Practical driving test: top tips for passing

REd driving school, learner driver
20 May, 2015 8:00am Steve Walker

A full guide to the UK practical driving test plus top tips on how to pass it and get your driving licence

There's no getting away from it, for most people the practical driving test is one of the most daunting things things they'll ever undertake. Seasoned motorists with a full range of life experiences behind them will still look back at the day they passed their driving test and recall the sweaty palms, nervous tension and jelly legs long before the elation of being told they'd actually passed comes back to them. 

Why is the practical driving test such an ordeal? That's anyone's guess. Maybe it's the long build up with all those hours of driving tuition leading up to 40 minutes or so in the car with a clipboard-wielding examiner. Maybe it's the prospect of being let loose on the road without the safety net of your instructor for the first time. Maybe it's the thought of what your friends will say if you return without a driving licence and the passport to freedom it represents.  

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Whatever the reason, for the majority of learner drivers who take it, the practical driving test is a nerve-wracking experience. That's why we've complied this handy guide. Its aim is to tell you what to expect from the practical driving test, ease those nerves and give you some top tips on how to pass.      

What to expect from the practical driving test

The practical driving test is the final hurdle in the process of getting your full UK driving licence. To take it, you'll need a provisional licence and to have already passed the driving theory test with its hazard perception test element. 

The practical test is taken at a driving test centre where an examiner with take you through an eyesight check, some vehicle safety questions that are often referred to as the 'show me, tell me questions' and around 40 minutes of practical driving assessment. 

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The driving part of the test will be split into two parts. The first will have you following directions from the examiner and performing various manoeuvres. The second part is the independent driving test where candidates are told to follow traffic signs and/or a set of directions accompanied by a simple diagram. 

The eyesight check

63 number plate

First things first, the driving test examiner will want to make sure that you can see well enough to take the test. You will be asked to read a standard car numberplate at a distance of around 20 meters. 

If you are unable to read the numberplate, you'll be given a second chance on another numberplate. If you fail to read that one, you'll be given a final chance with the distance accurately measured out. If you fail again, that will be the end of your test.

If you wear glasses or contact ensues to take the eyesight test, you're required by law to wear them whenever you drive a car or ride a motorcycle. That includes wearing them for the remainder of your driving test.

Vehicle safety 'show me, tell me' questions

Ford Firsta Edge engine bay

Being safe on the road isn't all about your driving, you'll also need to be able to check that your car is safe before getting behind the wheel. The vehicle safety questions in the practical driving test are designed to verify that you have a basic knowledge of how to do that.

The questions are often referred to as 'show me, tell me' questions as the instructor will ask one 'show me' question and one 'tell me' question. For the show me question you'll have to demonstrate how to carry out a basic vehicle safety check and for the tell me question you have to explain how you'd do it. For example, you might be asked to show the examiner the oil filler cap and then tell them how to check the car's oil level. 

If you give the wrong answer for one or both parts of the question, you'll get one driving fault on your test.

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What to expect in the practical driving test

So this is it, the part of your practical driving test where you actually have to drive. For the first part of the test, the instructor will give you directions around a set route designed to take in a variety of different road and traffic conditions. You should drive in the way your instructor has taught you and any mistakes will be marked down as faults by the examiner.

In the first part of the test you'll be asked to complete one reversing exercise; either reversing around a corner, a turn in the road or reverse parking. You may also be asked to carry out an emergency stop.

The independent driving part of the practical driving test

The independent driving part of the test follows on from the first part of the practical driving test. Rather than giving you specific step-by-step instructions as you go, the examiner will give you a set of directions accompanied by a diagram and expect you to drive safely on your own. 

You may be asked to follow traffic signs or rely exclusively on the directions you are given before you set off. Remember; this isn't an exercise in navigation, the priority is to drive safely and well at all times - it doesn't matter if you go the wrong way.  

Passing or failing

The examiner will mark you on all aspects of your driving throughout the practical driving test. You can accrue up to 15 driving faults and still pass but the 16th fault you get will mean failure. When it comes to serious or dangerous faults, however, it's 'one strike and you're out'. 

If the examiner thinks you're a danger to other road users, they will stop the test immediately. Otherwise, you'll be able to complete the test and return to the test centre where you'll be told whether you've passed or failed. 

Passing your practical driving test: 10 top tips

Learner drivers on Motorway

We spoke to Dave Childs, an instructor with the RED Driving School for the past 15 years, to find out some top tips on learning the skills needed and how to stay calm on your test day. 

Here are the top ten to help guide you right from the very beginning, before you’ve even turned a wheel, through to the big day of your practical test.

1. Plan your time

Give yourself a sufficient amount of time to learn how to drive and pass your test. Don’t try to rush the process, as many skills are developed through experience and taking numerous tests can be expensive. Let your instructor advise you on when you are ready.

2. Budget

There are many costs to take in to consideration when learning how to drive so make sure you’ve got the budget in place to see it through. Costs include a provisional driving licence, theory test, professional driving lessons (the UK average is 45 hours) and the practical driving test.

3. Have regular lessons

If possible keep your lessons regular and try to aim for two hours a week behind the wheel. This will help you progress consistently, boosting your confidence, whilst not allowing time to forget what you’ve already learnt and maximise the time spent with your instructor.

4. Record your progress

Keep yourself motivated by noting down when you’ve reached a big milestone and celebrate it. Some tutors use a progress log that helps pupils keep track of where they are on the syllabus, but if yours doesn't then consider making your own.

5. Practice, practice, practice

Once you’ve gained some experience with an instructor, if possible, get a friend or relative to take you out for extra practice on the road. One of the key ingredients of driving is gaining experience which brings with it confidence. So spend as much time as you can behind the wheel. There are rules about who can accompany a learner - they must be over 21 and have had a full licence for over 3 years. Make sure you have the relevant insurance in place, too.

6. Stay focussed in between lessons

Use interactive online learning tools, such as RED’s Road Brain Trainer or smartphone Apps like Theory Test UK from Driving Test Success, practice spotting potential risks on the road. This will give you a deeper understanding of situations that may occur and how to avoid them.

7. Pass your theory test early

Aim to pass your theory test after 10-14 hours of practical training. Once this has been passed, you can book the practical test and concentrate on working towards the ultimate goal.

8. Take a mock driving test

Do at least one mock test, under test conditions and using a test route. This will help you prepare for the big day and help to settle your nerves as you will know what to expect. An important point is keep the date of your real practical test quiet - the more people you tell the more pressure you will feel on the day.

9. Get good night’s sleep

Make sure that you don’t have a late night before the day of the test. If you have time, have a lesson beforehand to settle the nerves and get you thinking in the right way about your driving.

10. Keep calm

Any time you feel tense or feel you’ve lost your focus, or if you feel you’ve made a mistake on your test, remember to concentrate on your breathing and take a few deep breaths. This will calm your mind, stop you dwelling in the past and help you focus on the next instruction. Remember, any mistake you feel you’ve made may only be minor, in which case you can still pass your test. And don’t feel shy if you didn’t understand something. Ask your examiner to repeat any instructions you’re not sure of.

After you've passed your test

Driving is an ongoing learning experience and lessons do not have to stop once you’ve passed your test. Most instructors will be happy to teach you to drive on a motorway, at night and in poor weather conditions so you can improve your skills.

Pass plus is a popular choice and can reduce the cost of your insurance. Telematics insurance, where the insurance company monitors how you drive with a ‘black box’ fitted to your car, is another option to consider. You will be heavily rewarded with cheap insurance for being a sensible driver.

What are your top tips for passing the driving test? Let us know in the comments section below...

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