Getting your driver’s license is a wonderful milestone – if you have a car to use, you can go anywhere! Say hello to weekends at the beach with your mates or even driving across town for concerts without having to worry about being picked up afterward.

It’s also an important responsibility, so now is the time to really hone in on your skills so you can secure this freedom by being a safe and confident driver.

This guide will supplement all that you’ll learn in your driver’s education course or from your driving supervisor. We’ll cover general safety guidelines, how to handle adverse weather conditions, proper driving etiquette, and driving distractions. It’s vital that you learn safe habits from the beginning, so that by the time you earn the coveted P-plate, you’ll be able to enjoy your new-found freedom without the worry!

Young adult receiving car keys for the first time

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General safety

Before making a trip, ensure you’re in the right mental state. If you’re feeling tired after a long school or work day, wait until you’ve gotten some rest before getting behind the wheel. Being awake for 17 hours has a similar effect as a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05, which means your judgment can be severely impaired. If you’re especially emotional in any way (even just excited about your new license!), give yourself some time to calm down. And of course, if you have taken medication that could affect your judgment or used drugs or alcohol, don’t drive until all substances are out of your system. You should never get into a car to drive if you’re not at your best, especially when you’re first starting to learn!

The first steps to becoming a safe driver are getting familiar with every car you drive and testing each for safety. It might sound boring, but it’s necessary! Before turning the ignition, locate the seatbelts, light controls, turn signals, pedals, and emergency brake. Ideally, you should learn to drive using a car with standard safety features like side and front airbags, head restraints, electronic stability control, antilock brakes, and GPS. Learn how each of these functions works before you begin driving.

Check and adjust your mirrors to get the best visibility, and your seats for optimal visibility and control. Your headrest should sit with the top at least as high as eye level, and your seat should be far enough back that you’re not cramped, but close enough to comfortably reach the pedals. Adjust the steering wheel height so that you’re comfortable and have a clear view of the instrument panel and the road. Ask your driving supervisor to walk around the car to figure out where your blind spots are. Ensure tyres have at least 1.5 mm of tread and are inflated to the proper PSI (the correct level is usually printed on the tyre near the rim, or on a placecard located inside your driver side door). Don’t forget to check your oil level and that you have enough fuel for your trip!

Now you’re ready to turn that ignition – but there are still a few more safety checks you should make before you start driving! Have your supervisor help you check your headlights, tail lights, brake lights, and turn signals are all in good working order. Test the horn, windscreen wipers, and windscreen washer pump. If everything tests well, you’re ready to get started!

As you slowly begin to get the car moving, get a feel for the controls. Gently test the brakes to see how much pressure is needed. When it’s safe to do so, make a basic turn to test the power of the wheel, especially if your car is equipped with power steering.  Your very first driving expedition should be on quiet residential roads with lower speed limits and you can work your way up from there. For the first few drives, keep music turned off and drive only with your supervisor (no extra passengers – sorry!) to allow you to keep your focus on the road.

Pay close attention to the speed limit where you’re driving, and drive a few km/h under it until you’ve gotten more comfortable. A reduction of just 5km/h in a 60km/h zone can decrease the likelihood of crashes by 31%, and cutting your speed by 10% overall can result in 36% fewer vehicle fatalities.

Watch your speed

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Be especially careful around schools, playgrounds, and parks where the limit is low and a loose ball in the road may be immediately followed by a child. Also keep a special eye on parked cars; it can be difficult to see kids and other pedestrians attempting to cross the road if they’re coming from behind or between cars parked along the sidewalk. Stay alert at stop signs and unmarked intersections, making sure your path is clear before proceeding. Remember, just because you’re obeying all the laws doesn’t mean every other driver is, so it’s important to remain cautious!

As you begin to drive on busier roads with more traffic, pay attention to your following distance. The three-second rule is a good way to gauge whether or not you’re tailgating: watch the car in front of you pass an object at the side of the road like a tree, sign, or power pole. As it passes, being counting, “one thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and three.” If you pass the object before you finish “one thousand and three,” you’re following too closely. Simply decrease your speed, pick another object, and repeat the test until you’re at a safe distance (all while keeping an eye on the road, of course!).

As you move on to city and main roads, increase your following distance. Higher speeds mean you’ll need more time to stop, and depending on traffic and weather conditions you’ll need to add even more distance. Even if you have a green light, approach intersections carefully and keep an eye out for anyone who may have run the light. Be aware of how others around you are driving, and look ahead of the car you’re following for potential hazards so you’ll have more time to react. Plan your moves in advance, consulting your supervisor if you aren’t sure how to safely navigate a lane change or turn, and give plenty of warning with indicators and brake lights.

It’s also a good idea to spread out your driving experience over your full learning licence period, not just before the test. Drive at various times of day in all kinds of weather and try different kinds of terrains and areas, from the city to rural areas to the mountains.

When navigating through the country, keep an eye out for livestock and wildlife that may be in road, on roadsides, or near water crossings. Be aware there may be slow-driving tractors towing farm machinery, so don’t drastically accelerate your speed even if the road looks clear where you are. Don’t attempt to overtake them while on a crest, curve, or bridge; instead, wait until you’re on flat, straight ground where you have a clear view.

On mountain or range roads, take special care to observe the speed limit and look out for yellow warning signs alerting you of steep areas or bends. If your car isn’t automatic, have your supervisor help you find the correct gear to avoid wearing out the brakes. Keep in mind that older or larger cars may struggle to maintain their speed when driving up steep slopes, so increase your following distance and be especially careful when going uphill and downhill. Only overtake another car when you’re away from curves, have a clear view, and signs indicate you’re allowed to do so.

Rolling hills
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Driving in special weather conditions

You’ll need to get used to driving in all kinds of weather, but each requires special precautions. Talk to your supervisor about safe practices before going out in any inclement weather. Ease yourself into conditions — you’ve got plenty of time to learn, so don’t try to tackle a thunderstorm before you’ve ever driven in light rain.

Rain

The most common weather element you’ll battle on the road is rain. Even light rain can be dangerous and make the road slippery, especially as it mixes with oil and other substances that have accumulated on the streets. It’s a good idea keep the radio off and limit chatting so you can concentrate.

Maintain a lower speed in the rain; speed limits refer to best driving conditions, so don’t feel pressured to hit the limit. Increase your following distance, and don’t switch lanes unless it’s completely clear for you to do so. Turn on your headlights to increase your own visibility and the ability of others to spot your car. Use windscreen wipers at a speed that keeps up with the rainfall. Allow yourself extra time to get to your destination, and if you start to run behind schedule, continue to focus on the road instead of the time. There will likely be increased traffic since bikers and walkers will switch to their cars, so be patient – no appointment is worth your life!

Apply pressure to your breaks in a steady, controlled fashion to avoid losing control. Apply the same technique to accelerating, pressing gently and slowly. Never attempt to travel through flooded areas unless you’re certain of the depth, and always heed warnings about washed out streets and bridges.

Fog

Driving in fog can be extremely dangerous. This is partly because people often unknowingly drive too fast: fog gives the illusion that you’re driving very slowly, so drivers tend to overcompensate and speed up over time. When driving in foggy conditions, make a conscious effort to regularly glance at the speedometer and increase your following distance significantly to avoid accidents.

Many hesitate to use headlights while driving in fog, but it’s important to make your car as visible as possible to other drivers. Regular headlights will keep you visible to others without hurting your visibility, but using your high beams can reflect off the water vapour and limit your sight. If your car has fog lights, use those in addition to your headlights.

Beware fog

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If you’re having considerable trouble seeing, a good strategy is to keep your eyes on the lines of the road to help you stay in your lane. Just be careful not to get too fixated and keep your eyes moving to stay alert. If conditions become too dense, pull into a driveway, parking lot, side street, or any other well-lit place that allows you to get away from heavy traffic flow. Only pull off to the shoulder as a last resort, and get as far off the road as possible, even into the grass. Keep in mind that you’ll need to navigate very carefully: pedestrians won’t be easily visible, and if you can’t see through the fog then they can’t either. Once safely pulled off, stay buckled up and turn your lights off. Keep your foot off the brake and do not turn on your hazard lights. When you’re driving, you want other drivers to see you. But when parked on the side of the road, you don’t want someone to mistake your parked car for one that’s in motion and accidentally rear-end you. If there’s a shelter nearby, try to get there quickly and stay put until conditions clear up.

Driving etiquette

Being a polite driver may not be something on which you’re tested, but it’s certainly an important part of being behind the wheel! Keep these guidelines in mind as you’re learning, and remember that manners are necessary even when they aren’t returned.

Basic etiquette of the road

  • Wave or give a nod of thanks if another driver has helped you in some way, like letting you merge in front of them.
  • When coming upon a roundabout, approach slowly and wait for anyone already in it to pass through (i.e. observe the rules of giving way).
  • Always leave enough room for other cars to park in the spaces next to you in parking lots, and never take up more than one space.
  • Be cautious of other road users who need to merge and think ahead when you’re aware of an approaching merging lane.
  • Only make U-turns on busy streets if traffic allows you (and it is legal) to do so. Keep in mind the disruption you’ll cause to oncoming drivers and be sensitive to it, even if you’re within legalities.
  • The first person to approach a parking space is entitled to it. Look for someone sitting with their indicator on before trying to grab a newly-vacated space.

Honking/Beeping the horn

  • As a general rule, only honk when it’s absolutely necessary to ensure safe driving.
  • Honk to alert other drivers to immediate dangers: for example, if you’ve blown out your engine or a tyre or see a large obstruction in the road ahead.
  • Honk to communicate warning about dangerous driving: if the driver next to you swerves into your lane, it’s acceptable to give a quick honk to alert him.
  • Don’t honk purely to express anger. It really doesn’t remedy a situation, and could actually lead to dangerous road rage encounters.

Drive anywhere

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Basic manners

  • Be patient, even if someone makes an error. As a new driver (and later, as a seasoned one!), you’ll want others to show you the same courtesy.
  • Avoid overreacting. Getting upset can impair your judgment and cause you to drive aggressively in response, putting yourself and everyone else at risk.
  • Don’t tailgate, even if you feel the person you’re following is driving too slowly. Not only is it rude, it’s dangerous.
  • When you can safely do so, let someone merge or change lanes in front of you. That extra room wouldn’t do much to cut your travel time, and a panicked driver may jerk over suddenly to claim his or her spot.

Eliminating distractions

Driver distraction is named as one of the main causes of road crashes, accounting for about 25% of them. The largest problem is mobile phone usage while driving, which makes drivers four times more likely to get into a crash requiring hospital attendance.

It may seem harmless, but using your phone while driving distracts you physically, visually, and cognitively: you often have to search to locate your phone, pick it up and handle it, look down to read a message or see who’s calling, and can get distracted thinking of a reply or processing what is being said. Texting can be especially dangerous, causing drivers to veer into the next lane, miss important signs, or collide with road obstructions or other vehicles that may have slowed or stopped.

In all Australian states and territories, it’s illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone while driving for any reason. This includes using it while the car is stationary but not parked, e.g. sitting at a red light or stop sign. Though seasoned drivers are permitted to use hands-free devices, learner and P1 drivers are not allowed to use any kind of mobile phone while driving. The best habit to get into is to leave your phone out of reach and silenced while driving to avoid the temptation.

Know where you're going

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Remember that distractions aren’t limited to mobile usage. Loud music and multiple passengers can be just as distracting, so limit the potential as much as possible. Drive only with a supervisor for your first few weeks and when he or she agrees that you’re ready, try bringing along another passenger. It’s also acceptable to play music when your supervisor believes you’re ready, but don’t crank it up to max volume. You want to be able to hear emergency sirens, screeching tyres, or other warning sounds that could prevent accidents.

Learning to drive is one of the greatest responsibilities you’ll ever take on, but remember that it is a right and not a privilege. Drive safely, courteously, and distraction-free. Never be afraid to ask for help or advice, even after you’ve gotten your P-plate. One of the best ways to become a safe driver is to learn from others’ experiences and avoid repeating their mistakes!