On This Day: Driving test introduced in Britain

Julian Gavaghan
On This Day: Driving test introduced in Britain

MARCH 21, 1934: Driving tests were made compulsory for all new motorists under a law passed on this day in 1934.

MPs hoped the Road Traffic Act 1934, which also reintroduced speed limits after they had been abolished three years earlier, would reduce soaring road deaths.

The law changed the previous system in which - since 1903 - licences were handed out to anyone so long as they filled in a form and paid a fee.

But those who began learning after June 1, 1935 would have to get a provisional licence and then take a practical test in order to legally drive alone.

Leading up to the introduction, British Pathé produced a report titled 'Safety First' in which speed record legend Sir Malcolm Campbell explained how best to drive.

'Some people are always in a hurry,' he remarks, apparently without irony as the video shows a driver racing along a road.

'They fly over crossings as though they are the sole occupants of the road.

'They forget that such driving is dangerous to others as well as themselves.

'Surely, it’s much better to stop at the crossing, take a good look both ways and proceed only when the road is clear.'

Sir Malcolm, who quit racing in 1935 after becoming the first person to break the 300mph barrier, goes on to show a host of other examples of 'madness' in cars.

They included drivers accelerating downhill, double parking, pulling over on a bend and setting off from traffic lights before the green signal.

In the year before the test became compulsory, there was a massive surge in applications for driving licences so that thousands could avoid the exam.

When it was introduced, it was a revelation – with the failure rate more than half.

Like today’s test, motorists were examined on roads by an official who required them to complete a number of manoeuvres.

These included an emergency stop, setting off on a hill, parallel parking, pulling over and setting off again while always checking the mirrors and indicating correctly.

The first person to pass the test was a Mr J Beene, who paid seven shillings and sixpence (37.5p) for the privilege.

Conservative Transport Minister Leslie Hore-Belisha introduced the new road traffic act because he was appalled by the previous Labour government’s own 1930 law.
His predessor Herbert Morrison controversially scrapped speed limits because they were 'so universally disobeyed that its maintenance brought the law into contempt'.

The measure was introduced in a year with a record 7,305 road deaths. By 1934, the number of annual fatalaties had increased to 7,343.

But after the driving test was introduced and a 30mph limit imposed in urban areas, deaths eventually fell after an initial rise as more and more people bought cars.

The number peaked at 9,171 in 1941, although that was blamed on motorists being forced to adhere to wartime blackout rules by using only dimmed headlights.

By 1950, as more people had taken the driving test despite being temporarily scrapped during the war, annual deaths had fallen to 5,012.

But as the number of cars on the road exceeded 10million for the first time in 1960 and continued to rise, the death rate rose again, peaking again at 7,965 in 1966.
A raft of new safety measures were introduced – including the introduction of a 70mph speed limit – and the driving test was toughened up.

Since then the number of minor transgressions allowed during a practical examination have gradually been reduced.

In 1996 a theory test was introduced and in 2002, learners had to also pass a video-based hazard perception exam in order to get their licence.

In 2012, road deaths were reduced to the all-time low of 1,754 while the number of registered vehicles rose to a record high of 34.5million, of which 83% were cars.