“Wait, how do I do this again?” How deskilled driving became a thing.

Lockdowns and work from home have seen millions of people worldwide taking an enforced break from driving. Now, as restrictions ease and return to work kicks in, they’re faced with piloting their pride and joy through traffic that’s returned to pre-Covid levels.

It’s like a gigantic, real-life memory experiment.

For many people, the break from driving wasn’t any sort of challenge. Any weirdness they felt being back in the car evaporated in minutes.

However, not everyone’s been so lucky. A number of surveys have shown high levels of apprehension about getting behind the wheel. For example, research carried out in the USA by Nextbase Dash Cams found that:

  • 39% of respondents were more nervous about driving than ever before
  • 35% felt their driving skills had decreased since pre-Covid
  • 34% would like to resume driving lessons before getting on the road.

The situation is no different in the UK. Research carried out by Car Wow revealed that, post-lockdown, about 60% of Britons felt anxious about getting back in the driver’s seat.

Now, if you’re someone who confidently leapt back into your driving seat and zoomed off down the road, it’s easy to dismiss all this as easily-overcome nervousness. But not so fast.

We often think that skills are resistant to fading. As the expression ‘it’s like riding a bike’ suggests, we imagine that once skills are learned, they never disappears, But in reality, pretty much every complex skill needs regular practice to be maintained.

Skill fade is recognised as a problem in many different situations, from military medical training to civil aviation, and from sports to scaffolding. Yet driving is one of the few areas where there’s no official mechanism to deal with deteriorating skill. If you passed your test in 1985, for example, there’s nothing at all to stop you from getting straight back in your car and driving down the M4 at rush hour.

De-skilling with practice

In fact, the haven’t-driven-since-1985 scenario raises an interesting question: how much does our driving competence degrade despite regular driving? Do the skills and knowledge which we needed to pass our tests also disappear over time?

By many drivers’ own admission, the answer is a definite yesA recent survey of 1500 UK drivers turned up some astounding statistics:

  • 61% of those polled are certain they would fail their driving test today
  • 47% didn’t know the speed limit on a dual carriageway
  • 26% say they’re terrible at parallel parking
  • 26% couldn’t identify the national speed limit sign
  • 19% don’t check their mirrors enough
  • 14% encounter road signs every day which they don’t understand
  • 8% don’t scrape ice off the windows before a journey
  • 6% can’t do a 3-point turn.

Could it be that so long as we drive regularly, we still retain the really essential knowledge and skills to make us safe and competent on the roads? Given some of the items on that list, we’re not so sure. Knowing the speed limit on one of our most common types of road would seem to fairly basic stuff.

Whether this amount of de-skilling on our roads means there’s a case for mandatory refresher courses — or even retesting — well, that’s one for another article. In the meantime, let’s not get things out of proportion: whatever issues we might have, UK roads remain among the very safest in Europe.

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