Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Over 100 Years of Driving Lessons

Since turning seventeen just over a week ago I have been taking driving lessons and studying for my theory test (which I passed!) in order to gain a driving licence. As I was driving around the suburbs of North London with big "L'' plates plastered onto the front and back of my battered baby blue Vauxhall Corsa, I began to think about the origins of driving lessons.

2010 marked the 100 year anniversary of the first driving lesson. From driving to being a rarity to nowadays, where more than a quarter of a million learners take the practical driving test each year, driving lessons have drastically changed.

The first driving lesson was given in 1910 in South London by Stanley Roberts. He realised that motoring was going to be big business and set up his own driving school before naming it - rather grandly - the British School of Motoring. Now known simply as BSM, it’s the biggest driving school in Britain. Previously an engineer’s apprentice Roberts was a keen motorist and persuaded his parents to rent out their garage to his fledgling business. Offering a “Popular Course of Mechanism and Driving”, Roberts’s first pupil was, tellingly, a former coachman, whom he trained to become a chauffeur.

Demand for tuition exploded and, as entrepreneurs launched rival driving schools around the country, Roberts boosted his fleet. Business was so brisk that he swiftly expanded, moving to Coventry Street in Piccadilly, later expanding countrywide.

Unlike today, when the Driving Standards Agency (DSA) says the average learner needs 52 hours of tuition before they’re ready to take what has become a demanding driving test, Roberts’s early driving courses lasted just four days, placing special emphasis on “correct procedure, discretion and behaviour”. The cost of a lesson was about 10 shillings (50p) for an hour, compared to about £20-£30 an hour today.

Traffic at the dawn of the motoring age, however, was light, so learning how to negotiate the roads - which were still dominated by the horse and cart - was easy compared to today. There were only 53,196 cars on British roads compared to 28.5 million now.

Early driving lessons focused on basic car control, elementary hand signals - and common sense. There was no such thing as a government-administered driving test; that didn’t come for another quarter of a century. Drivers simply applied for a licence and if they could prove they had undergone instruction it was issued automatically. In 1935 a government issued 25 minute test was issued, and in the first year 154,636 tests were conducted, compared to more than a million practical tests and 1.3 million theory tests. The pas rate was 63%, which fell to 50% in 1950 and 43% nowadays.

Today, the test has changed beyond recognition and learners need to master a vast repertoire of skills. There are now about 46,600 approved driving instructors in Britain.