A History of the MOT Test

In April 2018, the Society of Motor Traders and Manufacturers (SMMT) reported that the number of cars on UK roads had increased by 12% in the decade since 2008. As of September 2018, there were 38.4 million vehicles* licensed for use on Great Britain’s roads, 31.6 million of which were cars. And, with a few exceptions, each of those vehicles that is three years old or more requires an annual MOT test.

The rise and rise of vehicle ownership

Vehicle ownership has grown year-on-year since the end of the second World War. As the economy grew in the 1950s, so did wages and the desire to travel for leisure as well as work. More and more people were able to afford cars and they quickly became a ‘must-have’ item rather than a luxury purchase. All you needed was to pass your driving test, obtain a driving license and ensure your vehicle had appropriate insurance and you were away! There was, however, no mandatory requirement to have your vehicle serviced to establish it was roadworthy.

Considering many of the cars on the roads at this time were from the 1940s, the chances that the car you were driving was in a dangerous condition were high. Road traffic accidents were commonplace and would only get worse with the rapidly escalating number of vehicles on the road.

What is the MOT test and when was it launched?

The Government realised that regulation was urgently needed. Its response came when the Minister of Transport, Earnest Marples, introduced the Ministry of Transport (MOT) test as a key component of the 1960 Road Traffic Act. The MOT test was designed to check the technical elements of a vehicle to make sure it was safe to drive.

Every vehicle over 10 years old was now required, by law, to take the MOT test every year. Technicians carrying out an MOT had to check a vehicle’s brakes, lights and steering and, unsurprisingly, a high number of the vehicles tested failed. As such, in 1961, the age of vehicles requiring an MOT was reduced to seven years and cut even further to three years in 1967.

What checks does a vehicle undergo as part of the MOT test?

The very first MOT test focused on examining brakes, lights and steering; tyre checks were included in 1968 with a minimum tread-depth of 1mm being demanded. In comparison, thanks to technical and safety advances in tyre development and overall vehicle performance, the minimum tread-depth required today is 1.6mm.

In 1977 a whole host of new checks were added. An MOT test now covered indicators, brake lights, windscreen wipers & washers, the vehicle’s horn and an assessment of the condition of its body and chassis. And the scale of the MOT test continued to expand to take into account the multitude of technological advancements in relation to motorised vehicles. Cars, in particular, began to achieve speeds of over 100mph and driver and passenger safety became increasingly paramount. It became compulsory for children under the age of 14 to wear seatbelts in the back of a car in 1989. So, in 1991, a rear seat belt test and anti-lock braking system inspection were included in an MOT test as well as emissions checks for petrol cars with diesel vehicles being added three years later in 1994.

The influence of Europe on the MOT test

In the years that followed those important changes to the MOT test to further regulate vehicle safety, electronic systems such as parking brakes and stability control began to be fitted as standard on new vehicles. Such technical advancements prompted a variety of new additions in 2012 in conjunction with the standardisation of vehicle testing throughout Europe. These additions included:

  • Testing electronic parking brakes and stability control systems
  • Establishing that all airbags fitted in a vehicle are operational
  • Checking all dashboard warning lights are functioning
  • Ensuring the speedometer is fully operational and illuminated when the vehicle’s headlights are turned on
  • Testing any tyre monitoring systems that measure pressure and temperature, for example
  • If the vehicle is fitted with a catalytic convertor this must be present irrespective of whether the vehicle passes the emissions test without it
  • Visual inspection of wiring for damage and making sure the vehicle’s battery is installed securely
  • Any towbars fitted to a vehicle will be tested to ensure they meet the required standard
  • Recent mileage history is recorded on the pass certificate to prevent fraud

The UK’s inclusion in the European Union undoubtedly continues to influence vehicle standards, safety and testing. Back in May 2018, as part of the EU Roadworthiness Package announced in 2014, several more fundamental changes to the MOT test were implemented.

What were those changes?

A new MOT inspection manual was created in May 2018 and issued to all authorised MOT testers throughout the UK. That new manual included lots of new guidelines and procedures including:

  • Defect categories

Defect categories were reclassified as minor, dangerous or major. A minor defect (previously ‘an advisory’) such as slight damage to a brake hose will not require the vehicle to be retested. The owner will, however, be advised to have the fault repaired at a later date. Major or dangerous defects, including a hydraulic brake fluid leak, will result in an automatic fail. Any visible colour of smoke from an exhaust will also see the vehicle fail the MOT test.

  • Vehicle exhaust emissions

Higher standards for vehicle exhaust emissions were introduced and new limits implemented, most notably a lower limit for diesel cars.

  • Additional components to be checked
    • Lamps
      • Front fog lamps (fitted to vehicles used from 1st March 2018)
      • Daytime running lamps (fitted as original equipment on or after 1st March 2018)
      • Reversing lights (fitted to vehicles used from 1st September 2009)
    • Steering
      • Steering gear casing
      • ‘Fly by wire’ steering systems
    • Brakes
      • Endurance braking system (only applies to larger vehicles such as caravans)
    • Noise suppression systems (including exhaust silencers and under-bonnet deadening material)
    • Anti-theft devices
  • Exemptions

Classic cars – those over 40 years old – may be exempt from MOT testing. In order to classed as ‘exempt’ any older vehicle fitting this criterion needs to be registered with the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) as a ‘vehicle of historic interest’ and not be significantly modified.

How has the MOT impacted UK roads?

We certainly have a lot to thank Earnest Marples for. The history of the MOT test is not only fascinating but its introduction back in the 1960s has had a profound impact on improving driving standards and safety. Today, our roads are some of the safest in Europe and ongoing enhancements to the MOT test will only continue to enable us to maintain those high standards.

Having the MOT test in place has resulted in a significant decrease in the number of dangerous vehicles on the road, thereby helping to reduce road traffic accidents, fatalities and serious injuries to drivers and their passengers. Long may its evolution continue!

*Source: Vehicle Licensing Statistics: Quarter 3 (July – September) 2018