Table of Contents

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Know Your Vehicle

Before you start learning how to drive, you must first know what the vehicle controls (and other important parts) are, what their functions are, and where they are located. While your vehicle may differ from others, all passenger vehicles have the same basic components, whether they are cars, trucks, minivans, SUVs or sports cars.


The panel in front of you when you sit in the driver's seat is the dashboard. It contains the controls and instruments that allow you to operate your vehicle. These include the following:

An image of a dashboard

The dashboard contains the controls and instruments that allow you to operate your vehicle.

  • Steering wheel.
  • Instrument panel, which is usually located in front of the steering wheel.
  • Turn signal lever, which is located on the left side of the steering column.
  • Windshield wiper controls, which is located on the right side of the steering column.
  • Temperature controls, which are usually located in the center of the dashboard to the right of the steering wheel (the center console).
  • Radio controls, which are usually located above the temperature controls in the center console.
  • Air vents, which are located at the ends of the dashboard and in the center console.
  • Automotive navigation system, if your vehicle has it, is in the center console.

Instrument Panel

An image of an instrument panel

This instrument panel contains, from left to right, the tachometer, speedometer and odometer, fuel gauge, and temperature gauge.

A vehicle's instrument panel contains the gauges that give you information about your vehicle. The exact location of each gauge may vary, but most vehicles have a tachometer, speedometer, odometer, fuel gauge and temperature gauge. Indicators that may be located on the instrument panel include turn signal indicators, gear shift position, seat belt warning light, and engine malfunction light.

The tachometer (located on the left in the picture) shows how fast the engine is running (in revolutions per minute or RPM). This gauge helps you determine the appropriate gear, though if you are driving an automatic, you normally do not have to concern yourself with this. However, you do need to watch to ensure it does not go too high. If the indicator shows you are reaching dangerously high levels (the red areas), you should ease off the gas.

The speedometer (located in the center) shows how fast your vehicle is traveling. It gives you your speed in both miles per hour (MPH) and kilometers per hour (km/h).

The odometer (usually located just below the speedometer) shows how far your vehicle has traveled, and it usually has two different numbers. The larger number is the total miles your vehicle has traveled, while the smaller number is the total miles for a trip or since the last time you reset the trip odometer. You can only reset the trip odometer.

The fuel gauge (located on the upper right in the picture) shows you how much fuel you have in the tank.

The temperature gauge (located just below the fuel gauge) lets you know when the engine runs dangerously hot. If the indicator reaches the red areas, your vehicle is in danger of overheating.

An image of a car's pedals

Cars with a manual transmission typically have three pedals.

Cars typically have two to four pedals on the floor in front of you, depending on the model and whether it has an automatic or manual transmission.

For the left foot:

The left pedal, if a vehicle has it, is usually long and attached to the floor. It functions as a foot rest for your left foot, which is not typically used unless you are driving a manual transmission. The next pedal on the left is the clutch pedal, found in vehicles with a manual transmission.

For the right foot:

The pedal on the right is the accelerator or gas pedal. It is normally located close to the floor and is long. The pedal next to it on the left is the brake pedal. It is normally located higher than the gas pedal and is usually wide.

Shifting into Gear

A vehicle's transmission controls its movement. There are two types of transmissions: automatic and manual.

Automatic Transmissions:

Most vehicles equipped with an automatic transmission have a gear shift lever on the floor next to the driver's seat on the right, while some have the lever mounted on the steering column. To shift gears or modes, you have to push the shift lock button on the top of the lever and then move it forward or backward to the desired mode. Vehicles with an automatic transmission typically have these gears that you can select: P, R, N, D, 2 and 1 (or L). Usually they are ordered from top to bottom (like in the picture above), though some vehicles order the modes from left to right or clockwise. Let's look at each mode so you know their purpose and how to properly use them.

An image of a gearbox

To shift gears in most automatic transmission vehicles, you have to move the lever forward or backward.

P (Park) - This locks the transmission to keep the vehicle from moving. It also allows you to start your vehicle. Before you select this gear, make sure you come to a complete stop. If you don't, you risk damaging the transmission. When you put your vehicle in park, also use the parking brake. To get out of park in most vehicles, you must press the brake pedal in addition to the shift lock button on the lever.

R (Reverse) - This puts the vehicle into reverse, allowing you to drive backwards. To select this gear, you must first come to a complete stop. Like park, you risk damaging the transmission if you don't stop first. Some vehicles will not allow you to shift into reverse without stopping first to ensure that you do not inadvertently damage the transmission.

N (Neutral) - This disconnects the wheels from the transmission so the vehicle can coast under its own weight. You can also start your vehicle in this gear (the car can start only when it is in park or neutral).

D (Drive) - This allows the vehicle to move forward. It adjusts the gears automatically according to the speed at which the vehicle is traveling. Sometimes you can feel the change in gears when you speed up or slow down as the engine seeks the best gear for the smoothest ride. You will be using this gear for the majority of your driving time.

OD (Overdrive) - Some transmissions have this extra gear available for you to select, often located above D. This allows the engine to operate more efficiently when traveling forward at higher speeds (45 mph or higher). You should use this only when you are driving at these higher speeds (such as on the freeway), and only when driving conditions are normal.

2 or S (Second) - This allows the vehicle to move forward, but only in the first two gears (the two lowest speeds) or just second gear (second lowest). Some vehicles do not have this available for you to select. You only need to use this when driving in adverse conditions (i.e. when the roads are slippery due to snow or ice) or going up or down hills.

1 or L (First) - This allows the vehicle to move forward only in first gear. You will use this if you need to travel at low speeds due to adverse conditions or when towing a vehicle.

Manual Transmissions:

An image of a manual gear stick

To shift gears in a manual transmission vehicle, you must depress the clutch pedal and then move the shift lever.

Vehicles equipped with a manual transmission have a gear shift stick on the floor next to the driver's seat on the right. Most passenger vehicles with manual transmissions today have four to six forward gears and one reverse gear. Some older cars have just three forward gears, while a few new high-performance vehicles have seven. To shift gears, you have to first take your foot off the gas and press down on the clutch with your left foot. Then shift to your desired gear. Vehicles with a manual transmission typically have these gears you can select: R, N, and the numbers corresponding to the number of forward gears available.

Gears in a vehicle equipped with a manual transmission are usually arranged in an "H" pattern. On the right is a typical shift layout for a five-speed manual transmission:

An image of a manual gear stick diagram

This is a typical shift pattern for a five-speed manual transmission.

Although the gears in a manual transmission have the same functions as in an automatic transmission, there are some differences. A manual transmission does not have a P gear. To park a vehicle with a manual transmission, you need to leave the car in the first gear and set the parking brake. The neutral (N) gear is simply the position between the other gears and the "N" does not actually appear on the knob.

Preparing to Drive

All basic driving skills require practice and good judgment. They can help minimize the risk of collisions on the road. Before you begin your driving lessons, become familiar with the Beginning Driver Experience Log which you can get from the DMV to help you keep a log of your driving experience with your parent, guardian, or whoever is supervising you. Write down the dates and times you get behind the wheel to practice. Be sure to get an accurate count of the minutes and use ink. Remember - you need at least 50 hours of driving experience, with a minimum of 10 hours at night.

The first thing you want to do before you start driving is to check around your vehicle. Are there any small children playing nearby? Do you see any pets or small animals? Look for any obstructions that may be lying around your vehicle. Also check the condition of your vehicle. Are the windows clean and clear? Is there any damage to the body? Are the tires worn? Are there any leaks?

Next, you want to make sure your vehicle is secure. This means making sure all the doors are closed and locked. Also secure any loose objects so they do not cause problems while you drive. Don't drive off until you are sure all your passengers have fastened their seat belts. Be sure you are secured as well.

Driving Posture

An image of a driver

The proper driving position gives you adequate visibility of the road.

When you get in your car, you need to sit properly. How you sit and hold the steering wheel does affect the way you drive. The proper seating position gives you adequate visibility of the road. It also allows you to do all the essential driving tasks such as accelerating and braking while keeping your mind sharp and your back healthy. So what is the proper posture for driving? Parents do have a point when they tell you to sit up with your back straight. This is also ideal for driving because it helps you:

  1. Maintain full control of your vehicle; and
  2. Stay alert while driving.

You may see some drivers sitting on phone books, pillows, or other props to help them see over the steering wheel. There are many reasons people do this. Many larger vehicles have sunken seats and high dash boards, which can restrict visibility for some people. Other drivers simply lack the height. But that pillow which helped prop you up may also cause you to slide out of position. This may cause you to lose control of your vehicle, which would make you a hazard to other drivers. Your best bet is to adjust your seat to fit your needs. Unobstructed visibility is a basic requirement prior to driving.

Keep the following four things in mind when getting behind the wheel:

  • Sit with your back straight and relaxed against the seat.
  • Sit close enough so you can easily reach the pedals, but far enough away that your elbows are in front of you when you hold the steering wheel. Keep your body about 10 inches from the steering wheel.
  • Keep both feet within reach of the gas, brake, and clutch. Your knees should bend at a comfortable angle.
  • Keep both hands on the steering wheel.

Using the Pedals

Prior to driving, ensure that you can reach your vehicle's brake and gas pedals. You may need to adjust your seat so you can use the pedals properly. Drivers often lose control of their vehicle simply because they cannot reach the pedals.

An image of keys

Turn the key in the ignition until the engine starts, and then you're on to the next step.

Starting the Vehicle

Put your right foot on the brake pedal. Make sure the gear shift lever is in Park or Neutral. Next, put your key in the ignition and turn the key so the engine starts. Try not to keep your engine idling for more than 30 seconds. When you are ready to go, press the shift lock button and shift to Drive. If you must back up, shift into Reverse. First practice driving forward as reversing is a more complicated maneuver.

To start a car equipped with a manual transmission, make sure it is in Neutral. Then follow these steps:

  1. Press down on the clutch, turn on the ignition, and push down on the gas. Keep your foot on the clutch because you are not moving yet. Do not take your foot off the clutch if your car is in gear and not moving.
  2. To move forward, take your foot off the gas but keep your left foot on the clutch. With the clutch pressed, shift into first gear.
  3. Slowly push down on the gas as you take your left foot off the clutch.
  4. To change speeds and shift into a higher gear, repeat steps 2 and 3.

Steering Your Vehicle

Steering a motor vehicle requires extra skill and control because it possesses a great deal of power and can reach extremely high speeds. Using proper steering techniques can limit the risk of collisions and keep the vehicle under control.

An image of a driver holding a steering wheel

This driver's hands are at 9 o'clock (left hand) and 3 o'clock (right hand).

So where should you grip the steering wheel? First look at the wheel as though it is a clock. Place your left hand at 9 o'clock and the right hand at 3 o'clock. If you put your hands anywhere else on the wheel, you will either have less control of the car or your hands will come flying into your face when the airbag activates. The 9 and 3 o'clock positions are also the most comfortable. When holding the steering wheel, be sure both hands firmly grasp the wheel. To keep the car from driving off course (outside of your lane lines), you must constantly make small adjustments by turning the wheel slightly in either direction to help you stay on a straight path.

Always direct your car at a focal point ahead towards your intended path of travel. Focusing on a point and making necessary steering adjustments due to curves or changes in the road will help you maintain control of the vehicle and avoid loss of control. The potential for swerving into other lanes or opposing traffic will also be decreased if you focus on a fixed point. (Keeping the vehicle traveling on the chosen path without swerving off course is also known as "tracking.") Quick steering actions can help prevent dangerous crashes where there may not be enough time to stop. A last-minute swerve may help prevent a life-threatening collision.

Steering Techniques

When steering your vehicle, you want full control. There are several ways to steer, but only two methods are considered here because they are generally accepted as safe: push-pull and hand-over-hand. Using just one hand to turn your vehicle may cause you to lose control of the vehicle. Ideally, you want to keep BOTH hands on the steering wheel at all times. For most situations, you should use the push-pull method.


The push-pull steering technique allows you to steer without taking your hands off the steering wheel. When making turns, push up one side of the steering wheel while pulling down the other side, shuffling your hands to keep them at the 9 and 3 o'clock positions. For a left turn, pull down with your left hand to about 7 o'clock and push with your right hand to about 1 o'clock. Repeat until you complete your turn and counter-steer to straighten out in the lane. For a right turn, pull down with your right hand to about 5 o'clock and push with your left hand to about 11 o'clock. Repeat until you complete the turn and counter-steer to straighten out your car.

Always keep your left hand on the left side of the steering wheel and the right hand on the right side. The highest your hands should go is at 12 o'clock (where the thumbs touch each other) and the lowest at 6 o'clock (where the pinkies touch each other). This technique helps to keep your arms out of harm's way if the air bag deploys.


The hand-over-hand technique also is great for making turns, but you will occasionally have to take one hand off the steering wheel when you cross one hand over to the other side of the wheel. When using this technique, cross only your wrists, not your arms. If you cross your arms, your arms may break if the airbag activates.

To make a left turn:

  1. Put your left hand at about 11 o'clock on the steering wheel and pull down to about 7 o'clock.
  2. Put your right hand at about 11 o'clock and pull down to about 7 o'clock.
  3. Repeat until you complete the turn and counter-steer to straighten out. Be sure not to let the wheel slip through your hands.
  4. Return your hands to the 9 and 3 o'clock positions.

To make a right turn:

  • Put your right hand at about 1 o'clock on the steering wheel and pull down to about 5 o'clock.
  • Put your left hand at about 1 o'clock and pull down to about 5 o'clock.
  • Repeat until you complete the turn and counter-steer to straighten out. Be sure not to let the wheel slip through your hands.
  • Return your hands to the 9 and 3 o'clock positions.

So which one is better?

The advantage of the hand-over-hand technique is that it gives you more leverage against the resistance of the steering wheel. This helps when you have to negotiate a sharp corner quickly. But that is a real advantage only in vehicles lacking power steering. The main disadvantage is that at moments you only have one hand on the steering wheel. If you hit a pothole, for example, your control of the vehicle is reduced. It is also not safe to use at high speeds.

With the push-pull technique both hands are always on the wheel, which helps you maintain control of your vehicle. A disadvantage with this technique is the lack of leverage. If your vehicle does not have power steering, you are probably better off using hand-over-hand to make your turns.

Backing Up Your Vehicle

Steering a vehicle traveling with forward momentum takes some practice and concentration. Steering while backing, however, requires even more care. As the car moves backwards, steering adjustments create a less controllable movement, and the direction of travel is more difficult to visualize. When you travel forward, you have a full view of the road and direction of travel; in contrast, driving backwards requires you to look through the rear window, where the view is partially blocked due to blind spots, head rests, back seats and passengers. Looking through the back is also awkward and unnatural. A common driver mistake is utilizing only the rear view mirror when backing up, thus diminishing the field of vision and increasing the chances of a collision.

Backing up is not always a safe maneuver, and it should be avoided when possible. You also have less control of your vehicle's speed and direction. You must continuously watch for oncoming cars from either direction, those backing out of parking spaces, and even pedestrians. That's in addition to checking the area in the rear for any children or objects before you get in. But when you must back up, it helps to know the correct and safe way to do it.

An image of a student driver backing up

Look back over your right shoulder when backing up your car.

  • When backing up from a parking space, first go outside and check around your car for any obstacles. If there are none, go back in your car and be prepared to reverse.
  • Put your foot on the brake and then shift into reverse. Look over your right shoulder with your left hand on the steering wheel (at about 12 o'clock) and your right hand on top of the seat or seat back.
  • Slowly back up the car, easing off the brake slightly to help you maintain control, and keep your focus on your direction of travel. If you need a little more speed, accelerate gently while keeping your speed low.
  • Turn to the right if moving right and do the opposite if moving to the left.
  • Don't turn your view away from the rear until you have completely stopped backing up. It is easy to hit something or someone if you continue moving backwards without focusing in that direction.
  • If possible, have someone help you out. There is no shame in this. Even some experienced drivers need help with this maneuver.

More basic reversing rules:

  • Never drive fast or over long distances in reverse.
  • Give way to all traffic when driving in reverse.
  • Don't focus on the curb or other obstacles.
  • Look and aim for an object in the distance.
  • Use side mirrors only when there is no view.
  • Look through the rear-view mirror if you can't physically turn around.
  • Keep your speed low when backing around corners or turning.
  • Don't overcorrect. In reverse, the car changes direction rapidly with just a slight turn of the wheel.

Parking Your Vehicle

An image of a bad parking job

Some drivers do park illegally or recklessly.

Parking seems simple enough. Many people think that there can't possibly be a way to do this maneuver illegally or recklessly, but there is! Drivers are responsible to make sure that their vehicles do not become hazards after they have been parked. When you park your vehicle, you must be sure it is far enough away from any travel lane to avoid interfering with traffic, and it must be visible to vehicles approaching from either direction. Things you should consider when parking your vehicle include:

  • Always park in a designated area. If there are painted lines, do not park across them.
  • Normally on a one-way street, you can park on either the left or right side of the road.
  • Always set the parking brake when you park. If the vehicle has an automatic transmission, leave it in park. If it is a manual transmission, leave it in gear.
  • If possible, get out of the vehicle on the curbside. If you must use the street side, check for traffic before you open the door.
  • Never leave your ignition keys in a parked car.
  • Always lock your door if the car will be out of your sight for even a second.
  • Park your vehicle as far from traffic as possible. If there is a curb, park as close to it as you can.

When parking your car, be considerate of other people. Sometimes drivers try to fit into a space that is too tight. Their doors often dent the sides of other vehicles when they try to leave their own cars. You should treat this as a collision, even if the damage is only minor. If you hit another parked car, you must either try to find the owner or leave a note. As discussed earlier in module 2, the note must include your name, your address, your driver's license number, vehicle identification number, license plate number, the name of your insurance company, and policy number. Be sure to leave enough space for you and the other cars' occupants to open the doors. Drive carefully when parking and observe the same rules for driving in any other situation.

Parking on a Hill

An image of a car parked on a hill

This car is parked facing downhill, with its front wheels turned right into the curb.

You also need to know how to correctly park your vehicle on a hill so that it does not "run away" from you! How you park on a hill or grade depends on the direction your vehicle is facing. It will also depend on whether there is a curb you can park by or not. Remember to always set your parking brake when parking, especially on a hill. Otherwise, it'd roll away! When parking, leave your vehicle in gear, or if your vehicle has an automatic transmission, use the "parking" position.

Uphill - When parking with your vehicle faced uphill, turn the front wheels away from the curb and away from the side of the road. Let your vehicle roll back slowly until the back of one front wheel gently touches the curb. Set your parking brake.

Downhill - When parking with your vehicle faced downhill, turn your front wheels toward the side of the road into the curb. Set your parking brake.

Sloping Driveway - Turn your wheels so that the car will not roll into the street if the brakes fail. Also set your parking brake.

No Curb - If there is NO curb, turn the wheels toward the side of the road so the car will roll away from the center of the road in case the brakes fail. Then set your parking brake.

Parking Methods

There are several parking methods, and each requires an awareness of space, steering techniques and vehicle control. The three different parking methods are angled, perpendicular and parallel. Regardless of which method you use, you should attempt the maneuver cautiously; it can be easy to hit or bump other cars to the front or back.

Angled Parking

An image of a parking lot with angled parking spots

These cars are parked at an angle.

Many parking spaces are placed at an angle. This may make it more difficult to properly position your vehicle to safely pull into the space. Follow the proper parking procedures listed below to avoid a collision with other vehicles:

  1. Signal your intention to turn.
  2. Leave approximately five feet from the parked cars surrounding the space.
  3. Pull forward until you can see down the side of the car parked before the space, and then turn into the space sharply. Drive slowly (under five mph) while moving into the space.
  4. Straighten your wheels and pull forward until you have come up to the cement stop, parking line, or at an even line with the other parked cars.

Perpendicular Parking

An image of a parking lot with perpendicular parking spots

These cars are parked at a 90 degree angle.

These parking spaces are placed at a 90-degree angle to the curb. You may find it more difficult to maneuver into these spaces because you may have difficulty seeing the vehicles and road ahead. The vehicle has very little room to maneuver at such a great angle. Try the following steps to reduce your risk of crashing:

  1. Signal your intention to turn.
  2. Remain approximately seven feet away from the parked car around the space.
  3. When your front bumper lines up to the left side of the car just to the right of the space, begin to turn slowly (under 5 mph) and then sharply into the space. Make sure to check for adequate space on both sides of your car, and stay aware of the proximity of your right rear fender.
  4. Straighten your wheels and pull forward until you have come up to the cement stop barrier or are at an even line with the other parked cars.

Parallel Parking

An image of a street with parallel parking spots

Parallel parking spaces are sometimes marked.

Parallel parking is usually done along the side of city or residential streets. The space should be approximately five feet longer than the length of your car. Even with a larger space than suggested, it still takes practice to become good at parallel parking. Typical parallel spaces are approximately 25 feet long. Read below or check out the animation for the steps to follow:

  1. Signal your intention to turn.
  2. Check the traffic around you and then brake until you stop parallel with the car in front of the space. Make sure to leave approximately three feet between your car and the parked cars next to you.
  3. Shift your car into reverse and steer sharply towards the curb or space you are entering. When the center of your car (the door post area) is even with the rear bumper of the car in front of the space, start to straighten your wheels until your front bumper is lined up with the other car's rear bumper.
  4. Continue backing while turning your wheels to the left and stop before you hit the bumper of the car behind the space you chose.
  5. Drive forward slowly to center your car in the space. You may need to move your car forward and then backwards several times to correctly position in the space.

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Parking Safety

Safety should always be a primary concern when parking. When you are looking for parking, you are still driving your vehicle. Therefore you still must observe all traffic laws. Unfortunately many drivers are more focused on finding good parking spaces than on their driving. Some even have disputes with other drivers over a space. Walking across a parking lot can also be dangerous because of inattentive drivers.

You should also protect yourself from becoming a victim of crime. Various crimes take place in or around parked vehicles, especially in parking lots. The most often committed are theft and vandalism, though violent crimes such as robbery, carjacking and abductions also occur. Although safety is a primary concern for women, men also need to be cautious to avoid becoming victimized.

Following are some tips on how to remain safe when you park your vehicle, as well as when you return.

  • Keep your valuables out of sight in your vehicle. This includes your wallet or purse, as well as any mail or packages. Someone may mark you as a target if you leave them in plain view. A good place to stow them away is your trunk but not the seat next to you.
  • Park in a highly visible and well-lit area, especially when it is dark. You want to park as close to your destination as possible and where you will have a safe path of travel to and from your vehicle. Consider areas that have good lighting and the most pedestrian traffic, and avoid those that are isolated.
  • Avoid parking beside obstacles or large vehicles such as SUVs and trucks. They provide a convenient cover for those wishing you harm.
  • If you are driving with children, make sure you don't forget them when you leave your vehicle.

When you are out of your vehicle:

  • Walk with confidence and purpose. You will be seen as a difficult target and thus will be less likely to be victimized.
  • Carry your keys in your hand so you can get in your vehicle (or building) quickly. They can also protect you against an attacker. If you have to stop and get your keys out, you will be vulnerable to an attack.
  • Avoid walking alone if possible. If you are alone, go along with groups of people who seem to be walking your way. At many parking lots, you can ask a security guard to escort you.
  • Check around, inside and under your vehicle before you get in to make sure no one is lurking. You should do this to check for children also so that you do not accidentally run them over. Walk away or seek help if you see someone suspicious.
  • Once inside, immediately lock your door, start your car, and leave. You are an easy mark if you linger.
  • Most importantly, be aware of your surroundings at all times! You are more likely to be attacked if you are preoccupied. This means staying off your cell phone and leaving your things alone after they are secured until you are in a safe area.

Journal Question

WHAT DO YOU THINK? This chapter lists some basic driving skills that all drivers need to have some mastery over in order to pass the driving portion of the exam. Which of these do you think is the most difficult one to master? What makes this so hard?

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