Sheffield Star Retro columnist Monica Dyson looks back to early driving tests

I passed my driving test over 40 years ago, when I was nearly eight months pregnant with my second child. I still maintain that it only happened because the examiner was worried about acting as midwife!

Thursday, 17th October 2019, 1:00 am
Updated Thursday, 17th October 2019, 2:05 pm
Minister of Transport Leslie Hore-Belisha, second left, on a 1936 visit to Preston. He rewrote the Highway Code and was responsible for the driving test and the Belisha beacons which mark zebra crossings
Minister of Transport Leslie Hore-Belisha, second left, on a 1936 visit to Preston. He rewrote the Highway Code and was responsible for the driving test and the Belisha beacons which mark zebra crossings

It was a time when most young women I knew were thinking about learning to drive.

Women were more independent with more disposable income than ever before and it provided a freedom of movement that our mothers had never experienced.

Although it was also fair to say that when we were growing up, family cars were not the norm.

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I was well into my teens before my father afforded one, and there was no way anyone was going to drive it except him.

It was very much a ‘man’ thing, with men not even driving their wives to do the shopping.

The family car seemed to be very much used as something to wash and polish and for recreational trips into Derbyshire on Sunday afternoon.

Of course there were women of my mother’s age who had learnt to drive but they were mostly the women recruited to do ‘men’s’ jobs during the Second World War when for the first time they gained a sense of real power, even though after a 10-hour shift in a factory or possibly driving an ambulance or 10-ton truck, they were still expected to shop, clean, feed their families and ‘make do and mend’.

So, things haven’t always changed there!

Of course, after the war they handed their jobs back over to the returning men, took up their place in the home and enjoyed their memories of emancipation!

In fact, the driving test was first introduced in March 1935, some time before the start of the war, when there were 1.4 million drivers throughout the UK, although the Highway Code had first been published in 1931 at a cost of one penny.

The number of drivers rose to over 38 million recently.

At first it was voluntary testing in order to prevent a ‘rush’ of candidates when it became compulsory, which it did in June 1935, with tests taking place in public places like car parks or railway stations in the absence of test centres, but then driving tests were suspended for the duration of the war.

Interestingly, the first person to pass a driving test in the UK was a Mr Beene at a cost of seven and sixpence!

There is a very interesting piece of film available called The First Driving Test, dating back to the 1930s. One important piece of advice was not to ‘flick your cigarette ash out of the window!’

Of course, in those days there was no breathalyser test and drivers thought nothing of drinking and driving.

There were some rather crude roadside tests in place if police suspected a driver was over a recognised level of sobriety.

These included walking in a straight line, touching your nose, standing on one leg or reciting the alphabet backwards.

Surely not easy even if stone cold sober!

In 1966 the Road Safety Act was passed which stated that there should be a set limit of 80 mg of alcohol in 100 cc of blood, and that it would be an offence to drive over that limit.

The breathalyser was introduced in 1967 but was greeted with outrage in some quarters particularly with publicans who viewed it as ruining their trade, with crowds of them heckling the then Transport Minister Barbara Castle outside the House of Commons.

However, the year before the breath test was introduced there had been over 1,640 deaths on Britain’s roads blamed on alcohol consumption.

After its introduction there was a dramatic decrease in fatalities despite a dramatic increase in car ownership.

Today, the numbers of people learning to drive are at the lowest ever which has been attributed to the high cost of a provisional licence at £50 and to the cost of lessons which can be at least £25 per hour.

Over the past 20-odd years there have been constant changes to the format of driving test.

The written theory test was introduced in 1996 which was an hour long, had 50 questions and required an 86% pass rate.

The touch-screen theory test was introduced with a hazard perception test introduced into it.

‘Show me’ and ‘tell me’ safety questions have been added to the beginning of the practical test with 10 minutes of independent driving with the candidate making their own decisions.

My eldest grandson, who recently became a teenager, was bought a Driving Experience Day which is specially designed for 10-to-17-year-olds.

He thoroughly enjoyed the experience but the scheme has not been without its critics and comments of “training joy riders of the future” and “make sure you don’t leave your car keys lying about”.

However, in a rapidly-changing world, who is to say that teaching young people responsible driving is not a good idea?

And sad for the father who expressed surprise that his daughter had failed her driving test.

As he said: “She texted me three times to say how well it was going!”.