The pandemic has had a lasting impact on many areas of young people’s lives, not least when it comes to learning to drive. During the lockdowns we reported on the growing backlog of driving tests and increasing instructor shortages, so two months on from ‘freedom day’ we thought we’d investigate what the ‘new normal’ is like for young adults learning to drive.
To find out, we surveyed more than 1,000 learner drivers. From concerns about theory tests expiring to growing frustrations around escalating driving lesson costs, here’s what we found:
Theory test woes
Learning to drive isn’t all about three-point turns and hill starts, there’s the small challenge of passing a theory test before you can go ahead and book your practical test - which is proving very difficult for many learner drivers. We’ve discovered nearly a quarter (24%) of learners haven’t been able to book their theory test due to the ongoing backlog. Those who have been able to secure a test slot are faced with a long wait with 23% of learners saying they are ‘unhappy’ with their theory test date.
Passing your theory test doesn’t guarantee you a smooth ride though. A concerning trend we’ve been uncovering throughout the pandemic has been the growing number of theory tests which have been expiring, due to them only being valid for two years.
Our research earlier this year revealed learners had lost more than £1 million in expired theory tests and as the backlog continues to clear, this number is only rising. It’s not just the financial burden to learners that we should recognise but also the emotional strain of having to retake a test. From our survey we found one in 20 learner drivers’ theory tests are likely to expire before their practical test date. Despite this though, the DVSA has firmly stated it will not be extending the validity of theory tests impacted by the pandemic.
An inefficient booking system
It’s well documented that the DVSA website has struggled to cope with excessive demand, so it won’t come as much of a surprise to hear how learners have become increasingly disheartened about booking a practical test. Here’s what some of them had to say:
“I’m so frustrated with trying to book a practical driving test, it’s impossible to book anything. I've tried most of the day for three days in a row and I keep getting blocked out.”
“It’s very difficult trying to book my test. A lot of people have told me to download a cancellation app to try and find a test but it’s an added expense that I don’t have the money for.”
“The booking system is really frustrating because it doesn’t give you any dates, you have to manually put a date in and keep going back on yourself to enter other dates. It would be helpful if they gave you some sort of guideline as to when there could be vacant slots.”
One in five learners told us they haven’t been able to book their driving test and those who have booked a slot were left frustrated with how difficult it was with one learner saying:
“I had to refresh the page constantly on the DVSA website for about six days to get a test booked. I needed to be ready with a method of payment to quickly book it, otherwise the tests were gone before the booking was complete.”
Patience is clearly the key to securing a slot with more than a quarter (27%) of learners who successfully booked their test online admitting they had to visit the DVSA website 10 or more times. We salute your determination!
Regional divide: Learner drivers in London face biggest challenge to book their test
Some desperate learners have sought tests in a different town or county to secure a test slot so we thought we’d analyse which locations learners have found it easiest (and most difficult) to book one in.
Learner drivers in London have struggled the most when trying to book their driving test with more than a quarter (28%) unable to book a slot. This is 11% higher than the UK average. Similarly, learners in the South East of England have faced an uphill battle with 26% saying they’ve been unable to book a driving test. In contrast, just 6% of learner drivers in Wales say they have been unable to secure a test date.
Perhaps unsurprisingly we also discovered learners in the South East of England and London also face the longest wait between booking their test and their actual test date. Those in the South East are faced with an average wait time of 4.4 months with learners in London faring marginally better at 4 months. The average wait time in the UK is 3.6 months.
Those in Scotland face the shortest wait of just over two and a half months (2.6) with learners in the East Midlands also fare well with an average wait time of 2.8 months.
Mounting driving lesson costs
Learning to drive certainly isn’t a minor expense and the ongoing driving test backlog has only increased the financial burden on youngsters. Not only have driving instructors increased their prices by an average of £2.68 an hour since the start of last year but many learner drivers are also having to book more lessons as they wait in line to pass their test.
On average the learners we surveyed said they’ll need an extra eight lessons. Our previous research revealed the average cost of an hour's lesson is currently £31.15 meaning learners will have to pay an additional £249.20 to pass their test!
Almost a third (32%) of learners say they will have to take between 10 - costing an extra £311.50 and 19 - costing an extra £591.85 - additional lessons while they wait, with nearly one in 10 (8%) expecting to need 20 or more lessons - which could cost an extra £623+
Based on our analysis back in March 2021 when restrictions eased for driving lessons, we calculated a backlog of 1,160,000 tests, accounting for delays caused by lockdowns where learners hadn’t even had the chance to book a a test - not just the widely reported 420,000 test backlog based on cancellations by the DVSA.
With this figure in mind, it is fair to assume that those 1,160,000 waiting to take their test all paid extra in lessons and insurance etc. Following our latest research, we can assume that on average, the 1,160,000 learners in March paid an extra £249.20 in costs due to the wait. This means learners across the UK have forked out at least £289,072,000 - but with the backlog compounding since March due to more learners becoming test ready, this UK-wide figure due to the delays of the pandemic is likely much, much higher!
While the test backlog is gradually easing, there is clearly still a long way to go before we begin to see waiting times return to levels close to those pre-pandemic. Currently, more than a third (35%) of learners are experiencing a five month wait or longer between booking their test and being able to take it, with the average across the board, 3.6 months.
Because of this many are desperately turning to test booking apps to get themselves an earlier test date and ultimately reduce the money they’ll have to spend on additional lessons. Overall, 47% of learners have had to resort to using a test booking app.
Learners biggest frustrations caused by the delay
The delays in booking tests and the ongoing backlog has understandably caused frustration amongst learners but what is bothering them the most? Understandably and perhaps not surprisingly, 77% of learners have cited the extra cost of more lessons as the biggest frustration.
The top five frustrations are:
- Having to pay for more driving lessons - 77%
- Having to rely on friends or family to drive - 71%
- Delaying independence and freedom - 68%
- Being unable to drive to work / college / training - 66%
- Being unable to drive for social / leisure purposes - 64%
‘Anything that hasn’t been a necessity I’ve had to cut back on’ - learner driver agonises over mounting costs which now top £4,500
Learning to drive during the pandemic has been a costly experience for all learners but perhaps none more so than Jennifer Madrell. The 26-year-old from High Pittington in Durham has already forked out more than £4,500 on trying to pass her test and her spending won’t end there.
Jennifer has racked up more than 375 driving lessons, despite being test ready for a total of 55. Before the pandemic struck she suffered a broken ankle and since then she has faced the agony of having two tests cancelled due to lockdown restrictions.
“I’m devastated about how things have panned out, the costs have really started to mount up and I’ve had to sacrifice a lot of the things I enjoy doing, like going out to see friends. Anything that hasn’t been a necessity I’ve had to cut back on which really hasn’t been easy.”
Despite suffering from multiple setbacks, Jennifer is still determined to carry on learning to drive but now faces an agonising four month wait before she can retake her test, due to the backlog.
“There have been a number of times when I’ve just thought screw it, but then I remember all of the hard work I’ve put in so far. I just can’t let it go to waste. Being able to drive will give me so much more freedom and will definitely help me to find a job.”
To make Jennifer’s situation even more difficult, she’s now on the lookout for a new driving instructor after her previous one took up the position of a driving examiner.
“The last few weeks have definitely been the hardest for me. I’m really struggling to find a new diving instructor because they’re all fully booked and the waiting lists are four months long. It’s a really difficult position to be in but I’m just trying to remain positive.”
For now the 26-year-old is continuing to practice in her Fiat Panda but with her insurance and car tax up for renewal in just two months time she expects to have to splash out at least another £400 between now and her test in January