Wikipedia’s article on the history of drivers licences identifies the original ‘licence’ as a handwritten note from the Grand Ducal authorities issued to Karl Benz, the inventor of the modern automobile, in 1888 permitting him to operate his car on public roads. Mr. Benz requested the note because of complaints by the citizens of Mannheim about the noise and smell of his ‘Motorwagen’.
By the beginning of the 20th century many European countries, the UK, and the United States were all grappling with how to control the growing problem of more cars and more crashes. In the US, Massachusetts and Missouri issued the first drivers’ licences in 1903. Little more than identification cards, they were issued for a small fee without any driving skills examination. As the number of cars and drivers steadily increased, however, skill testing became a prerequisite for licensing.
The relationship between driver education and licensing and driver competency has been an ongoing subject of interest and scrutiny from the beginning. On August 18, 1907 under the headline “Better Auto Laws are Now Needed” the New York Times published an article about driver competency that has echoed down to the present time. Prompted by the high number of arrests for speeding “since the opening of the touring season” and the numerous accidents “appalling in their results,” the article surveyed the debate over “what is going to be done about it.”
Motoring laws focused on speeding as the “chief point upon which penalties [were] concentrated.” Automobile club spokespersons, while deploring the behaviour of “careless and reckless drivers” protested that speeding laws, especially on rural roads, persecuted motorists. Their solutions ranged from adopting the “French system… of licensing drivers, furnishing them with official cards with the penalty of revoking the licence in addition to a jail sentence for a second or third serious offence” to “[making] the individual personally responsible, the owner as well as the chauffeur.” One commentator called for educating the motorist, who, it was said, “does not realize the tremendous power he has under him from a thirty to sixty horse-power motor.”
Against this historical backdrop, a recent survey of Alberta drivers with extensive experience by the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering which found that only 11.4% passed a test modeled after the learner’s permit may be not quite so “shocking” – the word used in summary by the researchers. (Although when questions not directly related to driving and road safety were discounted the pass rate was still only between 22.9% and 38.6%.)?
The survey was not without critics. George Jonas writing in the National Post about the survey said: Either “the more Albertans drive, the less they know about the rules of the road” or “something doesn’t add up in the art of surveying or testing. …Knowledge tests measure mainly how good people are at passing them. Their correlation to safety or performance is far less reliable.”
Nevertheless, we are now entering an era where the possession of a driver’s licence will be, more than ever, a skill and behaviour-based privilege.