More than a thousand learner drivers could have passed their tests in Birmingham last year despite being unable to read road signs, the Birmingham Post can reveal.
Interpreters sat in on more than 1,250 practical driving tests taken at the city’s six test centres in 2011, according to figures from the Driving Standards Agency (DSA).
And around 3,300 people sat the theory test in Birmingham with the aid of a foreign language voiceover or translator last year, with Urdu being used 41 per cent of the time.
Punjabi, Mandarin, Bengali and Kurdish were also common among the alternative languages used.
But the use of foreign languages in driving tests has raised fears for road safety, with question marks over driver coaching and motorists’ potential inability to read road signs written in English.
Birmingham MP Steve McCabe (Lab, Selly Oak) called for the practice to be banned – and even a Government minister admitted he was worried about the situation.
“It’s outrageous,” Mr McCabe said. “It’s dangerous to allow people to pass a driving test if they can’t even read motorway signs.”
The DSA figures, released under the Freedom of Information Act, showed at least 1,351 drivers used an interpreter on their practical driving test in Birmingham in 2009, with 856 doing so in 2010.
Kingstanding – with 393 – hosted the city’s greatest number of practical tests with an interpreter last year. The pass rate for tests taken with interpreters and voiceovers was not supplied.
Steve Tew, chair and senior observer at Birmingham Advanced Motorists, said: “The Highway Code is available in several languages – but one of the big fears on tests where translators are used is that they may be coaching the driver.
“The examiner may, for instance, simply say ‘follow the road,’ but the translator may say that, adding ‘be careful of obstructions or check the mirror here’ – and the examiner wouldn’t know.
“Another issue is being unable to read road signs if a driver’s English isn’t good enough. Some signs are multi-national because they use symbols, but some use English words and phrases, like motorway information boards, for example.
“So there’s a strong case that candidates should have a good enough grasp of English to do the test without a translator.”
The cost of hiring translators for practical and theory tests must be met by the learner driver.
Road Safety Minister Mike Penning told the Birmingham Mail he was “concerned” about the situation.
“I am concerned about the amount of foreign language support currently provided for some driving test candidates,” he said.
“My worry is not just because of the potential for fraud, but also because of the potential road safety risk of drivers not understanding signs or emergency information.
“I also very much want to promote community cohesion by encouraging people to learn English.
“I have asked the Driving Standards Agency to work with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to explore possible options and any changes to the current arrangements would be subject to a full public consultation.”