15.) Bonus Fact: The Driving Test TV Show Invents the "Fly-on-the-Wall" Documentary

The stress of the driving test inadvertently created one of the first reality TV stars in the shape of Maureen Rees. She was one of the people that the BBC's 1997 Driving School show followed. Often credited as being one of the first "Fly-on-the-Wall" documentaries (in which everyday life is captured as candidly and unobtrusively as possible by a film crew) the series saw foul-mouthed Rees struggling to obtain her driving licence, having failed the practical test several times and even running over her husband Dave's foot.

Sources: Gov.uk (1, 2), Auto Express, RAC, SMMT, Wikipedia

Image Credits: Martin Pettitt (Flickr), Shutterstock (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) Uncyclopedia