How long should it take me to learn how to drive?
October 11, 2014 6:47 PM   Subscribe

I'm in my mid-20s and recently got my learner's permit, but I've never ever even tried to drive a car before. What are my options for actually learning this?

I don't have a car or know anyone who's willing to teach me how to drive, so getting professional lessons seems like the best option. I'm in Alberta, Canada if that helps at all.

However, I'm not exactly sure how long this will take. How long does it normally take people to learn how to drive? What do I need to look for in a driving school? I'm noticing that lots of the programs seem to be about one or two weeks long, is that really enough time to learn?

I won't be able to get my actual license until about a year from now, would it be better to wait until next summer when it's a lot closer to when I'd be taking my road test (so I don't forget anything)? Or is it better to learn now? I'm not really sure what the whole process should look like (ugh, I should have done this when I was 16).
posted by modesty.blaise to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I was in a similar situation to you, but older. I'm now licensed and drive around every day, yay! I was also cursing my teenage decision to ignore learning to drive, but I feel like I'm a fairly safe driver and am happy I finally got my license.

I started with a standard driving lesson package, so 20 hours in class, 10 hours in car. You get an insurance discount for doing one of these standard courses so it's worth it just for that usually. The class times (two weeks) don't count the time you spend in the car doing lessons, some people might finish all of their lessons in a few weeks but it's likely that you'll do 1-2 hours a week and take several weeks to finish (the instructors fill up quickly and have to accommodate everyone in the class). The classroom stuff I found very boring but I was sleep-deprived at the time (my son was still waking up at night) which didn't help.

I highly recommend you start driving now, or at least take the class and get those classroom hours out of the way. My other advice is that if you don't click with your in-car instructor, to request someone else. I didn't click with mine and regret not switching. I found another instructor afterwards who I felt comfortable with and I felt like I learned so much more and could have come a lot farther a lot sooner with him.

I'm in Ontario and in Ontario you can do the road test after 8 months (instead of 12) if you do driving school, so expect to be ready somewhere in 8-12 months, the actually time could be much faster but if you have a year I'd just space lessons out over a year so that you're driving consistently in different conditions. My process was much more drawn out because I would get so sleep-deprived that I knew I wasn't safe to drive and I'd put the lessons on hold, then fall behind and need to get used to driving again, so it wasn't until my son was sleeping through the night and I found the instructor I clicked with (through a friend's recommendation) that I made real progress, but once I had some confidence and kept up with my lessons I was amazed at how quickly I became proficient. In the ten hours with the instructor I didn't like I was able to drive around in city traffic safely if not confidently. In about 6 more hours of really good defensive driving lessons, I was ready for my test (but I was also driving a few times a week separately but I maintain it was those lessons that made a bigger difference - the person whose car I was using noticed when I resumed lessons because my driving became smoother and I really started to feel comfortable and confident).

So I would say the steps to take are:
-driving school, don't put the in-car lessons off, just try to start with 1-2/week until you've got 10 hours
-hire an instructor for another 5-10 lessons, I would go for 10 if you have time and can afford it
-book your test (and hopefully pass on the first try)
-you can have the instructor pick you up on the day of your test and run you through the test to prep you, well worth it, and use their car

The key for the road test is to do things by the book, if you're only driving with an instructor beside you they'll make sure you follow the rules. People have a harder time when they drive a lot without an instructor and pick up "bad" habits that are how regular people drive but not by the book. So the more practice/experience you have the better, and it's not even a deficit to not have your own/a friend's car to practice in, other than financially but all told for about $1000-$1200 you'll be a safe and licenced driver which is not bad when you think about it.

Driving is a motor skill so practice makes perfect (reading about driving won't help you, you just need lots of time driving), try to keep your anxiety down (which comes with time mainly), and driving with other cars is a bit of a sport, so your confidence and judgment matter, it's not just about learning all of the rules, it's about anticipating other people's reactions, looking ahead and thinking about where you need to go to avoid problems, and protecting the space around your car. You can do this and in a year when you have your license you'll be so glad you did.
posted by lafemma at 7:14 PM on October 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, a 1-2 week period is sufficient to get you to the point where you could pass a test, presuming you've already observed driving from a passenger seat to a reasonable degree.

Yes, ideally, you're practicing right up to the time where you take your test. A 6-month break, for example, will definitely hurt you.

If possible, focus on getting a large amount of wheel time over and above a formal lesson. This doesn't need to be a street -- big empty parking lots are best. Get some cones and practice some practical things, such as parallel parking, backing up and turning, etc.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:15 PM on October 11, 2014

I was in the same situation as you a while back -- mid-20s, hadn't bothered to learn how to drive, and was needed a car for work.

I tackled this by asking around for a good instructor and paid about $500 in private lessons to learn. It was was expensive, but I didn't have a car to practice with. The instructor taught me good habits and having the instructor allowed me to relax, especially when I first began. I do recommend that you practice on your own though after the first few lessons then returning to the instructor closer to your driving test date.

Overall, I think it took me... 2 months (1 lesson a week and towards the end of the first month, I practiced with a friend in addition to the lesson).
posted by ohorrors at 7:18 PM on October 11, 2014

I learned when I was 16 through a driving class. I think you probably want behind-the-wheel experience, and you want an instructor who has been teaching driver's ed for a while. If my driver's ed teacher didn't have that little stop pedal in the passenger seat and used it, we definitely would've gotten in some accidents. Part of it is also getting comfortable, so driving around parking lots or cemeteries are good places to practice a bit safely.
posted by AppleTurnover at 7:31 PM on October 11, 2014

I cannot speak for how driving lessons work in Canada, but apparently they offer you a lot more driving hours with a pro than America does. I think the price going was about this much for 6 hours with a pro, period when I attempted to learn from one (though in my case, it didn't go well). It took me 2.5 years or so, but that was because the person who was teaching me took summers off and I had a lot of fear issues going on, and it takes a long time to schedule the tests here. If you have to pick, I might say wait until you are closer to the time when you could get your license, especially if you have nobody to practice with*. But I don't think 1-2 weeks with an instructor is good enough, not by a long shot.

* though seriously, I do think you need to find someone--a stranger on Craigslist if you have to--because there's only so much time you can pay the pros to practice and I felt like I needed a LOT before I was calm enough to pass the test.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:36 PM on October 11, 2014

Definitely you can learn the "rules of the road" and the basics of how operate the machine that is a car in one to two weeks; the key thing will be regular practice after that, even if it's only once a week. It's the only thing that builds confidence and familiarity.

It's possible some of your friends who aren't eager to help you LEARN to drive would be willing to let you PRACTICE driving once you've learned and done some practice with the driving school (especially if they've already taught their own teenagers).

Industrial/Commercial parks on weekends are great for practicing -- lots of roads, lots of turns, lots of stop signs, but absolutely no traffic! It's like a practice town!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:38 PM on October 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I got my license about a year ago, at 32. I booked 12 lessons 1-1 with an instructor for one hour each (once or twice a week), with very minimal driving in between, and I passed my test first go. Ironically, your mileage, of course, may vary.
posted by smoke at 7:48 PM on October 11, 2014

I think starting off with professional lessons/a class is the best bet, but once you're doing the lessons with an instructor, try to supplement with as much in-car practice time as you can get. I did driver's ed with a friend when I was a teenager; her father made her practice a ton outside of class while I procrastinated and it showed when we did the driving lessons together (her first, me second, with the instructor)- she was much better and got a lot more out of the lessons because she was more comfortable.

A friend with a car can easily read or use their phone or whatever while you do squares around a deserted parking lot or other safe practice space, as long as they halfway pay attention to give you a little feedback from time to time. Most of what you need to learn at first is the feel of a car and its dimensions, and how it responds to what you do. There's no real way to do that effectively except spending time behind the wheel.
posted by MadamM at 8:18 PM on October 11, 2014

Once you've had some practice, you can always look at booking additional lessons with an instructor as a brush-up for your test. The instructors usually know where and how the test is conducted, so they can give you a very close preview for what to expect. But you can worry about that once you're getting ready to take your test; right now, focus on the basics and getting comfortable behind the wheel.
posted by zachlipton at 8:20 PM on October 11, 2014

I was *terrified* of driving because of, accidents send the whole behind the wheel of tons of dangerous steel mentally. I asked for driving lessons from anyone and everyone once I got a little over my fear enough to actually get behind the wheel. This was after getting my permit that I studied for the written test for like three years. I got it at 18 I think. Then I failed the first test at almost 21 because I ran over the parking cone while parking. I finally got my license the second time. It wasn't as scary as I thought it was, but practicing on the road with other drivers was more important because I was more worried about *other* people's driving habits and my safety in being around distracted drivers. I'm glad I finally did it though. It's really freeing to be able to go wherever you need to and not rely on someone else to take you places.
posted by lunastellasol at 8:29 PM on October 11, 2014

Best answer: First, your goal is to become the awesomest of aweseome drivers. Aim to the the driver who is skilled enough to never cause an accident and skilled enough to avoid many potential accidents caused by others. Just passing the test just isn't good enough when you're planning on holding people's lives in your hands.

With that in mind, go to young drivers (seriously, don't just pick a driving school from the ads on a bus shelter), take your time, and practice lots, not just with anyone you can talk into taking you, but with a driver who you genuinely admire as a safe and skilled driver. Even if you have to pay them.

If you think you're going to forget anything before the test, that's a problem. I mean if you learn everything perfectly today and forget it a year from now, better to take the test a year from now and fail than to get a license tomorrow and a year from now be a licensed driver who doesn't remember how to drive safely. What you learn you have to remember and know for as long as you intend to drive.

So yeah, assuming you want to know how long it will take until you should drive and not just how long before you can drive well enough for 20 minutes to pass the test, I would think about a year is reasonable. I mean think of all those 16 year olds who are licensed, but still not very good drivers for some time after that. It takes experience and you can't really rush that.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:47 PM on October 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I learned in my mid-20s. In Britain, the average is 40 hours of instruction, which usually makes North Americans gasp, but then again I've seen how a lot of North Americans drive.

Formal instruction helps a lot at a couple of stages: getting you past the utter fear when you can't steer the thing, and instilling the right attitude once you've got a bit past that and have enough control and confidence to start thinking about defensive driving, being aware of hazards and anticipating what might happen down the road. Going back to an instructor then will also correct the inevitable bad habits that you'll pick up from non-formal practice. So I'd agree with everyone upthread recommending instruction early and instruction later on with practice in between. What isn't location-specific is that you truly learn to drive after you've passed your test.

It's both muscle memory at the controls and having the right awareness and mindset, and when you're learning, you'll lose both very quickly with any long break. You may also hit one or two plateaus along the way, and those are the times when it's good to call in the professional and hand over your money.
posted by holgate at 12:21 AM on October 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

The thing about driving is that it doesn't take long to learn the mechanics of it, but only by driving do you actually get good at it. So yes, two weeks is plenty of time, and not nearly enough, if you follow me.

So do your formal driving school, then beg your friends to let you drive places (assuming a learner's permit works the same as it does in the states, where you can drive with a licensed driver until you get your license.)

The idea of the waiting period is so you can practice.

One thing I found really helpful was to go to parking lots of malls/big box stores, on Sunday mornings when they're empty, so I could drive around with no obstacles to get the hang of it.

One way to get driving time is to offer to be the designated driver. People will be happy to lend you the keys under those circumstances.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:14 AM on October 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I learned in my mid-20s. In Britain, the average is 40 hours of instruction, which usually makes North Americans gasp, but then again I've seen how a lot of North Americans drive.

Well, most Americans drive automatics, which are basically go-karts, so it doesn't take as long to learn.

The length of time it takes to learn to drive really varies from person to person, and even after you've passed the test you are still learning. When you become a driver, you're going to want to do a lot of driving to reinforce what you've picked up. In that sense, it might be better to wait.
posted by cincinnatus c at 6:16 AM on October 12, 2014

May be worthwhile getting a wheel and pedals for your computer and a driving simulator.
posted by Sophont at 6:41 AM on October 12, 2014

...The link in Sophont's post raises some flags. This is the company website.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:38 AM on October 12, 2014

Best answer: I just completed the process and I'm in my late twenties. I definitely recommend getting lessons (20h in class and 10h in car seem to be standard in Ontario), but it would be helpful to start driving now if you have access to a car. Some even offer packages without the in-class part, but I found them useful anyway.

The most important thing for me was having a driver with me who was not nervous with a novice. My partner was terrible about this for a long time (they have their own driving anxieties), but until we overcame that together, I was an awful, fidgety driver because I was sitting next to an awful, finicky pseudo-instructor. I found going out with my paid driving instructor a lot more comfortable- they had a small n00b-friendly vehicle and an extra brake. I was able to fuck up without having any weird anxiety or shame attached to it.

Also something helpful was to drive with a few different people to get some good feedback. I was having such a hard time learning to back in and then went out with a particular friend and he explained/observed in such a way that ended up being extremely helpful for me. I nail it every time now. It also helped me overcome being stuck with the "tricks" that my instructor taught me that didn't work well in other vehicles- something to keep in mind.

Overall, I feel really comfortable on the road now. Experience is everything, so just get out and practice at every opportunity. I love the freedom it has brought me, and you will too! I remind myself every time I go out though that novice drivers of any age are the most likely to cause accidents because their observation/assessment skills just aren't as good. This stuff simply isn't habit, so practice will make it that way.
posted by Violet Femme at 11:00 AM on October 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also- winter tires.
posted by Violet Femme at 11:05 AM on October 12, 2014

For people who learn as teenagers which is probably most North Americans (I didn't, you didn't, but almost all of my friends did), it's not just the 10 hours of behind-the-wheel experience from an instructor... In my state, teens are required to have 45 hours of driving experience, including 15 at night, to get their license (as certified by their parent(s)), and there's a whole book on that link of what you should be doing with those 45 hours. And most people get a lot more than that (most teens will drive every chance they get...if a parent picks them up from school, they will drive the ten minutes to get home if at all possible). For some reason this isn't a requirement for adult learners, but it really should be.

Also a good point up thread about how it's not just enough to learn the rules for the test, but you need to remember them as long as you are a driver...but also please do skim over the rule booklet every now and then. Every license renewal would be a good reminder. My grandfather perfectly remembers the rules and guidelines as given to him long, long ago and in a place far, far away...they are not the same now (we don't hold our hands like that any more, and adjust our mirrors differently).

Summary: The formal training is only a few weeks, but 8-12 months of consistent practice on top of that to really learn, and even so you will feel much more comfortable after driving daily for a few years than you do when you first get your license.
posted by anaelith at 5:06 AM on October 14, 2014

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