Compared: Current v New Practical Driving Test

A Nexus One satnav mounted on the front windscreen of a car

This article was first published in June 2017. Please note that, as of December 4th, 2017, the practical test changes are now in effect.

Since its introduction in the 1930s, there have been many changes to the UK driving test. There are situations that are now part and parcel of daily road use that would never have been experienced by drivers back then—and it is crucial that the test is regularly updated to reflect modern standards.

Now, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) is planning new and extensive changes to the practical test—due to take effect from December 4th this year.

What happens in the practical test now?

Under current rules, there are 5 sections that must be completed satisfactorily, in order to pass your practical driving test. In total, the test takes around 40 minutes (unless you have to take an extended test following a revoked licence, in which case it takes over an hour).

Eyesight check

First off, you’ll be asked to read a number plate from either 20, or 20.5m (depending on whether you’re asked to read a new or old-style plate). If you’re unable to decipher the characters, it’s not yet the end of the road: you will be given 3 chances—each on a different number plate—to get them right. Fail them all, however, and you fail the test then and there. In fact, the examiner won’t even let you get into the driving seat!

If you’re at all concerned that your eyesight is not sharp enough, make sure to book into an opticians; any corrective eyewear is, of course, permitted—and if you need glasses or contact lenses for this part of the test, you should always wear them whilst driving.

Show me / Tell me

As the current tests stands, presuming your sight is deemed adequate, the examiner will then proceed to ask you two questions. Since their introduction as a requirement for the driving licence back in 2003, these have been aimed at checking that you are able to perform basic vehicle safety tests, and will usually start with the words ‘show me’ or ‘tell me’. For instance, you may be asked to identify where to check whether the oil needs changing (a competent candidate would point to the dipstick, rather than a local garage) and explain how you would do so. One of the changes to the new test is the different form that questions will take; more on that later.

General driving ability

Hands on a steering wheel
The examiner will check that you are able to drive competently and confidently

It’s only then that you are asked to start the car and begin to drive. Bear in mind that you have the option of your instructor sitting on your test—it’s all down to personal preference. During the remainder of the current test, the examiner will be checking that you are in full control of the vehicle, respect maximum, and, where applicable, minimum speed limits, and are able to respond to situations on the road safely.

Any faults you make are recorded; these are categorised into ‘minor’, ‘serious’ or ‘dangerous’. If you make 15 minors, or just 1 serious of dangerous fault during the test, you will fail. Alternatively, if you accumulate 5 faults in one single category, the examiner may deem this habitual—a serious fault, and so reason for failure. If you are thought to be a danger to other road users, the examiner may even refuse to let you continue with the test.

Reversing skill

As well as demonstrating your general driving ability, the current test sees you asked to perform a manoeuvre, focusing on reversing the car. It could be round a corner, into a bay parking space, or a turn in the road. You will also have to demonstrate a controlled stop, and may be directed to make an emergency stop.

Independent driving

In the future, we may be able to rely on driverless cars to perform many aspects of driving for us. Until then, though, independent driving is a very important part of the practical. Introduced into the test in October 2010, it typically lasts around 10 minutes—until the practical test changes come into effect, that is. During this time, the learner must display their capacity to follow road signs and markings, rather than relying purely on examiner’s instructions. Directions are sometimes verbalised, particularly if a sign is obscured, by foliage for example. If you leave the correct route, try not to panic; you will not be penalised, unless you commit a fault during the process. The examiner will help you get back on track, where you can continue to demonstrate your independent driving skills.

Why change the current format?

It is often said that you don’t really learn to drive until you’ve passed your test. This is because you are suddenly thrust into situations that you will never have had the opportunity to encounter during the relatively restrictive shelter of your lessons. Inexperienced drivers are much more likely to be involved in collisions; when the driver is young, the probability of a serious crash is even greater.

These facts should not put you off learning to drive, but should impress upon you the importance of being prepared for the hazards you’ll face on the roads.

From the 4th December this year, much of the practical test is due to be overhauled. The DVSA are implementing the changes to make the test to more accurately reflect real-life driving. This has the knock-on effect of making lessons harder, and will possibly increase the amount of lessons that pupils will require in order to become road ready. And that’s not all—the test changes are also bringing about a driving examiner strike which will have repercussions for instructors and students alike.

Blurred lights on the M6 motorway
The practical test changes in 2017 do not include introducing learners to motorway driving—but a Pass Plus course does

While you’ll still face certain circumstances for the first time once you’ve passed, such as motorway driving—which is set to be a voluntary part of lessons in 2018, and can be mitigated by taking a Pass Plus course—you will have already mastered other skills, such as following the directions of a sat nav, which should stand you in good stead for your future driving.

That said, some of the driving test will remain unchanged. For instance, it will still last around 40 minutes, you will still have to perform an eyesight test at the start of your test, to prove that your vision is clear enough to allow you on the roads—and the test will still be marked in the same way.

So what changes are coming about—and what do you need to know about them?

Overview of practical test changes

Under the new rules, there will be 4 changes to the current style of test. The independent driving element of the test will increase in length and will now involve the use of a sat nav. Meanwhile, there will also be a change in the reversing manoeuvres you’ll be asked to perform, and a difference in the show me / tell me questions.

1. Independent driving to double in length

Often cited as the most difficult part of the practical, at the moment independent driving takes up around 10 minutes of your test. This is due to be extended; in fact, under the new rules, half of your test will be performed in independent conditions.

Independent driving helps to simulate the pressures faced during real-life driving, where you may have to rely on signs and road markings to find your way. You may find these driving tips helpful when preparing for your test.

2. Follow directions from a sat nav

A Nexus One satnav mounted on the front windscreen of a car
The majority of drivers now use sat navs; this warrants their inclusion in the new practical test

Given the widespread use of technology to help us find our way around, it comes as no surprise that the DVSA, come December, will deem following a sat nav as a necessary part of the practical test. The examiner will input the location into the sat nav, so at least you won’t have to demonstrate that particular skill!

We welcome the proposal: relying on a sat nav for directions can seem daunting, confusing—and even distracting—at first. It’s best to experience the situation in a controlled environment before you’re alone and trying to navigate an unknown city.

However, you won’t be able to guarantee that you will be asked to use a sat nav. 20% of all learners will instead be required to follow signposts instead. As such, try to ensure that you’re comfortable with both scenarios.

3. Reversing manoeuvres changes

There are big changes planned for how you’ll demonstrate your skill at reversing. When they come into effect, you’ll be asked to perform one of these manoeuvres:

  • parallel park—at the side of the road
  • bay park—either driving in and reversing out, or reversing in and driving out
  • pulling up on the right-hand side of the road, reversing for 2 car lengths and rejoining the traffic

Read our article on pulling up on the right-hand side of the road for all the information you need. 

There has been some criticism about dropping the turn in the road (or 3-point turn) from the test, as this is a skill that is commonly used in day-to-day driving. In fact, PassMeFast’s own instructors had plenty to say about it: check out what our instructors think of the driving test changes. Less has been said about the reverse round a corner, but both skills will still be taught in your lessons.

4. ‘Show me; tell me’ whilst driving

Finger pointing to windscreen demister
Under the new rules, you may have to demonstrate how you would de-mist the windscreen

Previously, vehicle safety questions were confined to the start of the test, often when you were standing outside of the car. It broke nervous learners in, and helped them gain confidence before getting on the roads. However, with the new practical test, only the ‘tell me’ question will be asked before you begin to drive.

At later point during your test, while you are on the roads you’ll be asked to show the examiner how you would perform a task. You may, for example, be asked to go through the process of de-misting the front windscreen.

What people think of the new proposals

The proposals have generally been greeted positively, although there are plenty who feel that the changes don’t go far enough. However, the DVSA reports that the vast majority of people are in support of the changes.

What it all means for you

More stringent tests could well mean that pupils need more hours of lessons to become confident on all aspects that will be examined in the test. We’re confident that the extra time and money will be worth it in the long term: the new features will indeed make the practical more realistic, and hopefully decrease the number of collisions experienced as a result. You also needn’t worry too much about the new driving test pass rate: studies have shown that learners will have a virtually identical chance of passing.

However, a lot of people will be trying to book in before the changes come into effect. That means that highly graded instructors will be getting booked up in advance, and there may be less fast-tracked tests available. In other words, you need to act quickly if you want to make sure to have passed before the new features come into play. Thankfully, with our full range of intensive and semi-intensive driving courses, you can get your lessons done quickly—and work them around your schedule. This means you don’t have to worry about long driving test waiting times (you might want to give up hope on snagging a weekend test, though). It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a complete beginner course or a refresher driving course—PassMeFast has got you covered.

Don’t get left behind. Have a look at our top 5 passes from the Summerbook in now on our website, or call 0333 123 4949 to find out more.

By Katie Scott

Katie grew up in the middle of nowhere, so knows the true value of getting behind the wheel. From the rules of the road to handy hints and tips, she'll give you the lowdown on all things driving. Always on the move, when she's not in the car, you'll probably find Katie darting around the squash courts or out running in the rainy British countryside.