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28th April 2022
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16th May 2022

Does the level of intelligence make learning to drive easier?

This question is often pondered by driving instructors. We get to work with a range of pupils who differ in intelligence levels.  Owner of BIG TOM Driving School Franchise, Tom Ingram, gives his thoughts:


Online searches will tend to suggest that pupils who have attained fewer formal academic qualifications find it easier to learn to drive. There are also suggestions that people who are more creative than say scientific thinkers excel. Is it as simple as “doers” rather than “thinkers” will pass more driving tests? There is evidence in the UK pass rates of theory tests compared to practical driving tests [DfT] that females do better than males at a fixed, one might say ‘sterile’ assessment where absorbing information from pre-set questions and answers naturally favours them. Likewise, when it comes to the more unpredictable driving situations, at times, surprisingly unstructured experiences that we witness on public roads, it shows that males will tend to pass practical driving tests with more ease than females. People who are more used to the left hemisphere thinking of logic, reason, and certainty will find the ambiguous scenarios that arise in driving irritating and confusing. 


One of the first things to clarify is what do I actually mean by my words of “intelligence” and also “learning to drive”? Can it be said for example that a person who perhaps potters about on the family farm agricultural vehicles would be at a distinct advantage over a person with no previous driving experience, regardless of levels of intelligence? Is it advantageous to recognise that at times, risk levels when driving increase? Why is ‘learning to drive’ so much more involved these days than say 30 years ago, when, it remains to be the operation of a vehicle, on a public road? 


Intelligence is about understanding. But in a learning environment of driving, what precisely do we need to understand? I can normally get a beginner operating a car safely within 4 hours of tuition; I am referring to the most basic levels of car control.   My pupil will also need to understand the ‘rules of the road’, how to interact with other road users, sequences of driving actions, how to identify risk. Perhaps it is a case of understanding how to learn to drive safely – in terms of the best practice.  We will see later what the DVSA expect pupils to understand. 


With regards to the definition of intelligence, I tend to like the following: 


… the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. [Linda Gottfredson 1997].  


Perhaps driving instructors will like her additional comment of: it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings – ‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do. 


Based on the above definition of intelligence, one might conclude that higher intelligence would be extremely beneficial to a pupil learning to drive. But you will notice that this is not necessarily referring to academic intelligence.  


In the 13 years of driving instruction I have experienced, the military learner stands out by far as the type of pupil who learns to drive with the most efficiency. These pupils are practiced in listening intently; perhaps they get used to hearing what I would imagine is, “Now listen up, what I am about to describe to you could save your life, I need your full attention as I guarantee you need to know what I am about to say”. If you hear that preamble enough times in a military environment, I can see how they tend to be good listeners. I would go a bit further though and embrace the Gottfredson comment about ‘making sense’ of things and ‘figuring out’ what to do. I am not from a military background myself but I would not be surprised if military personnel get used to not just intently listening to detail, but framing it in a way that means something to them. A crude example, but if I was given a weapon and had the task of learning how to use it efficiently, it would very much be in the interests of the longevity of my life to make the learning meaningful. Randomly (without thought), ‘trying’ four options of why it may have jammed before finally discovering by trial and error why it did actually jam, may be the difference between life and death. I would not be surprised if the culture around the military learning environment was instrumental to effective outcomes. The sense of peer competitiveness, feeling proud when success is immediately fedback for all to hear, and the insistence of maintaining standards. 


There is a relationship between general intelligence (g) and IQ scores, IQ being a broad measure but this bypasses the influence of emotional intelligence (EQ); the fact that how we feel affects how we perform.  Human minds are complex, and training humans is equally complex. Our temperament, influences in our upbringing, propensity to show off, craving for excitement, beliefs about the law, even the opinions of our peers can affect our driving behaviours. The minute by minute running of our body will affect our emotional state which further influences our feelings and thoughts, and it is the flow of this uniquely human and constantly changing ‘dance’ that ultimately affects our brain and our actions. But how much of our brain is needed to learn to drive?  


Would it be possible to simply say to a beginner, “Go ahead, have a play around, experiment, you won’t break the machine”? The beginner then has the freedom through a process of experimentation, feedback and trial and error to learn how the vehicle operates.   But is it as instinctive to recognise that approaching a hazard while driving requires sequencing the driving actions into mirrors, signal, position, speed & look? Without ever being told, would a pupil intuitively recognise the need to perform a ‘blindspot’ check prior to moving off? If a pupil forgets knowledge from their theory study, is it a given that they actually would stop the vehicle every time they come to a STOP junction? In my experience, military personnel are extremely proficient at the long-term learning of information whether it be for theory test study or given for the first time by a driving instructor or indeed, receiving feedback. They appear to me to leapfrog over what I see as the first and probably largest obstacle to learning: am I invested in properly learning? As I say, perhaps by conditioning within the military culture, any questions of: can I be asked or do I really need to know this, don’t even feature in the minds. They appear to come into the learning process fully accepting that effort will be needed, they are prepared to apply themselves and engage in the process. And when they are present, they tend to be 100% present – in my humble opinion.  


The g scored in our childhood years correlates with the g scored in later life, and we know that we can use it to predict earnings and longevity. Is it possible to use it to predict driving ability? And this is where I should try to provide some clarity about what ‘learning to drive’ really means. We can appreciate that some people’s idea of driving is an entirely different standard to others. What about if I was to refer to the driving standard required to pass a driving test? Would that make it any easier? Perhaps not because just as you can ‘coach’ a student to pass an academic exam, it is of course true, that with repetition on test routes, a pupil can be coached to pass a driving test. It does not follow unfortunately that a driving test pass achieved by two different pupils, equates to them being of approximately equal driving ability. The Standard that the DVSA expect all drivers to be trained to includes: reviewing your fitness to drive; understanding the driver’s responsibility to ensure the vehicle is legal; controlling the risk of carrying passengers, loads and animals; planning a journey; treating learning to drive as an ongoing learning experience; being in control of the vehicle; being able to drive in a range of differing conditions; understanding the rules of the Highway Code and keeping up to date with changes; complying to signals, signs, markings; interacting appropriately with other road users; minimising risk when driving and how to behave at incidents. 


If the driving standard to be attained is to literally operate the car, then that would certainly favour the pupil who has good foot, hand and eye co-ordination. But if the driving standard is more concerned with how safely, or efficiently the car is operated, then this introduces a whole range of cognitive skills. Anticipating how a driving situation may develop is one such skill. Forward planning how to navigate a roundabout or an overtake on a motorway would be another. Some ‘thinking’ skills may be considered more instinctive such as, when approaching higher risk be more vigilant, be prepared to slow down and don’t assume everything is going to work out fine. And although, one might consider that to be a natural bodily instinct of survival, it demonstrates very clearly how thought processes can be either suppressed, thrown wildly out of control or frankly, go missing. I have seen countless examples of the brightest pupils who are attending our highest status universities, make the most remarkable of fundamental driving errors defying logic, human instinct or the most basic of ‘common sense’.  


Take driving around a country road bend for example. One approach might be to introduce a pupil to the concept of judging the severity of a bend to maintain vehicle stability and road handling.  The driving instructor relays the knowledge of “limit points” to help the pupil assess how sharp any given bend is. This would eventually involve a pupil being able to recognise that they are approaching a bend, it would then need them to be prompted to think of the technique of ‘limit points’ and it would require them to recall how the technique works and apply that technique. They would eventually need to take on the responsibility for independently comprehending their surroundings and what it means to them (in terms of being an increased risk) and having learnt the limit point technique in the long-term memory, being able to retrieve that information in a timely fashion to utilise it in time.   


Contrast that approach with ‘conditioning’ a pupil to recognise a specific left bend on a driving test route and insisting on a specified speed and gear to deal with that one bend. With repetition, the pupil recognises a pattern whereby the instructor points out the left bend (visual recognition), commands a given speed and gear change (verbal instruction) and the pupil over time, associates the actions with that particular bend. They are not thinking, they are simply repeating actions because they recognise the left bend. Would they do the same with a right bend, or a bend on a hill, or a bend in the dark, a more/less severe bend or even, any other left bend?   


Both approaches can pass a driving test, but one is using a great deal more intelligence than the other. You could argue that one approach requires a great deal more effort from the pupil to develop it than the other. It would rely on the pupil being able to remember details in the long-term memory, it would also require the pupil to be willing to exert the effort needed to learn that technique.  


A study by James Flynn in the UK in the 1980’s and also in 2008 concluded that the average IQ score of a 14 year old declined by more than 2.0 points in that time. Even worst, the declines were more in the order of 6.0 points for students at the top end of the study [Flynn 2009]. Bearing in mind that this is the same person who declared in the mid-80’s that IQ has been on the increase since the 1930’s in Western countries to the order of 3.0 points per decade. [Flynn 1984, 1987, Trahan, Stuebing, Fletcher et al 2014, Pietschnig & Voracek 2015]. Similar IQ declines have been observed in conscript populations in numerous countries since the mid-90’s (Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Britain, France, Netherlands and Australia). 


Further to that, in 2000, the Engineering Council of London presented evidence of a serious decline in students’ mastery of basic maths skills. [Hawkes & Savage 2000]. The subject of ‘grade inflation’ involving a whole grade at A level maths was observed between 1996 and 1999 comparing with the International Test of Developed Abilities (Shayer & Ginsburg 2007]. 


Being in a driving school car, a pupil is somewhat ‘removed’ from their school and many have declared to me over the years going through secondary schooling in its entirety without having read one book. In the USA 27% of students declared not having read a single book in a year in 2019 (Pew Research Centre 2014].  


Does this decline in IQ affect how well pupils can learn to drive. Well, if the above Gottfredson definition is correct, then intelligence does bring with it an ability to: 


 learn quickly and learn from experience 


Learning from experience without time consideration, can indeed occur both naturally by a pupil and also if they are prepared to positively work with feedback.   Learning quickly however is not so intuitive in my experience. For many years I have provided weekly (1-2 hour driving lessons) as well as intensive driving courses. I have seen many pupils over the years learn in the long-term memory quickly using both methods – but they do not in general tend to be the 17-18 year olds. School leaders have created an academic learning environment heavily influenced by repeatedly taking tests, and that approach is not compatible with the learning expected from the DVSA driving standard. 


To re-take an IQ test will usually lead to an increase of about 3 points in the IQ score. There will have been no increase in intelligence; this is achieved just by re-taking the test.  [Neisser 1997, Must & Must 2013, te Nijenhuis, De Jong, Evers et al 2004, Colom & Garcia-Lopez 2003, Wicherts, Dolan, Hassan et al 2004]. A point that schools in the UK fully embrace. The concern is that the apparent increase in intelligence is actually nothing of the sort, it is simply a result of the repeated targeted test training within educational institutions. The historical national practical driving test pass rates consistently hover at between 45-50%. If there has indeed been an actual increase in intelligence as the educational qualifications would tend to suggest, then to refer to Gottfredson’s definition of intelligence, it is not being demonstrated in the ability of pupils to pass driving tests.  


Driving instructors have seen for years pupils wanting to simply re-take theory and practical tests after fails, with no effort to raise the level of learning. This is, after all, what they have been conditioned to think is how one passes tests  I have known pupils come for driving training, having literally just passed a theory test on the same day, and cannot recall the most basic of theory knowledge. Information and knowledge is momentarily held in the short-term memory. One example of this that I would give is the ‘routine’ that is used when approaching a hazard while driving (as mentioned previously) – to do the required driving actions in a systematic and effective manner: 






This is an expectation of the DVSA for all pupils to demonstrate as they drive. But that does entail remembering detail into the long-term memory. There are very few of these expectations, it is simply an attempt to have newly qualified drivers habitually doing the right driving actions in the right sequence, in a timely manner and In the correct situations. An instructor will explain to a pupil the reasoning for this, give some typical examples, they may even demonstrate it. And as the pupil drives along, instructors talk them through this sequence of events. Pupils who have a willingness and ability to independently learn that routine in the long-term memory will naturally progress quicker than pupils who require it to be verbally prompted by the instructor. If the pupil is able to recognise the situation that is developing up ahead as falling into the category of requiring the application of the routine, recall it and practically apply it, they will learn to drive quicker than a pupil who is going to rely on verbal repetition alone. 


From what I have observed over the years, I think it often comes down to quite literally knowing how to effectively learn (or not), and recognising that it will take some effort. Perhaps not having had too much practise at absorbing information into the long-term memory doesn’t help the cause. 

All three points do tend to develop as we age.