What is the history of the UK driving license?

Driving licenses are, of course, a familiar part of everyday life but when were they first used? Who is exempt from needing one? And how many over-90s are there on the roads?

Things were very different a century ago

Driver licences have been around for nearly 120 years, having first been introduced in Britain by the 1903 Motor Car Act. The creation of the first driving license was a way of identifying both vehicles and their drivers. These first driving licenses cost 25 pence in today’s money (around 30 pounds in 2021), were available to the over 17s, and the speed limit at the time was set at 14 miles per hour.

It wasn’t until 1934 that driving tests were introduced in Britain and needed to be passed by anyone who wanted a driving license. Interestingly, anyone who had been driving before the creation of the new driving test was allowed to continue driving without taking the exam!

In 1957 driving licenses became valid for three years. Previous to this they had only been valid for 12 months.

Swansea, the capital of driving

A centralised licensing system was introduced in 1965 with this administered from Swansea. The Driving Vehicle and Licensing Centre (DVLC) HQ has remained in South Wales for more than half a century. Today of course it is known as the DVLA rather than the DVLC.


All driving license registrations were recorded in manual handwritten or typed files until in 1973 a computerised licensing system was brought in to keep track of the then 20 million UK drivers on the roads. Green paper licenses replaced the driving license red books, which had rather resembled a miniature passport. Three years later the need to renew your driving license every three years was scrapped with everyone who passed their driving test given a new driving license valid until their 70th birthday. Around this time, less than 30% of women had a driving license compared to more than double this number for men.

The green paper license was replaced by the familiar pink driving license photocard in 1997.

It is not a legal requirement to have a driving license with you when you drive but the police can ask you to present one within seven days if they wish so. In some instances in daily life, the driving license is recognised as a legal form of ID.

Brexit and driving licenses today

After joining the EU, the British driving license doubled up as a European driving license. However, this double status ended in 2021 with the UK officially leaving the European Union. UK drivers can continue to use their UK license while driving on the roads of Europe but British nationals resident in the EU should keep track of their legal driving status in their host country.

Driving isn’t only for the young!

Today more than 100,000 drivers are aged 90 and over while the Queen, who is over 90 herself, is the only person in Britain not required to take a driving test!

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