Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Learners travelling hundreds of miles for driving tests amid record waiting times

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Learner drivers are travelling hundreds of miles to take their driving tests as waiting times reach a record high of more than 19 weeks, official data shows.

A crippling shortage of practical examination slots saw one pupil make a 647-mile journey from Exeter in Devon to Scotland’s Shetland Islands, the northernmost region of the UK, to take their test. Around 34,614 learners made a trip of more than 100 miles in search of a test slot during 2023, according to Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) figures obtained under Freedom of Information requests by car insurance firm Marmalade.

The news comes as official figures show that waiting times for tests in England rose to 19 weeks in April. Yet would-be motorists across vast swathes of the UK are being forced to wait up to six months for a test date, with an estimated five million learners vying for just 1.8 million available tests this year.

Pandemic disruption

Covid lockdowns led to a nationwide shortfall of test places after more than 450,000 practical examinations were cancelled in the 12 months to March 2021. Three years on, the backlog means the average wait time for a test is nearly 18 weeks across the UK, leaving those desperate to gain a driving licence travelling far and wide to snap up slots.

London leads the way in terms of the increasing distance learners must travel, soaring from an average of 7.7 miles in 2019 to 17.7 miles in 2023, while those in the North West enjoyed the shortest distance at 7.1 miles last year. 

Overall, the distance that test candidates must travel to secure a test place is increasing by more than 10 per cent per year. The average distance travelled by learners across the UK was 12.33 miles in 2023—a rise of almost half again on the typical distance of 8.33 miles recorded in 2019.

Last year, there were 164 test centres around Britain where the typical distance travelled to reach them was above the national average. Driving instructor Mark Steeples, of Pass Mark School of Driving in Skipton, North Yorkshire, said: “I find it pretty astonishing that learners could end up having to travel around 25 miles for a test. 

“I’m amazed at the year-on-year increase in distance travelled for a test, but I suppose it shows the desperation that people have in wanting to learn how to drive and they’ll go to any means necessary to do it.”

Mark added: “I’ve had enquiries from people who want to learn and get into a test around 50 miles away from me. Why go to an area that you don’t know? It’s hard enough doing a test anyway—you have a lifetime to drive on the UK roads, but don’t pick the day of your driving test to do that. 

“A lot of instructors just teach test routes in the local area, but that means that most learners won’t be prepared for any test route and the potential impacts of driving in a new place.”

Demand higher than ever

A DVSA spokesman said: “Our priority is to bring waiting times down. Demand is higher than we’ve ever seen, but we provided an unprecedented two million tests last year. We’re glad learners are listening to our advice and choosing another test centre to find a test date which suits them.”

Roads minister Guy Opperman told Parliament this week that the DVSA sent managers and administrative staff out to conduct driving tests between October and the end of March, creating more than 145,000 additional test slots.

Official data shows that across southern England the average waiting time at four in five test centres—49 out of 61 spread as far afield as Southampton, Kent, and north London—was six months. Test slots are only released six months in advance, meaning these test centres are full to capacity.

Reports have suggested that a black market has sprung up around driving test slots, with scalpers snapping up available tests and selling them on to desperate learners for a markup—in some cases for hundreds of pounds. The official fee for a practical driving test is £62.

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