While two years of lockdowns and restrictions severely affected learners and the driving test, the latest figures from the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency show that overall pass rates are up 4% on pre-pandemic times while first-time pass rates have improved even more and are now at more than 50%.
Figures for 2020/21 show that 49.8% of all candidates learners passed their practical driving test - up from 45.9% in 2019/20 and higher than the 47% average for the preceding five years.
Pass rates for learners sitting their test for the first time were even better, at 51%. That compares with 43.2% in 2019/20 and a five-year average of 46.2%.
Theory test pass rates have also increased, to 55.7% in 2020/21 compared with 47.1% in 2019/20 and a five-year average of 48.2%.
Covid-related restrictions meant that far fewer practical and theory tests were carried out in 2020/21 than in a normal year but provisional figures for 2021/22 show similarly high practical pass rates as testing capacity rises.
In 2020/21 a total of 437,352 car tests were conducted, compared with between 1.6 and 1.7 million in previous years.
Experts have suggested that the ongoing delays and difficulties in securing test slots have made learners more determined to be fully prepared before sitting their tests, helping to improve the pass rate.
Seb Goldin, CEO of Red Driving School, believes that the problems caused by the pandemic - including tests being repeatedly delayed or cancelled - gave many learners more time to prepare and a determination to pass first time rather than face a lengthy wait to resit their test.
He commented: “With the backlog, which stood at over half a million in December 2021, so extensive, learners have been more determined than ever to pass their test first time.
“Additionally, learners with a test booked post-lockdown had longer to prepare, especially those able to practise in their own car outside of instructor lessons, which helped to reduce the number taking their test before being completely ready.”
He also suggested that quieter roads during the pandemic gave learners more opportunity to build their confidence at the wheel.
The pandemic led to hundreds of thousands of tests being cancelled and the DVSA is still facing a massive backlog of candidates. It revealed this week that 500,000 learners are still waiting to sit their test, a figure that has barely changed since last December. At the same time, however, it announced that it hopes to have cleared the practical test backlog and cut waiting times from the current 14 weeks to nine weeks by the end of the year.
Mr Golding believes that even as testing volume returns to normal, the impact of the pandemic could bring a long-term improvement in learner pass rates.
He commented: “Although it might be anticipated that pass rates will drop as the normalities of learning and testing are restored, it is more likely that attitudinal changes during the pandemic will help to maintain them.
“The notion that learners should only take their test once they feel completely ready has been reinforced by extensive wait times, thereby reducing the number of underprepared learners taking their test.”
Earlier this year the DVSA announced proposals designed to ensure drivers only booked their test when they were fully prepared.
It wants to lengthen the time learners who fail have to wait before booking another test from 10 days to 28 days and to extend the notice period required to cancel a test.
It believes both these measures will discourage learners from booking the test before they are ready or gambling on being able to secure a quick retest if they fail the first time. It also argues that by extending the waiting time between tests it will give learners more time to brush up on their skills.