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How hard can it be to pass the bike test after 22 years?

Published: 28 January 2013

I took my motorcycle test in 1989, and failed. I don’t remember much about it, except that I wasn’t confident. Days earlier my training school had told me I was terrible. I blame their standard of tuition.

At the start of lesson one, an instructor had blipped my throttle, not realising it was a twist-and-go, and gone sprawling across the car park with my bike on its side.

I do remember the examiner saying at the end of the test: “I’m sorry, Mr Farrell. You have not reached the standard required. You were in the left-hand lane turning right out of a one-way street.”

By the time I did the test again, in 1990, for reasons I didn’t understand, I’d improved. This time I heard the magic words from the examiner: “I’m pleased to say you have passed.”

And I thought: ‘Thank God I never have to do that again.’ Little did I know that 22 years later MCN would send me back for a resit, totally unprepared.

I have had very little training since I last did the test. I do, however, have 22 years’ experience as a full-licence-holder. I ride 160 miles a day and, despite the hard efforts of many car drivers, I am still here.

So if the test is a way of identifying people who can ride safely on the road, I should pass. If I fail, so does the test.

Module one: Practical

There have been a lot of news stories about learners crashing during the Module One off-road manoeuvres test. I know because I’ve written most of them.

My examiner, Chris, was treating this exactly like any other test. He handed me a high-visibility vest, which for some reason I put on without protest, and asked for my driving licence. 

“I'm Chris,” he said, even though we’d already done introductions. “I'll be your examiner today. If you’d like to follow me outside, we can go to the Module One test area.”

Immediately I began doubting everything I knew about motorcycling. “You can start the bike and warm the engine up,” said Chris as I put my gloves on.

I started it, then wondered if I should have sat on it first. Had the test started? Had I just failed?  

Any fans of TVs ‘The Inbetweeners’ will remember the scene where Jay says he can ride, only to crash immediately after pulling away. It came to mind as I got on.

I did a life-saver, even though there couldn’t possibly be anything behind me, then rode carefully to the test area.

Walking with the bike
Chris told me to ride to one end and stop in one of two bays marked out by green cones. “Which blue cones,” I said. “The green ones,” he repeated patiently, pointing out their position on a map and in the test area itself. "Stop in either of the bays. Park your bike and get off."

I did as he said and he walked over to where I stood. “Now push it backwards into that bay,” he said, pointing to an adjacent one, “and put it back on its stand.” There was a clue here. Normally I’d leave the side-stand down while pushing, a time-proven practice which was clearly incorrect.  

Actually, I don’t generally find call to push my bike around backwards. I usually get on it and ride away. Then I stop and get off. Nearly always in that order. I sensed Chris didn’t want to discuss it though so I got on with pushing, making a surprisingly awkward job of it.

Slalom and figure-of-eight
I knew what was coming next because in front of me were the slalom cones. “Complete a figure-of-eight around the final two,” said Chris. “Keep doing figure-of-eights until I tell you to stop. You must complete at least two.” I was tense, jerky and on nowhere near full lock but I got through it, and Chris signalled for me to stop.

He told me to ride at a walking pace, simulating slow-moving traffic, to four green cones where I’d be doing a U-turn. If you can’t do this slow-riding bit, you should probably be required to turn all the carbon dioxide you have expelled in your life back into oxygen.

The U-turn area was tighter than I would have guessed it to be, but I made it - and even remembered to do a life-saver first.

Controlled stop
Next I was to do a ride to the other end of the test centre, around in a wide curve and stop between two pairs of cones back at this end. It’s a move I’ve never understood. If you can’t do it, how have you got safely to the test centre?

I should try to reach 50kph at some timing cones, which Chris said was 32mph. I proceeded across and around the test area and into the final straight. No crashes yet. A glance at my speedo and I flicked left and right around some cones – the notorious swerve manoeuvre – before coming to stop. 

“That was great,” said Chris, “except what you did was the avoidance exercise and you're supposed to be doing the controlled stop.” When I should have been listening to his words, I’d instead been looking at a brown line on his map, which happened to trace out the swerve.

“Also, you were only doing 47kph,” he said. “But it's OK because I can let you do it again.”

No mistakes this time. I checked my speedo, watched it climb over 30mph, then went the right way and stopped in the correct place.

Emergency stop
This involved the same route but I had to stop as quickly as possible when Chris raised his hand. Easy. “You were only going 47kph, but you can have another go,” he said.

I realised I’d been confusing the timing cones with some others which were just cones, and throttling-off too early.

If I was too slow this time, I’d fail. I kept accelerating and was so busy thinking about speed that I forgot about the emergency stop.

Despite only having two fingers on the lever when Chris gave the signal, I hit the mark.

Avoidance exercise
The one I’d already had a cheeky premature go at was next. The avoidance exercise, or swerve manoeuvre, proved undramatic. If you can’t do it, you perhaps shouldn’t have a motorcycle licence. It’s just a shame there isn’t a way to establish that without breaking your arm.

The test was over, and Chris was giving nothing away. Back in the office, he said: “Please take a seat while I finish the paperwork.” Eventually he put his pen down and stood up. It was coming. I looked at him. Was he sorry or pleased?

“I’m pleased to say you’ve passed,” he said. He gave me my test report, which said my only minor fault was going too slowly on the first emergency stop. “That’s the examiner’s copy,” said Mark Winn, the DSA’s head of motorcycling, who had joined us.

“So it is,” said Chris, taking it back. His first minor fault. 

Module two: Practical

Chris gave my driving licence back along with my Module One pass certificate, which I folded into my wallet and zipped into a pocket.
“Now we’ll do Module Two,” he said. “I’ll need to see your driving licence and Module One pass certificate please.” I got them out again.

“Would you explain to me how you would check the oil level on this motorcycle?” said Chris. I knew this because I’d done it. So I told him.

“And would you explain to me how carrying a pillion will affect the weight of the vehicle?”

“Erm. It will put more at the back. Where the pillion is.”

He waited. I wondered if I should add something. “OK,” he said, “and would you show me how you would check the horn is functioning?” I pressed the horn, sure these must be trick questions.  

I'm very slightly short-sighted and have no glasses, after riding away from a petrol station with them placed on my pillion seat. But I still passed the eyesight test, without memorising any number plates in advance. 

Just as I was beginning to think things were going well, I nearly sailed passed a 40mph speed limit sign, breaking at the last minute. Then I developed an acute OCD spike, manifested as perpetual life-savers.

“Take the next road on the right,” Chris said in my earpiece. I saw the filter arrow, and did the mirror-signal-manoeuvre routine. I was in the centre of the road, doing a life-saver, when Chris said: “Steve, you’re turning into the entrance to a private property.” He was right. I stopped and had to wait for gap in the traffic to continue. I had definitely failed.

I wasn’t the only one. After a junction, I saw in my mirror that Chris was still indicating right. Were we turning right? He hadn’t given any instruction. I looked again. The indicator continued to flash. I thought about giving him a signal but remembered I was the one being tested. I looked a third time and it was still going. On the fourth look it was finally off. If he had been doing his test, I think it would have meant an instant fail.  

Back at the test centre, Chris made me wait again while finishing his flaming paperwork. Then he stood up. He looked stern. Not pleased. Sorry.

“I’m pleased to say you’ve passed,” he said, smiling. I didn’t tell him that he hadn’t.

I’d committed three minors. Two I’d been aware of, the other - sitting too close behind a lorry - I hadn’t. He said the mistaken right turn was not serious because I had responded safely.

Theory and hazard awareness

Normally the theory and hazard awareness tests must be done before the practical. For some reason the DSA had arranged for me to do it the other way round.

Apparently, 10 new things are added to the Highway Code every year, making 220 I have not read. That’s most of it.

The theory test was a session of multiple-choice questions on a computer. Many were shockingly easy. Others were rather obscure. Why are trams environmentally friendly? How on earth should I know? And how will not knowing cause me to have an accident?   

Hazard awareness involved watching a series of short clips filmed from a rider’s viewpoint and clicking the mouse at the right moment. It’s as much a test of your definition of a hazard as ability to spot one.

On the road, I’d identify a car waiting at a side street as a hazard. But in this test, Chris said, things were deemed hazards when they began to develop, to move. 

Chris held my printed scores. “Well, two out of three isn’t bad,” he said. “Just joking. You’ve passed.” The prankster.

The result

Actually, I’d only just passed. The minimum score is 43 out of 50 for theory and 44 out of 75 for hazard awareness. And that’s precisely what I had got, meaning I’d scraped through the whole thing.

On balance, I’d give the test a pass too. Despite criticism from the training industry, the DSA appears to be trying to implement an appropriate measure of motorcycling competence.

New riders will probably think this is easy for me to say, but if the prospect of multiple tests is putting you off, perhaps it shouldn’t. With experience, you never have to start over.

I’ll put Chris’ indicator episode down to nerves and pass him, too. 

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