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Tuesday, 2 March 2021

How some of us got driving licences in the old days

From time to time I hear from relatives and friends in my birthplace, Australia, about the expense and involved process for their children to get a driving licence. There are P (for Provisional) plates, 120 hours of supervised driving over months, driving logbooks, a very tough theory test, and substantial test fees. And that's just a most basic summary.

How different from when I got my driving licence in rural Victoria in the late1950s...

Our first family car was a second-hand Vauxhall sedan, bought by my mother, Rena, after the death of my father, John S. Richardson. I have no idea how she got a licence, but she would never have won any driving prizes. As for my licence, I think it was awarded by Snr. Const. Pat Nally, father of my old schoolmate, Ian Nally. 

There was an old registration number plate nailed to a tree in the local police station driveway. Before setting out on the driving test, the hopefuls had to prove their eyesight by reading the number plate from the entrance to the driveway. Those who were unsure about their eyesight would turn up early, sneak up to the licence plate and memorise it. 

As for proving that you could drive, that was easy. In my case, Snr. Const. Nally sat in the back seat of our Vauxhall and instructed me to drive to what was known as the "low bridge" over the local river, the Avoca. At the bridge's lowest point, I was instructed to turn off the engine, put on the handbrake, turn the engine back on, and do what was called a "handbrake start" up the other steep side of the bridge, without stalling and rolling back down the bridge. We then returned to the police station where I was issued with a free driver's licence without further examination or restriction. I don't recall having to do a theory test; it was simply assumed that I understood the rules of the road, such as they were. The most important thing when seeking a driving licence was to avoid terrifying the policeman whose job it was to conduct the test.

With the passage of time I have forgotten who taught me to drive. It certainly wasn't a professional driving instructor because there were none in the town, nor in many towns and cities in Australia. I think I was given basic instruction by a couple of visiting uncles. All motor vehicles back then were manual, and I remember the most difficult part of driving was learning the skill of double-declutching when having to return the engine from second to first gear. 

Driving on Australian roads at that time could be quite dangerous, even though speeds were not particularly high. There were no seat belts, no speed cameras, and no breathalysers. Drinking and driving was very common, and drivers had to be in a considerable state of intoxication and driving in a spectacularly erratic manner before finding themselves before the courts. If drivers did get booked for speeding, it was because the local copper didn't have much to do and decided to follow someone considered to be driving too fast and book them on the basis of the speedo on the policeman's own car.

I've not enjoyed driving in Australia on my many trips back there. This is chiefly because Aussie drivers can be dangerously aggressive. There is none of the politeness seen on most roads in the UK. I don't know why this is so, but I suspect that a prime reason is that the speed restrictions are often all over the place and immensely frustrating. Anyone travelling along many a main road in Melbourne, for example, will encounter ever-changing speed limits, some of them changing according to the  time of day. Most Australian drivers accept speeding fines as an significant part of their life on the roads. 

One thing I do agree with, though, is the random breath testing, which has brought about a dramatic drop in drink driving in Australia. I have been breath tested just twice in my life -- both times in Australia. On one occasion I was in a city and had just enjoyed a dinner with some friends at a pub. Fortunately, I'd had just one glass of very low alcohol beer, so I was okay. The other occasion was on a very quiet bush road at 10am. When I asked the copper why they were carrying out random tests at that time of the day on a little-used road he replied "You'd be surprised, Sir, how many drivers are over the limit at this time of the day and don't think they will be caught."

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I did wonder if getting my driving licence was not as easy as I remembered, so I went onto the website for the town where I grew up and asked if anyone had similar experiences. There were lot of responses recounting similar stories. Here are a few:

My driving test was the same but when we got back to the station, the Sergeant gave me a Car, Motorcycle, Tractor and a small truck license......Why??? Because he’d seen me driving them all and thought I should have them. I had heard of others that got the same..... We didn’t have to do the vision test but a group of us young blokes got dragged down to the wreckers to see a bad accident with blood and bits all over the car. It made us slow down a bit. I can still remember the sight, not very nice but it worked.

I drove around for no more than 20 minutes, did a handbrake start on the sloping road up to the station, reversed out of an angle park outside State Savings Bank and read the number of the house opposite the Police Station. 1967.

The policeman was slightly intoxicated, only had civvies on, he put his police hat up the back window of the car, for good looks, a quick drive around the block, back to the police station, no questions asked and I got handed my licence. That certainly wouldn't happen today.

The day I turned 18 in 1983, Dad took me down to the cop shop in Mum’s yellow Ford Laser. After driving around the town for 5 minutes with the cop more interested in the Fleetwood Mac cassette we were playing, I had my licence. 

Remember my friend who I will not name she went for her license in an automatic car. And yes she had to do a hand break start at the low water bridge which she near reversed off the bridge. The copper at the time said you need a little more practise at that but she got her license.