Safety in traffic

Remember your driving test? Where did all that knowledge go?

21 december 2022

A survey by Germany’s premier automobile club, ADAC, has revealed that once a few years have elapsed since the driving test, big holes often start to open up in the driver’s theoretical knowledge. But why does the knowledge we accumulate for our driving test get forgotten again so quickly? What consequences does this have for the safety of our behaviour in traffic? And can we refresh the knowledge we originally acquired for our driving test? To find answers to these questions, we spoke to Gerd Bünker, Driving Licence project manager at TÜV NORD.


#explore: Studies show that, just a few years after getting their licence, many drivers’ theoretical knowledge diminishes significantly. In your experience, which facts are most likely to be forgotten?

Gerd Bünker: These are mainly signs and traffic situations that you rarely come across. Take, for example, the green arrow that you find attached to some traffic lights in Germany. With this arrow, the traffic light takes on the function of a Give Way sign. You have to stop to make sure there’s no traffic going across, and if the lane is free for you to turn right, then you can do so, even if the lights are red. In some cities, you’ll find these signs fairly often, whereas in others they don’t occur at all. If you aren’t familiar with this sign from your own environment, then you often won’t know exactly what to do.

What consequences does this have for the safety of our behaviour in traffic?

Let’s stay with this example for a minute. The green arrow sign pointing to the right on a traffic light may then be interpreted as giving you complete right of way. But if you just turn right at the red light without ensuring there’s no traffic flowing across the junction – which will in this case have right of way – then you’re looking at a traffic signal violation. With all the critical consequences that can arise from that.

Wouldn't it make sense to make it compulsory for drivers to regularly refresh their theoretical knowledge?

The legislator leaves this up to the individual licence holder: In other words, anyone who has a driving licence is obliged to keep their knowledge up to date. And we should really all do so! Changes to this legislation remain a highly unlikely prospect, however. Help for motorists might be forthcoming from the right kinds of media offer: From the mid-1960s to 2005, we in Germany had a television programme called “Der 7. Sinn” (“The Seventh Sense”), in which drivers were reminded of traffic situations which don’t occur regularly or in many places. It would be a good thing for this or a similar programme to be relaunched. In my view, mandatory inspections would be just as useful as they would be practicable, especially in the area of driving ability. One example would be regular eye tests, which are already mandatory for lorry drivers who want to renew their licence. The same goes for first aid training. This takes place at the very beginning of the driver training course, which means that it can in some cases be way back 40 or 50 years in the past. If you had to do a first aid course every five or ten years, you wouldn’t feel completely overwhelmed in an accident situation and would instead be able to help. Because the worst thing you can do in such a situation is nothing.

Not familiar in every city: the green arrow sign. Stop, look - and turn right when the road is clear despite the red light.

Are the current learning and examination conditions as good as it gets, or do you think there are better ways to encourage drivers to remember their theoretical knowledge in the long term?

The driving test has already changed, in theory as well as in practice: it’s been through a lot of adaptations in recent years. When I got my own driving licence almost 40 years ago, I had to tick the right answers on the classic paper form. The theory test is now PC-based. You have rolling answers within one question. This means that answer one might sometimes also be in position two or three. Or the word “not” gets inserted into an answer. So, you have to read the questions carefully and respond to their content, and you can’t simply recall things you’ve learned by rote. Right of way rules, for example, are no longer tested using static images, but via video sequences. It’s therefore much more about assessing a specific traffic situation than memorising an exam answer.


Could local peculiarities such as the green arrow be more closely integrated into practical training to allow drivers to develop a particular basic routine for such situations?

Practical training has already changed in this respect. Many driving schools are now also using simulators in addition to classic training on the road. A simulator is basically a car seat with steering wheel, gear lever and pedals, including monitors. This makes it possible to simulate and practise situations that you won’t find locally. These might be in urban traffic or driving on country roads, which can be a challenge for people who do their driver training in urban environments. So, as a road user you’re confronted with the situation in question and can acquire some initial experience, although you also have to master this situation in real-life driving, of course. We can’t include these kinds of local exceptional situations, of course: after all, you can’t just drive 300 kilometres with your examinees to find a right turn with green arrow situation to test. And the legislator has above all determined that driving tests should be taken where the candidate lives. If you live in Berlin, you can’t get your driving licence by driving in the countryside in Schleswig-Holstein. The thinking behind this is that, if you live in Berlin, you’ll also do most of your driving there. Drivers in Berlin therefore need to be particularly familiar with the local traffic situation, which will of course be different from what they will find in the countryside.

Things get complicated at road works and diversions; careful and cautious driving is the best solution here.

What can we do ourselves to keep our theoretical driving knowledge fresh?

Once they’ve done their licence, hardly anyone will ever sit down and take another driving lesson, of course. However, there’s now a variety of free apps that you can use to train for your driving licence. OK, so these don’t always feature the most recent exam questions – theoretically, these change twice a year. For motorists who want to keep up to date, however, this isn’t really an obstacle. These apps often also feature simulated questionnaires which you can use to test your knowledge. Driving safety training courses are highly recommended when it comes to handling cars – not least those with modern assistance systems. These give you the chance to practise dealing with special traffic situations – for instance, to learn how safely to avoid a sudden obstacle – under the watchful eye of an instructor in a coned-off area. It’s hardly ever possible to practise this kind of thing in normal traffic situations – not safely, at any rate. In some cases, such safety training courses are co-financed by employers’ liability insurance associations. They’re a very good way to refresh and develop your vehicle control skills. After all, extreme situations can basically be handled better if you have already practised dealing with them.