The need for introducing driving tests arose from the shocking recognition that by 1934 the number of annual deaths caused by road accidents had risen to a record high of 7,343, to which 231,603 injured victims had to be added. Futhermore, about half of the fatalities had been pedestrians killed by reckless, drunken and/or inexperienced or inept drivers, and of that half, two thirds had been victimised in “built-up areas”. As the newly appointed Minister of Transport Leslie Hore-Belisha (1893-1957) is quoted to have said, what happened on the roads was nothing but “mass murder”. He knew what he was talking about as he had nearly fallen victim to such an onslaught himself.
There was no doubt that developments in the car industry in the 1920s – making cars faster and cheaper, which in turn enlarged the number of those who could afford them – had led to a rapid increase in the number of vehicles circulating in public. Lagging far behind this development were traffic regulations, road security, and the enforcement by the law of the little that did exist in terms of rules. The Motor Car Act of 1903 required that cars be registered and a driving licence be obtained (without a test) for a small fee. Speed limits had variably been introduced, generally about 20 mph, but as no one respected them they were altogether abolised by the Road Traffic Act in 1930. On the other hand, this last Act did provide for compulsory third-party insurance of the driver; it introduced a basic Highway Code and empowered local authorities to make use of one-way streets, roundabouts, road signs and traffic lights (then called “traffic control robots”) to regulate the local traffic.
Meanwhile, a Pedestrian Association had been set up in 1929 to lobby for stricter traffic regulations, adequate road safety measures and law enforcement. They met with fierce opposition by the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club, both of which defended their clients’ (the drivers’) interest. Arguments against regulations ran thus:
- regulations were felt to be an infringement of the driver’s individual liberty;
- why the fuss over 7,000 traffic deaths, when no one was bothered by 6,000 suicides;
- pedestrians were the more dangerous party, provoking accidents by irresponsible behaviour;
- in the heydays of carriages, dogs and other animals had also run in front of driving vehicles and been killed, until descendants learnt the lesson – so would pedestrians eventually learn to stay free of approaching cars. It was a matter of time, not rules, to reduce the number of casualties.
Incensed, the Pedestrian Association pointed out that cars should be treated by the law like ‘wild beasts’ – an argument made plausible by the fact that the strength that made them move was measured in ‘horse power’. The fact that the compact power of 45 horses was concealed in a metal box that moved about in relative silence (compared to 45 living horses) did not diminish its terribly destructive force on impact. There had to be restraints and safety measures. More from Juliet Gardiner’s The Thirties: An Intimate History Of Britain.
After a hot debate, the Road Traffic Act 1934 was passed. It reintroduced for cars the speed limit of 30 mph in areas with enough buildings to justify a street lamp. The UK driving test was made compulsory for all who wanted to drive after 1 April 1934. Initially, tests were voluntary, as the infrastructure of the new authority had first to be created. As of 1 June 1935, the driving test was fully compulsory. Furthermore, legislation relating to the driver’s insurance were tightened. The Minister of Transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha, saw to it – especially after his own close shave – that crossings for pedestrians were made more visible; included among the measures was an amber light globe mounted on a black and white pole next to each crossing – the “Belisha Beacon”. While these did produce positive effects in the beginning, they did not last, and with time habit produced ‘oversight’ so that by the 1950s, crossing the street had once more become a life-threatening undertaking, as this humourous road safety trailer goes to show. Pedestrian crossings were consequently redesigned.
Driving tests were suspended during World War II and once more during the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. The UK driving theory test was introduced rather late for European standards: only in July 1996. It was followed, in November 2002, by an additional Hazard Perception Test.