Learning to drive a car – skills for a new learner driver
Learning to drive a car is daunting, and it’s easy to forget how much a learner driver needs to know. Follow this list to cover all bases.
ARE YOU LEARNING TO DRIVE or helping someone to learn? Looking for a checklist of skills? Here it is.
You might think there’s a lot of basic stuff in the list, such as “this is how the wipers work”, and “this is called a wingmirror”. But it’s not obvious to learners. If you’re a parent, chances are you’ll have been driving for 20-plus years and completely forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner, especially if you don’t typically teach as part of your job or recreation.
The questions will be really basic. Learners will ask which pedal does what, and will struggle to remove the key from the ignition as they won’t know about the safety catch. Even if they’ve seen you do it, they won’t have noticed the quick and subtle actions. So, best double-check everything, even if you get the teenage eyeroll. It’s also a good idea for a learner to inspect, and preferably drive several different cars, as each one will be slightly different.
This list is just a guide for to create your own, and if you have any suggestions, post comments please. Each item on the list could be an article by itself, and over time we’ll publish more guides to help.
What parts of the car are what:
- Exterior parts of a car – including the windscreen, bonnet, lights, indicators, tyres, valves, towbar, grill, wing mirrors – walk around and discuss each part;
- Interior parts – pedals, steering wheel, dashboard, storage compartments. Just identify each one, the explanation of which does what can come later;
- Locking/unlocking doors – central locking, auto-lock, child lock, keyless if fitted;
- Cargo security – when and how to tie things down, tie-downs;
- Window operation and locks – one touch, child lockout;
- Use of HVAC (heat, ventilation, aircon, cooling) including demisting, rear window heating, wiping, heated seats;
- Operation of other seats in the car – second, third rows, adjustability, memory, electrics;
- Interior lights – on, off, door operated;
- Boot releases, tie-downs;
- Child seat restraints.
How a car works
Mix this in with practical lessons, so theory-practical-theory-practical. It’s a lot to take in, and repetition for understanding and consolidation is a good idea. Use analogies, for example if they know how to ride a bike then gearing works the same way.
- Dashboard – speedometer, revcounter, dash lights;
- Engine, clutch and gears – start engine, select gear, effect of clutch, effect of gearing;
- Brakes – general use, and relative to gears;
- Parkbrake – also mention foot operated, electronic. Not all parkbrakes are handbrakes;
- Explanation of the vehicle’s safety aids such as ESC, ABS, AEB.
Setting up to drive
Once in the driver’s seat this is what you need to know before you move off:
- Seating position;
- Adjustment of mirrors – so that there’s no body showing in the mirror;
- Understanding of blind spots;
- Use of seatbelts – height adjust, not twisted, how locking works;
- Headlights – side / low / full beam, fog lights;
- Wipers – different modes, auto sense, front and rear;
- Headlights – sidelights, full beam, high beam and any automatic settings;
- Horn – where it is, how to use it (and when not to!);
- Indicators – on, off, auto cancel;
- Heated rear windows, other heated items;
- Hazard lights – where, how to use;
- Gauges – fuel, speed, temp, revcounter, odometer, tripmeters;
- Diesel start – wait for the glowplug;
- Ignition key positions including keyless;
- Steering wheel locks;
- Auto stop/start operation.
Car control skills
Skills needed to drive a car safely and effectively.
- Vision – looking well ahead, reading the traffic, observing hazards and positioning the car. This can even be done when a passenger;
- Steering – push pull and rotational, read this and this;
- Hill start up and down;
- Cornering – smooth transition from braking to cornering to accelerating;
- Steep hills – use of gears, potential brake oveheating, allowing extra stopping distance;
- Cruise control including adaptive cruise;
- Manual: rev-matched downshift;
- Manual: skip shifting;
- Auto: manual gear select, how to and when;
- Emergency stop – do this from several different speeds, and once every other lesson;
- Smooth braking.
How to keep a car running.
- Owner’s manual familiarisation;
- Bonnet release and latching;
- Key components under the bonnet eg battery, brake fluid, oil, washer fluid;
- Service intervals;
- What wheel alignment is and when it should be done;
- Tyres – tyre pressures, condition, checking for wear and uneven wear, age;
- Spare tyre changing;
- What fuses are and how to change them;
- Globes and how to change them;
- Refuelling – types of fuel, overfilling, mis-fuel process, low fuel light.
Roads to drive on
Get a good mix of these. Start off with easy, deserted roads and build up to busy night peak-hour traffic in the wet. There’s a huge difference between a Sunday morning run on a freeway and the same freeway in torrential rain in peak hour.
- CBD when busy;
- 4WD tracks (if applicable);
- Rural – with blind, fast corners, hills, uneven roads;
- Steep, long hills up and down;
- Around schools; and
- Multi-story carparks.
Weather and time
- Torrential rain;
- Sun glare.
So important it has its own section. Generally, reversing into a space is safer and easier than driving in forwards.
- Reverse park;
- Parallel park;
- Parallel park on a hill;
- Front park.
Become proficient in all of these;
- Roundabouts – large and small;
- Multi-point turn (not necessarily a 3 point turn);
- Reversing around a corner. It’s good practice to set out some cones and reverse around them;
- Staggered junctions;
- Parking aids eg mirrors.
Other skills and knowledge
Other things a driver needs to know:
- Accident process;
- Interstate road rules;
- Drink-driving laws;
- Effect of load on a car;
- Insurance – how it works;
- Registration – how it works;
- Preparation for long trips;
- Animals on road.
- Break it down. It is easier to learn a complex task when it’s broken down into smaller, simpler tasks. For example, when learning to drive a manual just focus on the clutch up/down process to move the car, not worrying about the accelerator, parkbrake or steering. Add those in later.
- Explain why. Not just “move into the right lane” but “we’re going to turn right soon, so move into the right lane when you can”. That also avoids last-minute instructions.
- Be clear. “No no no” isn’t clear. Neither is “you did that well”. It’s a real skill of an instructor to issue calm, clear instructions ahead of time. Try “that was nice smooth braking” or “I noticed you slowed to let the other car in, well done”.
- Explain how to do it better. For example, say the learner consistently turns into a corner too early, hitting the kerb with the inside wheel. Instead of “oh you hit that, turn better” go and find a carpark, and do a few laps where you can change the turn angle and timing so the learner gets to see how it’s done.
- Choose your time. Learners are very busy concentrating, far more than you, and there’s very little information they can absorb. Keep your feedback short and preferably sweet, and deliver it when they’re not busy for example when on a straight road with minimal traffic. If you need to have a longer chat, pull over.
- Vision. Look well ahead and predict what the traffic is likely to do, then react ahead of time. For example, a truck labouring up a freeway hill with a car approaching in its lane from behind; the car is likely to pull out to overtake.
- Agree no judgement. The learner will make mistakes, and so will you as an instructor. Agree that you’ll just acknowledge it and move on.
- Generally, compliment rather than criticise. Anything done better than it was before is worthy of a compliment, even if not perfect. But don’t over-compliment for non-achievements.
- If mistakes are made, analyse. Often events many moments before lead up to the mistake. For example, not getting into a lane early enough. In these situations, blaming the other drivers is not allowed. Even if they’re in the wrong the learner still needs to drive accordingly.
- Have a plan to work out, rather than go out randomly. Use this list as a base for lesson plans.
Beware the rules, especially interstate!
Learner driver can’t do many things full-license drivers can. For example in Victoria learners cannot:
- tow a trailer
- have a zero BAC (blood alcohol concentration) limit
- use a mobile phone when driving, even hands-free
Now we come to one of the utterly stupid things about our state and territory system, and that’s pointlessly different rules from state to state.
For example, in NSW, learners cannot exceed 90km/h. But they can drive to the posted speed limit in Victoria and the ACT, where there they can also tow a trailer of up to 750kg if the vehicle is capable of doing so.
It is essential that learners and their supervisors understand the restrictions on their licenses, and how they change from state to state.
What sort of further training?
No matter how skilled a driver you as a supervisor are, you’re unlikely to know what it’ll take to pass the test because as ever, what’s needed for the license isn’t an exact match for what’s needed to be a safe and competent driver. This is where professional driving instructors come in, because they know exactly how to prepare a learner for the test, and all learners should have a few hours with such instructors prior to their license test.
However, the test is pretty basic and doesn’t cover all of the skills and situations listed above. That’s where you as the supervisor comes in, or if you don’t want to, or aren’t confident to teach those skills, then find a good advanced driving school. It’ll cost more than those focused on passing the test, but it’ll be well worth it. Bear in mind that some advanced driving is not focused on road skills but on car control skills; more at this link: