A Driving Instructor's Blog

Normal DistributionThis question crops up repeatedly. It’s often the first question a pupil asks when they get in the car for the first time.

The official DVSA statistics say that the typical learner takes around 45 hours of lessons with an instructor, and 20 or more hours of private practice before they pass their test. As soon as this is mentioned, people who haven’t got a clue what statistics are start trotting out the usual crap and accuse DVSA of interfering in their job.

Look. There was a study a few years ago which asked a lot of new drivers how many hours they had had, and the result was an average of 45 hours plus at least 20 hours of private practice. You can’t alter the fact that that’s what happened: those drivers did have an average of 45 hours plus 20 hours of private practice prior to passing. Just because the word “statistics” is used, and you don’t understand them, doesn’t change that. It’s what did happen.

Try to understand what the word “average” means. If you have 100 people, and each one of them took between 20 and 100 hours to pass their tests, if you add up all the hours then divide by 100 you get “an average” number of hours. It doesn’t mean that every person took “the average”. It just means that was the middle-ish amount of hours taken. In the case of the DVSA study, that average number of hours turned out to be 45. This is a lot more reliable than saying how long it took your last pupil, who did it in less.

Of course, if each one of those hundred people took a different number of hours, ranging from 1 to 100, then the average wouldn’t tell you much. However, the likelihood – indeed, the reality – is that the majority of people would be clustered somewhere in the middle, with only outliers stretching off towards the extremities. It would be called “a distribution” – in statistical terms, a “normal distribution” – and if you plotted the numbers on a graph it would look something like the one shown above. This is a powerful and very useful tool, and it remains such even if you haven’t got a clue what it means. The DVSA study showed that 45 hours was the average that most people were clustered around.

When a new pupil gets in the car and asks how many hours they’ll need before you’ve even seen them drive, you need your head examining if you quote them a specific figure, and especially if it is from your last model pupil. However, explaining the above statistic in suitable terms will give them a rough idea, and illustrate clearly that they’re almost certainly not going to be ready by next Friday if they’ve never driven before.

I’ve mentioned before that the fastest learner I ever had went from zero to pass in 14½ hours over a couple of months. He was exceptional, though, and it is worth also noting that he must have done at least five times that number of hours as private practice. I rarely come across anyone as dedicated as he was. Some years before him, another pupil managed the same in 17½ hours. She, too, did a lot of private practice when she went home between terms, though she took over a year to learn. Then there was another one, who did it in 23 hours. He was unusual inasmuch as he didn’t do any private practice at all. I’ve had a fair number manage it between 25 and 30 hours, and a huge number between 30 and 50 hours. These are first time passes I’m referring to, and some did private practice, whereas some didn’t.

At the other end of the scale, I taught one woman for over 100 hours until I finally persuaded her to switch to automatic (I’d been trying that since around the 40 hour mark). She never had a test with me, and she then took at least another 100 hours of automatic lessons, and finally passed on her seventh attempt. She’s since given up driving, after wrecking her car bit by bit over the course of the first fortnight she had it.

Another took 160 hours and three attempts before passing (his brother tells me he has had numerous minor bumps). More recently, another passed on his fourth attempt after 133 hours over more than three years. I’ve had a few I can recall with around 60 or 70 hours, and not all of them had issues like those others. One in particular nearly passed with a single driver fault on his first test – until he nudged the barrier at the Colwick Test Centre when he parked at the end – and then took a further 7 attempts (if I recall) to pass, with regular lessons in between. He was a good driver, but the number of hours he took was disproportionately high.

I’ve never bothered to sit down and work it out properly, but my average is somewhere between 25 and 45 hours. That’s the range most of my pupils are in. The overall skew is towards the lower end of the range, since those taking a large number of lessons are fewer than those who manage the much shorter numbers. It’s statistics again.

With all that in mind, when anyone asks, I simply tell them that the national average is apparently 45 hours with as much private practice as possible, but that I’ve had people do it in as little as under 20 hours, and as much as 200 – though those were exceptional cases. I explain that everyone is different, and you only know how many hours it will take after you’ve taken them. I explain that it is best to think in the 30-40 hour range to begin with – but if we can do it quicker, we will. I tell them that it is impossible to predict how many hours they will need at the outset, but we’ll get a better idea as their lessons progress.

If they don’t like that they can go elsewhere. Only a few ever have, but they were exclusively non-UK drivers who wanted to take a test immediately.

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