First, I have to stress that the UK driving exams seem much harder than those in the States.
In the US, most people I know learned from their parents in a relatively short amount of time. Once granted a license, you are entitled to drive either a standard or an automatic, regardless of which one you used during your exam.
I sat two driving exams in the US: One in New York State in 1994 (failed) and one in Virginia in 1998 (passed, but I absolutely shouldn’t have… that’s a story for maybe tomorrow). New York required a parallel park and a bit of simple suburban driving. Virginia was just simple, suburban driving. In both cases, I wasn’t prepared for the exam. (My dad let me drive his car once or twice in the Fall of 1994 and my mother just made such an ordeal of my trying to learn, I rarely got any practice with her. I couldn’t afford professional lessons, so I just tried.)
In the UK, it seems like everyone takes professional lessons, and often, then take quite a few. I read that most people will need at least 40 hours of instruction to prepare; although women tend to take more lessons than men do. As a learner driver, you are not allowed on motorways, ever.
Admittedly, I think you have to be a more skilled driver here. The roads are much more narrow. Check out the picture of Hampstead High Street from Google Street view, and you’ll see what I mean. This isn’t even the worse! There’s a road going uphill to Hampstead where I find I tend to hold my stomach in while driving, just in case it makes my tiny driving school car, a Toyota Yaris, a little slimmer. I can’t imagine driving a Range Rover on that road, but people do, and they all keep their side mirrors.
A UK road exam is around 40 minutes long, and in many cases, it will include a major roundabout and a bit of driving on a busy A Road, where you’ll need to drive in excess of 40 mph. You are always required to perform one of four maneuvers (3 point turn, reverse around a corner, and reverse park (either parallel or into a parking bay). You are asked about vehicle safety checks, as you are expected to know how to check tires, power steering, oil levels, coolant levels, etc. in addition to knowing how to operate lights, fog lights, wipers, and so forth. Throughout the test, you are advised where to go, except during the two independent driving sections. During Independent driving, the examiner will give you a brief set of directions and you must then carry them out. In 1/3 or so of tests, the examiner will require you to perform an emergency stop. The full summary of fun is available on this DVLA site here.
I’ll be taking my exam on a standard, and undoubtedly, any doubts about my driving skills that I still carry because I believe I didn’t really earn the license I got in 1998 will be long gone when I pass.