Originally published May 9, 1999
THE DRIVING test became a little harder last week, with candidates getting an automatic fail if they make more than 15 tiny errors in the course of a longer, 40-minute assessment.
The emergency stop is no longer compulsory but wannabe drivers will now be taken onto real roads, rather than housing estates.
Good. This is a step in the right direction, but it still isn’t enough. I’ve said many times that today’s spotty teenagers treat the driving licence as a right, rather than a privilege. To cure this, I reckon that anyone who fails three times should be barred from the roads for ever.
No, really, this is sensible. I am spectacularly hopeless at football and I know that no matter how much I want to earn £20,000 a week and sleep with dim women who are 16ft tall, it’s just not going to happen.
So why should people who obviously have no aptitude for driving be allowed to try over and over again for a licence in the hope that one day, they get tested by Mr Softy — a man who’s prepared to ignore the fact they drove for eight miles on the wrong side of the road?
Even in the new “get tough” test you’re allowed to make 15 mistakes in 40 minutes, and that’s way too lenient.
They don’t say to pilots on commercial airliners: “Not bad, Mr Rothmans. Only 14 errors in that landing procedure. You’ve passed.” So why should a driver be let loose in a ton of man-eating metal when all he’s had to do is drive along at 30 and reverse round a corner?
To hammer the point home, I booked myself into the Oxford test centre for a 40-minute session with Randal Davies, a Welsh examiner with the sort of voice you get on the British Airways relaxation channel. After five minutes of bottom-sniffing chitchat, to reflect the fact that Randal now works for a people’s “agency” rather than the KGB, I was in a deep trance. The man’s voice was unbelievable. Part Richard Burton. Part double cream.
Anyone who’s nervous about taking their test should ask for Randal. He could calm you down even if you were on fire.
To be honest, I wasn’t nervous the first time I took my test, 22 years ago — I even took some scissors along to cut the L-plates off afterwards — and I wasn’t nervous this time either. Sure, 40 minutes is a long time to go without a cigarette, but no matter what the outcome, I’d be driving home afterwards.
One obvious change since my day is the introduction of a preliminary theory exam. It’s a multiple-choice jobby, which asks when you are allowed to carry children in the boot of your car, and whether you’re legally obliged to give way for buses. So, it’s only hard in places like Glossop, where most people can’t read.
Assuming you pass this, it’s time to release the handbrake, check your mirrors and move into the traffic flow.
I took along the only manual car to hand — a Ferrari 355 — in which Randal metaphorically rubbed baby oil into my private parts with his stream of directional instructions.
Even in my catatonic state I remembered to indicate all the time, and things went well for probably 10 minutes, until I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that he was making a mark on his score sheet. “What the hell was that for?” I thought.
And I was still thinking about it when I glanced down at the speedometer to see I was doing 31mph. Aaargh.
Hurriedly, I backed off to a nice’n’comfy 25 and, for the 84th time that minute, checked my rear-view mirror for following traffic. Not surprisingly, at 25mph, there was quite a lot. Indeed, right behind was an old person in a B-registered Maestro, and this was fantastic. “Payback time,” I thought. “This is for all those times you and your sort have held me up.”
Unfortunately, there is no time on a driving test for such thoughts, because when I came back to earth, Randal was scribbling on his sheet again.
In the next half-hour we did a three-point turn, I reversed round a corner and we went on a dual carriageway, where the speed limit is … is … is what?
“Help! If I do 70 and it’s 60, I’ll fail. If I do 60 and it’s 70, Randal will think I don’t know, and I’ll fail. And if I go slower than that, I’ll fail for being a hazard.”
You see, while you are allowed to make 15 tiny mistakes, it takes just one whopper to put you back on the bus. And driving too fast or slowly, according to Randal, would qualify as a biggy.
I therefore opted for 55 and ignored the taunts of men in vans who were screaming past in the outside lane. It’s easy to be immune to road rage when you have a Randal on board, providing a sort of treacly deflector shield through which V-signs cannot pass.
In the next few minutes I saw him making a few more marks on his sheet, for no apparent reason, and then we did a hill start, where I demonstrated that the Ferrari’s handbrake didn’t work properly.
And there’s another thing. Your car must pass an MoT test every year so that it doesn’t begin to underperform. Whereas there’s no check at all to see if the driver is in any way substandard. You can have cataracts like dustbin lids and the DVLA will never know.
But whatever you do, don’t have this thought on a driving test, or you’ll be doing 31 again, and your Randal will be making another mark.
I lost count of the marks I’d got, but as we returned to the test centre I sort of knew it was way fewer than 10. I also knew I hadn’t run into a bus queue or caused a multiple pile-up and that, of course, I’d pass.
But I was in for a surprise. After I’d been told by Randal to turn off the engine and undo my seatbelt, he turned and, bold as brass, said: “Well, I’m sorry, Jeremy, but you’ve failed.”
“WHAAAAAAAT!!!!!!” He was rabbiting on in his tenor-sax voice about something or other but I wasn’t listening. I wanted to put my hand down his throat and tear his lungs out. I mean, the man was sitting there, telling me I couldn’t drive, and in a polite society that just isn’t done.
How would he like it if I sat at the end of his bed, marking him on his sexual prowess? Well, it’s the same damn thing.
I’m not in the least surprised to find that driving examiners are frequently beaten up by candidates who’ve failed. These poor struggling teenagers with their acne and their creaky voices have paid £36 and God knows how much in lessons to have someone with beige trousers say they’re no good.
Even Randal, the most charming old smoothie in the world, has been threatened. One man said he’d break his legs. Others just get out of the car and stomp off, not listening to why they didn’t pass.
Not me, though. When I stopped thinking about the stew I was going to make out of his spleen, I calmed down and asked, in measured tones, what I’d done wrong.
It seems I’d made only eight tiny errors, but on four occasions I’d failed to look over my shoulder before pulling away. And this sort of mistake is classified as “big”.
Obviously, I’d looked in my mirrors to check for cars, but Randal said a cyclist could have been hiding in the blind spot. “Yeah, of course he could,” I said. “But who cares? Cyclists are mushy — they don’t damage your paintwork.”
I tried. Really and truly I tried to pass this test, and I wouldn’t have minded if I’d failed for something manly and hirsute such as excessive speed. But a lack of observation. That’s pathetic.
So now I’ve completely changed my mind. The driving test is far too hard and this new “get tough” policy is just another example of Taffy Two Jags trying to get more teenagers onto his godforsaken buses.
In fact, what I’d like to see now is a test modelled on the Egyptian example. If you can drive a car 6ft forwards and 6ft backwards, you pass.
Or, better still, how about testing people for the real world? Make them drive along while arguing, reading a map, talking on the phone and shouting abuse at other road users. I did all that all the way home and I didn’t kill anyone.