Has letting the SatNav do the talking done the trick?

emily and assessor inside car with satnav

Even with interpreters – of which the DVSA confirmed it would cover the cost in 2015 – practical driving tests are stressful for deaf people. But these tests are currently being reformed. Have they become more deaf friendly? Emily Howlett finds out.

I waited with bated breath – did I pass my driving test? I wasn’t going to be able to use the deaf card if I didn’t so the stakes were high. As I waited for the examiner to make up his mind I reminded myself I already have a licence and that this was just a mock test. This test is all in the name of journalism, and definitely not because anyone thinks I drive like a maniac…

Let me explain. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency had invited me to their headquarters in Cardington, Bedfordshire, to review some proposed changes it hopes to make to the practical driving test that has instilled fear into so many of us over the years. These proposed changes have come out of months of research into how practical driving tests are carried out and how to update them so the process of obtaining a driving licence is more suitable for modern drivers – and more accessible to deaf and disabled people.

In its current format, the practical driving test throws up a number of barriers for deaf people. As with its driving theory tests, the DVSA provide interpreters for their practical tests. However, as examiners must sit in the passenger seat so they can assess the driving, interpreters must sit in the back so are of limited use in relaying examiners’ verbal directions and instructions. Until now, deaf drivers have had to find one of the very rare signing examiners, or cope with potential communication breakdown during an already stressful test. In addition, until quite recently, deaf people who wanted to have BSL interpreters for their tests had to cover their costs.

This is mostly due to all directions being given verbally, generally while on the move, and the fact that the examiner must sit in the front, in order to assess the driving. This means an interpreter is of limited use, as they must sit in the back.

The DVSA hopes its proposed changes will make for a smoother ride for deaf drivers – so it asked yours truly to go along and take a mock test. Confident in my driving abilities, I jumped at the chance. Although I did get several messages from friends before I left, questioning whether I’d still have a licence when I got home, and begging to be told how many hundreds of times I managed to stall the car. Such wonderful friends! Such unwavering faith!

The day got off to an excellent start when I drove past the headquarters twice, despite it being signposted. My observation skills are beyond compare.

I finally found my way onto the site and had started to park when I noticed that nearly every other vehicle had been reverse parked, and nobody else was managing to take up three spaces with a tiny car. Determined not to give a bad impression before I’d even said anything, I decided to try again, parking both backwards and more neatly. It only took about 20 minutes. Easy.

emily howlett outside her car

More access for all

Several different disability groups and charities have been involved with devising the proposed changes, and there were a number of other representatives taking part in the feedback day. Firstly, we met the team in charge of devising and testing the changes. Essentially, there will be two large focus groups of learners who are taking their driving tests. One group will be examined using the current procedures, and one group will trial the proposed new test. The results of the driving exams for each group will be compared, along with any changes in safe driving six months later.

What I wanted to know was what these changes were, how exactly they would help deaf people – and, most importantly, when I could get behind the wheel and show off my skills.

A quick slideshow answered my first question. The changes being trialled include:

• Using SatNavs as part of the Independent Driving section. This section will also be increased to 20 minutes duration.

• Forward-parking into bays, and stopping on the right hand side of the road. Although these aren’t considered best practice, the DVSA know that they are commonplace manoeuvres for today’s drivers, and therefore should be undertaken safely.

• No longer including the reverse-around-a-corner and turn-in the road manoeuvres The same skills required for these would be used in the new forward-bay and right-hand-side parking exercises, so would still be tested, but in a more commonplace situation.

• The pupil will be asked a Show Me question while on the move, instead of while the vehicle is stationary.

Which all sounds very intriguing, but does it make any difference to how accessible the test is in reality? I was a bit worried about the new Show Me question being asked while on the move. How would this be accessible for deaf people? Only one way to find out…

The lovely people at DVSA had agreed that another person and I between us would drive the group out on mock tests. This meant they were not only trusting me with one of their cars, but also one of their examiners. There was a quick scuffle, during which the examiners fought to get into the other car, before the loser resigned himself to my car and watched sadly as I tried to figure out how to move the mirrors, accidentally hit the windscreen wipers, tried to figure out howto turn the windscreen wipers off and trapped my finger in the seatbelt buckle. I’m pretty sure he phoned his family to say he loved them.

After all that palaver, the examiner explained a little about how the SatNav system would hopefully improve the exam in many ways. Not only is it an easier way of communicating the route the test will take, it also allows the examiner to pre-programme a drive which takes in all the aspects of the test within the allocated time, including dual carriageways and rural roads.

There was a quick scuffle, during which the examiners fought to get into the other car, before the loser resigned himself to my car and watched sadly as I trapped my finger in the seatbelt buckle

As we set off, it became immediately apparent that this was going to be easier to cope with than my own driving test had been, some 10 years ago now. Back then I’d had to stop at regular intervals to be given instructions as to where to go or what to do next. Although effective as a way of communicating, I had gradually become more and more nervous with the constant stopping and starting, and it also restricted how far we could travel within the exam time slot. It’s also extremely bad for your concentration if you can tell the examiner is itching to say something to you, but has to wait for you to stop before they can speak.

Bringing in modern technology 

With the use of SatNavs, it is simply a case of following the route on the screen, as one would on a normal drive. It means that for the duration of the Independent Driving segment, the person doing the test can concentrate solely on driving, without having to worry about communication or remembering long route directions. It also meant I had no excuse for getting lost, as I had done on my real test; but the examiner also assured us all that even if a driver got confused and went off track, as long as they dealt with it safely, they would not be marked down.

I was almost enjoying myself, driving along following the SatNav to the letter and feeling quite smug. Then the examiner said we were going to pull into a nearby car park and do a couple of manoeuvres. Clearly he had no respect for his life.

I managed to squeeze the car into a huge space without denting anything except my pride (I had to go very slowly, because I was nervous, dammit!). When I was learning to drive, back in the Dark Ages, we were encouraged to reverse park every time. Nowadays, it is still considered best practice to reverse park, but the DVSA are aware that it’s often more practical to “front in”. And as the test should always be an authentic approximation of real driving conditions, the new test needs to address these changes too.

The examiner traditionally asks the Show Me question while the car is stationary, before the test begins. This is normally something like, “Can you show me how the rear windscreen wiper works?” or, “Can you turn the headlights on?” However the proposed changes would see them asking these questions while on the move, because these tasks are usually completed while driving. I was worried about this until I discovered that, as part of making sure their tests are accessible for deaf drivers, the DVSA has decreed that its examiners can ask this question while the car is stationary if necessary.

I was relieved until the question itself came: “When we’ve moved off and you feel it is safe to do so, can you turn on the rear window heater, please?” The best I could muster up was: “Yes. If you show me where it is.” If he had asked me when I was driving, I could have used the deaf card and pretended not to have seen the question.

And the verdict?

Overall, the new testing procedures will make it much easier for examiners to be able to adapt each exam to each driver’s specific needs. The live map on the SatNav can be turned off and voice instructions only used for those distracted by live maps. Obviously the reverse of this is true for deaf people, who can have the voice instructions turned off and only use the visual map references. Also, the examiner can allow more time for certain areas of the test, or for repeating instructions and questions as necessary.

The new style of test, with the use of SatNav, means there is a lot less dialogue to deal with. The DVSA will still cover the cost of interpreters for those who wish to complete the Show Me aspects of the test in BSL but deaf people will no longer be required to try and take in instructions from the examiner or interpreter while driving. It would, of course, be lovely to have an examiner fluent in BSL. However, the new test is the start of a process that I hope will continue to improve accessibility overall for everyone, including deaf people.

Although the trial tests have begun, the DVSA are still looking for more people to take part in this research. If you are interested in being involved, more information can be found on their website. Anyone who passes while taking the new trial test will receive a full driving licence, as if they had taken the current test.

If the new changes are approved, they will eventually be rolled out to fully replace the current test.

And, in case you were wondering, I only stalled the car once. And I passed my test. Just.