Driving licences have been abolished. You may not have noticed.

Secure printing is on its way to being one of the casualties of the digital revolution. It hasn’t yet gone away of course, with bank notes remaining its apotheosis.1 There is a reason for that complexity and the costs which go with it, which is that fundamentally bank notes are self-authorising.

That used to be true for lots of other things as well, some of them quite banal. Even the humble MoT certificate was produced on special paper using special inks to make forgery more difficult, and had to be kept securely to reduce the risk of theft of blank certificates. All of that has gone. As I noted a few years ago:

The penny has dropped at VOSA that the MOT certificate is no longer a certificate in any meaningful sense, it’s a receipt:  the real value, and the thing which needs to be secured is the database entry.

The piece of paper you get at the end of an MoT test may be convenient, but it’s not authoritative, it’s one way (and not even the only way) of getting to what really matters, which is the entry on the database.

Now the same has happened to the driving licence – in practice, if not yet in theory. The oddity which was the paper counterpart of the plastic card driving licence has been abolished, presumably because it achieved the unfortunate combination of being inconvenient, expensive to maintain, and open to abuse. But the information which used to be printed on that piece of paper still has uses, so DVLA have provided an alternative. The simple bit is that it is an online, but printable, version of the paper counterpart (but without any of the complexity of keeping it up to date). The clever bit is that it comes with a single use validation code. The result is that a third party recipient – a car hire company or an employer – can have a trustworthy and up to date view of the driving record.

That’s not supposed to replace the driving licence, just to supplement it. But it goes further to making the actual driving licence pointless than it first appears. Given the choice between trusting a plastic card, albeit one with security features designed to protect its integrity, and trusting a scruffy bit of paper which can be directly validated against the underlying database, I’ll go for the piece of paper, every time.

That leaves the driving licence itself with only two remaining advantages. The first is that it has a photograph of the driver and the print out does not. But since the photograph is just another field on the database, it would be trivial to change (or to provide access to, for example, the police by another means). The second is the widespread use of driving licences as a quasi proof of identity in situations which have nothing to do with driving. Arguably that isn’t DVLA’s problem, but in any case that use will be overtaken by other approaches to identity management in the not too distant future.

It’s about fifteen years since I was first in a serious discussion about the abolition of tax discs.2 This year they have vanished. In another fifteen years, there will be a gap in your wallet where your driving licence used to be. But that will be just the final stage of a transition which has already begun.3

Driving licences have been abolished. There’s just a bit of tidying up to do now.

There’s a wider point worth noting too. This is a example of what a few years ago I called Cheshire cat government – ‘The best service is the one which disappears.’4 DVLA seem to be particularly good at abolishing things in a good way, a skill with potential application across government far beyond the world of motoring.

  1. The Bank of England boasts that the £20 note has nine security features, and no doubt there are a few more about which it is more circumspect.
  2. The question was serious, the response was fairly dismissive.
  3. Unless, of course, they have already gone because driving by humans has been abolished. But that’s another story.
  4. ‘Disappears’ doesn’t mean cut or abolished – people need to be licensed to drive, they don’t necessarily need a thing called a driving licence.