April 14, 2011

Theory In Practice.

One thing’s for sure, she’s not scoring one for us women. You can picture the tabloid editor beaming already. Woman! Failed! Theory test! 90 times! Thanks to a freedom of information request, the worst driving student in the UK has indeed been unveiled: she is 26, lives in Southwark, and spent an astonishing £2,790 on driving theory test exams. Call it confirmation bias, but the opinion currently held by Neanderthals about females behind a steering wheel will only be strengthened by the story.

One has to ask, though: how can someone fail a multiple choice test so many times? There are only 50 questions, followed by four answers each. Candidates have to get at least 43 answers right – not an issue if one studies hard – and then face the gruelling hazard perception test (more on that later).

I know those details because yesterday morning found me and a dozen others wiping metaphorical sweat from our brows as we sat in a south London test centre, waiting to make good use of the knowledge accumulated in the past few weeks. Or in my case, days; I’m lucky to be gifted at last-minute cramming and passed. 45/50, if you must ask.

I won’t lie – the test isn’t that easy. The current pass rate for the theory test is 62.9%; people in the US are said to be horrified at our UK process. And while a lot of the expected answers are solidly rooted in common sense (“Q: You are invited to a pub lunch. You know that you will have to drive in the evening. What is your best course of action?” A. Avoid mixing your alcoholic drinks B. Not drink any alcohol at all C. Have some milk before drinking alcohol D. Eat a hot meal with your alcoholic drinks), others were more pointed (“How long will a statutory off road notification last for?”). Some, on the other hand, were downright stupid (“When should you take a call on your mobile phone while travelling?”).

The first written examination was introduced for wannabe drivers in 1996, before being replaced by the computer test in 2000. But is it a truly essential part of the learning process? Talking to my colleagues about the unlucky student who failed so many times this morning, many of them recalled the “good old days” during which you would just be asked a few questions by your driving examiner before passing your driving test: do you know what that sign is? Yes? What about this one? Good, all right then. Now show us how you park.

Take the dreaded hazard perception test – a glorious example of a terribly explained task which many people who did not train for the test with a DVD find impossible to understand. On paper, this sounds relatively straightforward: “Examinees watch 14 one-minute clips filmed from the perspective of a car driver and have to indicate, usually by clicking a mouse button or touching the screen, when they observe a developing hazard.” Because we’re told that each clip is supposed to contain one hazard (with one exception, which contains two), many viewers decide to react only once, when they should instead click every time they suspect they see a developing hazard (which can be anything, from a far-away pedestrian to an incoming truck). Surely such skills would be better assessed by an instructor during actual driving lessons? The same applies to the multiple choice part of test, where it is easy to “luck out” or take educated guesses (which I did on occasion during mine).

Truly, I couldn’t be convinced of the utility of the theory test. It did provide me with some basic knowledge, but it is nothing I wouldn’t have learned on the ground. The hard work lies ahead, in the hours during which I will drive the vehicle accompanied. I truly feel that practice, much like making a good damson pie, cycling or learning to tie laces, is the only way to learn. Perhaps the woman who failed so many times should just be given a free pass.

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