Is The Learner’s Licence Test Illegal?


There is good reason to believe that the official South African Learner’s Licence test does not comply with the requirements of the National Road Traffic Act in terms of the syllabus as set out in the Act. The test includes questions under the section ‘Rules of the Road’ that are in fact not part of the Rules of the Road specifically listed in the Regulations chapter titled Rules of the Road.

Because of this, candidates are required to learn more than necessary to pass the test and are at greater risk of failing.

Since the computerised testing system started rolling out, it is now much easier for the Department of Transport official/s to add additional ‘non-legal’ questions at their own discretion. This has in fact been happening, causing complaints from candidates and somewhat of a mini-outcry — and rightly so.

In 2012 people are still (or even more so) complaining that the official South African learner’s Licence test…

  • contains questions that cover items that do not fall within in the scope of the syllabus as defined in the National Road Traffic Act
  • has questions that seem to be deliberately asked in a way intended to confuse the candidate (‘trick questions’)
  • appears to be designed as a money-making rip-off because candidates have to do the test several times before passing


High failure rate and high fraud rate

From news reports and comments from candidates on blogs and forums, it would appear that the following situation prevails.

  • The rate of failure by candidates has not improved over many years.
  • The extent of fraud is still a major concern.
  • The road death toll remains one of the highest in the world.

Something is clearly wrong with the system. And some investigation begs the question: Is the learner’s licence test illegal in its present structure.


Purpose of this article

This post is not aimed at criticising anyone or any body such as the Department of Transport, or the people compiling the learner’s licence tests. Rather, it is written to highlight some serious problems with a view to suggesting how the system may be improved for the benefit of all concerned. The post therefore includes some ideas and suggestions for consideration, and an invitation to anyone to add their own constructive comments and suggestions at the end, and to get involved in helping make things better.


What the test should cover

The Learner’s Licence test should surely be intended to test whether the candidate has enough knowledge and understanding to be granted a licence to be taught how to drive on public roads. The syllabus of the test should therefore be about the rules of driving on a public road, what the important road signs mean, and where the vehicle controls are located in the vehicle, and what each control is used for.

The Learner’s Licence Test is not a test of one’s knowledge of all aspects of road law, vehicle roadworthiness, and so on. It cannot be, because the National Road Traffic Act is a huge piece of legislation. And only what is relevant to a would-be learner driver should be what he or she is tested on.

One key law is that when taking the driving licence test, the vehicle must meet all roadworthiness requirements. If it doesn’t, the test will not be conducted and the learner driver will not be granted a Driving Licence. It is up to the owner of the vehicle (a driving school instructor, a parent, friend or relative) to ensure that the vehicle used for driving lessons and for the driving test is roadworthy and complies with the requirements of the law in all respects. It should not be for a would-be learner driver to be concerned with those issues when they have not yet even learned to drive and probably don’t even own a motor vehicle.

The theory test should surely also not expect someone who has not yet had one driving lesson to know and understand how the vehicle controls are to be used in different driving situations on the road. This should be what a driving instructor teaches, and what the Driving Licence test should cover. Yet the theory test includes such questions.

Now let’s see what the Rules and Regulations of the National Road Traffic Act say the Learner’s Licence test should cover.


Here is what the National Road Traffic Act & Regulations state…

104. Manner and contents on which applicant for learner’s licence to be tested and examined

(1) An applicant for a learner’s licence shall be examined and tested by an examiner for driving licences.

(2) The examiner for driving licences shall satisfy himself or herself that the applicant—

(a) knows and understands—

(i) the rules of the road;

(ii) the road traffic signs;

(iii) the controls of a motor vehicle of the class to which the application relates; and

(b) is not disqualified in terms of section 15 of the Act or regulation 102, before issuing a learner’s licence.

3) the procedure to be followed by the examiner for driving licences in complying with subregulation (2) shall include the completion by the applicant of the approved “Theory Test for Learner’s Licence” on form TLL as shown in Schedule 2 or the successful completion of an approved Learner’s Licence Electronic Test.

(4) A person may only do an oral test to obtain a learner’s licence if he or she is illiterate and after such a person has obtained the permission of the MEC.


A person may only do an oral test for a learner’s licence if he or she is illiterate and if the MEC has given permission. Electronic learner’s licence test may also be used to examine a person for a learner’s licence.


Rules of the road

Now, let’s see what items are included in the Act’s Rules and Regulations section called Rules of the Road (on which the test should be based). But first, a note of explanation from the Regulations:

South African Rules of the Road Preamble Note

Note the second paragraph of that excerpt:

“The rules of the road encompasses all the general actions and observations a driver must know to be a safe driver on the road. Other drivers on the road expect a driver to know these rules to be able to safely negotiate the actions of fellow drivers.”

So, this would seem to have been the original intention of moving these items out from the main body of the Act into a separate section – Chapter X, Rules of the Road, one of the three sections (Chapters) on which the Learner’s Licence test must be based.

Now for the item headings…

List of headings of the South African Rules of the Road - section 1

List of headings of the South African Rules of the Road - section 2

As you can see, the Rules of the Road chapter ends at item 330.

Now let’s look at what some of the test questions are asking, and see if these items are included in the full list of rules of the road per the Act’s Rules and Regulations shown above.


Test questions falling outside the legal syllabus

Over the years more and more items have been added to the Learner’s Licence test, items that do not fall into the Rules of the Road (or Road Signs, or Controls of the Vehicle). Here are some examples, some of which are part of Ch VI – Fitness of Vehicles (Regulations 128 – 264A), and NOT Chapter X – Rules of the Road (Regulations 296 – 330).

  • Lamps regulations
  • Reflectors regulations
  • Chevrons regulations
  • Tyres regulations
  • Seat belts regulations
  • Projection limits regulations
  • Warning markings in respect of projected loads
  • The maximum distance ahead that the headlights dipped beam may touch the road surface
  • The minimum distance for which the hooter must be audible
  • What a motorist must do in the event of an ‘accident’ (collision)

Items more recently complained about by the public

  • The minimum permissible width of a motorcycle’s handlebars
  • The maximum permissible height of a motorcycle’s handlebars above the seat level
  • Specifications for yellow reflective tape down the side of a vehicle

To reiterate, these items are included in the Learner’s Licence test even though they are not part of Chapter X – Rules of the Road, which is what the Act/Regulations specify as the syllabus for the test.

Does all of this not make the current Learner’s Licence test itself an illegal test?


Possible arguments for including such items in the test

It might be argued that drivers need to know such regulations, because they are important. One cannot argue with that. But does that justify stepping outside the legal provisions of the National Road Traffic Act because of someone’s (or some people’s) opinion that they are good things to know? I don’t think so.

It is my contention that the test should comply to the letter with the requirements of the Act/Regulations. There should be no discretion as to what is considered to be a good item to be added as an extra test question or few, if such questions cover items that are not already specified in Chapter X – Rules of the Road (or the road signs sections, or basic vehicle controls).

Another way needs to be found to highlight additional important things drivers will need to know when they have a driving licence authorising them to drive alone on public roads. But they do not belong in the Learner’s Licence test.


So-called ‘trick questions’

Another area of concern is the manner in which the questions are posed, often with some misleading text included. Even well educated people, with a good command of language, apparently have difficulty with some of the questions. So not only are ‘illegal’ questions included in the test, but questions can have misleading content in them — a double-whammy for the candidate.

Here’s a question asked by someone on a Facebook page in March 2012: So what is the answer to “If you drive a motorcycle of 900 cc what is the maximum height that the handle bars may be above the seat”?

Well, first of all the question is not part of Rules of the Road. Secondly, the regulation applies to all motorcycles, and has nothing to do with the engine capacity. So why throw that extraneous point about 900 cc into the question? It just adds to the confusion and does not help anyone. The question (if it were a legitimate one) could simply ask: ‘What is the maximum height a motorcycle’s handlebars may be above the seat?’

But the whole argument is moot anyway, because the question should not even be in the test in the first place.


Ideas and suggestions to sort this problem out

Here are some ideas to kick-start debate and action. Feel free to add your own comments below too.

  1. Form a task team of experts and experienced trainers and teachers to identify:
    • Which items are not truly Rules of the Road and must therefore be removed from the Learner’s Licence test bank of questions.
    • Which of those removed items are important enough that drivers need to be made aware of them in some other way.
    • Which items that do form part of the syllabus (Rules of the Road, Road Signs, Controls of the Vehicle) are the important items that need to be included in the test bank because they will satisfy this overall purpose of the test:
      “The rules of the road encompasses all the general actions and observations a driver must know to be a safe driver on the road. Other drivers on the road expect a driver to know these rules to be able to safely negotiate the actions of fellow drivers.”
    • How every Learner’s Licence test item can be tested in such a way that the question’s wording simply tests whether the candidate knows and understands the rule, road sign or vehicle control, without having to engage in mental gymnastics to understand the question itself. Keep it simple, with no tricky or confusing elements.
  2. Have the tests and questions, including any subsequent new questions, approved by tan authorised team, and not by any particular individual, with consensus that all questions meet approved criteria in terms of understandability, straight-forwardness and falling within the required syllabus.
  3. Determine the most cost-effective way in which newly qualified drivers can know the legal requirements for the class of vehicle for which their driving licence has been granted, as well as general regulations covering all drivers/vehicles — such as how to act in the event of a collision; regulations about seat belts, emergency triangles, and other regulations not part of the Rules of the Road. Some ideas:
    • Include the important vehicle fitness items in the Pre-trip Inspectionof the vehicle for the Driving Licence test. As the candidate is going through the various items, the examiner can ask specific questions for that class of vehicle, according to a standard test checklist, and mark the candidate accordingly — e.g.
      • minimum permissible tyre tread depth
      • load projections
      • maximum permissible distance for the the dipped beam to hit the road surface ahead
      • minimum distance for which the hooter must me audible
      • handlebars maximum and minimum height and width specs for a motorcycle
      • alcohol limits
      • passengers on an open truck/bakkie
      • projection limits and safety markings for loads on vehicles and motorcycles
      • etc.
    • Have such information printed on the back of one of the forms issued at the time they pass their Learner’s Licence licence test.
    • Amend the Driving Test Pre-trip Inspection test scoring sheet to include those vehicle fitness / roadworthy items that are deemed to be important enough for the candidate to be tested on, for that class of vehicle.
    • As the candidate is doing the exterior interior checks with the examiner and explaining the various items s/he is checking (tyres, etc.), the examiner can ask him or her verbally the legal requirements of the various items, and check off on the score sheet whether the candidate answered correctly. For example:
      • Ask the relevant permissible load projection limits.
      • Ask the requirements for carrying a passengers on the back of an open truck.
      • What is the minimum tyre tread depth allowed?
      • What is the maximum distance ahead that the dipped beam headlights may touch the road surface?
      • How far ahead must the main beam (‘bright’) light up an object on the road at night?
      • How far away must the hooter be able to be heard?
      • What is the maximum height the handlebars may be above the saddle level?
      • How low may the handlebars be in relation to the saddle level?
      • What is the widest the handlebars are allowed to be, from outer tip to tip?
      • What is the minimum width the handlebars are allowed to be, tip to tip, for a bike of this engine size?
      • How must the handlebars be positioned in relation to the motorcycle?
      • and so on.
    • When the driving licence is issued, have the new driver sign for receipt of a separate document spelling out all such driver and the vehicle fitness regulations for that class of vehicle.


Anyone prepared to run with this?

We definitely need some changes to be made, with some out-of-the-box thinking too. It’s no use simply patching what doesn’t work anyway. South Africa needs a fresh start and a new look at this whole matter of learner’s licence and driving licence testing. The task can start with the Learner’s Licence test.

If you are in a position to run with these ideas and take them further, then by all means do so.

Note: These arguments represent the opinions of the owner of this website, and they bear no legal status at the time of writing.


Media liaison

Should you wish to discuss this topic, please contact Mr Clive Gibson (084 200 4083).


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Some related links

Shorter Blog Post On This Topic
Actual Complaints About Learner’s Licence Test Questions
Complaints on Facebook
Questions on Facebook
Help With The Motorcycle Handlebars Test Questions
Additional Legislation To Know – Based On Complaints
Learner's Licence Test - Have Your SayNewspaper editorial: Put a halt on new learner licence test
Newspaper article: Learner’s licence test sparks outrage

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