Coronavirus: How will social distancing affect driving lessons?

By Alan Haslam
BBC News NI

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image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe DVA has suspended all practical driving tests until 22 June - and all theory tests until further notice

Passing your driving test can lead to a fresh sense of independence, a fuller social life and wider employment opportunities.

It is a day most people never forget.

But since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Northern Ireland's Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) has closed test centres and driving lessons across the UK have been cancelled.

The DVA has suspended all practical driving tests until 22 June - and all theory tests until further notice.

So how will lessons in the future be handled in line with social distancing restrictions and what is the impact on those unable to take their test now?

'Start from scratch'

image copyrightTrisha Turkington
image captionTrisha Turkington has been waiting 20 years to take her test

Trisha Turkington was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 17, which prevented her from learning to drive, but she recently found the confidence to start lessons.

"It took me 20 years to finally book my test, then everything stopped," said Ms Turkington, who works for the NHS at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

"It's not like riding a bike. I'll be back to square one after lockdown and will have to start from scratch."

Essential journey?

Ms Turkington often travels between hospitals for work, relying on public transport and lifts from her husband.

She was hoping to pass her test so she could help drive her six-year-old daughter, Anna, to school.

She had been taking two professional driving lessons a week since Christmas and passed her theory test the week before lockdown, but following the cancellation of her remaining lessons she is worried about practising with her husband on public roads.

"I'm apprehensive about putting L-plates up in case I get stopped and fined for making a non-essential journey," she said.

Key workers like Ms Turkington are being offered driving lessons in some parts of the UK but so far no provisions have been made for those in Northern Ireland.

"Everyone has been affected by lockdown but it feels like learner drivers are a low priority and getting pushed further and further down the list," she said.

"For the people affected it's a huge part of their life."

'Source of freedom'

image copyrightNiamh Keeney
image captionNiamh Keeney was looking forward to the freedom of being behind the wheel

Niamh Keeney started learning to drive in October and was disappointed when her lessons had to be cancelled.

"(Driving) was going to be a huge source of freedom for me," said the Carryduff teenager.

"Not having a car really restricts what you can do," she added. "I was going to use it to drive to school as buses are at awkward times."

The 17-year-old said her social life would also be restricted.

"I have friends who live in Newcastle and Downpatrick, and it's really expensive to go and see them by bus."

'What if we have to grab the wheel?'

image copyrightPete Carmichael
image captionPete Carmichael says social distancing will be difficult for driving instructors

Pete Carmichael runs a driving school in Newtownabbey and says driving instructors are facing an uncertain future.

He said: "We've been left in limbo - 22 June is the date instructors have been told, but we have had no clear direction from the Department of Infrastructure since lockdown was announced."

There are 523 government-approved driving instructors in Northern Ireland, and Mr Carmichael is concerned many will suffer financially if people are reluctant to resume lessons.

"Social distancing is a real sticking point," he said.

"People have talked about having a sheet of perspex between us and the driver, but what if we have to grab the steering wheel? It can't happen.

"It's hard because people have cars and insurance premiums to pay for. Those expenses are all still there."

Dual controls

image copyrightJudith Edmiston
image captionMasks, gloves and disinfectant may be needed for driving lessons when lockdown is lifted

Judith Edmiston has worked as a driving instructor in Belfast and Holywood since 2006, and is equally concerned about the health and safety implications for her profession.

"I'll be going back to teaching as soon as it's safe to do so, but I'm not sure how it's going to work," she said.

"The dual controls mean I have to sit in the front with the driver and any barrier between us could interfere with the airbags."

Instructors returning to work will have to rely on masks, gloves and disinfectant, she said.

"It's such a shame people can't be learning to drive at the moment, especially while the roads are quiet and they have more spare time on their hands," said Ms Edmiston.

"It's an essential skill for people, particularly those those are at the stage of looking for work.

"Everything is on hold for them."

'You don't want to bring anything home'

image copyrightMark Davidson

Mark Davidson, a Belfast-based instructor, said 20 of his clients had their driving tests cancelled when lockdown measures were announced.

"There's going to be a huge backlog when things get up and running again," he said.

"One of my students had his test cancelled on the day he was supposed to take it," he added.

"It was very frustrating for him but what can you do?"

Mr Davidson has concerns for the future of those in his profession.

"Nobody knows what's going to happen. I'm going to keep my instructor's licence, but I've applied for a post-grad course at Queens University," he said.

"I have two young children and even before lockdown I was starting to feel uncomfortable in the car.

"You're sitting very close to people and you don't want to bring anything home."