What if your driving theory test expires during the coronavirus pandemic?

Thousands of learner drivers who haven’t been able to take their practical driving test will have to retake theory tests...

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When learner drivers pass their theory test, they must pass their practical test within two years or the theory part will expire and they’ll have to pay to retake it. This system works well in normal times, but not during a pandemic. 

It’s estimated that the theory tests passed by at least 50,000 learners have expired since the UK's first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020. The fee for taking the theory test is £23, and that means there’s an additional expense of £1.2m for learners who have to retake it. 

Far fewer learners have been able to take their practical test since the start of the pandemic, because driving test centres have been closed for more than 130 days since then. And with about 4000 people usually taking the practical driving test every day, that means there's a backlog of more than 500,000 learners waiting to take their test.

Although the Government issued an extension to MOT test certificates during the UK’s first lockdown, it has so far refused to grant an extension on driving theory test certificates. 

Learner driver looking nervous

When the issue was debated in Parliament in January 2021, it was decided that no extension would be granted. Transport minister Rachel Maclean MP said this was to ensure learner drivers would retain their theory skills. 

The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), which oversees driving tests, backs this assertion. A spokesperson said: "It is vital that a candidate’s road safety knowledge is up to date when they take their practical test, and the longer the gap between the theory and practical, the greater the risk of that knowledge diminishing. We continue to keep the situation under review.”

The DVSA also confirmed that no fee waiver or refund is available at present for those having to resit the theory test.

However, a three-month extension has been applied to theory tests by the authorities in Northern Ireland, and many within the training industry believe the same should happen in the rest of the UK. 

Ian McIntosh, chief executive of Red Driving School, said: “The failure to extend the theory test pass certificates is a needless bureaucratic bottleneck that could hinder the nation’s Covid bounce-back, particularly if learners cannot obtain licences for work purposes.”

He added: “Extending the theory test pass certificates would not pose a threat to road safety, because the retained theory knowledge of 'Covid test passers' will still surpass that of the average UK driver.”

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Huge backlog for practical driving test

The problem of thousands of theory tests expiring is being compounded by a shortage of driving test examiners. Many learners are now facing a five-month wait for a test date, and that wait is unlikely to reduce for some time. 

An indicator of the huge demand for practical tests was shown when the DVSA opened its test booking website in August 2020. So many people logged on trying to book one of the 35,675 tests that were initially made available that the site crashed and took a week to be repaired before it could go live again. 

DVSA chief executive Gareth Llewellyn said: “Following unprecedented demand for the driving test booking system, with almost seven million attempts to book a test when it opened, we need to carry out urgent maintenance so people can book tests.”

It has implemented a number of measures to help reduce the backlog, including weekend testing, holiday buy-back for examiners and letting all driving test warrant holders conduct tests. 

However, Lynne Barrie, chairperson of the Approved Driving Instructors National Joint Council (ADINJC), doesn't believe enough is being done to reduce waiting times. She said the national target for practical test waiting times is nine weeks and that far more “radical and innovative measures” will be needed to reach this figure. 

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