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Driving test delays: Backlog puts strain on learners and instructors with up to five-month wait in Kent

Planned strikes by driving examiners over “flawed” plans to deliver an extra 150,000 tests by the end of March have been called off.

A four-day walkout was meant to start today but was averted after “significant concessions” were made. But what’s the impact on learners who continue to face agonisingly long waits? Reporter Davina Jethwa knows the struggles all too well.

The strikes may be off but I am still fed up
The strikes may be off but I am still fed up

It’s Monday morning and my alarm is blaring at 5:55 am. Groaning and half asleep I reach across for my phone on my bedside table.

I can just about see the bright screen as my fingers fumble to load up the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) website.

No, this routine is not for school or work. It’s to book my driving test, a reality faced by hundreds of thousands of others in the country like myself.

New slots get released every Monday morning at 6am, and if you’re even a minute late, you’ve lost your shot at snapping one of the elusive tests up.

Currently, learners ready to take their practical test are waiting an average of 15.1 weeks for an available test – although in my experience it’s been far longer and the figure in Kent is higher than that (21.4 weeks).

Trying to get my driving licence has been a project on hold for nearly four years for me – and I still haven’t got it.

Learners are facing pressures from the backlog
Learners are facing pressures from the backlog

I’ve been caught up in a mess somewhere between the pandemic, examiner shortages and third parties buying up test slots.

Looking back, my biggest regret was not beginning my lessons like most at 17.

Learning to drive was constantly being pushed back for me. From my upcoming A-levels to attending university in London, to lockdown, I could never find the right time.

At the age of 20, with a diploma bagged and moving back home, I finally had my first driving lesson but, I soon learned the experience would be completely different to what expected.

Most who took their practical test before the pandemic would have started with lessons, taken their theory, done some lessons and then taken their driving test.

Some would get the classic picture of them posed with a ‘passed’ certificate in front of the car, and the other unlucky folks would fail but, fear not, a few weeks later they’d be able to re-sit.

This queue that we’ve got is the new norm.

So that’s what I intended to do – but, when I sat in my instructors' car for the first time I realised how different everything is.

The process is entirely different now. Learners typically take their theory and pass before they even begin lessons and book in their practical before they’ve even learned how to change gears.

I was taken aback and confused - how does that make sense? Would you not apply knowledge learned in your theory? How can you book your practical if you don’t know when you’ll be ready?

But, it's not just learners, instructors are also affected by this.

As Jeremy Fox, who runs the Elite School of Driving in Rochester tells me: “All I can do is try to get my crystal ball out and think, when is this pupil likely to be ready?

“If we discover we are having difficulties on the way up to it, we might just have to bite the bullet and change it.”

Driving instructor Jeremy Fox
Driving instructor Jeremy Fox

And, when you’ve been waiting six months for your test, no one wants to make that call. But, unbeknownst to most, when pupils make faults in tests, instructors are penalised.

Jeremy says the pressures of being accused of stringing pupils along while not wanting to risk having marks against his name keeps him “up at night”.

Some former learners say they managed their way around this mess by opting to use cancellation apps.

These are where an individual will pay for at least one and will bump up their test by taking on someone else’s who has cancelled last minute.

But, these apps do not guarantee you a slot – just an increased chance of getting one. And, it’s an additional cost to the already costly experience of learning to drive.

A theory exam costs £23, a practical costs £62, or £75 for weekends or bank holidays - and some may need to take those more than once. On top of that, driving lessons cost at least £31 an hour.

I began lessons nearly two years ago
I began lessons nearly two years ago

According to the Driving and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), the average learner needs 45 hours of lessons. Assuming a person passes both their theory and practical first time, that’s at least £1,480 spent on just learning to drive.

So, why should I pay more for something as basic as being able to get a driving test date?

But, I was so fed up by waiting for so long, so yes I did succumb and buy the app – it might not have been a lot of money, but as I was always told, it’s the principle.

After months of lessons, I felt I knew how to drive. I had my test booked in, and I felt ready.

The week before my test I was reminded by my instructor Maidstone has a pass rate of 50%.

I make flashcards for all the show-me-tell-me questions. I watched people taking test routes on YouTube every night. I even read the emails the DVLA send for managing nerves.

Kent driving test pass rates
Kent driving test pass rates

I wasn’t going to take any chances.

But the moment I got into the test centre I felt what many other learners do. My breathing hastened, and my hands shook no matter how hard I tried and clenched them to stop.

My examiner and I got in the car and for a moment it was going well - until the little voice in my head emerged.

I remembered all the things I was taught. How you can fail for a second of hesitating at a roundabout, or for letting a car go when at a junction - even if those are done safely.

I’ll cut this short and say, I let the nerves and voice get the better of me, and my test very quickly snowballed from there.

The pressure of knowing you get one shot or you’re waiting six months again is immense.

Driving exams are marked strictly now says Jeremy. Picture: Getty Images/iStock
Driving exams are marked strictly now says Jeremy. Picture: Getty Images/iStock

“The nerves are worse and people have got jobs hanging on it. They say ‘I need this because I’ve got a job offer and if I fail it, what am I going to do then?’,” said Jeremy.

And, examiners are marking the tests much harsher, he says.

It’s an incredibly frustrating process to be a part of, especially when those around you are all driving.

They get independence and freedom without having to rely on a family member, friend or public transport to get around.

I’m privileged to have my car at the ready but I just want the chance to be able to use it.

In December the DVSA said it was doing all it could to cut waiting time but I have still waited months to take my test again.

My car is at the ready
My car is at the ready

New promises have been made by the government to provide 150,000 more driving tests by the end of March.

Since October last year the DVSA says it has provided 118,680 extra car driving tests towards this target.

But Jeremy says the driving agency will continue to struggle to handle the backlog.

“This queue that we’ve got is the new norm – they will never get it back to before,” he explains.

“It’s going to make people more frustrated and some will not bother with the test. People driving uninsured and without a licence will go up almost certainly.”

The backlog is also having a knock-on effect. Instructors don’t have the space to take more learners on, so people are waiting longer to take lessons.

And, currently, there seems to be no end in sight.

The nerves are worse and people have got jobs hanging on it.

Jeremy added: “They’re not going to crack it. We warned them when the lockdown stopped.

“I was ringing them up and saying ‘You do realise what’s going to happen don’t you? You’re going to be absolutely inundated’ and they made no provisions for it.”

A missed opportunity during the pandemic was when the critical workers training scheme was running, he says.

The DVSA could have used it to train new examiners, under sterile conditions, to get ahead of what would happen, but they did not.

“I don’t know where the solution is.”

According to the DVSA waiting times are long due to an increase in demand, sustained industrial action on civil service pay and people’s concerns about not being able to book a test, which in turn has led to a change in customers’ behaviour.

In December, 152,474 practical car driving tests were carried out across the country which was the highest highest figure ever recorded for that month and a 31.9% increase on December 2022’s total.

This helped to reduce the monthly average national driving test waiting time to 15.1 weeks at the end of January, down from 20.6 weeks at the peak in August 2023, the transport body said.

Although in “Zone D” which Kent falls under, the average waiting time remained at 21.4 weeks as of January 29.

And, despite making what it says is good progress, the DVSA admits it still “has a long way to go”.

Measures its rolled out to reduce driving test waiting times including putting all eligible managers and admin staff back on the front line, recruiting new driving examiners and carrying out overtime.

It’s also been asking local driving test managers to return to testing for two days a week and buying back leave from driving examiners.

The DVSA also maintains the standards by which pupils are assessed hasn’t changed and says the pass rate indicates that too many candidates are taking the test before they’re ready to pass.

DVSA Chief Executive Loveday Ryder said: “We are taking all the measures we can to reduce driving test waiting times.

“The work we've been doing to date, along with our examiner recruitment, is already creating over 40,000 extra tests every month.

“We strongly urge learners only to book their driving test when they are ready to pass.”

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