Learner drivers battle to book tests post-lockdown with six-hour online queues

Learner drivers still facing up to six-month wait for driving tests in the UK

Nearly summer 2022 for some learners

LEARNER drivers continue to face lengthy waiting times for practical driving tests, in some cases as long as 24 weeks according to information revealed by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA).

The DVSA said there are around 440,000 people currently waiting for tests and, although the average waiting time for a test is 14 weeks, in some of the worst-affected areas the earliest test slots available are as much as six months away.

The huge system backlog is caused mostly — though not entirely — by the cancellation of some 450,000 tests as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The effect of the pandemic on testing is highlighted by the period from April 2020 to March 2021, which saw a drop of 73% in the number of tests conducted compared to the previous year.

When testing resumed in April in England and Wales, the DVSA faced a backlog of around 1.16 million people waiting for tests. By August, most of the 2021 testing slots had gone with learners even then facing delays well into 2022.

One of the DVSA’s strategies for dealing with the backlog was by increasing the number of tests conducted by an examiner from seven per day to eight. However this has hit a snag as 92% of the examiners balloted by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union rejected the proposal and voted for two days of strike action.

According to the PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, eight tests per day is unsafe.

He said: “Seven tests a day is already very stressful. These are difficult jobs that require skill — people need to be alert, and it can be dangerous taking people out on to the roads.”

However, the DVSA said the proposal could unlock an extra 5,000 tests per month.

Loveday Ryder, chief executive of the DVSA, said: “Safely reducing driving test waiting times will contribute to the national recovery effort and we are taking steps to provide thousands of learner drivers with the vital driving tests they need to access employment, education, health and social activities.”

Ian McIntosh, the CEO of Red Driving School, supports the plan as well as some of the other measures being taken by the DVSA to reduce waiting times.

“The DVSA is calling on retired examiners and those qualified to conduct tests, but who do not do so as part of their day job, to return to tackle the backlog,” he said.

“In addition, tests are being conducted on weekends and on public holidays in an attempt to speed up the waiting times, and elsewhere there is a campaign to employ an additional 300 examiners.

“The DVSA is also taking steps to make the tests shorter, which is positive, but we’re hoping it will continue its liaison with unions to increase examiners’ workload to eight tests per day to further increase provision.”

The backlog issue is compounded by the increase in the number of people learning how to drive, perhaps as private cars were touted as a safer alternative to public transport during the pandemic, and reduced train and bus services meant some people were unable to travel.

As well as that, the years 2003 and 2004 saw something of a mini baby-boom, the results of which are now turning 17 and seeking to get on the road.

In addition to the driving test backlog, the number of driving instructors has fallen by 12% since 2013 and dropped an additional 2.34% between 2019 and 2020, the latter amount likely as a result of instructors retiring due to the pandemic, according to research conducted by the young driver insurance specialist, Marmalade.

Red is currently trying to recruit 400 new instructors nationwide with a fast-track training scheme for those looking to enter the industry.

The combination of the pandemic and the instructor shortage has led to something of a perfect storm for learners, especially with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) refusing to extend provisional licences to account for the driving lesson and driving test backlogs. This is forcing many to have to retake their theory tests, a process that is already backlogged.

While to learners it wil be a deeply frustrating situation, McIntosh offered some encouraging words: “The backlog won’t be here forever, and once you pass your test, it will all be worth it.”