More of us are learning to drive as an adult — a time in our lives when we can’t easily borrow Mum and Dad’s car. Many of us don’t want to own a car at all. We’d just like to rent one on weekends or for the occasional shopping trip. We’re stuck in a Catch-22: How do we practise enough to take the test that lets us practise? It feels intimidating, but it’s totally doable — and it even has advantages.
Every part of the licence process varies widely state to state, so check your state road authority's website.
Get your learner’s licence
All states require new drivers to get a learner’s licence several months before they apply for a full licence. Typically you’ll get your learner’s licence by going to your local road authority taking a written test.
Study your driver handbook, take every prep test that’s offered on the governmental site (here’s NSW’s), and avoid paying for third-party prep tests. When I took the test for my license, I was elated to recognise every question from the prep tests.
At some point in the application process, you may have to pass a vision or hearing test, so bring whichever glasses, contacts or hearing aids you plan to use while driving.
Practise with an instructor
After you get your learner licence, you need to practise.
If you’ve never driven before, you’re best off with a professional instructor for your first few rides. They’re better prepared to teach you than a friend or relative, and they have their own brake pedal. They know the difference between “good driving” and the more rigorous rules of a driving test. And unlike family and friends, if things go poorly, you never have to see them again.
Research your driving school on Google. You don’t need to pick the absolute best — just avoid any place with a trail of complaints. Get a feel for the vibe of the place, and if you trust it enough, invest in a package deal.
Unlike your driving test examiner, who’s paid to keep dangerous drivers off the road, your instructor is paid to help you pass the test. They win when you win. Be honest about your feelings so they can address them. You never want to look hesitant or confused in front of the examiner, so work that out with your instructor.
Brooklyn, NY’s Drive Rite Academy, where I re-learned how to drive after 10 years off the road, advised me over email:
For adult learners, especially those who have never driven, don’t be afraid to be wrong. You are learning. It’s a process. Be willing to listen to instruction and criticisms and you will excel in your driving education experience.
Adults who are learning for the first time... have a slight advantage of typically being more able to comprehend why an action is or isn’t dangerous, which helps them learn how to avoid unsafe antics very quickly. But in general everyone new behind the wheel is at the same starting point — a little nervous, a little overwhelmed, and in very unfamiliar territory.
Editor's Note: While this advice comes all the way from New York, it still remains relevant for budding Australian drivers.
Practise with a friend
After a few lessons, it’s time to do some longer-term practice. You could just buy enough practice with the school, but it’s cheaper to practice with a friend. Drive Rite recommends this extra practice for learning to handle a variety of locations, passengers, and cars that handle differently.
You don’t actually need a friend with a car. What you need is a friend with a licence who’s willing to take on the risk of driving around a rental car with you. A daily rental is still cheaper than several hours of lessons, but letting an unlicensed driver behind the wheel is against the terms of many major car rental and car sharing services and if you get in an accident you’ll be in big trouble. Only try this if you and your friend are confident in your abilities, and stay as far as possible from heavy traffic or any accident-prone location.
If none of your friends are game, post on AirTasker and pay someone to let you practice in their car. Let them know you’ve already practiced with an instructor. While you’re driving around, stop by the test location and get familiar with the road. See if there are unusually narrow streets, tough turns, or poorly marked roads. You want to feel as comfortable driving here as you are anywhere.
Take your test
In every state, you’ll finish by actually driving a car with an examiner in the passenger seat. You can either bring your own car, or take the test in an examiner's car. If you have the option, schedule your test for the best weather possible. Most examiners aren’t more lenient just because it’s raining or icy, so there’s no point in starting your driving career on hard mode.
Project confidence throughout your test. Again, the examiner’s job is to keep bad drivers off the road, so they’re looking for any reason to believe you don’t know what you’re doing. Don’t initiate small talk and don’t try to win them over. Just be respectful and straightforward. You’ve got two advantages over teen drivers: You’re not as intimidated by (or knee-jerk rebellious toward) authority figures, and you just look more experienced.
Only take your test when you’re reasonably sure you can pass. It’s common to fail the first time, so don’t stress it. Just know that you will have to pay a small fee every time you take the test — in NSW, this is around $58. If you fail, ask the examiner for all the feedback you can get, and practice again. Consider buying another instructor lesson so they can address the specific feedback.
You passed your test! You can drive a car! Now you can go back to walking and riding the train until your next road trip. Celebrate the way that those car-bound real drivers can’t: Walk to the bar and buy yourself a drink. Congratulate yourself on joining the last generation of people who know how to drive a car.