Your first time behind the wheel can be intimidating. All those unfamiliar knobs and switches remind you of an airplane cockpit. And now you’re expected to take the wheel in your hands and actually control this monster? If you weren’t at least a bit nervous, you wouldn’t be human.
You can harness your anxiety and position yourself for a positive experience if you approach learning to drive as an infant does learning to walk – one baby step at a time.
Before you drive for the first time, study the new driver manual you acquired from your driver’s license board. Read it from cover to cover. The manual introduces you to essential information you’ll need to know before you get your license. It covers a lot, and can be overwhelming, but take heart – you don’t have to learn it all at once. Your instructor will dole out information as-needed for the situation you’re practicing.
For a quick shot of confidence, learn how to maintain your vehicle. Read your car’s operations manual to find out what all those gauges mean, and how to check your oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid and coolant. And check the air pressure in your tires often. Pressure that’s too high or low can adversely affect your car’s steering and handling capabilities, and contribute to premature tire wear.
Operating a vehicle on the highway is not for the virgin driver. Find a safe, neutral place to start your driving adventure. The ideal practice spot should have plenty of room to maneuver, with no hazards, obstructions, or distractions – especially no other vehicles. A great practice spot is an empty mall parking lot. You’ll have plenty of open space, with lanes for driving and delineated stalls for parking practice. State, federal and local parks in the off-hours are also good places to practice. Once you feel comfortable with your fledgling skills, up the ante a little by driving in your favorite safe venue while other cars are parked there.
Make it a point to get as much “wheel time” as possible. The more you drive, the better prepared you’ll be – not only to take your driver’s exam, but, more importantly, to handle any situation that comes your way while on the road. Try to drive at least 3 times a week, and on the weekends. Be sure to include night driving – things look a lot different after the sun goes down.
You should know your vehicle inside and out. Try to learn in the car you’ll be driving after you have your license. It’s confusing enough to get used to all the bells and whistles on one car, so try not to change until you have a good bit of experience under your belt.
Okay – time to get your feet wet. A licensed driver should take you to your practice spot. Change places when you get there. Once you’re behind the wheel, make all your adjustments prior to driving: mirrors, seat position, and steering wheel height. You and your instructor should have a practice program in mind to make the most of your driving time. If not, now’s the time to decide what you want to concentrate on. Most likely, your first few lessons will deal with steering, gradual acceleration and braking.
Leave the radio off for now. It’s difficult enough to learn a new skill without competing with the latest hot recording act.
Fasten your seatbelt. You’ll want to make seatbelts a habit from the first time you slide into the driver’s seat. Many accident victims are ejected from their cars during a wreck because they weren’t strapped in.
Start your car. The gear shift lever should be in park (in a vehicle with an automatic transmission) and the emergency brake should be on. You’ll probably want to use your right foot for both the foot brake and the accelerator. Ask your instructor what he or she recommends. With your foot on the foot brake, release the emergency brake and ease the gear shift out of park. Take your foot off the brake and slowly press the gas pedal. Congratulations! You’ve made the car move – and the best is yet to come.
Your first few lessons should cover basic skills like steering a straight course, working the gas and brake pedals, operating the car in forward or reverse, and using turn signals and wipers. You’ll also need to practice left and right turns, as well as parking between lines. It’s hard for novice drivers to judge the relative distances from their bumpers to stationary objects. If you’re unsure how close you are to an object, park next to it and get out of the car for a good look.
Hold your practice drives in your safe place for at least the first few weeks you’re learning. You want to nail these basic skills before you even think about heading out on the highway.
You’ve done it. You’ve learned basic driving skills, harnessed your anxiety and taken those first baby steps towards earning your driver’s license. Now, with these essential skills under your belt, you’re ready to take your journey of discovery to the next level. There’s a lot more to learn before you can call yourself a competent driver.