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1.1 Million Swap Foreign Driving Permits for UK Licences Since 1997

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LONDON--November 27, 2012:

  • 83,553 licences exchanged in 2011 alone, three times the 30,737 exchanged 15 years ago
  • South African, Polish and Australian drivers account for highest number of licence exchanges since 1997
  • UK licence exchanging has almost doubled in past ten years - up 37,057 since 2001
  • Half (476,979) of swapped licences gained in right hand drive countries, yet handed UK licence without guidance or training

More than one million motorists - an average of 62, 816 per year - from countries as far afield as Zimbabwe (37,515) and South Korea (13,368) have exchanged their foreign licences for a UK driving licence in the last 15 years, according to official Freedom of Information act (FOI) figures obtained by Cheap Car Insurance Provider,

The number of licences exchanged per year peaked at 96,935 in 2007, before falling to 79,187 in 2009. Over the past three years, the number has risen steadily once again, reaching 83,553 in 2011. This compares to a total of 30,737 licences exchanged in 1997; 46,497 in 2001 and 68,625 in 2004. Almost half of these licences swapped since 1997 have been gained in a country where the driving test doesn't include driving on the left.

Currently, reciprocal agreements exist whereby the UK recognises the driving licences awarded to drivers by 50 other countries, meaning that driving licences issued in these countries can be exchanged after 12 months of residency for a UK licence without the holder needing to pass any UK test. 32 of the 50 approved countries drive on the right, including South Korea, Romania and Poland.

Robin Reames, chief claims officer at Swiftcover, commented: "These figures reflect Britain's multi-cultural society demonstrating that we are welcoming an increasing number of motorists to our shores who are choosing to live and drive here. However, UK roads are very different to those overseas so it's vital that new motorists learn as much as they can, which could include taking a few lessons from an instructor if necessary."

Since 1997, drivers from South Africa (average of 9,369 per year) and Australia (average of 6,441 per year) accounted for the highest number of licences exchanged with 149,897 and 103,053 respectively. However, as more countries entered the EU in 2004, allowing licences to be exchanged from eastern European countries, Polish (135,079 - average of 8,442 per year), Bulgarian (18,719) and Hungarian (21,714) motorists are actively exchanging their licences. 88,361 Polish drivers exchanged their licence for a UK version in the five years between 2004 and 2008.

    No.  Country         No. of native licences   No. of native
                         exchanged by UK since    licences exchanged by UK
                         1997                     in 2011
    1    South Africa     149,897                  4,784
    2    Poland           135,079 (since 2004)    14,030
    3    Australia        103,052                  5,865
    4    New Zealand       56,478                  2,531
    5    Hong Kong         46,312                  6,389
    6    Northern Ireland  43,570                  2,403
    7    Zimbabwe          37,839                    953
    8    Japan             37,348                  2,104
    9    Lithuania         32,546 (since 2004)     4,960
    10   Italy             30,890                  3,065

The data goes on to reveal that on average each year since 1997, 2,334 drivers exchanged Japanese licences, 2,895 drivers exchanged Hong Kong licences and 836 drivers exchanged South Korean licences for full UK permits. Research carried out by the BBC in February 2012 highlighted a scam where drivers obtained a UK driving licence by exploiting the arrangement that the UK has with Hong Kong - which saw more than 6,000 exchanged every year for the past five years, even though the average is much lower.

Agreements also exist with some African countries: 953 Zimbabwean licences were exchanged in 2011, down from 1,282 in 2010 and a peak of 6,168 in 2002. The UK's agreement with Kenya was suspended in 2002 then later reinstated, resulting in 242 Kenyan licences being exchanged in the early part of 2012.

Robin Reames continued: "While the fact that the UK recognises licences issued in certain countries shows that driving tests in those countries are likely to be of a high standard, it's important to recognise that driving in the UK is unique in many ways. As such, it's important for everyone planning to drive in the UK to take the time to become familiar with UK road signs and speed limits, as well as driver etiquette - exactly as British motorists should when driving abroad."

Nick Perry, driving instructor at Bristol-based Oasis Driving School, commented: "People who learned to drive abroad will often face difficulties driving in the UK. The obvious differences include driving on a different side of the road and new signs and speed limits, but there are also more subtle differences such as etiquette on the road that seem obvious to us, but are extremely important.

"I've taught a range of drivers who have originally learned to drive outside the UK, some of whom have settled in with no problems and others who've needed a little help. It's a good idea for anyone new to UK roads to take a short lesson or two with an approved driving instructor in order to be on the safe side."