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Has the Theory Test Made Drivers Safer?

Since 1996, everyone hoping to get their hands on a UK driving licence has had to pass a theory test. This challenges learners’ knowledge of the rules of the road, as well as their ability to react to developing hazards. These skills are deemed so important that you’ll need to pass it before you can even book a practical test. This makes sense: a good knowledge of the theory behind driving should make us better drivers. But what about the reality? Has the theory test made drivers safer?

In this guide, we’ll take a look at how the theory test has developed over the years. Using this information, we’ll assess whether it really has helped learner drivers to adopt safer driving styles and techniques.


History of the theory test

Before we get stuck into the question of whether the theory test has made drivers safer or not, we’re going to first need to look at its history and how much it has changed since it was first introduced.

Testing theoretical knowledge

Whilst the driving test was first introduced in the 1930s, the theory test wasn’t brought in until 1 July, 1996. Before this, candidates would only have to take one test. They would drive around on a test route whilst the examiner quizzed them on certain topics from the Highway Code. Of course, this wasn’t thorough enough to truly test a learner driver’s knowledge of road safety, regulations and rules. As a result, the government introduced the theory test.

From paper to computer

The first incarnation of the test was as a written exam that consisted of 35 multiple choice questions based off of the Highway Code. Of course, with the rise of technology, the written format was soon scrapped in favour of a computer-based test in 2000. It wasn’t long until candidates could even book their own test online.

Introducing hazard perception

The next stage of changes came about in 2002 with the introduction of the hazard perception test. This section assesses how quickly a learner driver can spot a developing hazard. During the test, candidates watch video clips containing developing hazards and static hazards. Every time they see a developing hazard, they need to click, scoring points for reacting in a timely manner.

Increasing difficulty

By 2007, the DVSA realised that they needed to make the theory test a bit more challenging—opting to increase the number of multiple choice questions to 50. To ensure candidates were able to apply their theoretical knowledge to real-life situations, case study questions were brought in by 2009. The DVSA made additional updates to these questions in 2011.

Keeping up with the times

Whilst the video clips introduced in the hazard perception test in 2002 were relatively revolutionary at the time, by 2015, they were out of date. That’s why the DVSA replaced them with more realistic CGI clips. In order to reflect more realistic driving conditions, 2018 saw the introduction of new clips containing adverse weather conditions. However, while today’s clips are different, the format of the section remains the same.

It’s clear that the theory test has seen some major changes since its introduction. The real question, however, is whether the theory test has made drivers safer. In order to answer this, we’re going to look at what’s expected of candidates during the theory test and how this has helped learner drivers develop safer driving habits.


How the theory test encourages safe driving

As you now know, the theory test is made up of two key sections: multiple choice and hazard perception. Both sections put important skills and knowledge to the test, which is why the DVSA has made it so that candidates must pass both sections in order to move forward on their driving journey. There’s certainly no cutting corners here!

We’re not going to delve into exam marks and the like, so, if you’re looking for help with passing your theory test, skip on down to our section on theory test help and tips.

Multiple choice

Traffic signs

There are various aspects of the multiple choice section that have been designed to make drivers safer when taking to the UK roads. Let’s take a look…

Road signs

It’s near-impossible to go for a drive without seeing road signs. Over time, you’re sure to become familiar with those you see every day, and the meanings behind them. However, your knowledge of road signs would be incomplete without spending some time studying them. This may seem like an academic concern, but it’s not—road signs play an important role in providing information and helping to keep road users safe. Imagine realising too late that that sign you just drove past was warning you about an upcoming river bank!

This is why the theory test includes questions on road signs during the multiple choice section. In order to pass, you’ll need to study and revise the meaning of these road signs to make sure you’re ready in case they appear on your test. By including road signs in the theory test, the DVSA is ensuring that all learner drivers have a solid understanding of one of the most fundamental aspects of driving.

Getting to know the Highway Code

The Highway Code is one of the most important books that you’ll ever have to read as a learner driver. It contains all of the rules and information needed to keep drivers, motorcyclists, cyclists, pedestrians and animals safe on the roads. In order to pass the multiple choice section, learner drivers will need to be very familiar with the Highway Code, as many questions are based off of its content.

Of course, it’s not just about memorising content just to pass an exam. Many of the rules mentioned in the Code are legal requirements. Ignoring them can lead to fines, penalty points, disqualification from driving or even imprisonment! By pushing learners to read the Highway Code for the theory test, the DVSA is ensuring that new drivers are aware of what the rules and regulations are—making them less likely to take risks and partake in dangerous behaviour.

Applying theoretical knowledge

Obviously, a good working knowledge of the Highway Code is vital in helping learner drivers develop safe and law-abiding driving habits. That being said, it’s not enough to just have the knowledge—you also need to know how you can apply it. By including case studies in the theory test, the DVSA pushes learners to think about how they might put this knowledge into practise if they need to.

Not familiar with the DVSA’s case studies? Let’s take a look at an example from Driving-Test-Success:

“You are going to visit your cousin who lives in the next town. You have a road atlas in your car although you have been before and know the route really well. You’ve also got your mobile phone and have promised to call your cousin if you get delayed. On the way you find that a country lane you usually travel on is flooded and decide to turn back.”

Question: You decide to let your cousin know that you will be late. You should:

A: Find a safe place to pull in and make a call on your mobile phone
B: Rely on your hands-free kit to keep you safe whilst you make a call
C: Stop and get out of your car to make the call
D: Drive slowly and send a text message to your cousin.

Safe driving is of great importance to the DVSA. It’s for this reason that the theory test is more than a simple memory exercise, but instead asks learners to consider how they might apply the rules of the road in real-life situations.

Hazard perception

Road barrier

As with the multiple choice section, there are key aspects of the hazard perception test that promote safe behaviour in drivers. Let’s take a look…

Spotting hazards

Regardless of how many driving lessons you have, you can’t ever be 100% prepared for what could happen on the road. You can’t predict the actions of other road users, after all. Fortunately, the DVSA promote something that can go a long way towards helping you minimise the risk of road casualties: hazard perception skills.

As a driver, it’s absolutely vital that you can look at the road ahead and spot any problems that might arise. The hazard perception test is designed to help learner drivers develop these observational skills and adapt to changes in situations quickly. If your hazard perception skills are up to snuff, you can identify potential hazards—ranging from rogue pedestrians to vehicles that could be emerging from driveways—before they develop into actual hazards, thus reducing the risk of casualties.

Not entirely convinced? The DVSA estimates that “since its introduction, the hazard perception test has been shown to reduce non-low-speed accidents by an estimated 11% for novice drivers in their first year of driving.” Not too shabby!

Real-life conditions

To ensure learner drivers get some experience with what driving might be like in adverse weather conditions, the DVSA introduced new hazard perception clips with the following conditions: snow and ice, fog, rain and wind. Additional clips also include driving at night or in low-light conditions.

Not sure how this helps make drivers safer on the roads? According to figures from the Department for Transport, 16,406 accidents occurred in snow, rain, sleet or fog in 2017. Of these accidents, 205 of them were fatal. Jesse Norman, Road Safety Minister, had this to say about the new clips:

“These new hazard perception clips offer more realistic conditions to test a learner driver’s ability, preparing them for overcoming the real-life challenges they will face on the roads – something that should benefit all road users.”

Indeed, by including these conditions in hazard perception clips, the DVSA is helping learners develop their hazard perception skills so that they know how to take action in all types of weather and hazardous conditions. This helps them to avoid getting involved in an accident while learning to drive, as well as laying the foundations for safer driving for life.


So, has the theory test made drivers safer?

Cartoon woman in red car with L plates driving through a course with traffic cones

The answer is definitely a resounding yes. It’s easy to think of the theory test as just a series of questions—but it’s much more important. The skills you learn here will come into play every time you get behind the wheel of a car. More importantly, everything included in the theory test is designed to help drivers adapt safe driving habits. By pushing all learner drivers to have a solid understanding of the Highway Code and key hazard perception skills, the DVSA has ensured new drivers aren’t entirely out of their depth when taking to the roads unsupervised.

The DVSA also aren’t taking any chances with learners who manage to ace the theory test but take a while to go in for the practical—theory test pass certificates expire after two years. So, if you don’t pass your driving test by then, you’ll have to retake it. This means that all drivers taking the practical will have an up-to-date knowledge of driving laws and safety.

Whilst there’s no real way of telling what the DVSA will add to theory test next—though, we do have a few predictions for what the future of the theory test might bring—one thing’s for sure, it will be for the benefit of all road users.


Getting ready to take your theory test?

Two stacks of books, one taller than the other, each with a car on top, floating in clouds

Figuring out where to start when preparing for the theory test can be tricky. This is certainly true for newcomers to driving—but even those who’ve taken the test before can sometimes struggle! Fortunately, PassMeFast have some of the best theory test resources out there. We’ve compiled top guides containing tips, tricks and some overall advice to help you through these trying times!

Prepare for success: how to pass your theory test. Looking for a step-by-step breakdown of what to expect on the theory test? Want some handy tips to increase your chances of passing? If so, then this is the first guide you should read.

 →Ultimate theory test revision resources. Preparation is the key to success in any test. That’s why we’ve compiled all of the best theory test revision resources out there. Follow our guide and you’ll fly through your theory test!

Top 5 myths about the theory test. You don’t want to make any big mistakes because you fell victim to a common misconception. So, find out the truth about the theory test with PassMeFast!

Got your theory test tomorrow? 5 last minute tips! If your theory test is just around the corner, you might find yourself feeling a bit overwhelmed. Check out our 5 tips and you’ll feel more than ready for what comes your way!

I failed my theory test. Now what? If you were unsuccessful with the theory test, now’s not the time to despair. Instead, read our step-by-step guide to find out what you need to do next.

By Bethany Hall

Whether you’re a learner or a pro driver, Bethany is here to help. From defensive driving to the Highway Code, she’ll tell you everything you need know about driving. If she’s not on the road, you’ll probably find Bethany with her head in a book or binge-watching the latest TV show.

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