Springing forward

Edmund King OBE discusses the return to driving lessons after a long lockdown

Although the British weather has seemed intent on extending winter well into April, the daffodils and blossomed trees show spring is, finally, here to stay. For most of us it has felt like the longest winter ever and, as we emerge from it and from lockdown, it is a relief to see a brighter future on the horizon. Not least the end to restrictions on driving lessons for most of the UK.

It has been a long road to get to this point and we are delighted to be able welcome pupils back. If the level of interest in driving lessons during the last lockdown is anything to go by, then pupils have been just as pleased to be back on the road towards their licence.  

In the most recent lockdown, the AA Driving School had a colossal 26,000 learner drivers sign up to receive alerts when lesson booking opened. We counted a further 177,000 people searching for driving lessons in their area – enough to fill Wembley Stadium in London twice.

Across the whole country, the top five locations only included two cities in England. Our data showed pupils from Bristol, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Cardiff were among the keenest in lockdown to sign up for information about lessons.

It was great to see so much desire from learners to get back behind the wheel and their readiness to get back to driving tuition will help our industry recover quickly.

While the industry should bounce back quickly, the personal toll of the last year may take longer for individuals to recover from. Many of those who were first back into the driving seat will be people who had already started taking lessons before the pandemic. In terms of learning to drive, they have been dealt a tough hand. Having long break in driving can affect even the most seasoned driver, but it can be even harder to trust your skills after a break when you are first learning to drive.

Indeed, without access to a car or supervision, many pupils will have endured a painfully long break from driving practice. Having open conversations about how comfortable pupils are with their skills and being considerate to their emotional wellbeing will pay dividends in producing capable, disciplined drivers in time. I am sure this will have been front of mind for you during those first few lessons. I am equally sure that once we have been back behind the wheel for a few weeks, skills will quickly come back to learners under your guidance. 

Frustration at thwarted plans to already have their licence by now may mean some pupils will be in a hurry to take their practical test. With so many pupils in the backlog for test booking this issue is unlikely to be resolved soon and lessons will have to be adapted to keep learners test-ready while the system catches up. Then there are those, around 70,000, whose theory test certificates expired in lockdown and will now have to retake the theory test before they can book a practical test. 

It was interesting in April, to see not only the release of the huge pent-up demand for lessons but also media stories focusing on the drop in the number of young people who hold a driving licence to an all-time low of 2.97million. Given the background of the pandemic and the stop-start nature of lessons learners have had to face, it is not at all surprising the figure has dropped, though the media is always interested in this type of figure. The bigger story will be in a year’s time when we can see whether there has been a significant longer-term impact on the number of people who hold licences, particularly among the harder hit age groups. 

But for now, we can focus on looking forward and enjoying being back on the road.

Edmund King OBE is best known for media appearances on the subject of motoring and transport policy. He is president of the Automobile Association and a visiting professor of transport at Newcastle University.

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