Curious Questions: Who was the first person to take a driving test?

For years, all you need to drive a car was to jump behind the wheel — but that all changed. Martin Fone traces the history of the driving test.

For many it was the must-have coming of age present, a course of driving lessons and the chance to enjoy the sense of freedom that holding a full licence brought with it. It was a generational experience that peaked between 1992 and 1994 when as many as 48% of 17 to twenty-year-olds and 75% of those aged between twenty-one and 29 held one. By 2014 the percentages had dropped to 29% and 63% respectively and in 2021 the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) reported that the number of those aged between 16 and 25 qualified to drive had dropped to its lowest level on record, 2.97 million — a reduction is all the more remarkable given the increase in the overall numbers of that age cohort during the period.

A greater environmental awareness, enhanced digital connectivity, the boom in home working, and the spiralling costs of car ownership are cited as reasons for driving falling out of favour with youngsters. Another factor is that the driving test system itself has taken a frustratingly long time to recover from the disruptions of Covid with candidates still experiencing long waits for test dates, now an average of 18.8 weeks.

The need to show a level of proficiency in driving and manoeuvring a vehicle deemed acceptable to an independent examiner is a relatively new concept in the context of the history of the car. While driving licences began to be issued in Paris from 1893 and tests became mandatory across France in 1899, Britain was slower off the mark. Printed on a fabric, bound like a passport and costing five shillings, driving licences only became compulsory in 1904, and were available on application at their local Council office to anyone over the age of seventeen, and renewable annually.

However, there was no requirement to demonstrate even the basic competence behind the wheel to obtain a licence. Those who felt the need to do so, travelled to France to take a test, like the Honourable Evelyn Ellis, who in 1895 became the first Englishman to pass a driving test, in Paris, and Miss Vera Hedges Butler, the first British woman in 1900.

Mr Evelyn Ellis in a ‘motor carriage’ made by Panhard and Levassor of Paris, pictured at an ‘Exhibition of Horseless Vehicles’ held at Tunbridge Wells, Kent, in 1895. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Rather like Kenneth Grahame’s Mr Toad in The Wind in the Willows (1908), many a stolid Englishman seemed to undergo a dramatic character transformation when sitting behind the wheel of a car, often driving wildly and carelessly, at least until the often reluctant authorities caught up with them.

The advent of cheaper and faster cars in the 1920s led to an explosion in vehicle numbers matched by an equally astonishing casualty rate. In 1933 more than 7,000 were killed on the roads and over 200,000 injured.

Those figures, by modern standards, are horrendous, given the relative number of cars on the roads; by comparison, in the 12 months to June 2023, there were an estimated 1,633 fatalities and 29,429 injuries. No wonder that the incoming Transport Minister in 1933, Leslie Hore-Belisha, likened the situation to “mass murder”. Belisha himself had narrowly missed being run over not long before taking office.

The Pedestrian Association, formed in 1929, lobbied for stricter traffic regulations, adequate road safety measures, and law enforcement, a campaign furiously resisted by motoring associations who argued that these would be tantamount to an infringement of a driver’s civil liberties and suggested that irresponsible pedestrians were as much to blame for the carnage on the roads. And anyway, why such a fuss when 6,000 committed suicide a year?

The first tangible sign that road safety was being taken seriously came when the Road Traffic Act 1930 introduced the Highway Code. First published in 1931, it was an attempt to establish the fundamentals of sharing a road with other users. The Act also stated that anyone who had a disability that could affect their driving ability may “be subjected to a test to his fitness or ability to drive a motor vehicle”.

The Continent was ahead of the UK in imposing driving tests; this image shows tests being given to members of the German Women Automobile Club at Berlin in 1928. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The Road Traffic Act 1934, a hotly debated piece of legislation, then made a driving test compulsory for anyone, irrespective of physical condition, who applied for a driving licence on or after April 1, 1934. Two hundred examiners, including sixteen supervisors, were recruited from 34,000 applicants to support the initiative and the test fee was set at 7s 6d. Candidates were required to demonstrate a basic understanding of the Highway Code and their ability to reverse, make a three-point turn, a hill start, and an emergency stop. A pink certificate was issued to those who passed, a yellow to those who failed to make the grade.

Introduced on March 16, 1935, on a voluntary basis, the driving test became compulsory from June 1st. In the run up to its introduction the motoring press devoted acres of editorial space to providing useful tips to their readership on how to hone their skills to meet the requirements of the examiner. The weekly magazine The Motor assuaged the concerns of many by reminding them that “the minimum of inconvenience and maximum of safety to other road users are the essentials of good road sense, and remember that much that passes under the name of road sense is really only courtesy”.

As there were no test centres, examiners would arrange to meet candidates at railway stations or parks. Mr R E L Beere of Kensington Hall Gardens, London W14, volunteered to take the test on March 16, 1935, becoming the first person in Britain to receive his pink certificate which he proudly displayed, in the company of his wife, to a crowd of assembled photographers.

In the first year, 246,000 took the test with a pass rate of 63%. Such was the demand that the Driving Test Organisation made an “unintended” profit of £16,000 leading to a reduction of the test fee to five shillings two years later. However, the driving test initially only lasted just over four years, suspended on September 2, 1939 for the duration of the Second World War until its reintroduction on November 1, 1946. Those who held a wartime provisional licence were granted a year from February 18, 1947 to convert them into full licences without the necessity of passing a test.

Thousands who were given provisional licences during the Second World War later gained full licences without ever taking a test. (Credit: Bettmann Archive / Getty)

The modern driving test is a more onerous affair with an overall pass rate in 2021/2 of 50.5%, although, curiously, those taking their test for the first time achieved a pass rate of 52.6% and 8% fewer candidates taking tests in automatic cars passed than those in manual vehicles. Analysis of data provided by the Driving and Vehicle Standards Agency for the twelve month period from April 2022 suggests there is a wide variance in pass rates between test centres. At Speke in Liverpool out of more than 8,ooo candidates, only a quarter passed compared with 68% of the 1,800 taking their tests in Kendal.

Reflecting Hore-Belisha’s near-death experience, the 1934 Act also required pedestrian crossings to be clearly marked with an amber light globe sitting above a black and white pole. Popularly known as “Belisha beacons”, the first were installed on Kensington Road near Hyde Park in September 1934.

A woman crosses a road near one of the newly-introduced Belisha Beacons, Kensington, London, 18th September 1934. The crossing was also marked by metal studs in the road surface. (Photo by E. Dean/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By the end of November there were some 10,000 in London, but, rather like ULEZ enforcement cameras, they were not universally popular, the Daily Mail reporting on November 12th that four men had shattered eighteen glass beacons with air guns. Eighty were stolen in Hampstead within weeks of installation and when the scheme was rolled out to the rest of the country, there were reports of “dismay and even rebellion” amongst regional officials. Plastic replaced glass to prevent vandalism and soon the furore died down, making them a distinctive piece of street furniture during my childhood.

The road to safety on the highway has been a long and winding one!