Two young men, huddled in a corner and braving the winds on a cold December morning, look on intently as a man in his 30s tries to navigate the driving test track at the Regional Transport Office (RTO) in Mayur Vihar — and fails.
Neither Jagat Patwal (20) nor his friend Rohit Singh are to appear for the test that day. They are out to familiarise themselves with the track, which has cut short the dream of getting a driving licence for several of their friends. “You can’t take too long, there isn’t much time to think,” Patwal tells Singh.
He will appear for the test sometime next month and is here to prepare. “I heard from all my friends that the test is very difficult. I have been watching several videos on YouTube but I realised I will not be completely prepared till I see it (the track) myself,” said the third-year student at Delhi University’s Ram Lal Anand College.
Over the past year, the Regional Transport Offices of Delhi’s Transport department have seen a tectonic shift in how driving tests are conducted to issue licences. Tests are now conducted in specially designed driving tracks (Automated Driving Test Tracks) which have six segments, each of which has to be passed. The track is completely automated and results are determined automatically using readings taken from CCTV footage and RFID (radio frequency identification) tags. The entire test has to be completed in under seven minutes.
Since these tracks were introduced, there has been a considerable dip in the number of people passing their driving test. At the six RTOs where the tracks now exist, failure rate has risen from around 10% to 33%. In some places, such as the Mayur Vihar RTO, it is as high as 42%. Before automated tests, the average failure rate was 15%. At the Loni manual track, the failure rate is 5%.
The first such tracks at Mayur Vihar Phase I, Vishwas Nagar, Sarai Kale Khan and Shakur Basti were made functional in March 2019. Each track has six tests — one to test reversing; one 8-shaped track; one to test overtaking; one to check for stopping at traffic signals; one to check parallel parking; and one to test for driving on a gradient.
The track was developed by Maruti Suzuki. Each track is equipped with CCTVs that closely track the vehicle and RFID readers which keep track of the time one spends on each task.
The first task of reversing the vehicle on a curved patch has to be completed in not more than 120 seconds. It is the section that has been allotted the most time. RFID readers are present on every portion to read time. Yellow lines on the edges guide the cameras and the driver is allowed to touch them only thrice. If a driver hits the line more than three times, the computer automatically disqualifies them.
For the parallel parking section of the test, the time allotted is 90 seconds and the driver is allowed to drive forward after reversing only once. The tests are based on the format given in the Central Motor Vehicles Rules.
Aryan Kishore, who joined Delhi University in the 2019-20 academic session, is back at the Mayur Vihar track after a week. Standing next to his mother, the 18-year-old is a bundle of nerves. “I failed the gradient test last time and I want to crack it this time. My parents have promised me that I will be able to drive to college as soon as I pass the test,” he said.
Officials at the RTO said that intervention of the computer is the main reason behind the high failure rate. “The process is entirely automated and that is why the failure rate is high. People can be influenced, a machine cannot. Plus, people are subjective. What may be a minor mistake for me could be a deal breaker for some other official,” said Prem Dutt (56), motor licensing inspector posted at the Mayur Vihar track.
He was earlier tasked with taking and marking driving tests. Now, Dutt, who has been with the Transport department for 27 years, looks at people drive on the track on a screen while the CCTVs mark mistakes automatically. “Only when we feel that the mistake someone made was very minor do we override the computer’s decision. That rarely ever happens. This is good for people. Now, only those who actually know how to drive on city roads will pass,” he said.
According to officials at the Transport department, one of the benefits of the track is that it is spread over a compact area. “Previously, tests were sometimes taken on the road if there was a lack of space. Now, because several tests can be conducted on the same set, that problem has been solved,” said an official.
In the manual test, most inspectors make an applicant drive on a straight road and a few ask them to reverse. But the new format and slow-changing methods of driving schools mean that many people who have been driving for several years and have come back for licence renewal are also failing.
Rajiv Mathur (48), who has been driving for 15 years, went to the Sarai Kale Khan centre after his licence expired. He failed the test within the first 40 seconds. “I touched the yellow line while reversing on a turn four times but the permissible limit was three. The test is quite hard because it requires you to remember too many things. The number of times you drive forward, the yellow line touch as well as the time limit, all has to be taken into account,” he said.
For Nitika Yadav (31), who was driving on her learners’ licence for the past one month, a premature stop saw her fail. “I drive to Gurgaon comfortably everyday but I stopped half a metre too soon as soon as I cleared the 8 turn, and failed. There should be some relaxation for such small mistakes,” she said.
The RTO also has a test track for two-wheelers. It tests manoeuvrability, driving on a ramp and sudden braking. The driver cannot touch his/her feet on the ground while making any of the four serpentine turns.
At the RTO, videos of each test are preserved for the court to see in case any questions are raised. Court-appointed commissioners also audit some of these tapes randomly to make sure rules are followed.
For now, each licence applicant is given an RFID tag to enter the track. The applicant’s test is linked with the RFID and results are logged under each person’s application. According to officials, soon a face recognition system will also be installed at the entry point to ensure people don’t cheat.
According to Dutt, the test that most people fail is the first one — the S reverse.
“I have seen even seasoned drivers drive their car forward one too many times to clear the first test. I think it is the toughest one to crack as most people who have been driving are not required to do this in real life situations,” he said.
The high failure rate has also prompted the transport department to try and make things a little easier. The department will soon start sending videos of the test to those who fail so that they can understand what they did wrong. The department is also looking to give applicants an audio-visual aid so that they know beforehand what they are supposed to do. Presently, an RTO officer takes people in batches through the track on foot, explaining at each place what is expected of them. No one, however, is allowed a practice run to familiarise themselves with the track and no videos of people driving on the track are shown.
“We are planning to shoot a video of someone driving through the track as they explain the passing criteria. It will help applicants familiarise themselves with the test track,” said a senior Transport department official.
Cities in Punjab, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand have also adopted automated tests. Punjab was the first to start one track in Bhatinda in 2015. It exists in over 20 cities in the state now. Recently, the track was also adopted by the RTO in Dehradun and the results were similar. According to reports, more than 45% of applicants failed within six months of the tracks becoming functional.
Delhi Transport Minister Kailash Gahlot said: “In the last five years, our government has completely reformed the manner in which Transport Authorities (RTOs) work — first by introducing doorstep delivery of services and breaking the tout culture, and now by introducing Automated Driving Test Tracks. This has completely taken out manual interface in driving tests, ensuring that only trained and skilled drivers get driving licences, which will play a big role in making our streets safer and reducing road accidents.In another three-four months, all of Delhi’s RTOs will have Automated Driving Test Tracks, making Delhi the first city in the country to issue driving licences only through fully automated tests with complete video record and automated pass/fail results.”
The one visible difference after the automation is the absence of touts. With the introduction of an exclusively online application and tracking system, the number of touts offering these services had started to decline. “Touts would earlier help get licences for even those who did not know how to drive. The new system has weeded out that problem. Even licensing officers will talk about the difference between then and now,” said Jasmine Shah, chairperson of the Dialogue and Development Commission of Delhi, a body that advises the government.
The system will change as per need, Shah said: “Tech-based inputs are analysed. The way the track has been designed has been thought out and has a rationale. If things have to be added or removed, it can always be done. What is different is that it shakes the mindset of governance.”
— With inputs from Sourav Roy Barman
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines