Enough to drive you insane

The driving test logjam is a depressing symptom of national dysfunction

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Having grown up in pedestrian-friendly cities, I managed to reach the grand old age of 24 before deciding it made sense to learn to drive. I chose a poor time for it, though: this was early 2020, so no sooner had I booked my theory test than all lessons and tests were cancelled. 

In the brief interval between the lifting of the first lockdown and the introduction of “tiers” (remember those?), I managed to pass a theory test. Then more cancellations and postponements followed, so it was another full year before I had a shot at the practical, which to my intense regret I did not pass.

By this time many others were in the same boat, and a whole cohort of new learners had also joined the queue. This meant that what should have been a simple matter of rebooking and having another go in a few months’ time had become almost impossible.

To be clear, I do not mean that wait times for a test were prohibitively long. I mean there weren’t any. The DVSA so far has not succumbed to offering appointments comically far in the future à la NHS surgeries; it will only allow you to book tests a maximum of 24 weeks away. 

So after entering your details and briefly being held in a queue to access the booking site, you are told that there are no slots available. Nada. Please check again another time. It’s now a year and a half since the last lockdown ended, and I’m no closer to being a driver — in fact, I’m further away, since my theory pass certificate was valid for two years and has now expired.

Others are less easily put off. A PhD student friend of mine began waking early to check the DVSA website on Mondays at 6 am, when the latest cancellations are made available to rebook, an experience he described as “like trying to get Glastonbury tickets”. After ten weeks of 05:50 alarms, he finally managed to secure a test across the country, in Lincoln.

To get by train to Lincoln from Oxford means going into and across London and then out again, a journey of around five hours which he duly booked, as well as a few nights of cheap accommodation. 

Next, he set about trying to find a local driving instructor who could take him to be tested, as well as providing some lessons in the preceding days to get to grips with the geography of the area, but phone call after phone call came up empty. 

In desperation, he found somebody in Leicester who would do it in exchange for a substantial deposit for the test, the lessons, and the drive time between Leicester and Lincoln, plus a surcharge covering the increased price of petrol at the time. Then a few days before the scheduled date, my friend’s test was cancelled without explanation. Back to square one, and a thousand pounds poorer.

We’ve become used to headlines about dangerously long waits for ambulances and about crime being effectively legal when police lack the resources to pursue charges. This particular failed public service may be less pressing, but that doesn’t mean it is without consequence. When young people cannot learn to drive, they are left in limbo with adult milestones out of reach.

There’s a reason that “you’re a virgin who can’t drive” is one of the sickest burns in cinema history. To be unable to drive is infantilising. If you can’t drive, you’re restricted in where you can live (many cheaper areas are off the menu) and on the types of job you can take. In an emergency, you can’t drive a loved one to hospital. 

For my recent house move, I was unable to rent a van and do it myself. Instead I had to cobble together favours from various friends and my mother. It’s limiting, and it makes things more expensive. To paraphrase Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye the milkman: there’s no shame in being an adult unable to drive, but it’s no great honour either.

Over the last few years, we’ve often heard that we are living in unprecedented times. When it comes to driving tests, however, there is a historical precedent. During the Second World War, the requirement to pass a driving test was suspended. Afterwards, the most pragmatic step was to award licences to those who’d by then been driving for years without one. 

We develop a grim kind of learned helplessness

My preferred solution would be the recruitment of enough examiners to double the capacity of the system until normal service is restored: easier said than done, but surely not beyond the wit of man. Whichever way we choose, this service would be infinitely easier and cheaper to fix than the NHS, but even here, the path of least resistance is to do nothing and allow it to remain broken.

There’s something very depressing about a public service that is not just overwhelmed by demand, but not functional — not communicating anything other than “computer says no”.

We develop a grim kind of learned helplessness, no longer expecting in principle that things ought to work, instead planning on the assumption that they won’t. This is what it feels like to live through decline. Oh, the aqueduct? No, it hasn’t delivered water in years, but at least the bricks will be handy for repairing the pigsty.

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