It might be a cliché, but you actually learn a lot more about driving after passing your test. Here are the skills you should develop to become a driving hero.
The more experience you have on the road, the better a driver you’ll become. Over time, good drivers develop a toolkit of skills to make the task easier and safer.
We’ve put our heads together to bring you our favourite tips and tricks to take you from a motoring beginner to a driving pro. Don’t rush to master these immediately after your test – it’s important to get past the new-driver nerves and gain confidence at first. These are more advanced skills you can work on once you’re comfortable with day-to-day driving.
Top skills for new drivers to develop
Keep reading to see our favourite skills to develop after you get your licence.
Using visual guides to make parking easier
If you’re going to drive a car, you’re going to have to park a car. You will have already shown an examiner that you can manoeuvre your car safely into position, but there are still more tips and tricks you can use to make the job easy and repeatable.
Often, you might find yourself parking in the same places – perhaps your home’s driveway, or your regular spot on the street outside, or if you have a designated space at work. In these situations, you can use fixed points in the environment around you to help you gauge your position in the parking space.
For example, when parallel parking into your regular spot outside your house, there might be a tree or post on the road side that lines up with your door mirror or side-window pillar. You can use guides like these to help you reliably slot into the same space, in the same position, every time. This is especially helpful if your car doesn’t have parking sensors.
Another useful tip, if you’re trying to gauge how far back you are in a bay parking space, is to use the vehicle in the space next to you as a guideline. Be aware that you’ll need to have a rough idea of the length of your car in relation to theirs – so don’t go trying this when parking a limo next to a Smart car! But, say you and the person in the next space both have regular-sized hatchbacks – you can visually line your steering wheel or wing mirrors alongside theirs as an easy guideline to help you work out how far back you should be.
Squeeze even more MPG out of each tank
There’s plenty of both legitimate advice and old wives’ tales about how to drive more economically. In general, the best rule of thumb to follow is to drive within the speed limit and try to avoid hard acceleration or braking.
In our experience, though, we think the best advice is to try to read the road ahead and anticipate how you might need to adjust your speed and controls to reduce the amount of fuel you use. It’s not very efficient to be cruising along at the speed limit only to have to hit the brakes hard for a traffic light that turned red. Ideally, you’d have read the road ahead and seen that the traffic light had been green for a long time and started easing off the accelerator in anticipation of it turning red, thus using less fuel. Give yourself time to read the road by staying back from the car in front.
Predict the traffic around you
This tip follows on from our above pointer to read the road ahead of you. With experience, you’ll develop a sixth sense for predicting how other drivers might move on the road.
You might, for instance, realise that a car you’re overtaking on a motorway or two-lane dual carriageway is closing fast on the vehicle directly in front of them. In this circumstance you should either speed up (within the limit) or ease off the accelerator to make space for them, because there’s a good chance they’ll want to overtake the slower traffic in their lane. Predicting this move saves anyone having to brake sharply and helps traffic flow more smoothly.
Another classic example on multi-lane roads will see a vehicle in the overtaking lane travelling slower than traffic in the left-most lane. Often, this is because that vehicle is preparing to turn right off the main road into a side street. Reading a situation like this and positioning yourself in advance can save you getting stuck in the queueing traffic that forms behind the turning vehicle.
Learn how to overtake safely
If you’re driving somewhere rural, you’re probably going to have to use country lanes to get where you’re going. On roads like these, it’s not uncommon to encounter slow-moving traffic including farm machinery, industrial vehicles, pedestrians and even animals.
If you’re driving behind slow-moving motorised traffic on country roads such as tractors, you might find a situation where you can safely pass the vehicle. In this case, it’s important to know when and how to do so safely. First, you must be able to see a long way down the road ahead, with no traffic coming in the opposite direction – you must be able to see well beyond the length of road you’re going to need to pass the vehicle. It might take quite a few miles to come across a spot like this, but the risks associated with overtaking when you can’t see the road ahead aren’t worth what little time you might save.
Even more importantly, if you encounter pedestrians or animals on country roads, you must dramatically reduce your speed and be prepared to come to a sudden stop at any time. Like any overtake, once you’ve carefully assessed the situation and have decided it’s safe to overtake the obstacle, you must do so with an abundance of caution. That’s especially true for horses, which need to be passed very slowly and as widely as possible.
Reduce arm fatigue on long journeys
Traditionally, drivers were taught to hold the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions. If you learned to drive more recently, you’ve probably been taught 9 and 3 o’clock – and this is still the best and safest way to hold the steering wheel as it gives you the largest degree of control before having to readjust your hand position and keeps your arms away from the airbag.
This tip, then, applies exclusively to long journeys where you’re likely to be holding the wheel in more or less the same direction for long periods of time. In these cases, you might want to try lowering your grip on the wheel to around the 8 and 4 o’clock positions. This will slightly reduce the amount of weight you carry through your shoulders and can save you from arm fatigue over long journeys. To be clear, this tip is only for use on long, straight roads such as motorways, and you should resume the 9 and 3 o’clock position before you need to do any cornering.
Learn how to drive in the wet
If you live in the UK, rain is both a fact of life and a national talking point. As such, if you’re going to drive here, you’re going to need to know how to drive in the wet. The most obvious difference in soggy conditions is the longer stopping distances so, to combat that, make sure you leave even more space between you and the car in front, just in case you have to make an emergency stop.
There is also an increased risk of aquaplaning in the wet – this is where your wheels float on top of the water, rather than push through it to grip the road surface below. This is dangerous because it can lead to a sudden loss of braking or steering control. If your car starts to aquaplane, don’t hit the brakes – simply ease off the accelerator and point the wheel in the direction you want to go. As your car gently slows down, the aquaplaning will stop and you can then brake and steer to regain control.
Heavy rain can cause large plumes of spray from vehicles in front of you. This can reduce visibility, so you should slow down to a safe speed and increase the distance between you and the car in front. When it starts to rain enough for your wipers to be on continuously, we’d advise putting your headlights on.
Learn how to drive off road
This tip is a little more specialised but it can dramatically improve your car control. We’re not necessarily talking blasting through a jungle in a Land Rover – although that’s plenty of fun – but it can be worth knowing how to drive on grass or mud if you need to park your car somewhere rural.
Our top tip here is to treat the surface similarly to how you would treat snow. You want to gently accelerate to move away from a standstill because, if you’re too throttle happy, you can spin the wheels and make them dig into the surface, causing you to become stuck. Remember to keep your steering wheel pointed in the direction you want to go. If you’re setting off on an especially slippery surface in a manual car, try pulling away in second gear – first gear can often make the wheels spin.
Expand your mechanical skills
Cars are complex machines and most serious problems should be left to the professionals. However, it can be very rewarding and save you quite a bit of cash if you learn to do some basic maintenance jobs yourself. This can be as simple as replacing a brake light bulb or changing a wheel, all the way up to performing your own oil change and brake service.
Developing your skills in this area is handy because it also gives you a better chance of being able to diagnose car problems yourself, potentially saving you a trip to the garage and a large repair bill. Knowing how to check if an engine is firing its spark plugs or delivering fuel and air to the cylinders can be critical first steps in identifying faults.
Consider learning how to rev-match in a manual car
Right. This one is quite advanced, so don’t feel like you need to learn this technique to be a good driver. That said, if you’re driving a car with a manual gearbox, learning how to rev-match can help you make extremely smooth downshifts.
This technique is used when changing down a gear – say from third to second, in preparation to accelerate onto a roundabout, for example. With the clutch held down, you can quickly ‘blip’ the accelerator with your other foot to rev the engine. At the same time, you switch to second gear and release the clutch and, because the engine RPMs are raised by your ‘blip’, they’re more closely matched to the speed the engine would be spinning in second gear. This eliminates the feeling of sudden deceleration you might’ve experienced when shifting down a gear and letting the clutch out too quickly.
Again, this is an advanced technique and isn’t appropriate for use in all driving situations. However, learning it adds yet another driving tool to your ‘toolbox’ and can help make shifting your manual car an effortless experience. There is an even more advanced version of this technique called ‘heel-and-toe’, but this is really only useful on race tracks.
Where appropriate, enjoy driving!
With all the hard graft needed to get a driving licence and the drudgery of snailing through traffic on the morning commute, it might be tempting to think of driving as a chore. However, it doesn’t have to be if you approach it with the right attitude.
While we can’t make that congested A-road any less tedious, it’s important to remember that – sometimes – driving can be a real pleasure. If you want to experience this for yourself, why not head off to a nearby national park – the roads will be much quieter and will flow naturally with the landscape which, itself, can often be breathtakingly beautiful. Yes, even in the UK!
We’re obviously not advocating driving fast. In fact, Britain’s best roads are often best enjoyed in your own time, at your own pace, and even stopping occasionally to take in the sights and smells of the countryside. If you remember to enjoy motoring every so often, it might ease the gloom you feel getting into your car on your morning commute.