When Sumana Narayanan, a Senior Researcher at Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG), wanted to obtain a driving licence for a four-wheeler in Chennai in 2003, she had to drive at least 300 metres on the road to pass the driving test.
Sumana was asked to drive the car in a narrow street behind the Thiruvanmiyur Regional Transport Office (RTO), stop the car at a traffic signal, turn left and then drive for another 200 metres.
“In my parent’s generation, they were even tested for parallel parking to get a driving licence in Chennai,” she says.
Two decades later, when Ram* went for a driving test in the same RTO in Thiruvanmiyur, he only had to drive 100 metres.
“It was a straight line. Since the car engine was already switched on by the previous applicant, all I had to do was to change from neutral to first gear and move the car smoothly. At about 100 metres, the official from the RTO asked me to stop the car. I stopped the car, changed the gear to neutral and put the hand break,” he says.
After nearly a month-long training at the driving school and having passed the driving test, Ram found himself not having the confidence to drive a car on Chennai roads despite going through the motions.
“I tried to drive my friend’s car after getting the licence. However, it only made me realise I was not a fit driver to drive on actual roads without supervision,” he says.
The stark contrast in the experience of Sumana and Ram lays bare the growing gaps in how driving licences are granted in Chennai to those who may not be competent behind the wheel.
This issue becomes even more relevant when placed in the context of Chennai being the city with the second most number of road accidents in India, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data in recent years.
Read more: Why does Chennai see so many road accidents?
Gaps in teaching at driving schools in Chennai
Speaking on the experience of learning to drive a car from a private driving school in Chennai, Ram says that he opted for that particular school for two reasons – one it was near his house and two it was the one through which his friends had obtained their driving licence in Chennai.
“I paid around Rs 6,500. The people in the driving school first got me the Learner’s Licence Registration (LLR). The first day began with the instructor telling the basics like adjusting the seat and rearview mirror, wearing a seat belt and the ABCs (Accelerator, Break, Clutch) of driving. The driving class was scheduled for 21 days. Of the 21 days, I was given the training to drive on no-traffic roads for around 12 days and on roads with medium and high traffic for three days each,” says Ram.
When asked if any theory lessons were taught on the road signs and road rules before making him sit behind the wheel, he answers in the negative.
Elaborating further, he says, “Each class lasted for 25 to 30 minutes. There were at least two other students in the car besides me. On most of days, the instructor had control over the break and I did not know if I was doing things right,” he adds.
“We get different instructors every day. One such instructor taught using the mistakes of other drivers as examples, while also letting us control the ABC. He also highlighted certain scenarios and explained how we should respond to these situations as a good driver would. However, the other two instructors were basically giving mere verbal instructions on the next steps such as hitting the brake or accelerating, without placing the moves in any context,” says Ram.
Many people across different parts of Chennai have had the same experience as that of Ram with driving schools.
The conversations with many people who got their licences through the driving schools show that the schools covered only the basics of driving and did not concentrate on covering the theory of road rules and safety.
“A few years ago, we conducted a study in a private college in Chennai where we asked some basic road rules-related questions to the students. One such question was on which side of the road can one overtake a vehicle. The options were – right, left, and any side the driver wants to. To our shock, most of the students picked the third option. Notably, most of these students already had a driving licence. These are the people who occupy most of our roads in bikes and cars,” says Sumana.
Radha*, a driving school owner from Chennai, says, “Those who approach the driving schools come with a lot of demands. Even if we are ready to teach them theory, they are not interested in learning it. The reason cited for this urgency by most applicants is that they do not have time to learn all this. If we fail to work as per their schedule, we will lose business. Hence, most driving schools start with on-road teaching.”
Gaps in testing for grant of driving licence in Chennai
While there are glaring gaps in the training provided by the driving schools, there are also many issues with how driving tests are conducted by the RTOs, which adds to the problem of ill-prepared drivers on Chennai roads.
On the day of the driving test, Ram and other students in his batch were given a few instructions that will help them pass the test easily.
“The driving school provided us with a car to do the test. The RTO official took the front seat in the car. Once we got inside the car, we were told to check the rearview mirror, wear the seat belt and adjust the seat first. The instructor asked us not to speed the car at any point and finish the test driving in first gear. When we reached the endpoint, we were asked to put the hand break before getting out of the car,” says Ram.
Throughout this whole experience, the RTO official did not ask for any information other than his name. Nor did he request Ram to demonstrate his skills or perform any specific manoeuvre with the car.
A couple of days after the test, Ram got his driving licence.
Karthik*, another learner, had to wait for more than 1.5 hours for his turn to take the test.
“We were asked to reach the RTO in Meenambakkam at around 9.30 am. All the applicants from our driving school were waiting together. The circular track to do the driving test was in such a bad condition as if it was made to resemble the actual condition of the Chennai roads. The RTO official was standing at a distance and the representative from the driving school gave our applications to the officials. The only instruction given by the driving school instructor to us was not to speed the vehicle as the official will fail us in the test if we accelerate the car too much. I started in first gear and finished the track in first gear in less than 30 seconds. Most of the time, the RTO official did not even look at us while we were driving,” says Karthik.
An official source from the transport department says that since there is a staff shortage in the department, the overworked RTO officials do not have the bandwidth to test the applicants more thoroughly, with hundreds of applications seeking driving licences being received every day.
“They do not have any assistants to help them with the paperwork during the test on the tracks. Hence, they end up depending on the representatives from the driving schools to process the paperwork,” says the official.
Notably, the Tamil Nadu government has also instructed the RTOs in Chennai to operate on Saturdays to clear the backlogs of applications.
Breaking the driving school – RTO nexus
Priyanka R, a resident of Ambattur, applied for an LLR online and applied for the licence on her own. However, on the day of the driving test, she felt lost at the RTO office as the officials were not cordial to the applicants who did not approach them through a driving school.
“Most of the applicants had representatives from the driving schools. They stood with the official all through the test and even got a second chance for their students on the spot even when they failed to do the test properly. But there were no instructions for individual applicants,” she says.
“I noticed that an individual applicant who failed to do the 8-test properly for the two-wheeler was marked as ‘fail’ immediately, while an applicant through driving school was given a second chance to try the 8-test after the driving school representative had a word with the official,” adds Ram.
M Radhakrishnan of Thozhan, a non-governmental organisation that has been creating road safety-related awareness programmes, says, “What I hear from the group is that the driving schools and the respective RTOs work hand-in-hand for the grant of licences. In that case, how will the RTO be transparent enough to do a quality check on the driving schools and their students? If the RTOs are strict during the tests, then safe drivers will be on the road. For this to happen, we need a mechanism to check the working of the RTOs.”
Suggesting a way to do this, he says, “When an n-number of accidents are registered by a particular driver within one year of getting the driving licence, then an enquiry should be conducted on the respective RTO for granting the driving licence to the particular person.”
Sumana suggests that the role of driving schools must be limited to teaching the students.
“Ideally, the driving schools should only be involved in teaching and not have connections with the RTO. The paperwork should let to be processed by the applicants themselves. The presence of driving school representatives at the RTO office raises questions about the whole purpose of the test,” she adds.
“The driving schools limit the lessons only because the testing procedure is lethargic. If the RTOs start testing the applicants properly, then eventually the driving schools will start teaching the students properly,” adds Radhakrishnan.
Revamping existing system to produce better drivers
Sumana says that the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019 has some stringent rules to audit and check the quality of the driving schools.
“But I am not sure how much of it is being implemented as the states were vested with the power to bring in separate frameworks and guidelines for it,” she notes.
Radhakrishnan suggests that the government should start at least one driving school in each district and ensure quality training, both in theory and in practice, is given to the students to help streamline the process and also produce quality drivers on the roads.
“It is hard to get even the LLR in countries like the US. They not only test the theoretical knowledge but also the decision-making skills and presence of mind of the drivers. In most countries driving is a privilege and so you are most likely to fail than pass the driving tests. However, in Chennai, and elsewhere in India, you are more than likely to get your driving licence,” says Sumana.
“Fixing the number of applications that will be processed in a particular period of time will help in notifying the public of the longer waiting period. Upskilling the staff and improving other infrastructure needed for meeting the number of applications received must also be considered by the RTOs. The priority should be given to ensuring safe drivers are on the road than clearing the applications. The quality of the test should not be compromised,” says Sumana.
Producing competent and aware drivers is the first step in creating safer roads.
While those who apply for a driving licence should take an interest in learning the road rules, the driving schools should also make it mandatory to have classes in theory and more thorough teaching under different road conditions.
For its part, it is imperative that the government should upgrade the infrastructure in the RTO, provide better support to the staff and bring in more stringent testing methods.
Only a collective effort from all these sides will help in ensuring the road safety of every road user.
What to look for in a driving school?
Check if the driving school is registered and accredited by a body notified by the Central Government
Check if the school follows a curriculum or training module prescribed by the Central Government
Check for the qualifications held by the trainers at the driving schools
Even if the driving schools do not teach theory, do ask for it and take time to learn them
Let the driving school know you will do the test for LLR on your own even if the driving school says they will do it for you
Ask for one-on-one coaching with the instructor than going in groups
*names changed on request