How to Pass Your Driving Test the First Time: Avoiding Common Mistakes

When I took my driving test many, many years ago, I was confident I’d ace it. I got a 96. The test examiner said I accelerated DURING the climb of the hill instead of BEFORE the climb. That one minor error was worth a 4-point deduction on my driving exam score. 

Not every infraction will equate to a 4-point drop in the score, and not every examiner is that much of a stickler. But it is a good example of how small mistakes can add up on the driving test.

Luckily for the youngest generation of drivers, some advanced maneuvers like parallel parking aren’t usually a requirement on today’s behind-the-wheel exam. But if parallel parking and 3-point turns aren’t required, what is? And why is it so hard for many people to pass the driving exam on their first try?

Skills That Are Tested on the Driving Exam

The top priority of behind-the-wheel exams is to determine whether a person understands the rules of the road and can operate a vehicle safely. Proving this requires a demonstration of essential driving skills. 

You must demonstrate the following maneuvers during your behind-the-wheel examination:

  • Pre-Drive Checklist: Demonstrate emergency parking brake, arm signals, windshield wipers, defroster, emergency flashers, headlights, turn signals, headlights, foot brake and horn,

  • Parking Lot Driving: Leaving and returning to the DMV.

  • Intersections: Up to eight total including speed, yields, traffic checks, braking and limit lines.

  • Business/Residential/Rural Driving: Traffic checks, speed, spacing, lane position, etc.

  • Entering/Backing Along Curb

  • Lane Changes

  • Turns: Up to four lefts and rights, including signals, full stops, limit lines, steering control, speed, turning into the correct lane, etc.

Since advanced driving maneuvers are no longer required in most cases, the techniques and skills you do have to perform should be on point. Give yourself enough time to practice all of these basic skills until you’ve got a firm grasp on each one. 

Why Students Don’t Pass Their Driving Test on the First Try

It’s hard to estimate an average pass/fail rate for driving exams because every city is different. For instance, according to research from YoGov the driving test pass rate ranges in California from 89 to 27%. 

Why do so many people fail the first time they take the driving test? Examiners that administer the test say the most common reasons students fail the first time are:

  • Nerves: There are few tests in life that drum up more anxiety than the behind-the-wheel driving exam. Try to relax, be confident and just let all the skills and techniques you’ve learned shine through. No matter what type of test you’re taking, nerves and anxiety can cause mental blocks that trip people up on easy stuff. Remember, if you don’t pass on your first try it isn’t the end of the world. You can try to test again, sometimes the very next day.

  • Wide Turns: On a right turn on a 2-lane road, you should end up in the right lane, not the left lane. Same goes for left turns. Students oftentimes make wide turns, then try and correct themselves by getting in the correct lane without signaling or looking over their shoulder, which results in an automatic fail.

  • Bike Lanes: Whether the bike lane is dashed or solid, signal 200 ft. in advance and put your tires into the bike lane before making a right turn.

  • Not Obeying a Traffic Sign or Signal: Approximately 11% of people fail the driving test because they failed to follow a traffic sign or signal. Going through a yield sign is one of the most common infractions.

  • Speeding or Going Too Slow: About 1 in 10 people that fail the driving test do so because they are going too slow or too fast. Try to keep it within 5 miles of the posted speed limit.

If the examiner has to intervene at any point, it’s an automatic failure. The examiner will only do this if they feel you are in danger of getting into an accident. For example, not yielding to oncoming traffic or turning the wrong way down a one-way street. Even if the examiner doesn’t intervene, any dangerous maneuver will result in a test failure.


Driving instructors often use the acronym SMOG to help new drivers remember important skills that promote safety. SMOG stands for:

  • Signal

  • Mirror

  • Over-shoulder

  • Go

Always make sure to clear your blind spots for turns and lane changes. We can’t stress enough how important and critical it is to look over your shoulder for turns. Yes, even for left turns. There could be a bicyclist/motorcyclist right behind you and you might not know it. 

Avoid These Bad Habits to Pass Your Driving Test the First Time 

Sometimes the issue is that students pick up bad habits, especially if there has been a huge gap from the date of the last driving lesson and the driving test. These bad habits range from driving with one hand on the wheel to braking hard. These are the small, minor problems that can add up to a failure.

A Note to Parent Instructors: Bad habits are often learned. It’s crucial for parent instructors to follow all of the best practices so that your student driver learns by example.

If you want to pass the driving test the first time, remember - it’s all in the details. These tips should help you improve your odds of passing:

  • Always SMOG.

  • Keep hands at 9-3, drive with palms down and demonstrate hand-over-hand turns.

  • Stop ahead of limit lines.

  • Look shoulder to shoulder and use your mirrors at each traffic check.

  • Stay committed to your lane and follow it through for turns.

  • Watch your speed and be on the lookout for speed limit signs.

  • Keep adequate space cushions between yourself and other vehicles.

  • Make complete stops - no California rolls.

Real Talk From Real Drivers: More Tips for Passing the Driving Exam

Here are a few insightful tips and feedback from former students on how to pass your driving test the first time: 

  • “My friend failed for running a yellow light because it turned red while crossing the intersection.”

  • “Over-exaggerate your head turns for lane changes so they know you looked.”

  • “I failed because I didn’t get into the bike lane and didn’t look over my shoulder.”

  • “If you’re female, wear your hair in a ponytail.”

  • “Just make sure to look over your shoulders even if you feel it’s not necessary and when driving on side streets keep scanning the road shoulder to shoulder.”

  • “Look on YouTube for DMV drive test routes.”

At we always advise students to check out their state DMV YouTube Channel for helpful tips and information on preparing for the driving test. You can also find us on YouTube for more resources and tips on how to become a safe defensive driver.

-This article was written by driving instructor and car captain Eva Flores.

This article was updated on 7/14/2020

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