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BSA A65 Lightning 1975 - ride free

A brief history of the law changes that have effected learning to ride a motorcycle since 1960

1960 – Learner laws introduced

All new riders are limited to riding 250cc machines with L-plates. However, a curious anomaly allows learner riders to use any size motorcycle if it had a side car and L-plate. By the 70’s (with 10 years of cheap small cars) sidecars are becoming quite rare, but this curious rule gives the sidecar an afterlife as a “sidewinder”. The sidewinder was a small hinged wheel with an L-plate on it that could be attached to the swinging arm of a motorcycle. It looked horrible but it did mean learner riders could steam around on a Suzuki GS1000.

1971 – New learner age raised to 17

Anyone wishing to ride a 250cc with L-plates must be at least 17. 16 year olds can still ride mopeds (49cc).

1973 – It becomes compulsory to wear a helmet

While this has less to do with learner law, it still nevertheless places a landmark in road safety for motorcyclists. 

1977 – Mopeds restricted to 30mph (and must be less than 250kg). 

Largely due to bikes like Yamaha’s FS1-E 50cc moped being able to do 60mph+ mopeds are restricted to 30mph, which is a serious come down for an entire generation.

1981 – From this date forwards any new sidecar must be fitted to the left-hand side of a motorcycle (and not the right). Nearly a dozen people must have been effected by this riveting bit of legislation.

1982 – New two part test (not for the first time)

Learners wishing to get a full licence have to take a Part 1 test which involves a figure of eight in a box, a slow ride and a sort of junction and one or two other manoeuvres. This test was conducted by authorised instructors and began a process that started to tie in the Department for Transport (that was later to create a separate department – the Driving Standards Agency (DSA)) to the motorcycle training industry. Typically the Part 1 Test cost £50.00 which included half a day of training. The Part 1 test meant that motorcycle training could be run on a more commercial basis. Previously most people did not do much if any training, and although groups like the RAC and Star Rider existed most training schools were run on a casual basis with volunteers. Since the 50’s some more enlightened local councils (Southwark in London, for example) provide motorcycle training on a voluntary basis. This largely died out during the 80’s, not least because attitudes to motorcycles, formed in the 60’s, hardened considerably in the 80’s.

Part 2 remained pretty much unchanged with the test being conducted by the examiner watching from the side of the road. This was a pretty hit and miss affair with as much attention being given to what was worn as to how the bike was ridden.

This test has given rise to endless fantasy stories where the examiner steps out in front of the wrong motorcycle during the emergency stop. Sadly a much more common event was candidates being unable to follow the examiner’s directions and becoming hopelessly lost. 

1982 – Introduction of 1 year ban

Learners that did not get some form of full licence (car, motorcycle etc.) inside two years were faced with a one year ban from riding motorcycles with L-plates. They could still ride a moped in the ban period. This was very unpopular amongst riders and led to many people riding illegally.

1983 – Learner motorcycles are reduced to 125cc

Another rush to get a licence gets underway (something we have become more and more familiar with over the past few years) as learners lose the right to ride their 250’s. This marked the steep decline in the 250cc motorcycle market for road bikes that finally hit the floor in 1997 with the introduction of the Direct Access Scheme. This also marked the end of the “sidewinder” era.

1986 – Change of motorcycle category

When licences were introduced motorcycles fell under category D. This now became category A. While at the time this did not seem particularly relevant it has subsequently meant 1,000’s (if not 10’s of 1,000’s) losing their motorcycle licence when they changed address or added a category. Either this was deliberate or DVLA tower above other government agencies for their lack of knowledge about their own rules. Talk to them on the phone and make your own judgement.

1990 – Learners can no longer take a passenger

Up until 1990 a learner could take a passenger on the back of a motorcycle as long as the passenger had a full motorcycle licence.

1990 – End of the Part 1 and 2 tests

The Part 1 test is scrapped and replaced by Compulsory Basic Training (see below) and the Part 2 test is replaced with the new “pursuit” test with the examiner using a radio to give direction as they followed behind in a car or on a motorcycle. This marks the birth of modern motorcycle training and testing. Companies like CSM Rider Training use the CBT as an opportunity to massively expand to the extent that by the mid 1990’s CSM represents nearly 60% of the UK’s motorcycle training. Many of the UK’s current motorcycle training schools are on sites that were set up by CSM.

1990 – December – Introduction of CBT (Compulsory Basic Training).

Compulsory Basic Training – the format of this course has changed very little apart from the introduction of a 2-hour road ride in 1997, plus on road U-turns & emergency stops, and the moving of some parts of Element A into Element D. The standard of delivery has gradually improved over the years, with much more emphasis on student centred learning. This course, above all others, has made more positive impact for road safety on new riders than anything else. All UK licence holders will now have to undertake a CBT course if they want to ride up to a 125cc machine on the road as learners (i.e. with L-plates, no passenger/pillion and no motorways). In addition, full car licence holders can ride up to a 50cc moped without L-Plates and carry a pillion passenger.

Anyone taking a moped test after December 1990 is exempt from having a CBT certificate if they want only to ride a moped.

1996 – July – Changes to CBT

Only UK licence holders can take a Motorcycle test. EU licences are not acceptable.

All new CBT certificates were now valid for 3 years from date of issue – subsequently superseded.

All certificates issued prior to July 1996 were valid for 3 years from this date (i.e. expired in July 1999)

Re-tests revised – Candidates had to wait 10 working days before retaking a motorcycle test. This is now 10 working days for a Module 2 motorcycle test and 3 working days for a Module 1 motorcycle test.

1997 – January – Introduction of Direct Access Scheme

Introduction of 5 different types of Motorcycle licence – subsequently superseded.

  • Automatic: this applies to any of the licences listed below if the test is taken on an automatic machine. All the other restrictions apply, along with the rider being restricted to an automatic only machine.
  • ‘A1’ Light Motorcycle: this licence allowed a rider to ride up to 125cc with no L – plates and with a passenger. The test had to be taken on a motorcycle of between 75cc and 120cc.
  • ‘A2’ Restricted Licence: this licence allowed a rider to use any machine regardless of cc providing that the machine does not produce more than 33bhp as its power output. If a machine produced more than 33bhp it was possible to restrict the machine with a kit. The restriction was in place for two years, at the end of which it was lifted with no need for a further test. The test had to be taken on a machine of between 121cc and 125cc with at least 12bhp.
  • ‘A’ Direct Access Scheme: this test allowed the rider to use any machine regardless of cc or power output. The rider had to be over 21 and the motorcycle had to exceed 498cc and 46.5bhp to take the test.
  • Accelerated Access: this was the same as the Direct Access Scheme, but the rider already held one of the other types of motorcycle licence and was upgrading. The test conditions were the same as those for the Direct Access Scheme. However, there was no need to retake the CBT or Theory Test.

CBT becomes compulsory for everyone regardless of when his or her licence was issued.

Theory Test was introduced for all provisional licence holders.

CBT syllabus altered to include a compulsory 2-hour road ride section, as well as other minor changes.

Candidates must produce photographic identity when taking their practical motorcycle test and Theory Test.

1999 – Photocard Licences

Introduction of new photo-card licences. Both parts of the licence (the paper and the card part) had to be produced for the licence to be valid for the CBT, Theory Test and Motorcycle test. Old paper style licences are still valid if they are accompanied by a valid passport.

2001 – Theory Test for everyone

All motorcycle test candidates must take a Motorcycle Theory Test regardless of their licence.

Full car licence holders who passed their car test before February 1st 2001 will still be able to carry a pillion and do not have to display L-Plates when riding a moped (49cc and no more than 30mph). They also won’t need to take a CBT to ride a moped.

All new car licence holders must complete a CBT before riding a moped. Those who take a CBT for a moped will have a certificate that lasts for the life of their driving licence (i.e. until their 70th birthday).

Anyone receiving a ban on his or her licence will also lose his or her CBT certificate and Theory Test pass certificate.

All CBT certificates issued for motorcycles and scooters from the 1st February 2001 now only last for 2 years.

The old two years on, one year off restriction for provisional motorcycle licences is abolished. A new provisional motorcycle licence will last for the life of the licence. All full car licences now automatically come with provisional motorcycle entitlement.

Eyesight checks for CBT and motorcycle tests now must be done on a licence plate made after 1st September 2001 (20.5m).

2002 – Changes to the Theory Test

Hazard perception test introduced as part of the motorcycle Theory Test. Candidates are required to click a button as they see ’emerging’ hazards during a video clip. The Theory Test is extended by 20 minutes to include this element.

2003 – Show me/Tell me questions added to practical test

New questions are added to the start of the practical motorcycle test (Show me/Tell me). These questions relate to basic maintenance and precautions that need to be made to your machine to ensure safe riding. There are two questions; one asks you to tell the examiner how to adjust or check a part of the machine, and the other asks you to show the examiner how you would check or adjust part of the machine. A failure to answer both correctly will result in one minor point in the overall test result.

2009 – April – 2nd European Driving Licence Directive

Introduction of the 2nd European Licence Directive (2DLD) to bring the motorcycle test in line with the rest of the EU. The motorcycle test is split into two parts to include an off-road section (Module 1) that will include new manoeuvres, such as a U-turn, emergency stop and slalom.

The new test was due to be implemented in August 2008 – but was postponed until March 2009. It was to involve a two-part process. The first part was to off road, covering extended slow control exercises (including a slow ride and U-turn), a 32mph emergency stop, a 18mph corner and a 32mph swerve/avoidance. This was to be followed by the normal road test (Module 2), but without the usual emergency stop and U-turn. The length of the test and cost was increased to an eye-watering £90.50, and the location of the test centres changed too – only 50 odd fully functioning test centres down from 200+.

People needed more training for this, and even for those that don’t the costs rose.

The DSA announced that the new test was to be introduced in October 2008. They organised a meeting for all the motorcycle training schools for 23rd January 2008 at the National Motorcycle Museum where they intended to explain how was to be rolled out. In the event it was an utter farce and training schools were advised to “go on holiday”.

The meeting came and went without anyone being much the wiser. As the deadline drew closer most of the details were still unavailable, but what was clear was that instead of 77 test centres (later revised to 66) being ready for the new test only 37 new multi-purpose test centres (MPTC’s) were ready. This caused a massive jam for tests with many training schools faced with not being able to either buy tests or get to a local test centre. With two weeks’ notice the test was postponed by six months until 28th March 2009.

Finally, the new test went ahead on the 27th April 2009, and the lord be praised the UK now complies with the rest of the EU (who have largely ignored the whole process). The test is in two parts – Module 1 (£15.50) takes 15 minutes and is done at an MPTC, Casual site or VOSA site. It involves a series of slow and high-speed manoeuvres. The Module 2 (£75.00) takes about 40 minutes and is much the same as the old motorcycle test but does not have a U-turn or emergency stop.

2010 – Independent Ride added to Module 2

The Independent Ride is introduced to the Module 2. A Module 2 test includes a section where the student can ride without anything being said by the examiner. All they are asked to do is follow some directions (e.g. “follow the signs towards London A40”). If the ride is safe, then even if the student goes the wrong way it is not a fail.

2011 – Changes to Module 1 Test

“Tweaks” were added to the Module 1 test after consultation with the motorcycle training industry which included altering the running order, altering the Slow Ride and adding rider faults to the Emergency Stop and Avoidance Manoeuvres. Happily all this worked and the accident rate of 1 in every 150 Module 1 tests fell dramatically.

2013 – January – 3rd European Driving Licence Directive (3DLD).

The law change came into effect on the 19th January 2013. The 3rd European Licence Directive (3DLD) has the following changes:

  • 16+ – CBT.
  • 17+ – A1 (Light Motorcycle) licence allowing a full licence up to 125cc and 11kw/15bhp. The motorcycle tests must be done on a machine capable of 55mph and be between 120 – 125cc.
  • 19+ – A2 (Restricted Licence) licence allowing a full licence up to 35kw/47bhp on any size motorcycle (but not more than 0.2kw/kg or derived from a vehicle more than double its power – 70kw). The motorcycle tests must be done on a machine of at least 395cc with a power output of between 20kw/27bhp and 35kw/47bhp.
  • 24+ – A (Direct Access Scheme) licence allowing a full licence for any motorcycle. The motorcycle tests must be done on a machine of at least 595cc with a power output of at least 40kw/54bhp.
  • Progressive Access – this allows people to gain a full motorcycle licence at an earlier age by essentially taking the same tests three times (albeit on progressively larger motorcycles) provided they wait a full 2 years between tests. They will only need to take the CBT and Motorcycle Theory Test once. It looks like this:
  • 17 (take CBT, Theory Test, Module 1 & 2 motorcycle tests on a 125cc) – 19 (take Module 1 & 2 motorcycle tests on a 500cc) – 21 (take Module 1 & 2 motorcycle tests on a 600cc).
  • Accelerated Access – this remains the same as it was. In other words, if a person reaches the right age before a full 2 years has elapsed they can re-take their tests. But they must still have a valid Motorcycle Theory Test. If a person wants to go from A1 straight to A they also must have a valid Motorcycle Theory Test.

Unlike the old situation A2 no longer automatically upgrades to a full licence after 2 years. Instead people will have to take either tests or training to upgrade to the new licence after 2 years.

The rules effecting automatic licences remain the same.

A category AM is added to licences, which allows people to ride up to 28mph on a 49cc moped. Confusingly, category P, allowing people to ride up to 30mph on a 49cc moped is retained. The difference being that those with only a provisional licence get only AM, whereas full car licence holders get both. In practice all mopeds manufactured for the EU since 2003 are restricted to 28mph. Even so – how complicated?

There was wild talk of a 7-hour upgrade course instead of re-taking the motorcycle tests. However, in a massive show of no confidence in the motorcycle training industry this has still not happened.

The main issues presented by this change of law are the size of the minimum test vehicle. Some people have found the physical size of the 600cc motorcycles hard to handle particularly for the Module 1 test. The second issue is the potential cost to young people wishing to progress through to a full licence.

2014 – April – Changes to Minimum Test Vehicle

A minor change so that the minimum test vehicle for the A2 Restricted Licence is changed so that anything from between 20kw and 35kw and over 395cc is acceptable for test, provided it is not derived from a motorcycle that has more than 70kw as standard. So, a restricted Suzuki Gladius 650 is okay but a Yamaha R1 is not. There is also a restriction on the power to weight ratio of 0.2kw/kg. If you’re not sure ask a local main dealer.

2015 – December – New era for DSA

The Driving Standards Agency (DSA) is amalgamated into VOSA to become the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA). This is not greeted with huge enthusiasm by DSA staff, and considerable damage is done to the CBT management team.

2018 – December – Minor change to Minimum Test Vehicle

A further change to the minimum test vehicle for the Direct Access Scheme (DAS) – to take your test the motorcycle must be at least 595cc, 50kw (67bhp) and weigh more than 175kg. What you can ride after you have passed does not change – anything you want! However, hardly ideal if you are shorter in the leg or of a slight build.

2022 – January – Another change to Minimum Test Vehicles

Restricted A2 licences can be taken on 245cc motorcycles with a power output of between 20 – 35kw.

2023/24 – More changes afoot

Brexit releases the burden of having to conform to the EU and streamline the test. However, what seem much more likely is that there will be the much vaunted changes to the CBT, how instructors are qualified and inspected, and possibly a pre-CBT theory test.

The enormous rise of delivery riders as a consequence of the 2020 pandemic has focused minds on whether CBT is appropriate and robust enough for people using a scooter or motorcycle to make a living.