Equality groups say ‘depressing’ figures reveal racial bias being applied in practical examinations.
Women and people of colour are significantly less likely than white men to pass UK practical driving tests, according to data analysed by the Guardian.
Figures released by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) after a freedom of information request show black women had the lowest pass rates (32%) and white men the highest (56%). The figures, covering 2008-17, also show all women had a pass rate of 43% and all men 50%.
Women’s groups and racial equality charities said the figures, revealed as part of the Guardian’s Bias in Britain series, were “depressing” and showed that women from black and minority ethnic groups were victims of racist bias.
“We know from our work in other areas of British life that BME women tend to do poorest, whether it’s in terms of employment or progress through promotion,”
said Jabeer Butt, the chief executive of the Race Equality Foundation. “We are now seeing that replicated in driving.
Butt said the figures showed “racism at play”.
“Even when a driving test should be an objective test, it’s clear that subjective rules are being applied.”
Omar Khan, the director of the Runnymede Trust, said it was important to exercise caution in interpreting the data, but there did seem to be a bias in favour of white men, who also tended to be the examiners. DVSA figures show just 21% of driving test examiners in England and Wales are women.
The DVSA’s chief driving examiner, Mark Winn, said that it was vital that all drivers demonstrate they can drive safely and that the agency was committed to equality.
“All candidates are assessed to the same level and the result of their test is entirely dependent on their performance on the day,” he added. “We constantly monitor our examiner’s performance so they conduct and assess driving tests in accordance with the standards set. This includes the supervision of live tests.”
But Khan pointed out that female drivers were less likely to be involved in road accidents than men (they accounted for only a third of accidents in 2016).
“The behaviour post-licence suggests women are safer and better drivers, so the pass rates require further explanation,” he said. “We also know from the workplace that assessments typically involve a degree of interpretation or discretion, and that this often disadvantages ethnic minorities and women. We need more detail on why candidates fail and can’t assume that the higher male pass rate is fair.”
Neil Greig, the policy and research director of the charity IAM RoadSmart, suggested the gap in pass rates could be because:
“boys often get more practice and often from an earlier age, as well as being under slightly more social pressure to pass”.
There is no data to suggest race or ethnicity affects an individual’s driving skills. Greig was not able to explain why white drivers were more likely than BAME drivers to pass practical tests.
The pattern was consistent in test centres across the UK, with white people more likely than BAME people to pass their driving tests in 347 out of 350 test centres in 2016-17. (The Guardian’s analysis excluded smaller centres where fewer than 5,000 tests were conducted in 2016-17).
The largest gap was found in Basingstoke, where 49% of white applicants and 27% of BAME applicants passed, followed by Barnsley, York and Worthing.
In practical tests for motorbike and moped licences, similar patterns emerged. For the first module, women had a pass rate of 50% and men 72%.
Sujona Begum, Sunderland’s first Asian female driving instructor, said there had been a lot of progress, with more Asian women being encouraged to learn to drive.
“I didn’t drive until I was 21 as my brother did not allow it, but that is changing,” she said.
She suggested one possible factor in the varying pass rates was that some older Asian women struggled to overcome confidence issues and language barriers. “The younger generation tend to be the ones that pass first time,” she said.
Begum said she had never felt any prejudice in the male-dominated industry. Similarly, Karen Bransgrove, a chief examiner and representative at the Driving Instructors Association, said: “I have never noticed any discrimination in driving test examiners.”
But Rosey Zaman, an instructor who has been in the profession for 22 years, said there could sometimes be a feeling that women were not as good at driving. “There is definitely an attitude of that. Women are seen as less good drivers.”
Zaman said sometimes clients specifically requested a male instructor.
“There is still scepticism about taking lessons from women.”
She said she would not be surprised if racial prejudices affected test scores. “I am Asian myself and always tend to think maybe there is a race situation … sometimes there is an element of that feeling from my side. I would not be surprised if examiners let personal prejudice affect scoring.”
A spokesperson for the Women’s Equality party said: “The female pass rate has been lower than the male pass rate for many years now. Yet driving schools keep insisting that candidates are not judged on anything other than their driving ability. Instead of burying their heads in the sand, they should consider how the sex and race of driving instructors might play a role, along with pervasive stereotypes. That would give them a chance to counter any unconscious bias that exists.”
First Published 03.12.18: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/03/black-women-far-less-likely-than-white-men-to-pass-driving-tests