Help me pass my driver's test. Please!
April 20, 2006 10:15 AM   Subscribe

I need help passing my driver's test. I'm 24 years old, and through a combination of laziness and attending college in a city with a great public transportation system, I managed to avoid driving for most of my life. Until now. So far, I've taken the test twice and failed both times. Each time I get behind the wheel with the examiner sitting right next to me, I get so incredibly anxious and nervous that all of my rational driving skills go out the window. I need all your war stories, tips, tricks, pointers, etc. on how to get through this.

Also, if you could provide any hints on how to back up in a straight line, that would also be appreciated. In short, the DMV examiner (this is in CA) has me pull up to the curb, and then back up in a straight line. It sounds like it should be easy, but alas, for me it is not. Oh, and this is anonymous because I'm embarrassed to admit that I can't do something most people learn when they're 16.
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How are your driving skills when you are not with the instructor? Are they acceptable? Is the sheer problem a case of anxiety or do you think it involves your ability to control the vehicle?

If we are talking about anxiety I (a few years ago) thought of my drivers exam as a battle between me and the instructor. I knew that he could not do anything to beat me unless I beat myself, so I put it upon myself to do everything meticulously right.

Every stop sign, I would swing my head violently both sides, not leaving any room for doubt whether or not I looked. I was truly confident in my driving mechanics so I wanted to focus on the formalities.

Basically, you have to think of it like any other test or examination in your life: you have to rise above the obstacles and quash the competition/excersize.

Perhaps meditation would help if the complacency still persists?
posted by stratastar at 10:21 AM on April 20, 2006

Now that you've taken the exam, you know what to expect. Are there any things besides the backing up bit that you can't do when you're not under pressure? Practice those repeatedly, with someone else in the car to distract you and/or give you pointers. Preferably an instructor.

Have you taken lessons? If not, take them, and then schedule a lesson immediately prior to the actual exam so that you're not taking transit to the examining station and then driving cold. Be in a driving zone before you get there so it's not the first driving you do of the day.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:22 AM on April 20, 2006

Lessons, definitely lessons. Choose a driving school that is very familiar with the driving examination. The last 5 or 6 lessons I took over the course of a couple of months were all simulated exams - mixing up the order of techniques to perform each time. By the time my exam came along, it was like routine for me and I just drove like I was with my driving instructor and it went just fine. Have your instructor mark things on a clipboard during the simulated exams so you're really comfortable with someone sitting next to you doing that. Good luck!
posted by meerkatty at 10:31 AM on April 20, 2006

As for the mechanics of backing up in a straight line, there is a very easy method. Make sure before you stop that the wheels are straight forward. The car will naturally center, so there really isn't anything to do here. Stop. Turn around and look over your right shoulder, hold on to the steering wheel and don't let it turn. As long as the wheels were straight when you stopped, you will back up in a straight line.

Resist the urge to make corrective movements until you have more practice. Just work on holding the steering wheel as steady as you can.

As to your anxiety, (and i'm just spitballin' here) it seems like you have some stress about your age with regard to what you should be able to do. Don't be. We are not born with an intuitive knowledge on how to drive. It has to be learned and not everyone was provided those opportunities to learn at the same time. i didn't get my license till i was 18. May not sound like much, but i don't live in an area with good public transportation and those 2 years were an eternity.

Just follow the suggestions of those above me, learn how to do it and when you are in the car with the instructor, just remember, he's done this thousands of times, there is nothing personal here. He is just looking at your mechanics. Be precise and obvious in your movements and you'll do fine.
posted by quin at 10:35 AM on April 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Practice on the same route the examiner had you go on. I lived in a small town in N. California and was terrified by having to take the test, especially if I got the "old guy" instead of the "nice lady" that gave the tests. I practiced driving the course for both and knew what my friends got flagged for in the past. I got the old guy and passed. I still have nightmares about that guy everytime I parallel park and it has been 21 years.

Jacquilynne's advice about warming up before the next test also should help. I think in California you have to use your own car so you can practice with whoever you can coerce to ride along with your learner's permit and drive around for an hour before the test.

Good luck and happy motoring.
posted by birdherder at 10:35 AM on April 20, 2006

Exaggerate (a little bit) the motions of looking at things -- looking both ways, checking mirrors, etc. I lost points on my driving test because I "didn't check the rear view enough," even though I was constantly just moving my eyes up there to look. Not a big issue if it's something that will only stress you out more, but a little thing that might help balance out those points lost on, y'know, parallel parking and stuff.
posted by reese at 10:38 AM on April 20, 2006

I would second the "practice under pressure" thing - have a friend ride along your route (use the same route you will be tested on, if you remember it...), and have that friend act like the tester. Make them point things out to you, make them dictate the turns you take on the route, make them in short be what you fear. Don't "break character" - make them be strict with you

The more you do that, the better prepared you will be. Like reese said, make sure you make your movements known - I always, to this day, look behind me quickly before I change lanes, after I look in the rear view, and when I did this on my drivers test I actually got a compliment from the tester.

Good luck and let us know when you pass!
posted by pdb at 10:43 AM on April 20, 2006

How much road-time do you actually have? I'd think the key thing is practice. Driving lessons are one way to get that practice. Getting a friend to take you out is another.
posted by Good Brain at 10:47 AM on April 20, 2006

I know what its like to be in your shoes. I took my driving test five times, the last time when I was 23.

The thing that finally enabled me to pass was that I contacted a local driving school and had a private lesson with them for about two hours directly before my driving test. We spent the first hour working on problems I had, and the second hour driving the actual driving test course, over and over and over again. The instructor put me through my paces so well and coached me so well that actually passing the test was a breeze. Plus I don't think that it hurt that the examiner knew I'd been doing this all day and that I took the test in the driving school's actual auto.

I highly recommend this method!
posted by anastasiav at 11:08 AM on April 20, 2006

I didn't get my license until I was 19, due to a similar lack of need/interest. Not that this matters for the story, but I thought I'd let you know you weren't alone.

Sitting in the car, waiting for the instructor to emerge from the DMV. Sit, fidget, sit, fidget, sit.

Instructor arrives and gets in the passenger seat.

I ask her if we should start, she says to go ahead.

I turn on the car, but leave it in park having spotted something important:

"Excuse me, you'll need to put on your seat belt before I start driving."



"I'm sorry but I'm pretty sure it's the law that you have to wear a seat belt."

"I'm not going to wear a seat belt."


"Look, I don't know if this is part of the test or what, but I really think you need to wear the seat belt."

"I'm sorry, I just got done watching a safety film wiith people trapped in burning cars by their seatbelts. I'm not going to drive with a beginner with my seatbelt on right now. We can get another examiner if you want."

(long pause while I consider this)

"Never mind, I'll just drive."

The test went fine, and I credit this bizarre interchange for it. It's hard for me to be uptight when I'm baffled and somewhat amused.
posted by tkolar at 11:21 AM on April 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Am I the only one that was sure that tkolar was going to fail his exam for allowing himself be talked out of insisting the examiner buckle up? Weird story. [Sorry for the derail]
posted by mojohand at 11:25 AM on April 20, 2006

Also, if you could provide any hints on how to back up in a straight line, that would also be appreciated. In short, the DMV examiner (this is in CA) has me pull up to the curb, and then back up in a straight line. It sounds like it should be easy, but alas, for me it is not.

Backing up in a straight line is easy. Backing up in a straight line parallel to a curb is a royal pain in the ass that I still suck at after 17 years of driving.

The only advice I can give is to practice, practice, practice. Oh, and what quin said about resisting the urge to make corrective movements.
posted by tkolar at 11:28 AM on April 20, 2006

Marcia Brady pictured her driving examiner in his underwear.
posted by FreezBoy at 11:31 AM on April 20, 2006

This is a minor point, but you should definitely try to be tested by a different instructor than you had previously. They try to be objective, I am sure, but someone who has already seen you fail multiple times is going to have preconceived notions about your competence as a driver. And from an internal psychological standpoint, I find that I get very uncomfortable performing in front of someone who has already seen me screw up.

The DMV should be able to tell you the examiners' testing schedules.
posted by miagaille at 11:36 AM on April 20, 2006

Anon, I just passed my first driving test a couple months ago (my first time driving in the snow, with 3 inches on the ground and more falling, so that I couldn't find the curb for paralell parking) , also at age 24, so I know exactly where you're coming from. I took lessons with a local driving school that specifically advertised specializing in anxious adults. The instructor had me go round and round the neighborhood where the test would take place, so I was already aware of all the potential hazards (school zone, train tracks, blind drives, etc) and could do the proper exaggerated motions as reese mentions above.

I took the test in the driving school's big old Buick, and learned that the steering wheel took 3 full rotations to take the wheels from pointing all the way left to all the way right; in order to get the wheels straight for paralell parking or driving backwards like you had to, I just had to spin it till it stopped and then go 1.5 rotations in the other direction. I assume this differs on other cars (and with power steering?), but if you've got access to the car you'll be taking the test in, figuring out that ratio might be helpful for the backing up bit.
posted by nonane at 11:54 AM on April 20, 2006

Practice builds confidence. Commercial lessons can be a big help, but so can a friend with a car and a couple of hours early on a few Saturday mornings, in a big empty parking lot. Many years ago, I helped a woman who had failed the exam 6 times in Massachussetts, by the simple expedient of meeting her at 5 a.m. on 4 successive Saturday mornings in a supermarket parking lot a couple of blocks from home. We backed up, a lot. We parallel parked a few hundred times. We angle parked 'til the sun came up. We even taught her to do chauffeur stops, and to do a bit of skid recovery, since it snowed a lot one Thursday evening before one of our sessions. We even covered how to check the oil, transmission fluid, and tire pressure, as a break from craning her neck around to back up...

We just kept doing whatever she said was hard for her to do, until enough cars started arriving that we didn't have much practice room left. Then, she bought me breakfast, and filled up the car with gas. Finally, even she was bored with what once was hard for her, and that's when she went to take the test again, and passed easily.
posted by paulsc at 11:54 AM on April 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

I started learning to drive in the UK at a similar time to you - it took me absolutely ages and 5 goes at the test to pass - but I did in the end. My main problem was not having anyone to go out and practice with between driving lessons - I don't know what the law is on learner drivers in your part of the world, but I'd reccomend practice, practice, practice as often as possible. Plus, the more tests you fail, the more fatalistic you get about them and hence relaxed - or at least that's what happened to me.

Learning to drive as an adult is miserable, particularly when you seee smart arse teenagers do much better, but, once you pass and start driving a bit, you'll be fine.
posted by prentiz at 12:18 PM on April 20, 2006

Driving lessons, definitely. In a lot of countries you have to take lessons before you're even allowed to try the test.

Sneaky trick: I've heard that some drivers' test centers are stricter than others - at least in Atlanta where I took mine, this was the word on the street. If you have a choice of where to take the test, ask around before selecting a center, and don't go back to the place where you keep failing.
posted by hazyjane at 12:27 PM on April 20, 2006

Get a learners permit and do a lot of driving with friends. The idea is to get comfortable behind the wheel so you don't freak out.

I know in Iowa you can take the test every day the DMV is open untill you pass.

FWIW, you sound exactly like a friend of mine, even down to the age.
posted by delmoi at 12:31 PM on April 20, 2006

I passed one of two required road tests in the month I turned 27 and I still need to do the second (and I'm 28 now). My mom didn't take lessons until she was 40, and several of my friends didn't get their license until they were in their thirties.

I passed my road test on thie third try, also because I was nervous and because of weird external circumstances like snow covering suddenly appearing lane markings. The third time I wasn't really expecting to pass either, just because I have no self-confidence. Halfway through the test I made a mistake by ending up in the right lane instead of the left after turning left (I made the turn too wide). I said "Whoops! Sorry!", and figured I lost all chances of ever passing, but the examiner said: "Don't worry, I've seen much worse. I'm glad you knew that was wrong!" At that point I suddenly realized I was going to PASS this thing, and the rest of the drive went great!

So: it's a combination of practise makes perfect, getting a nice examiner and self confidence!
posted by easternblot at 12:55 PM on April 20, 2006

I fifth or so the 'do the route they're going to test you on' bit. I took my test (and my classroom hours) in a town that wasn't the one where I did my driving hours or my driving with my parents. The end result was a barely-marked right-turn only lane (sign was behind a leafy tree, no road mark) that failed me 30 seconds after the exam started.

Do the route with a friend as often as possible until you get bored with it. Then a few more times.
posted by cobaltnine at 12:55 PM on April 20, 2006

Regarding backing up:

Turn around and look over your right shoulder,

Good advice, but I wanted to add something: Place your right hand and put it on the top back of the passenger seat. Yes, just like you're about to "put the moves" on the passenger. This is a way to force your body into the correct position.

And make sure you look where you want the car to go, not at any go where you look. (Always good advice, going forwards or backwards.)
posted by IvyMike at 1:28 PM on April 20, 2006

I've heard that some drivers' test centers are stricter than others - at least in Atlanta where I took mine, this was the word on the street

I'd definitely recommend taking the test at a smaller DMV if you possibly can. In my neck of the woods it was well known that the city's main office was uniformly staffed with overworked and rather jaded people--which I can completely understand, having gone there since for license renewals. It's never not a madhouse. But the office in the small town nearby wasn't busy at all, had reasonably pleasant testers, and--most importantly--had much lighter traffic to deal with. Piece of cake, except for the part where they had me parallel-park behind an actual car on the street instead of two sets of pylons. (I didn't hit the car, but my head almost exploded with the fear that I would.)
posted by Vervain at 1:37 PM on April 20, 2006

tricks for backing in a straight line:

Hopefully, your car has some kind of brake light or whatever on the rear windshield.
Turn your head around and look for an object far behind the car. While you're backing up, do whatever steering you need to do to keep that object lined up with the edge of the brake light.

I've also heard (but never tried) that you can do a similar thing by steering to keep your hand (which is on the steering wheel--hold your grip on the steering wheel and make sure your hand stays in place relative to the steering wheel) aligned with the edge of the curb or with a line on the road. (Hopefully that made sense.)

Also, if it's helpful, feel free to adjust your side mirrors in whatever way will be most useful to you during the test, which may be entirely different from how you'd want them when you're actually driving. (e.g. so that you basically just see the curb--good for parallel parking). I know this is permitted in Maryland, not sure about CA.
posted by needs more cowbell at 1:37 PM on April 20, 2006

Well, I am the proud founder of the "Four times for drivers licence" (which rhymes in Norwegian), so you still have a couple of times to fail to join!

Anyway, what made me fail? The examiner scared the shit out of me, hmmmping and making notes on her board. Not the way to soothe my nerves. The last time got a new examiner, a man whom I engaged in a conversation about bikes and which made both him and not to mention me - loosen up before starting. Passed with flying colours.

Since I know next to nothing about foreign licence-practises, I second whatever people have said about practise, practise, practise. Take some driving lessons and find someone to simulate the exam with. Yes, paying for it is worth it.
posted by mummimamma at 2:20 PM on April 20, 2006

It took me three times to pass my test (although I was sixteen at the time). Beyond the practice and the venomous teasing from my twin sister, the thing that helped me was to repeat to myself,as I was driving (not out loud during the test) "I'm a VERY good driver." Positive reinforcment, especially when I pulled off moves that made me nervous, like changing lanes on the freeway, or left turns with no arrows.
posted by Sara Anne at 5:33 PM on April 20, 2006

Anon, I've been where you are. At 24, I failed my driving test the first two times because of anxiety induced mistakes and the only reason I passed the third time was because the examiner saw how nervous I was and took pity on me.

I would suggest that you do a mock driving test (or more than one if you have too) and have a friend pretend to be an examiner. Tell the friend to act like a hard ass - giving you snide glances, making lots of checkmarks on the clipboard and generally acting like you failed the test from the moment you entered the car.

With any luck, this will come close to replicating the anxiety you feel during the real test and you should be able to get desensitized to the anxiety enough to pass the test.
posted by nooneyouknow at 5:47 PM on April 20, 2006

On the "backing up in a straight line" front: spot mirrors saved my bacon. You know those little round mirrors that truckers attach to the bottom corner of their side mirrors? It shows you what's in your blind spot, and (more importantly) allows you to see your car's position in relation to the curb. I would pull up to the curb, keeping my wheels straight, and when I backed up I could observe if I was moving straight back or curving too much. Spot mirrors also gave me more confidence in changing lanes, which frightened the hell out of me when I was first learning to drive (I have spatial issues).

I second some other suggestions here: practice driving in the area that your real test will be going through, so you don't have to worry about being "surprised" by anything. Also, definitely be sure you're practicing "driving test behavior", which can be quite different from normal driving behavior. Practice the constant, exaggerated, obsessive checking of your mirrors, and the bug-eyed scanning of each intersection as you approach. When I first took the test, I knew they were looking for that, but it felt unnatural and made me anxious. The second time was better, because I knew the area we were driving through, and I was more comfortable spending the trip jerking my head back and forth like a loon.

And sometimes you just get a surly hardass for an examiner. My first examiner made me feel like felon for even attempting to operate a vehicle. My second examiner was polite, attentive, and flexible (I encountered a randomly stopped car in my lane of traffic, but didn't know if I should change lanes without her permission; my first examiner would've slammed me for my slow reaction time). That's something you can't control. So it's okay if you have to take the test multiple times - many, many people do.
posted by brookedel at 3:25 AM on April 21, 2006

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