Just Passed: 45 Essential Smart Driving Tips for New Drivers

So you’ve passed your test and now it’s time to take on the world. The freedom that comes with a full license is thrilling: no more waiting for a ride, or running for the last train home.

But freedom can also be intimidating. As a new driver, you still have a lot to learn. Passing your test is just the beginning.

Smart Driving Tips

Whether you’re a gung-ho teenager ready to hit the road, or a more cautious passer late in life, the statistics are clear: you’re more likely to get into an accident in the first 18 months after you pass your test. (1)

The first year-and-a-half on the road is a risky time. You’ll be driving in weather conditions you may have never encountered as a learner. You’ll be driving longer distances, and you’ll often be driving alone without the watchful eye of an instructor.

For young drivers, it’s an especially fraught time. Youthful confidence makes just-passed teens four times as likely to crash when compared to adults. With your whole life ahead of you, there’s no need for speed.

Whilst teens make up around 6% of drivers, they account for 12% of drivers involved in fatal accidents making teenage drivers twice as likely to be involved in a fatal crash.

So what do you do when you encounter snow for the first time?

And how do you handle a passenger cranking up the radio during rush hour?

How do you avoid getting ripped off by insurers?

And most importantly, how do you make sure you develop into a safe, attentive driver – getting home safely, every time?

To start with, you check out this complete list of driving tips for new drivers. Let’s go – are you coming along for the ride?

New drivers have a long road ahead of them. Here are 45 essential tips for new drivers to keep you safe and smart on the road.

Early Driving Days Tips

The first few times you go out as a new driver can be equal parts liberating and nerve-wracking. Here are some important tips for your first days on the road after a pass

1. Take a Buddy

As a learner, you’re never alone. Whether it’s your partner or parent or a professional instructor, there’s always someone in the passenger seat to help you drive. When you’ve passed your test you don’t need to jump in at the deep end of solo driving: ease towards your independence as a driver by finding a buddy for your first few trips.

2. Keep Practicing

If you don’t have access to a car, there’s often a lull in your driving career right after you’ve passed: the worst possible time to get rusty. If you don’t plan on buying your own car after passing, keep up your skills by planning a road trip with friends and splitting the driving.

3. Don’t Expect To Rent

With the whole world opening up in front of you, it’s natural for ambitious plans to grow in the days following a passed test. But hold your horsepower: few rental companies will hand a car over to a new driver.

Rental companies usually require a driver to have held their license for between one and three years, and sometimes restrict drivers under 21 or even 25 from renting vehicles. If you’re planning a trip, make sure you read the small print.

4. Get Your P Plates

No, it doesn’t stand for “passed”, no matter how much you might want to advertise your newly-passed position to the world. P plates are actually to distinguish “probationary” drivers who have passed within the last one or two years.

Whilst they’re legally required in New Jersey, they’re a great choice for every new driver. P plates indicate to other road users that you’re still learning the road – they’ll encourage caution, patience and restraint around you. Unfortunately, these values often go missing on the road so take it easy with P plates.

5. Taking The (Steering) Wheel

Whilst we’ve had it drilled into us that “10 and 2” positioning is the optimal placement for our hands on the steering wheel, this information has actually become outdated.

Cars are now equipped with high-power airbags and the old steering wheel positioning places our wrists in the firing line. In fact, holding the steering wheel at “9 and 3”, on either side of the wheel’s diameter, will give you total control of the vehicle.

6. Indicate Diligently

Finally, there’s no nit-picking instructor looking over our shoulder. But that doesn’t mean we should start to take shortcuts. Indicators are usually the first thing to go, from changing lanes to exiting roundabouts.

But indicators are a valuable hint of your intentions for other drivers – they let the road users around you plan for your next move. And pedestrians are always on the lookout for indicators too, so don’t skip the indicator even if it seems like there’s nobody around.

7. Keep Your Eyes On The Prize

We’re naturally driven towards whatever we’re looking at. If you’ve ever walked through a crowded city, you might have discovered the key to avoiding bumping into strangers: keeping your gaze fixed firmly past people. As soon as two strangers meet each other’s gaze, it’s a collision course.

The same is true for hazards on the road. On narrow roads, don’t look at the car you’re passing – instead, fix your gaze ahead on the road, or the space you’re aiming for. Of course, you can’t ignore hazards completely, but looking past whilst being aware will let you drive smoothly past.

8. Adjust Your Mirrors Before Every Drive

If you start hopping into friends’ cars to show off your skills, you need to make sure you’re aware of how even small adjustments to the mirrors can be a lifesaver for your field of vision.

Depending on where we’re positioned in the cab – which will be determined by our height and posture as we drive – the mirrors might need to be fixed to give us the best view out the rear of the vehicle. Get into the habit of checking your mirrors before every drive – don’t get caught out on the road.

9. Mind The Gap

One of the number one ways we can protect ourselves while driving is by leaving a larger gap between us and the car in front. Never mind the rush – keeping your distance gives you more time to react should the unexpected happen.

Tailgating is rife but don’t get fixated on how other people – leave a minimum of three car lengths between your vehicle and the car in front. If somebody slips into the gap, simply drop back to create a safe space again.

Leaving more room between you and the car in front is a failsafe option for when the weather gets bad or if the vehicle ahead seems to be driving erratically. It’s the buffer zone for your reactions.

10. Know How To Handle Tailgaters

Inevitably, you’ll get some impatient driver hogging the rearview mirror. Tailgaters are dangerous drivers, but their actions are borne out of frustration so don’t fight fire with fire by getting annoyed.

Never hit the brakes to “warn” a tailgater. And don’t feel obligated to speed up, caving into their impatience. If someone’s driving too close behind you, slowing down is actually the safest option – the tailgater will be forced to match your slower speed, giving them more time to react if things do go wrong.

When it’s safe to do so, you can let a tailgater pass by pulling in to the right. But know your rights on the road, and don’t feel pressured to let anyone pass when it isn’t safe to do so.

11. Stick To The Speed Limit

Speeding is tempting – and I don’t know many drivers who succeed at religiously sticking to the limit. But the speed limit is there for a reason, and although it may seem arbitrary to you, actually most local authorities have set their speed limits based on data – road conditions and the number of accidents. Keep your speed under control.

12. Know Your Positioning

When the Eagles sang of “Life in the Fast Lane” they were committing a grave sin of highway driving. That left lane isn’t for cruising at high speeds. It’s for overtaking only – and you should be moving back to the right once you’ve passed the vehicle ahead.

In fact, many states have “keep right” laws, and if the right lane is clear you can be penalized for sitting on the left. When you cruise in the overtaking lane, you’ll hold up drivers behind you, encourage undertaking and create unnecessary risk on the road.

13. Passing On The Left

Speaking of overtaking – when it’s your turn to overtake, always aim to pass vehicles on their left. With the steering wheel on the left, drivers have a superior view in the left wing mirror, and drivers are much more likely to see you coming when you pass on the left.

Whilst some states have laws that mandate passing on the left, others leave it up to the drivers. But as a new driver, you should be erring on the side of caution.

14. Don’t Assume Good Practice From Other Drivers

Other drivers are one of the major hazards on the road. Even if you’re a safe and attentive driver, you should never assume the person up ahead isn’t asleep at the wheel.

Expect the unexpected from other drivers and you’ll never be caught out – that means anticipating that a driver could be turning when they aren’t indicating, for example, or that someone tailgating you might be preparing to pass on the left.

15. Keep Taking Courses

Passing your test should be considered the bare minimum: there are many advanced drivers’ ed courses that will make you a safer road user. You can take highway driving courses to get a bit more practice at high speeds or defensive driving courses to better protect yourself on the road, for example.

Some courses are practical and some will be completed online – completing further driving courses can even lower your insurance premium, it’s a no-brainer.

16. Merging Magic

Merging with moving traffic can be a scary moment, and on busy highways it can demand fast action, squeezing into small gaps. Be patient when merging and watch your mirrors – but never get too engrossed in what’s happening behind you.

Traffic speed can change suddenly, so keep your attention split between the wing mirrors and what’s happening up ahead.

17. Practice Parking In A Pinch

Parking under pressure is always going to be more difficult, and when you’re in the town centre on a busy day the race for premium parking spots is on. Even if you feel like you perfected the parallel park before your lesson, if you’re in a vehicle with new dimensions it’s easy to get caught out.

Practice parking in a relaxed environment before you take your skills to the mean streets.

18. Learn To Drive Defensively

In day to day life, being defensive is often a negative character trait – someone who’s quick to offence and fragile. But defensive driving means something different altogether – it entails a pattern of habits that will protect you and your passengers from other motorists.

Learning to drive defensively will keep you out of accidents because you’ll be anticipating other drivers’ mistakes and leaving plenty of room to react to road users. Defensive driving courses are a valuable investment for beginner drivers.

19. Shrug it Off

Road rage is very real, and there are a lot of impatient and aggressive drivers out there. It’s inevitable that you’ll encounter antagonism on the road and whilst you can’t control how other drivers are behaving, you can control your own reaction.

When you meet aggressive drivers on the road, find a way to temper your emotions and remain calm. If your emotions rise, the risk of an accident skyrockets: let aggressive drivers pass and speed away, towards an accident of their own.

20. Slow Down on an Amber Light

Whilst you might notice many road users responding to the amber light by hitting the gas, the amber light is supposed to indicate that you should slow your vehicle in preparation for a red light.

Impatient folks naturally want to get through before they hit red, but speeding up towards a light that’s turning puts you in danger of running lights, braking abruptly and even T-boning cross-traffic.

Patience is a virtue – don’t race to make the lights.

21. Avoiding Distractions

The road requires your constant attention. Getting distracted whilst driving runs the risk of a catastrophic accident, so identify distractions and resolve to avoid them. Fiddling with your GPS, texting or checking notifications and even changing the station are all a source of distraction.

22. Utilize Bluetooth

Most vehicles these days are equipped with BlueTooth compatibility so you can go hands-free, and keep all your attention on the road. However, setting up BlueTooth is often a fiddly affair – don’t wait until you’re on the highway to figure out how it works!

23. Give Cyclists Plenty of Room

Passing cyclists can be uncomfortable for new drivers who recognize the vulnerability of these road users. But at the same time, the snail’s pace of a cyclist creates an imperative to pass sooner rather than later, or hold up traffic. New drivers need to learn patience when faced with cyclists, passing only when it’s safe to do so.

In general, you should pass a cyclist only where there would equally be room to pass a car – cyclists are entitled to take up the whole lane, and will often swerve unexpectedly to avoid potholes.

Road Conditions Tips

One of the biggest challenges for new road users is encountering conditions as they change throughout the year. From snow and ice to the low sun, every day poses a new challenge. Here’s how to deal with the ever-changing conditions of the road.

24. Driving Slow in Snow

Winter hits – and suddenly you’re scraping ice from the windshield of your car, wondering if it’s safe to drive to work. Driving in winter conditions for the first time is intimidating, but by slowing down you’ll give yourself more time to react to the icy conditions.

25. Steer into the Skid

And if your car skids on ice, you need to know what to do. Ease your foot from the accelerator and steer into the skid – that means if the back of your car is pitching to the right, you turn the steering wheel to the right. When you stop skidding, the wheels will be straight enabling you to drive through.

26. Pack for Winter

The consequences of a breakdown are more severe in cold conditions. You could be waiting hours for a call out, so pack a phone charger, battery pack and extra layers. It’s a good idea to have a winter survival kit in the trunk, for those emergency moments.

27. Prepare For A Cold Snap

In cold conditions, regular windshield washer fluid can freeze, preventing you from washing your windshield and, in dark or snowy conditions, leaving you completely blind. All-season washer fluid will have a sub-zero freezing temperature and can keep your windshield clear all winter long.

28. Hard Rain

Rain can hamper your visibility, but the real impact is on how your tires interact with the wet road. Soaking surfaces can more than double your stopping distances – so remember those three car lengths from above? Make it six.

Another rule of thumb is that there should be four seconds between you and the car in front. At high speeds, a lot can happen in four seconds so leave a healthy gap in the rain.

29. Pump the Brakes When Wet

Driving through water can affect the brake pads, so it pays to test your brakes if the road has been flooded. Don’t forget to check the mirrors first! If the road is clear behind you, gently tap the brakes to ensure they’re still operating effectively.

30. Low Winter Sun

Crisp, clear winter days – what could go wrong? Plenty, it turns out and these conditions often catch out new drivers. At northern latitudes with short days during the winter, the sun will set earlier and can appear excessively bright and low in the sky.

This can have a genuinely blinding effect. Make sure you keep sunglasses in your car for the brighter days and adjust your speed when you’re struggling to see. The low winter sun might reduce you to a crawl.

31. Night Driving

Night driving can be intimidating and whether you’re cruising dark rural lanes or getting blinded by the city lights, driving at night poses a range of new challenges. You should turn your headlights on around an hour before sunset and keep them on an hour after sunrise, to allow for dim light during dusk and dawn.

Getting familiar with your vehicle so that you can flick between dipped headlights and full-beams is essential: dazzling oncoming traffic is a one-way ticket to a head-on collision.

Car Maintenance Tips

It’s a timeless Sunday afternoon activity, a bucket of sudsy water and a sponge, putting the shine back onto our vehicle’s trim. But looking after your vehicle isn’t just about vanity. Today’s automobiles are complex machines requiring delicate care – something that not all new drivers are prepared for.

32. Check Your Tires

Car tires have multiple grooves to provide a better grip on the road – but over time, these wear down and grip is compromised. Regularly check the depth of your tire tread in multiple places around your wheel – 1/16” is the minimum legal limit, but don’t assume anything above this limit is safe.

Your tires don’t wear evenly, either. In a front-wheel-drive vehicle, the front wheels will wear faster and with rear-wheel-drive, the back wheels will deteriorate.

33. Battery Care

When you’re not driving regularly, the battery can lose charge over time. To avoid getting stuck with a flat battery, run the engine for fifteen minutes each week. You don’t need to drive anywhere, just let the engine hum away and the battery will recharge.

34. Refilling Regularly

From topping up the oil to refilling your wiper fluid, it’s best to pop the hood occasionally and check on your engine. Check your oil level before driving, when the engine’s cool and top it up if the level’s low.

35. Diesel or Gas?

It’s easy to get caught out at the pump. Putting the wrong fuel in your car can wreak havoc on your engine. Make sure you know if your vehicle takes gas or diesel, and double-check what you’re pumping.

Car Insurance Tips

Just as a passed test has you flying high, the cost of insuring a vehicle can bring you back down to earth. For young drivers, insurance premiums are exceptionally high – the average annual cost for an 18-year-old driver is a whopping $5,645. (2)

That’s a lot of hours flipping burgers – so here are some great ways to keep the costs down.

36. Tag Onto Your Parents’ Insurance

Rather than splashing out on your own insurance, you may be able to add yourself to your parents’ premium. If you’re living at home or a college student, many auto insurers will allow you to drive your own vehicle under your parents’ insurance at a much more affordable premium.

The downside is that you can’t build your no-claims bonus by being insured through another person’s insurance. But if times are tough, this is a great way to make savings.

37. Avoid Big Name Companies

The biggest names all have one thing in common: the biggest advertising budgets. And often, that leads to increased premiums, especially for drivers considered risky investments. In 2021, there are hundreds of insurance companies utilizing technology to offer completely digital, and great value, service.

38. Choose Your Vehicle Wisely

A safe, reliable and frankly boring vehicle is going to be cheaper to insure than a flashy sports car encouraging you to drive way over the speed limit. Hey, you’ve got wheels now – that’s cool enough. You don’t have to go all out on the sportiest model.

39. Invest in Driver’s Ed

Taking supplementary driver’s ed classes will impress upon your insurers that you’re a responsible driver.

Auto insurers crank their premiums up for young drivers and new drivers because, let’s face it, they are disproportionately likely to be in an accident. With a few training courses under your belt, you’ll not only be a safer driver, but a safe bet for insurance companies to boot.

40. Get a Black Box

A “black box” is a monitoring device you can install in your vehicle. It sends your insurance company direct information about your driving – not only distances but also in-depth data about speed and stopping time. Often, insurers will offer discounts if you accept a black box, and they’ll reward you for driving safely.

However, handing over your data to an insurance company comes with a cost. Some insurers will have strict limits on how much you can drive, or even limit your driving with a curfew to keep you off the streets at night. A black box can offer a road to discounted insurance, but it can also be a restriction on your new-found freedom.

Common Mistakes New Drivers Make – And How to Avoid Them

41. Seat Positioning

Most new drivers are harbouring some nerves, and that tension is translated into tight shoulders and an alert sitting position. Adjusting your seat to a more comfortable position, not too close to the steering wheel, will encourage a relaxed drive – and it also leaves room for the airbag to deploy in the case of a crash.

Experiment with the seat to find out what works for you.

42. Playing The Stereo Too Loud

You can drive – and, finally, you’re in charge of the car stereo! But don’t crank those tunes too loud. Loud music is an inevitable distraction, and when you’re singing along at full volume you can’t pay full attention to the road.

There’s a common phenomenon amongst drivers – they turn the music down when cruising car parks, looking for a space. This is indisputable proof that low music helps you concentrate.

43. Letting Passengers Get Unruly

Your passengers can be a source of comfort when driving gets stressful – or a source of distraction. Young drivers are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure, which leads to driving too fast or taking unnecessary risks. As the driver, you’re also legally responsible for your passengers’ behaviour and can be prosecuted if they’re not wearing seatbelts.

Let the driver’s seat become the captain’s chair: rule your vehicle with an iron fist!

44. Driving Under The Influence

27% of drunk drivers are aged between 21-24.

The temptation to drink and drive is high for young and new drivers who haven’t yet learned the consequences of their actions. But driving when drunk or under the influence of narcotics is a risk you don’t want to take.

45. Underestimating Prescription Drugs

And whilst many people are aware of the risks of driving when drunk, fewer recognize that many over-the-counter drugs can also impact your reaction times and concentration when driving. Drowsiness is one of the most common side effects of easily accessible medicines – read the labels, and check with your doctor if you’re unsure.

Wrapping Up – The End of The Road

Congratulations on passing your test – there’s a long road ahead.

And from new careers to careering down the highway, there are a lot of opportunities at your fingertips when your hands take the wheel.

Embarking on your journey as a driver can be nerve-wracking. You have to balance patience and split-second decision making, you have to rise above road rage and control your passengers alongside your own emotions.

You’re going to need to learn your vehicle inside out and maintain it to a safe standard. And you’re going to have to drive safely come rain or shine.

But don’t be intimidated. Although it seems like there’s a lot to learn, if you start building good habits from day one it will all soon be second nature – a long drive will be a walk in the park.

Robert Muñoz

I’m Robert, a US-based auto electrician, auto mechanic, trained engineer and fanatic about all things motor vehicle. After studying engineering in college I returned to my original passion - car mechanics - and I ran a garage for a number of years serving my local community. Through my garage, I got involved in numerous road safety campaigns in my local area until eventually, I decided to share what I've learned with the world. Know more about me... You can follow me on LinkedIn.

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