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Driving tests through the years

Over the past 15 years, the UK driving test has seen a host of changes. Mimicking the demands of modern driving, examinations are longer, often use a sat nav and no longer include a ‘three-point turn’. But despite these changes, learner drivers continue to fail their test for the same reasons.

Image of a driving test clipboard

We’ve taken a look at 15 years of driving test data to see how pass rates have changed over the years, and in turn, how this provides some helpful tips and tricks for learner drivers to pass first time.


Are driving tests getting harder or easier?

We’ve analysed pass rate data released by the UK government spanning back to 2006/07. There’s been many changes to both the practical and theory tests, but have they made the driving test easier or more difficult?

Graph showing the driving tests pass rates

Practical test pass rates haven’t changed much over the years despite the updated Highway Code. In 2006/07, 43% of conducted tests were passed. This figure rose gradually each year until 2013/14, to 47%.

In 2017, the practical driving test was updated. The new exam requires participants to complete 20 minutes of independent driving – often while following a sat-nav. It also includes 2 vehicle safety questions, known as the ‘show me, tell me’ section. But the new exam had little impact on pass rates, dropping just 1% after 2017.

Pass rates jumped up in 2020/21. But with tens of thousands of tests cancelled due to the pandemic, the results are skewed. The amount of tests taken was 73% lower than the previous year.

Interestingly, the number of passes with 0-faults increased every year since 2006/07. 3,329 drivers passed fault-free in 2006/07, climbing to 19,346 in 2019/20. This suggests either practical tests are getting easier, or learner drivers have better instructors and are more prepared for their exams.

Theory test pass rates have decreased dramatically over the last 15 years. In 2007/08, 65% of conducted theory tests were passed. This figure has dropped each year to 47% in 2019/20.

The biggest change to the theory test came in 2012. The multiple-choice section of the test was no longer made up of questions included in training materials – this caused pass rates to drop 7% in one year, to 52% in 2013/14.

Today’s theory test is subsequently much harder to pass.


The 10 top reasons for failing and what you can do to pass

The DVSA has published the top 10 reasons that learner drivers fail their test. Here are our top tips to make sure you pass first time.

Image of learner driver holding her head

  • Not making effective observations at junctions

    This major fault has been the most common reason for failing every year since 2006/07. So practice junctions thoroughly! Take your time and approach at a suitable speed. And don’t forget MSM (mirror - signal - manoeuvre).

  • Not using mirrors when changing direction

    This was the 2nd most common fault in 13 of the last 15 years. Always remember to check your mirrors before making a manoeuvre. In your test, you could even exaggerate your head movements to make sure the examiner can see you’re checking your mirrors.

  • Incorrect positioning when turning right at a junction

    The 3rd most common reason for failing in 2020/21. When driving on a straight road, keep to the centre of the lane, but when turning right be sure to position the car to the right side of the lane.

  • Responses to traffic lights

    Faults at traffic lights could be due to hesitation or because you cut it too fine on a red light. Maintain focus when pulling up to traffic lights, if they’ve been green for a while as you approach, you should anticipate that they might change. It’s important to never speed up to try and ‘beat’ the lights.

  • Having proper control of your steering wheel

    This was the 3rd most common fault in 7 of the last 15 years. Remember to keep both hands on the wheel - preferably at the ’10 to 2 o’clock’ position. After making a turn, don’t let the steering wheel spin back. Instead, feed the wheel through your hands back into position.

  • Not paying attention to road signs

    Be aware of all road signs - learn what they mean and act accordingly. Once you’ve identified a sign, react in plenty of time and in a safe manner.

  • Not responding to road markings

    As well as paying attention to road signs, you must always look out of any road markings and do as they instruct you to do.

  • Moving off safely

    Check, check and check again. It’s important to check all your mirrors and your blind spot before moving the car.

  • Positioning of the car whilst driving

    Always look out for road markings to help stay in the centre of the lane. On roads that do not have markings be mindful of your distance to the edge of the road.

  • Poor control of the car when moving off

    It can be difficult to move off when you’re leaving the test centre full of nerves. Try to remain as calm as possible - all drivers stall from time to time. If you do stall, it might not lead to a fault. Just restart your manoeuvre and do all the necessary checks to make sure it’s safe before moving off.

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What the experts say

We asked the experts at RED driving school about what learner drivers need to pass their test, how teaching standards have changed and what manoeuvres students should focus on.

Image of learner driver tearing up learner plate

What’s needed to pass a driving test?

  • Confidence is key. Being positive about your driving ability is the most important thing to be able to pass your test.

  • Practice whenever you can. You’re more likely to pass if you practice in between lessons with a relative or friend.
  • Request mock tests from your instructors to help cement skills and prepare you for the test.

How have teaching standards and styles changed over the years?

  • Driving instructors have to work harder than ever to qualify. They need to pass three exams, which have a national pass rate of just 35%.
  • Regular ‘standard tests’ for qualified instructors were introduced to make sure the quality of teaching remains high.

Which areas of the driving tests do students find the most difficult?

  • Parallel parking is often cited as the hardest for students to master, due to lack of self confidence and patience.
  • Hazard perception is where theory tests are failed the most due to failing to spot hazards or overreacting to hazards.

How will electric cars change the driving test?

Young drivers see electric cars as an integral part of the future of driving. According to RED driving school’s research, 90% of learners today say they will own an electric vehicle within the next 10 years. And 49% of the respondents support the government’s plans to ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030.

And as electric cars are automatic, manual driving tests are set to see a sharp decline. Government data shows that between 2015 and 2020 there was a 76% increase in automatic tests taken in the UK. Additionally, 12% of driving tests in the UK are now in electric vehicles.


Alex Kindred, car insurance expert at Confused.com, comments: “Learning to drive can be a really exciting time. The test that learners must take to get their licence has changed over the years, but it’s still a long process to go through before they hit freedom. While the process may seem long, there are things you can do to prepare for the practical test to get you test-ready quicker, and increase your chances of passing the first time.

“Although don’t get lost in the excitement of driving as you won’t get far until you pass your theory. The key to this is to make sure you’re taking mock theory tests between your lessons to familiarise yourself with the questions. And it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on the Highway Code too.

“Preparation and staying calm really are key to making sure that you’re ready for both tests. Aside from practicing, if you can, there are a few extra things you can do to help prepare:

  • Choose the time of your test carefully - the middle of the day might be better for less busy roads. If you’re not lucky enough to pick then make sure you’re practising during the time that your test takes place so you are aware of what traffic may be on the roads.
  • Drive the test route and get familiar with the routes you could take on the day of your test. This will mean that you know where you may come up against a few challenges.
  • Learn to drive in different conditions. The UK’s weather is unpredictable, so be prepared to drive come rain or shine.
  • Don’t forget to take your UK provisional driving licence and theory test pass certificate with you on the day of your practical test.

There could be an advantage of taking the test in your own car if this is an option, but to do this you need to make sure you have the right learner car insurance before you get behind the wheel.”