What the driving test needs

Rob Handfield-Jones March 9, 2011

Over the years I have repeatedly called for the driving licence test to be revised, and last week, a reader sent me an e-mail asking what I’d like to see in a new test. Let me start by saying what I would remove from the test. The first thing would be the emergency stop, which is redundant skill in an era of electronic driver assistance, and the second is the yard test.

I passed!

Photo credit: captainbeaky

The yard test is a pointless formality that adds nothing to road safety. If that statement seems irretractably definitive, consider two facts. Firstly, the yard test may take no longer than 20 minutes, while the road test should be a minimum of 20 minutes. In the real world, this is more or less how the average test pans out, meaning that roughly half of the entire test duration is spent in the yard. Secondly, in 1998, the last year for which figures for all fatality types were available, the number of fatalities which took place in reverse gear was a total of 16 out of 9068 for the year, or two-tenths of a percent. Does it not strike you as bizarre that fully half of the test duration is spent on driving practices responsible for a mere 0.2% of fatalities? The 18 – 24 year-old age group’s dire fatality rate is directly descended from this structural problem which sees too much time being spent on issues which cause so few fatalities that they aren’t even listed as a separate category in the RTMC’s annual stats roundup any more.

I propose that we replace the yard test with a letter from a certified driving instructor in good standing with a reputable organisation like the South African Institute of Driving Instructors. The letter should state that the instructor has trained the candidate and considers them competent in basic parking manoeuvres and moving off against an incline. I would then make the minimum road test duration 40 minutes. Apart from improving the quality of the test, this would free up the land currently being used for yards for redevelopment or sale by the municipalities that own it.


Having axed the yard test, I’d then begin to implement an Outcomes-Based Education curriculum for the practical road test. OBE is a dismal failure for academic purposes, because it presumes that the outcome will (a) always take place and (b) always be predictable. However, OBE is a perfect model for driving instruction, because good driving consists of specific measurable outcomes with very little leeway for argument or discussion. You either are following at a sufficient distance to avoid a crash or you aren’t. You either are looking far enough ahead to allow for good awareness or you aren’t. There are precious few grey areas in driving, and dozens of measurable outcomes.

Right now, the driving licence is too caught up with systematising the process by which outcomes are to be attained, rather than ensuring the actual outcomes are met. If the outcome is that I want to join a freeway safely, who cares whether I checked my blind spot once, twice, ten times, or not at all? What matters is that I recognised that I was entering a phase of driving where another vehicle in my blind spot could be a hazard and I reacted accordingly. I’d rather sit next to a candidate who analyses a situation intelligently and concludes that no blind spot check is necessary in that particular case, than next to someone who swivels their head by rote without actually looking.

With that philosophy as a point of departure, I’d then compile a list of the top 50 hazards a driver faces and base the driving licence curriculum on those situations. It would be expected of an applicant that they would know the correct reaction to all of those situations, because it’s exactly such knowledge that’s lacking in the current test. For instance, when a K53 licence candidate goes through a green traffic light, he’s thinking about mirror checks and speed control. Those things are important, but what about escape routes, the possibility of cross-traffic skipping the red light, the potential danger of a car waiting to turn across his path, and the quality of road surface for braking and swerving?


The current approach to driver tuition and the licence test is that drivers are taught a system which has been out of date for at least 30 years, given a few hints, and expected to go off and find out the rest of the knowledge themselves and fit it into the system. The claim has been made that the system will help drivers deal with novel or unique driving situations, but that’s not true at all – the precursor to coping with such a situation is recognising the danger. New drivers don’t have the knowledge to do that and my proposal addresses exactly this deficiency. The licensing system should give drivers the knowledge, contextualise its use, and encourage them to systematise it however they wish by constantly asking the simple question: “What danger do I currently face and how can I reduce it?”

If that sounds suspiciously like defensive driving, it’s because it is. Why should we wait until after licence level to teach people what they need to know to survive? It makes it twice as difficult if one waits till later, because companies like mine then have to spend as much time trying to break old, bad habits as trying to instill new, good ones. Why not teach defensive driving at licence level? Why should we accept that the correct way to teach an 18 year-old to drive is to hammer a system consisting of a dozen points into their heads and tell them that if they don’t use it they’ll fail? It’s almost as if the system takes pride in requiring the examiners to be latter-day trolls, lurking ever near to pounce on a missed ‘observe’.

We need a curriculum which creates life-long safe driving habits, based on good judgment and actual driving knowledge and skill. This would be a considerable improvement on the current command/response regime which wears the cloak of road safety but is disconcertingly similar to puppy training.

About Rob Handfield-Jones, the author

Rob's motto is "...cars, cars, cars..." and he's been a leading innovator in the field of driving skills training since 1989. Away from the serious stuff, Rob enjoys working on cars, writing about them and playing with them - he has numerous TV stunt-driving credits, many wins and lap records in circuit racing, and has also tried his hand at special stage rallying. He writes regularly on road safety issues for several publications and is a well-known radio commentator via his "On the road" road safety slot on Classic FM 102.7.

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  • http://www.drivingschoolgloucestershire.com/driving-school-cheltenham.html driving school cheltenham

    I guess it's also a matter of exchanging thoughts and experiences. Through that, it will be a more effective one.

  • http://www.augustwindows.co.uk Double Glazing

    Many people take their driving test when they have not sufficiently prepared, or have not practiced enough, or have not practiced the right way. Others get very nervous because they don’t know what to expect.