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All about driving licences

Mar 30, 2021

Not all driving licences are the same. Depending on the small print on your licence, you could be entitled to drive anything from a normal car to a full-sized truck, or anything in between. There are also provisional licences, which you hold until you pass a driving test.

Let’s look at what you need to know when you apply for your first driving licence and what you can do to bring down costs as a first-time driver, for example by taking out insurance for a black box.

What different types of driving licence are there?

Categories of driving licence are referred to using letters: A for motorcycles, B for cars, C for trucks and D for buses. The categories go on up to Q to cover things like tractors, road rollers and ride-on mowers, but the vast majority of drivers hold a category B licence, so we’ll focus on those.

The rules on category B licences changed on 1 January 1997. Licences in category B that were issued before that date entitle you to drive a vehicle and trailer combination up to 8,250kg maximum authorised mass (MAM).

Drivers who hold a standard category B licence issued after the 1997 cut-off date are not permitted to tow a trailer.

This licence enables you to drive a vehicle up to 3,500kg with up to 8 passenger seats, with a trailer of up to 750kg. You can tow heavier trailers so long as the car and trailer combined have a MAM of no more than 3,500kg.

If you don’t know what the MAM of your chosen vehicle is, don’t worry – there are plenty of vans that come under the 3,500kg MAM limit.

You’re almost certainly permitted to drive any car, but if you plan to tow a trailer you should check the MAM – this will be the vehicle gross weight (probably displayed on a plate or sticker on the trailer) plus the weight of whatever it is carrying.

There are also category B auto licences, which only allow you to drive automatic category B vehicles, and category B+E licences which permit you to drive a vehicle with a MAM of 3,500kg with a trailer.

Category B+E licences pre-dating 19 January 2013 allow the holder to tow a trailer of any size, but after this date a trailer MAM limit of 3,500kg applies.

The categories go on up to Q to cover things like tractors, road rollers and ride-on mowers.

Three different UK driving licences
Codes you might see on driving licences

On the back of a photocard licence, you might see different numeric codes. These driving licence codes can seem a bit mysterious, but they relate to any conditions or limitations that have been placed on your licence.

For example, codes 01-44 relate to any impairment or disability a driver may have. An 01 code indicates that the driver requires eyesight correction, such as glasses or contact lenses.

Code 02 indicates that the driver uses a hearing aid, while code 44 is used where a driver needs a vehicle modification such as a modified braking pedal system.

Code 106 means the driver is restricted to vehicles with automatic transmission, code 111 shows you are limited to 16 passenger seats, while code 101 means you are not permitted to drive for hire or reward, for example as a taxi or delivery driver.

There is even a code to show that a licence is an exchange of licence (code 70) or a duplicate of your licence (code 72).

These codes are very useful for police if they stop drivers, as it’s simple to check whether the driver is doing something outside the terms of their licence, such as towing a heavy trailer or driving a minibus.

Which licence category is right for you?

For most people, a category B licence is the right option for everyday driving. If you have a job or a hobby that you think might require you to tow heavier trailers or one day drive a van, you might consider applying for a different category of licence in order to cover that eventuality.

Or example, if you’re starting out in a trade that often requires use of a van, or have an interest such as canoeing, surfing or horse riding that involves carrying items or animals around, category B+E or even a more advanced category could be right for you.

In order to pass the driving test for this licence you will need to show you can drive that class of vehicle safely, for example by driving and manoeuvring a trailer in the correct way.

On the back of a photocard licence, you might see different numeric codes… They relate to any conditions or limitations that have been placed on your licence.

A young female driver holding up the keys to a car whilst sitting in the driver's seat
Applying for a provisional licence

A provisional licence is required for you to start practising your driving, either with a professional instructor or with another qualified supervising driver such as a family member.

Once you turn 17, you can apply for a provisional licence online, paying a fee of £34. You will need evidence of your identity and a record of your addresses for the last three years.

A provisional licence looks very similar to a full driving licence, apart from that it is a slightly different colour and has ‘provisional driving licence’ written on it.

Both licence photocards carry the same information such as your name, date of birth, date of issue and expiry of the licence, your unique driver number, signature, address and the categories of vehicle you are entitled to drive.

Your photocard will also carry a picture of you – just like passport photos, these invariably show you at your very worst and you’ll cringe every time you have to produce it. The photocard lasts for 10 years, so you will have another shot at looking your best in a decade!

Getting your full driving licence

To convert your provisional licence into a full licence, you need to pass the driving theory test and then the practical driving test. Your theory test pass certificate is valid for two years, so you will need to retake the test if you do not pass your practical test in this period.

The theory test involves multiple choice questions and a case study example with questions, as well as a hazard perception module where you use a computer screen to identify approaching hazards such as a child running towards the road.

The aim of the test is to make sure you know all the essential information such as road safety, driving law, the highway code and maintaining your car.

If you don’t pass the theory test on your first attempt, don’t despair. Almost half of applicants fail the theory test (47.4%).

Since its introduction in 1996, the test has become more extensive and more challenging. The test is also tougher since the practice of publishing questions and answers online was stopped in 2012.

The practical driving test has five parts: an eyesight check, ‘show me, tell me’ vehicle safety questions, a test of your general driving ability, checking your ability to reverse the vehicle and examining your independent driving ability. The test lasts around 40 minutes.

Your driving instructor will explain what is covered in the test and ensure you are well prepared and ready.

You can book your theory test online for a fee of £23. The practical driving test fee is £62 on week days or £75 for a test in the evening, on a weekend, or bank holiday.

If you don’t pass the theory test on your first attempt, don’t despair. Almost half of applicants fail the theory test (47.4%).

A new driver sitting in their first car being handed the keys by their dad
Getting points on your licence

You might have heard people talking about ‘getting points on their licence’. This can be a bit confusing.

Until 2015, the photocard part of a driving licence was supplemented by a paper counterpart.

If you received a fixed penalty from the police for a traffic offence such as speeding, this would be recorded on the paper counterpart.

Now that the paper licence counterpart has been scrapped, having points on your licence means that points have been recorded against your entry in the DVLA computer system.

Your record might be checked by the police if you are stopped again, or by other interested third parties such as insurance companies, employers and car hire companies.

If you do have your licence endorsed with penalty points, these will remain for a fixed period. This could be between three and 11 years depending on the severity of the offence.

While the points remain on your licence, car insurance is likely to be more expensive and, for more serious offences, it could even be difficult to find an insurer willing to offer insurance.

Getting on the road once you pass your driving test

The L-plates have been binned, the house is full of congratulatory cards and you’re feeling pretty pleased with yourself. So, what steps do you need to take to become a fully-fledged driver?

The most obvious step is having access to a car, whether this means purchasing your own vehicle or being added as a named driver on someone else’s policy.

If you choose to buy your own vehicle, you will need to ensure you take care of paying car tax, arranging for MOTs and servicing, as well as buying car insurance.

As a new driver, car insurance can be very expensive. Unfortunately, the first few years of driving after you qualify are a risky time; one in five drivers are involved in a road crash within a year of passing their test and 4,000 young drivers are killed or seriously injured on UK roads each year.

Insurance companies will always charge new drivers more on the basis of inexperience, but there are other factors you could consider to help bring the cost of insurance down.

For example, you will be charged more if you keep your vehicle on the road rather than on a secure driveway or garage; you will pay more if you drive a powerful vehicle, or if you do a certain job such as being a DJ or social worker.

Where you live, what your job is and what kind of car you drive might not be things you can choose, but where you are able to make a choice it is worth considering the impact on your car insurance premiums.

For instance, if you are looking to move to a new home and want to compare neighbourhoods, you could check whether insurance companies see one area as riskier than another.

If you choose to buy your own vehicle, you will need to ensure you take care of paying car tax, arranging for MOTs and servicing, as well as buying car insurance.

A young driver smiling as she driver her car

Black box insurance – a great help to new drivers

All new drivers get put in the same box by insurance companies.

You might be the most careful driver in the world, but unfortunately insurance companies will class you as the same risk as a careless person who wants to drive at night with a car full of noisy friends. This is frustrating, as you are ultimately paying for risks someone else is taking.

Black box insurance is a solution to this problem. A telematics device is installed in your vehicle using the 12V plug in the centre of the console.

This small gadget monitors key elements of your driving style, such as whether you accelerate and brake smoothly, if you steer erratically and whether you drive late at night frequently.

The insurance company uses this information to calculate future insurance premiums for you based on your actual level of risk, rather than what the statistics databases say. Based on a good driving record, you can lower your insurance premiums considerably using telematics insurance.

Some drivers say that using black box insurance is a helpful reminder about good driving habits in the first few years of driving.

Once there is no longer a driving instructor or test examiner at your side, it’s tempting to let some of those good habits slip and become a little sloppier. When you know the black box is recording, there’s additional motivation to keep up a high standard of driving.

Telematics insurance also brings additional benefits, such as providing invaluable evidence of what happened in a road collision, or helping the police to track down your vehicle if it is stolen.

Black box insurance is a useful bridge for those early years when you have not built up enough of a history to receive a no-claims bonus. Why not find out more about black box insurance? Contact Smartdriverclub today for a quote.