• The disposal of cigarette ash was an important driving skill
  • There was no 'mirror, signal, manoeuvre'
  • Why eco-safe driving has been introduced

According to a 2016 survey from Auto Trader and RED Driving School, 52 per cent of learners over the age of 25 say that a lack of confidence has put them off lessons until now. We can only imagine their horror, then, if faced with driving practices of years gone by – we're talking a devil-may-care approach to mirrors, issuing licences without tests and – wait for it! – arm signals. 

1896 – No more red flags

Black and white photo of two men on a very old car travelling behind a man in a suit waving his hand in the air.

Before 1896, motorcars could only travel at walking pace. In fact, a pedestrian had to stay in front of the car waving a red flag or lantern as a warning. But in November 1896, the Red Flag Act was repealed, allowing cars to travel at up to 14mph.  Whoa there!

1899 – First driving test

The world's first mandatory driving test was introduced in France.

1900 – First licensed woman driver

Black and white photo of Vera Hedges Butler driving a very old car

As there were no driving tests in the UK, Vera Hedges Butler had to travel across the channel to France to become the first British woman to pass a driving test.

1903 – Pay and display

The Motor Car Act was passed in 1903, requiring all vehicle owners to display registration and carry a driver's licence. You could pick one up for five shillings back then – not bad, considering it costs up to £43 to get a provisional licence today.

1935 – Taking the test 

Black and white photo of a very old car. On the car is a learner plate that says 'Driving test - school of motoring - official instruction car'

Testing was introduced in 1935, costing learners seven shillings and sixpence (37.5p). If you wanted to take the test, you had to meet your instructor at a pre-agreed location, such as a post office or railway station, as there were no test centres. 1935 was also the year when the 'L' was introduced for anyone with a driving licence who was yet to take the test.

The first man to pass the British driving test was Mr Beene of Kensington. These days, 1.5 million people take the test every year in the UK.

1939 – War pauses testing

The outbreak of the Second World War prevented any driving lessons or tests, as the majority of instructors were conscripted into the war effort.

1946 – Back at the wheel

Black and white photo of people looking inside of a learner cars bonnet.

Driving tests restarted in November 1946. From 18 February 1947, those who were given provisional licences during the war were given a year to convert them into a full licence – without having to take the test!

1965 – The DVLC

Issuing licences was no longer the job of the county or borough councils from 1965, as the new Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre (DVLC) was set up in Swansea.

'I learned to drive in 1965 and, as far as the test was concerned, there were some big differences – the main one being that there was no emphasis on the use of mirrors,' says Grade A-approved driving instructor Nick Forman. 'Provided you could control the car, perform an emergency stop and knew the highway code of the time, you passed. There was, however, a focus on where your cigarette ash ended up!'

1966 – The first driving simulator

Black and white photo of people on driving simulators

Drivotrainer came to Nottingham in 1966. A 'revolutionary' US invention, Drivotrainer was the first driving simulator, putting students in front of the same controls as those you would find in a 1960s automobile, with footage played out in front of them. Their reactions were then recorded using equipment that was state-of-the-art – for the period, at least. 

1969 – Going automatic

There were some key changes to the driving test laws in June 1969:

  • Dual accelerator control (where the passenger also has a set of pedals) was not allowed in vehicles used in driving tests
  • Automatic vehicles got their own licences
  • Driving test applicants had to bring their driving licence to the test and sign the attendance record

1975 – Waved away

Black and white photo of a car on a street signalling with a robotic arm.

Until it was scrapped in May 1975, demonstrating the proper arm signals was a requirement of people learning to drive.

1996 – Write of passage

The driving theory test was separated from the main practical test. Instead of answering questions about the Highway Code during your drive, you had to write the answers down at a separate time (as you do today).

2000 – The new millennium

A person using a touch screen computer while taking her theory test

The written theory test, only four years old at this point, was replaced by the touch-screen computerised version.

2002 – Clickety-quick

The hazard perception test was introduced. Learners now have to watch a short video, from the perspective of a driver, and click whenever a potential hazard appeared. The 1960s Drivotrainer has a lot to answer for!

2008 – Driving a green machine

As of 2008, prospective drivers are now assessed for their eco-safe driving.

'A key skill in eco-safe driving involves planning and anticipation,' observes Ian McIntosh, CEO of RED Driving School. 'The examiner monitors the candidate's eco-safe skills during the test, and then gives feedback on how well or otherwise the candidate did in this area.

'Things considered include the use of gentle acceleration, avoidance of harsh braking, correct use of gears, use of appropriate speed and, of course, anticipation,' he adds.

2010 – Becoming independent

A young woman driving a car and a man in the passenger seat holding a pen

From 2010, test candidates have had to drive without instructor guidance for 10 minutes. They are encouraged to take their instructors along with them.

'The pass rate for the UK driving test is 47 per cent, meaning that many people require more than one attempt,' Ian McIntosh points out. 'Having the instructor along to witness what happens during the test is enormously helpful in the event that the candidate fails.

'It should also be noted that the unsuccessful candidate may be so disappointed that they don't really take on board any feedback from the examiner. If the instructor hears the feedback first hand, this will also help the customer understand why they failed and what needs to be done to improve,' he says.

2015 – Wasted paper

The paper driving licence was phased out last year, as everything moved into the digital sphere.

The future – Robot instructors

Well, not robot instructors exactly – but last year the government trialled a series of changes to the driving test, one of which was 20 minutes of independent driving with the help of a GPS system.  Angela Marcantonio, a driving instructor turned London bus driver, notes: 'They used to ask pupils to follow road signs, but the satnav was tested out last year and reversing around the corner, three-point turn and other manoeuvres were also cut in the trial – so it will be more about common-sense driving.'

The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) is constantly assessing driving tests and lessons to see how they can be improved. Better lessons mean safer drivers and fewer accidents – but however confident you feel on the road, there's no accounting for other drivers, so make sure you're covered for any eventuality.