The DVLA was prevented from developing digital licences before Brexit because of European Union law, which stipulated the need for a physical version instead of an app alternative
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Plastic driving licences could be phased out in the next few years as part of a new trial to make the system digital.
The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) is preparing to launch new mobile provisional licences for learners which they can access anytime, anywhere, via a smartphone app.
It is understood that the technology could then be expanded to cover full licences.
Physical plastic cards will continue to be issued alongside the app, although government sources yesterday indicated that the more traditional version could be phased out over time.
In a separate move, MoT tests for vehicles will also be digitised, with booking systems and certificates all moved onto an online system.
The Department for Transport said that the government was prevented from developing digital licences before Brexit because of European Union law, which stipulated the need for a physical version.
Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said that Britain’s transport system would be “fairer, greener and more efficient thanks to our exciting new post-EU freedom”.
He said that digital driving licences and MoTs would move the system “into the modern age”.
Driving licences were first introduced in 1903. There are now about 49million driving licence holders in the UK.
In June 2015 the government scrapped the paper counterpart driving licence, which included details on penalty points and which vehicles people can drive.
In the past year, the renewal system has been plagued by delays because of industrial action and social distancing rules at the DVLA’s headquarters in Swansea.
Paper applications are currently subjected to a delay of between six and ten weeks, the agency said, leaving thousands of drivers in limbo.
In its annual report, the DVLA, raised the possibility of digital driving licences.
“This will ultimately give our customers personalised, easy and secure access to a range of services and allow them more choice in how they transact with us,” it said.
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New provisional licences will be available by 2024 through the new online portal, although the trial could start as early as next year.
The AA called for card licences to be continued alongside online access.
“We envisage that many, particularly older drivers, will still want to stick to paper or card driving licences as they don’t all have mobile phones,” said Edmund King at the motoring group.
“Digital driving may suit many but it should sit alongside the traditional driving licences for some time to come.”
Steve Gooding, director of the motoring research charity the RAC Foundation, said it could also spark a rise in identity theft.
“These days the one thing drivers are most likely to have with them is their phone, so using it to carry their driver’s licence could be quite handy,” he said.
“The risk is that the more personal data we store on our phones the more tempting a target they become for thieves and hackers.”