History of the UK Driving Licence

Ever since 1903, anyone driving a car in the UK has needed a driving licence. Over the course of more than a century, this humble document has undergone some remarkable changes to reflect the way we use the road. Ready to dive into the history of the driving licence? Buckle up and enjoy the ride!

The early years of motoring

Motor vehicles were an increasingly common sight on Britain’s roads towards the end of the nineteenth century, but they were subject to some incredibly strict rules. Each vehicle needed three crew members on board, and the speed limit was set at just 2 mph in towns. These rules were finally relaxed in 1896, helping to increase adoption of cars as a convenient mode of transport—and a comparatively speedy one, with a new speed limit of 14 mph.

In 1903, the government responded to the car’s newfound popularity by bringing in the Motor Car Act. As well as introducing vehicle registration and increasing the speed limit, the act was most notable for introducing the first British driving licences. There was no need to take a test (at 8am or otherwise)—anyone over the age of 17 could get a licence just by applying to their local council. The first driving licence was available for just five shillings (or 25p—equivalent to roughly £28 today). Unlike today’s licences, you had to renew every year.

Though subsequent acts introduced regulations such as road tax, compulsory insurance, and the Highway Code (as covered in the history of the Highway Code), licences themselves remained largely unchanged for over three decades. This all changed when, in 1934, driving tests were introduced for the first time. Existing drivers were allowed to carry on driving without needing to take the new test, but anyone who started driving from April 1st, 1934 had to pass by June 1935. Whilst testing was temporarily suspended during the Second World War and the Suez Crisis, it’s been with us ever since—unfortunately for nervous learners!

Want to know more about the early years of driving tests? Check out this video for learner drivers from 1935!

A nation of drivers

When the first stretch of motorway was built in the late 50s, it paved the way for modern driving. Driving licences were changing too: from 1957, they were valid for three years rather than one. During the 1960s, car ownership boomed, and major changes were afoot. The first approved driving instructor register was set up in 1964, and a centralised licensing system came in 1965. The new central office was based in Swansea, where it remains to this day.

1969 saw some changes which will be familiar to today’s learners and drivers. The first change was that learners had to bring their licence to their test. If they didn’t, examiners could refuse to conduct the test—a rule which remains in force. Meanwhile, separate licences for automatic and manual cars were introduced. This meant that drivers who’d learned in an automatic could no longer legally drive manual cars.

The changes in the 1970s were even more radical. By 1973, there were more than 20 million drivers on Britain’s roads. The old manual system was, therefore, increasingly unfit for purpose. So, in 1973, licensing was computerised. Out were the old red booklets—in were new green paper licences. Then, in 1976, full driving licences became valid until a driver’s 70th birthday, ending the need to renew every three years. The extension also applied to provisional licences from 1982.

Check out the DVSA’s history of road safety for an even more comprehensive look at the way our roads have changed over the decades.

Old style paper driving licence from 1976
The 1970s saw the introduction of computerised licences. Image source: SWNS

The licence today

UK driving licence
Image source: gov.uk

Today, we’re so used to carrying around our pink photocard licences that it seems like they’ve been around forever. In actual fact, they didn’t exist until 1997. Before this time, drivers in Great Britain only had their green paper licence, which didn’t include a photo. The paper and photocard licences existed side-by-side until June 2015, when paper licences were abolished. The following month, the Union Jack was added to all photocard licences for the first time.

As licences themselves have changed, so too has the process of getting one. A written theory test was introduced in 1996. In 2000, it became a touch-screen test, and a hazard perception section was added in 2002. Some learners still find this change a bit off-putting—if you’re one of them, take a look at our guide to passing the theory test.

Meanwhile, the practical has changed too: “show me, tell me” questions were introduced in 2003, followed by independent driving in 2010. The most recent test changes came in December 2017, as we covered in our guide to the new practical driving test. Major changes included new “show me, tell me” questions, one of which is now while driving, as well as a new manoeuvre involving pulling up on the right. Meanwhile, another key difference is that most driving tests now include sat navs, to reflect the widespread popularity of these handy devices. If you’re thinking of buying your own, visit our article on different types of sat nav.

Facts and figures

  • The first person ever to pass a UK driving test was Mr R. E. L. Beere. He got his licence on March 16th, 1935, and his test cost seven shillings and sixpence. It’s not quite as cheap as it sounds—equivalent to around £25 in 2017—but it’s still much cheaper than today’s tests!
    (Hint: want to keep costs down when learning to drive? Block-booking lessons through an intensive course could save you money in the long run.)
  • In the 1970s, the driving licence gender gap was huge. In 1975/76, only 29% of women had a licence, compared to 69% of men. There are still more men on the road today, but the gap is much narrower now. In 2010, 66% of women had a licence, whereas 80% of men did.
  • Amongst most age groups, the percentage of licence holders has remained fairly steady since the 1970s. However, numbers have dropped somewhat amongst 17-30 year olds since the highs of the 1990s. Meanwhile, the percentage of licence holders over 70 has skyrocketed from 38% to 57% since the 1990s. In fact, it was revealed in July 2017 that, for the first time, there are now over 100,000 drivers over 90 years old. It goes to show that you’re never too old to get on the road!
  • In 1935, the test pass rate was 63%. In recent years, however, it’s dropped: current driving test pass rates stand at around 47%.
  • As we mentioned above, the first driving licences in 1903 cost five shillings. When taking into account the changing value of the pound, that’s worth around £28 in 2017. Interestingly, the price isn’t much higher now: it costs £34 to apply for your first licence. Prices were dramatically reduced in 2014 from a previous high of £50.
  • The only person who doesn’t need a driving licence is the Queen. For most public events, of course, she’s driven around by a chauffeur. However, she’s certainly not shy about getting behind the wheel, having trained as a driver and mechanic as a teenager during the Second World War. She’s even believed to have taught her own children to drive, and loves getting back in the driver’s seat whenever she can.
The Queen driving a Land Rover
A drive fit for a Queen! Image source: The Telegraph.

Now that you know all about driving licences, why not join our top pupils and get one of your own? Book a course with PassMeFast and get a full UK driving licence in just a few weeks!

Or, maybe you fancy a bit of driving test-related entertainment? This Emergency Stop Game blog post is certain to satisfy your need for diversion!

By Andy Boardman

Andy fell in love with driving while road tripping around Iceland. He'll provide you with plenty of useful motoring advice, helping you to get the most out of every trip. When he's not writing here, you're most likely to find Andy on his way to the next destination.