Driving, like any other skill, takes practice. But driving is also one of the most high-risk activities any of us will do in our lives, so understandably there is a test to check that you’re safe and proficient before you’re allowed out on the roads on your own.
The driving test has been around in one form or another for around a century to do just that, and the process of learning to drive and passing your driving test is a rite of passage for the majority of young people, as well as mature learners who begin driving later in life.
But passing your driving test can be both tricky and daunting, and less than half of all candidates pass the practical test first time. With that in mind, we’ve compiled this guide to give you some pointers and advice around how to pass your driving test.
See our list of the best cars for learner and new drivers if you’ve just passed or are on your way to having a licence.
We’re concentrating on the practical test in this article, and have a separate guide for how to pass your driving theory test.
What to do before your driving test
Practise, practise, practise
Driving is a complex skill requiring physical dexterity and the ability to make quick, sometimes complex judgements at the same time as controlling a car.
You also need to be familiar with the rules and conventions of the road, be able to anticipate what other drivers are doing, at the same time as looking out for vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists and e-scooter riders.
Given how many factors are involved in driving, experience behind the wheel is of key importance; as well as gaining the knowledge you need surrounding how to drive, the more time you spend behind the wheel, the more confident you are likely to become as a driver.
This is an often overlooked point: anxiety and stress are known to lead to poor decision making, as minds that are occupied with worry are less adept at making sound judgements.
It is therefore important to not take your driving test until you feel confident and ready, and your instructor agrees that you have acquired the necessary skills and assuredness. Because while there’s no shame in failing a test, unsuccessfully taking one before you’re ready will add unnecessary expense and time to the process of learning to drive.
Know the rules of the road
As mentioned above, there are lots of things you simply need to know before taking your driving test. Who has priority at a roundabout? Who has priority when parked cars only allow one vehicle at a time to pass down a road? Who has priority when pedestrians are crossing the mouth of a road you need to turn into? What do box junctions mean? What is a clearway?
The list might seem limitless, but buying a copy of The Highway Code and revising it will help you learn the ropes, and also prepare you for scenarios you are likely to encounter on the road.
Learn some mechanical sympathy
Not everyone is a petrolhead, and many people find talking about cars deeply boring, but even if you count yourself among those, there’s no reason not to connect with your car in the same way that musicians connect with their instruments, or craftspeople connect with their tools.
Without wishing to get too philosophical, one way of thinking of this is to consider the car’s steering wheel and front wheels as extensions of your hands, and the pedals extensions of your feet.
You are, after all, part of what’s known as a ‘human machine interface’ (HMI) when you’re driving a car, and recognising it will do exactly what you command it, and that your thought processes control the movements of your limbs, which in turn control the vehicle, can be a helpful approach when learning to drive.
Of course, you may well consider all of that utter nonsense, and that’s fine – but don’t discount the idea of connecting with a car, and understanding how it works.
For example, if you’re taking your test in a car with a manual gearbox (as the vast majority of learners still do), knowing how fast the engine should be spinning (IE how many revolutions per minute it is performing), and what the car sounds and feels like when the revs are too high or too low, can help you decide what gear you should be in, and when you should be changing gear.
In a similar vein, it i well known that stopping distances increase significantly when it is raining and the roads are slippery; in these circumstances you are likely to find that you need to be more gentle with the brakes to avoid skidding or having the anti-lock braking system kick in, while also needing to corner more gently on tight turns.
With experience, you can even feel different road conditions through your body’s connection with the base of the driver’s seat. High-frequency vibrations through the seat (plus the pedals and steering wheel), for example, could indicate there is loose matter such as gravel on the road surface, which you can interpret as meaning the car is likely to have less grip than it might otherwise do; you can then use this information to influence how you drive (getting specific, you would slow down and make your pedal and steering-wheel inputs more gentle in this situation)
Just as it is possible to know about stopping distances and by able to quote how many metres it takes to come to a halt from 50mph, so too can you actually sense much grip a car’s front wheels have by how the steering wheel behaves in your hand, and how the car acts when you apply the brakes or accelerator.
A day out at a skid pan can be a great way to learn how a car behaves in extreme situations, and could help make you a better driver. Skid pans either involve a patch of tarmac on a test track that has been showered with water and oil to make it slippery, or using a car in a specially designed ‘cradle’ that places caster wheels at each corner of the vehicle, and makes it prone to skid. Some driving schools offer such sessions.
Find the right driving instructor
It’s a fact of life that some teachers are better than others, and the same is true of driving instructors.
Online reviews and recommendations from friends will help point you in the right direction, but even if you find an instructor who has a stellar pass rate, it’s also worth thinking about whether you like the instructor, and gel with the way they teach.
Because while block-booking lessons can help save money when learning to drive, there’s no point paying for a dozen lessons, only to find that you’ve financially committed to a teacher whose style or technique irks you.
It’s therefore worth considering if you should book a single taster lesson with an instructor before shelling out for a series of lessons.
Face your fears
Different learners have different strengths and weaknesses, but if there’s one thing that really unnerves you about driving and what you might face in the test, be sure to tell your instructor so you can practise it and conquer your concerns.
For example, part of the driving test involves assessing how well you can reverse a car, and the examiner will ask you to either:
- Parallel park
- Park in a bay (either reversing in then nosing out, or vice-versa).
- Pull up on the right-hand side of the road, reverse for two car lengths then rejoin traffic
It is almost certain that you will be better at one or two of these, so be sure to practise the one you’re least confident performing, because chances are this will be the one the examiner asks you to do.
Even if the examiner asks you to perform one you have no concerns about, if you know all three really well you won’t be worrying which one you’ll be asked to do on the day, giving you more headspace to concentrate on actually driving.
Get to know the area where you’ll be taking your test
There’s a big backlog with driving tests at the moment, so many candidates are taking a flexible approach to where they take the test.
If you’re able to get a test in somewhere you know, great, but if it’s somewhere you’re not so familiar with, if it’s at all possible, drive in the area as much as you can.
Even if you’re travelling hundreds of miles and staying overnight in a hotel in order to secure a test, factor in some time to drive the area before your test. Different towns all have their own quirks and features when it comes to road layouts, and you don’t want to be flummoxed by coming across a confusing one-way system or tricky roundabout for the first time on the day of your test.
What to do during your driving test
The Government’s website details specifically what a driving test involves but to paraphrase (we also have a guide dedicated to the topic), the test will take around 40 minutes and comprises five elements:
1. A quick check of your eyesight
This should be a mere formality, and involves reading a number plate from c20 metres away.
2. Being asked two ‘show me, tell me’ questions
Our guide to these has more details, but they’re generally fairly straightforward.
3. A general check on your driving ability
This involves driving on a variety of roads apart from motorways. As part of this section you will be asked to pull the car over then move off again, either from the side of the road, from behind a parked vehicle, or when performing a hill start. You may also be asked to perform an emergency stop.
4. Reversing your vehicle
This involves the three scenarios set out in the previous section, with the instructor asking you to either parallel park, park in a bay, or pull up on the right-hand side of the road, reverse for two car lengths then rejoin traffic.
5. Independent driving
This takes place over 20 minutes or so, and involves you following either road signs or a sat-nav. If you’re asked to use a sat-nav, this will be provided by the instructor. If you’re following road signs you won’t be penalised if you take a wrong turn, and the instructor will help you get back on the test route.
There are three different types of fault you can make during your driving test:
- A ‘dangerous fault’ – this involves you doing something that puts people or property in danger
- A ‘serious fault’ – something that could be dangerous
- A ‘driving fault’ – this is a mistake that is not dangerous, but could become ‘serious’ if it happens repeatedly.
Dangerous and serious faults are commonly known as ‘major faults’, with ‘driving faults’ known as ‘minors.
A single major fault (IE a dangerous or serious fault) will see you fail the test, but you’re allowed to make up to 15 minors and still pass. You won’t be given the results until the end of the test, though.
Examples of minor faults include:
- Stalling the car
- Allowing the car’s wheels to touch the kerb when making a manoeuvre (though if you mount the pavement this is a major)
- Being hesitant and not pulling out of a junction when it is safe to do so (though if you do this three times you’ll get a major)
Staying calm, listening to the examiner carefully and asking them to clarify anything they ask that you’re unsure of are all important.
Show that you’re looking
Observation is an incredibly important aspect of driving, with phrases such as ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’ being embedded at an early stage, and tripping off the tongue decades after someone has passed their test.
But it’s no good just looking – the instructor has to see that you’re checking your mirrors and blind spots at the appropriate moment. Consider making your mirror checks obvious to the instructor by physically moving your head slightly when looking, even if you don’t need to in order to see a wing or rear-view mirror clearly.
And don’t forget checking your mirrors is not just something you should do before a manoeuvre – being aware of what’s behind you and to your side is a continual process.
What happens at the end of a driving test?
At the end of the test you will be told whether you have passed or failed. If you failed, as hard as this will be to hear, try to concentrate on what the examiner says with regard to why you failed; this will likely give important pointers in terms of what shortcomings you need to address in order to be successful in the future. You can rebook a test at least 10 working days in the future.
If you pass, you will be able to drive immediately (though most instructors like to drive students home themselves), and you will be given a pass certificate, while the examiner should ask if you would like your licence sent to you automatically; you’ll need your provisional licence with you in order for this to happen.
If you don’t ask for this, you’ll need to apply for a full licence yourself within two years, otherwise you’ll need to take the test again.
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