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Should Driving Tests be Harder?

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Should Driving Tests be Harder?
Photo credit: Davey Brown / Flickr

As anyone who’s ever taken a driving test abroad will tell you: the US test is comparatively very easy.

Every state is different, sure, but not much, and the level of knowledge and ability required compared to other Western countries could be considered quite demeaning. It doesn’t help that the vast majority of the country is designed around the automobile:  without a car in America (outside public transport-rich anomalies like New York and Chicago) one’s life tends to be severely inconvenienced, which probably goes some way towards explaining the lacking standard. There’s no political or corporate pressure to tighten it up.

One’s first thought is that a harder test should cut down on wrecks, but apparently this isn’t the case. A 1995 study across the whole of Europe discovered there is no correlation between driving test difficulty and casualty rates. And it’s common knowledge that driving habits adopted to meet the strictures of the test abruptly dissipate when getting behind the wheel of one’s first car. There’s nothing compelling enough about ten to two to keep it up.

Tom Vanderbilt, the best-selling American author of Traffic: Why we Drive the Way We Do famously took a UK driving test for a 2008 Guardian newspaper article while in his late thirties, and roundly failed both the theoretical and practical portions. When you look at the requirements, it’s fairly easy to understand why:

  1. Answer correctly at least 43 of the 50 theory questions.
  2. Hazard Perception Test: 14 video clips present one or two developing hazards. Applicants are awarded points for the time taken to notice them. 44 required out of a possible 75.
  3. 40 minute practical covering all basic maneuvers, including a 10 minute independent driving segment.
  4. Of course, there’s also the usual eye and medical evaluations we’re familiar with in the US, and if the test is taken in an automatic, it must be retaken in a stick shift to be allowed to drive one.

The number of per capita wrecks and casualties in the UK is far lower than in the US, but there are a wealth of other mitigating factors to undermine the validity of any proposed causal relationship: driving in the UK is an entirely different animal, with different cars on different roads driven by less, more affluent people. So that’s the story, and we’re happy to stick to it.

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