Getting a Driver's License Is a Royal Pain in Britain
Wednesday, October 30, 2002
By SARA CALIAN and STEVE STECKLOW
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
LONDON -- When John Plott, who lives near Glasgow, recently passed his
British driving test, he didn't say a word to the examiner, not even
thanks. "Basically I wanted to get out of the motor car before he
changed his mind," he says.
It's easy to understand why. Mr. Plott had failed the test 15 times
Think driving on the left side of the road is difficult? Try getting a
British driver's license.
The "dreaded test," as one car-insurance ad calls it, is a
nerve-wracking process that takes months of preparation and practice
-- and can end up costing $1,000 or more. It also calls for such
maneuvers as driving backwards around a corner and up the street along
the curb. Touch the curb with the wheel and you flunk.
Most test-takers don't cut it. Britain's pass rate is under 44% and
falling. That makes driving tests in places such as New York, where
61% of drivers pass, seem a relative breeze.
Britain's Driving Standards Agency, the government entity that
administers the test, isn't satisfied. While Britain has one of the
world's lowest auto fatality rates, the agency is concerned because
nearly 20% of new drivers get into crashes within a year of passing
So the agency has decided to make getting a driver's license even
tougher. In addition to a 35-question computerized exam on driving
regulations and a 40-minute "practical" road test conducted in
traffic, starting Nov. 14 applicants also will have to survive a
video-simulation test that measures reaction times to filmed hazards.
Agency officials concede the new video requirement isn't going to make
getting a license any easier, so they recommend applicants take
special classes just for that. "If they don't take any training, you
could see the pass rate tumble quite a lot," warns Robin Cummins, the
government's chief driving examiner.
That's particularly bad news for Americans living in Britain. While
citizens of other European Union countries can exchange their licenses
for a British one, Americans, within a year of moving here, are
supposed to take the test. But many don't, largely because of horror
stories told by people who have tried.
"It's humiliating," says Justine Griffiths, a sculptor from California
who last year took the test at her Welsh husband's urging. She had
been driving here illegally for eight years using her U.S. license.
"I'm 42 years old. I've been driving for 20 years with a clean record,
and I'm a mother of a nine-year-old. I cried because I failed my
driving test. I felt like a failure in life."
Ianthe Kallas-Bortz, a 46-year-old native New Yorker, refers to the
two-year period she spent trying to acquire a British license as "the
debacle." After four failed attempts, she finally gave up. But that
didn't keep her off the road. She continued to drive for eight more
years, without incident, then she moved back to the U.S.
Indeed, because unlicensed drivers in Britain aren't uncommon, they
are becoming a serious concern. Safety experts estimate there are at
least half a million unlicensed drivers on Britain's roads, and many
say it's because of the test. "There are definitely people who become
so frustrated at not being able to pass the driving test that they
drive without a license," says Andrew Howard, head of road safety for
the AA, Britain's largest motor vehicle club.
Another big deterrent is the cost. Applicants first must buy a
provisional license for $45, which is required to practice. Since
secondary schools don't offer driver education, most people enroll in
driving schools, and take a dozen or more lessons at about $31 an
The computerized "theory" test costs $28. To pass, it helps to study a
book published by the driving agency, since the book contains all the
actual test questions. The cost: $19. The agency also plans to sell a
$20 practice video for the new simulation test.
The road test costs $61, unless you want to take it on a Saturday, in
which case the fee rises to $75. But you can't take the test unless
you have made a booking beforehand. Since test appointments often
aren't available for two to three months, phone operators recommend
calling every day to see whether there's a cancellation.
Naturally if you fail the road test, you have to pay to take it again.
It's little surprise that the Driving Standards Agency, which also
offers motorcycle, truck, tractor and bus tests, last year reported a
$5.8 million surplus, even though the number of people taking the car
test has been falling. But Mr. Cummins, who says anyone who spends
$900 to acquire a license is getting by "cheap," defends the costs,
saying the agency is required to be self-supporting and therefore
needs to be run as a business.
How are young people supposed to afford a driver's license? Mr.
Cummins isn't sympathetic. "Getting a driving license is not a rite of
passage," he says. He adds that teenagers, who can get a license at
17, need to make priorities in their lives and determine, for example,
whether they want to go to college or get a driving license. The
costs, in fact, aren't that far apart; tuition at most British
universities currently is $1,560 a year.
On a recent midweek morning, a small group of drivers assembled in the
waiting room of the driving-test center in Hendon, just north of
London. All of them were accompanied by their instructors.
For reasons only a bureaucrat could fathom, the tests all were
scheduled for exactly 10:44 a.m., and at that moment a group of
examiners bearing clipboards entered the room. One by one they
accompanied the test-takers to their vehicles, leaving the instructors
For the next 40 minutes, each examiner directed a driver through the
streets of Hendon, issuing a series of commands. "At the next
roundabout" -- British for traffic circle -- "turn left." "Please pull
over just past that car on the left. Now move on when you're ready."
The examiners quietly made small marks on their clipboards, never
revealing how the drivers were doing until the test was finished. But
the test-takers know from their lessons that the examiners watch out
for compliance with some of the peculiarities of British driving
etiquette. Among them: When stopping at a red light, use the
handbrake, not the foot brake. Never cross your hands when turning the
steering wheel. And never, ever, wave to a pedestrian to signal that
it's OK to cross the street. Even agency officials admit that many
drivers ignore these rules as soon as the test is over.
Upon returning to the agency's parking lot, the examiner ordered a
test-taker to turn off the ignition. Then he looked down at his
clipboard as the driver, who has been licensed in the U.S. for 30
years, awaited the verdict. "I'm sorry, but you didn't pass," the
examiner said in a low voice.
He cited two "serious" faults: The driver hadn't pulled completely
into the right lane when instructed to make a right turn at a
"mini-roundabout." And several times he had failed to check his
rear-view mirror before using a turn signal.
Why is it safer to take your eye off the road and look into a mirror
before using a turn signal? Mr. Cummins later explained that the
purpose is to avoid confusing the driver of another car who might be
trying to overtake the vehicle.
But the AA's Mr. Howard offers a different explanation: "It basically
boils down to the fact the driving tests and the driving procedures
were laid down in the 1920s, and the system does still basically
assume that it's surprising that there's anybody behind you."