Whether you are a teen or a parent looking to bring your own teen up to speed, learning to drive can seem exciting and intimidating all at once. From licensing requirements to safe driving skills to suggestions on how to handle poor weather conditions, this guide gives you the information you need to equip yourself (or your teen) for life on the road.
Check out the Safe Driver Checklist to make sure you’re prepared for a safe journey behind the wheel.
California Driver’s Handbook
If you are at least 15 1/2 years old but under 18, you will need to apply for an instruction permit before you can hit the road. Here’s how it works:
- Complete a Driver License or ID (DL/ID) Card application.
- Have your parent(s)/guardian(s) sign your application.
- Provide DMV with documents proving your identity and your residency in California. (See acceptable identity documents and acceptable residency documents.)
- Submit the appropriate form(s) from your driver education and/or training classes.
- Visit a DMV office in person. You can make an appointment to go through the application process in person.
- During your office visit, you will:
- Pay the non-refundable application fee.
- Give a fingerprint scan.
- Take a vision exam.
- Have your photograph taken.
- Take the knowledge test (don’t worry; if you fail, you can take the test again in seven days).
Here are some quick tips for learning the driving skills you will need.
- Signaling to other drivers
- Learn how to signal for left and right turns, how to slow down, and how to stop.
- Driving a “stick”
- Automatic transmissions are easier to operate, but if your vehicle has a manual transmission, make sure to practice how to depress the clutch and shift through all the gears.
- Backing up your vehicle
- Turn your head to survey the area, check your rearview and side mirrors, and avoid backing around corners or sharp curves. Practice how to turn the vehicle left and right while backing up.
- Making turns
- Large, open parking lots are great for practicing turning. Learn how to steer throughout the turn, and practice right turns first.
- Right turns
- Check traffic to the left, right, front, and rear. Slow down and signal at least 200 feet (more than half a city block) before turning. Practice doing right turns, as wide turns can be dangerous with oncoming traffic.
- Left turns
- Left turns are much easier to make. Once again, check traffic, slow down and signal, and keep your eyes on the lane you are turning into.
- Intersections can be intimidating, but we have a step-by-step guide to help make learning easier.
- Lane choices
- It is important to choose your lanes wisely.
- Choose a lane that is appropriate for the driving maneuver you are doing, such as turning or parking.
- Choose a lane that is the least congested, unless you are turning or stopping.
- If a roadway has two lanes moving in the same direction, select the right lane.
- If you can choose among three lanes, choose the middle lane.
- To pass or turn left, use the left lane.
- Lane changes
- It takes practice to be able to change lanes smoothly. Make sure you check traffic, glance in your mirrors, check your blind spot, and signal before changing lanes.
- Keeping space around your vehicle
- Good drivers make sure they maintain a safe “space cushion” so they can stay aware of what is happening in traffic. The more space you allow between your vehicle and the vehicle ahead, the more time you will have to see a hazard or collision down the road and respond accordingly.
- Parking on hills
Parking on hills can be difficult, so you should first learn how to park in areas without other parked vehicles around. You can begin practicing on a flat road before learning the procedures to park on hills.
- Parking downhill – make sure you turn the steering wheel clockwise so the vehicle will roll away from the center of the road if the brakes fail.
- Parking uphill – turn the steering wheel counter clockwise so the vehicle will roll away from the center of the road if the brakes fail.
- Parallel parking
Practice parallel parking in a large, open parking lot. Later, you can practice on a quiet, residential street until you gain enough confidence and skills to practice in normal traffic.
Practice U-turns on a wide residential street with little to no traffic.
Do not make a U-turn in heavy traffic.
Look in all directions for traffic before turning and while making the turn. Traffic can appear within seconds, so stay alert.
- Freeway driving
Freeway driving is a lot faster than driving in a residential area. Choose long on-ramps and off-ramps to practice entering and exiting the freeway. Use the three-second rule for following distance and adjust your lane position as needed for traffic conditions.
- Driving at night
It is best not to start driving at night until you have mastered all your driving skills during daylight hours. At night, make sure you have your headlights on at all times—this way, other drivers can see you coming, and you have a better view of the road.
What do I do if I get into a collision?
All of the instructions for how to handle collision situations – either as a witness, or as someone involved in a collision – are detailed in the California Driver Handbook.
You can access the handbook online or pick up a hard copy at your local DMV field office.
I hear sirens. What should I do?
When a fire truck, ambulance, police vehicle, or other emergency vehicle approaches from behind with its siren on, pull over as far as you can on the right side of the road. Stop and do not move until the emergency vehicle passes.
Never stop in the middle of an intersection. Continue through the intersection and then pull over to the right as soon as you can. If you fail to do this, you could get a traffic violation citation.
How can I safety share the road with motorcycles, bicycles, and scooters?
Always check the road and regularly check to see what vehicles are coming up ahead of you and behind you. Be aware that because they are small, motorcycles, bicycles, and scooters can be difficult to see. They can approach quietly, so being aware of your surroundings is key.
What do I do when I see a school bus?
When you see flashing red lights on a school bus, stop at a safe distance away from the school bus, and remain stopped until the red lights stop flashing. Traffic must stop in both directions unless the roadway is divided by a median. School buses are not required to flash the red lights at all stops.
Be cautious around stopped school buses even if the red lights have stopped flashing. Children can cross the road without warning, so you should treat school buses as school zones – drive 25 mph or less when children are present.
How do I safely cross a railroad crossing?
Before crossing railroad tracks, look and listen for trains in both directions. Be ready to stop if necessary. It is best to expect a train on a track at any time, day or night. By the time a train sees you, it is too late to stop; so it is your responsibility to make sure the tracks are clear.
When traffic is heavy, wait off the tracks until you are able to drive across the tracks without needing to stop.
What if driving conditions are poor and it is foggy/raining/snowing?
If you can avoid driving in fog, please do. Consider postponing your trip until the fog clears.
If you must drive in foggy conditions, only use your low-beam headlights. Do not use your high-beam headlights in the fog as they will create glare and reduce visibility, and never drive with just your parking or fog lights on.
Be sure to increase your following distance and be prepared to stop within the space you can see in front of your vehicle. Avoid crossing or passing lanes of traffic unless absolutely necessary, and listen for traffic you cannot see. Use your wipers and defroster as necessary for best vision.
If the fog becomes so thick that you cannot see well, pull completely off the road. Turn on your hazard lights to alert other drivers.
In heavy rain or a snowstorm, you may not be able to see more than 100 feet ahead. When this is the case, you cannot safely drive faster than 30 mph, and you may have to stop from time to time to wipe snow or mud off your windshield, headlights, and taillights.
When you drive in snowy areas, carry chains in case you find yourself in conditions where you need more traction. Make sure you carry the correct number of chains and the correct sizes to fit your wheels. Learn how to put the chains on before you use them so you are prepared.
Always slow down at the first sight of rain, fog, or snow on the road. The road can become very slippery, so you should drive cautiously.
Make sure you turn your lights on when visibility is poor, even in daylight hours. You must turn on your headlights if snow, rain, fog, or low visibility (1000 feet or less) require the continuous use of windshield wipers.
How do I safely drive on slippery roads?
When driving on wet, icy, gravel, or dirt roads, you should:
- Drive more slowly and stay farther behind the vehicle ahead of you.
- Slow down as you approach curves and intersections.
- Avoid quick stops. “Pump” the brakes to slow or stop.
- Avoid fast turns.
- If you drive a manual transmission, shift into a lower gear before going down a steep hill.
- If your brakes get wet, dry them by pressing the gas and brake pedals at the same time so that the vehicle drives against the pressure of the brakes.
- Avoid especially slippery areas, such as ice patches, wet leaves, oil, and deep puddles.
How should I drive when it is windy?
When it is very windy, it is smart to drive slower than normal. Lighter vehicles, vans, and trucks with broad, high sides are susceptible to wind and can sometimes be blown out of their lane. House trailers are in special danger of shifting.
If possible, avoid driving next to other vehicles when it is windy. Grasp the steering wheel firmly. Be prepared to correct your steering as wind force changes, and keep your windows closed.
What if I have to stop quickly or my vehicle skids?
Avoid sudden stops whenever you can. If your vehicle has four-wheel anti-lock braking system (ABS), apply firm pressure on the brake pedal.
To determine if a vehicle has ABS, review your owner’s manual. There may also be an illuminated ABS symbol on your dashboard immediately after starting the engine.
If you stop quickly or your vehicle begins to skid, try the following:
- If your vehicle has just rear-wheel ABS (common in light trucks), ease up on the brake pedal with just enough pressure to allow the front wheels to roll again so you can steer.
- If your vehicle has rear-wheel drive and goes into a skid, stop braking and turn the steering wheel into the direction of the skid.
- Has front-wheel drive, steer where you want to go and carefully accelerate to keep the vehicle moving.
- If your vehicle does not have ABS, lightly and briefly “pump” the brakes. To pump the brakes, you can:
- Push the brake pedal hard.
- As the vehicle begins to skid, quickly let up on the brake. Push it down again quickly.
- Use this quick, pumping action until the vehicle is stopped.
What do I do if my brakes fail?
If your brakes fail, you should:
- Downshift into a lower gear.
- If your vehicle has four-wheel ABS, apply firm pressure on the brake pedal.
-If your vehicle has just rear-wheel ABS (common in light trucks), ease up on the brake pedal with just enough pressure to allow the front wheels to roll again.
-If your vehicle does not have an ABS, pump the brake pedal.
- Apply the parking brake, but be ready to release it if the vehicle begins to skid.
- Remember you can still steer and swerve. Steer into bushes or something soft if you are able.
- Sound your horn and flash your lights to warn other drivers.
- When you no longer need to change direction and your vehicle has stopped, turn off the ignition.
Turning off the key locks the steering wheel of many vehicles, so do not turn off the ignition until you come to a complete stop.
How should I drive in extreme heat?
- Watch your vehicle’s temperature gauge to ensure it does not overheat.
- Avoid driving at high speeds for long periods of time.
- Use a low gear in slow-moving or “creeping” traffic.
- If the engine is overheating, turn off the air conditioning.
What happens if my vehicle hydroplanes?
If water on the road is deeper than the tread of your tires, your vehicle may glide over the water and not touch the road surface. This condition is called hydroplaning. If you can see reflections on the pavement, or the vehicle ahead leaves no tracks on the water, your vehicle could hydroplane. To avoid hydroplaning:
- Drive slowly.
- Maintain good tire tread.
- Have your tires properly inflated.
- Steer around the water, if possible.
- Slow down, especially when changing directions or if you hear a sloshing sound from the tires.
How should I drive in extreme cold?
If you have not added antifreeze to your engine, the water in your radiator may freeze. If this happens, your engine will overheat. To prevent this from happening, start your engine and watch the temperature gauge for signs of overheating. Use the defroster or slightly open your windows to keep them from “fogging up.”
What should I do if my tire blows out?
Always keep both hands on the wheel. If your tire goes flat suddenly, you need both hands to control the vehicle. If you have a sudden tire blowout, you should:
- Hold the steering wheel tightly and steer straight ahead.
- Slow down gradually. Take your foot off the gas pedal slowly, but do not hit the brakes.
- Let the vehicle slow to a stop, and guide it completely off the road.
- Apply the brakes when the vehicle is almost stopped.
What if my vehicle gets stuck in snow or mud?
- Shift into a low gear and keep your front wheels straight.
- Gently step on the gas pedal.
- Avoid spinning the wheels. Drive as far forward as possible.
- Shift into reverse and slowly back up as far as possible. Do not spin the wheels.
- Shift into a low gear again and drive forward.
- Repeat a forward-backward motion until the vehicle rolls free.
- In deep mud or snow, put boards, tree branches, etc., under the tires. Never do this when the tires are spinning, only when they are not moving at all.
You may avoid getting stuck if you always carry chains in your vehicle. Put chains on the tires before driving in snow or mud.
What should I do if my accelerator gets stuck?
If your accelerator becomes stuck, you should:
- Shift into neutral.
- Apply the brakes.
- Keep your eyes on the road.
- Look for a way out of traffic.
- Warn other drivers by honking and flashing your emergency lights.
- Try to drive the vehicle safely off the road.
- When you no longer need to change direction and have stopped, turn off the ignition. (Turning off the key locks the steering wheel of many vehicles, so do not turn off the ignition until you come to a complete stop.)
You can find information and sample knowledge tests in our Driver Education & Training section.
Vision and Law Tests
- If possible, make a morning appointment for your tests.
- Be rested after a good night’s sleep.
- Bring your glasses or wear your contact lenses.
- Be sure the lenses of your glasses are clean.
- Take a couple of days to study the information in the California Driver Handbook.
- Read the test questions carefully. Do not read anything extra into the questions. There will be one correct answer. The other two answer choices will be either obviously wrong or not appropriate for the question asked.
- All the questions are taken from the California Driver Handbook. If you miss a question, a DMV employee can show you on which page of the current California Driver Handbook to find the correct answer.
- Do not be nervous! Everything you need to succeed is covered in the California Driver Handbook.
- You are allowed to take three law tests before a new application fee must be paid.
- If you fail the law test, you must wait one week before taking the test again.
- You must have practiced driving for 50 hours, including 10 hours of night driving, before going to DMV for your driving test.
- Practice making left and right turns at busy intersections, as well as in residential neighborhoods.
- Remember to look over your right shoulder for a right lane change and over your left shoulder for a left lane change.
- Use your turn signals for all lane changes and turns.
For Your Driving Test
- If possible, make a morning appointment at a DMV office.
- Be sure your vehicle is properly registered and bring proof of financial responsibility (insurance).
- Confirm that your instructor has signed your permit.
- Make sure your parent has signed your permit verifying the 50 hours of training.
- Bring a licensed driver, who is 25 years old or older and has a valid California driver license.
- Be sure you are thoroughly familiar with the vehicle you use for the driving test. You must know where all the controls are located and how to use them. Do not borrow a vehicle for the driving test unless it is necessary. It will be one more thing to make you nervous.
- If you fail the driving test, you must wait two weeks and pay a retest fee before taking the test again.
Is Your Teen Ready for a License?
Use the Safe Driver Checklist (toward the top of this page) when your teen has finished practicing all the driving skills discussed in this guide. Take your teen on a long “test” ride. As you ride, check your teen’s driving against the checklist. Be sure that your teen is following the safe driving habits listed, and check each item you see your teen doing correctly. This list should tell you where your teen driver needs practice or help. Your teen should, as a habit, do all of the things listed before taking the driving test at DMV.
If you are unsure if your teen is ready for their driving test, here are some questions to consider:
- Have we discussed high-risk conditions, such as driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs?
- Does my teen know what to do if they feel it is unsafe to drive because they have been drinking alcohol, and/or using drugs, or is fatigued?
- Have we practiced in heavy city traffic?
- Have we practiced on one-way streets and at intersections with three-way signals?
- Have we practiced using a center left turn lane?
- Have we practiced on small country roads, on gravel roads with potholes, and on hills?
- Have we practiced in bad weather?
- Have we practiced at night?
- Have we practiced entering, exiting, and driving on a freeway?
- Have we discussed what to do if an emergency occurs?
- Have we discussed what to do if a collision occurs?
- Does my teen know I can cancel their license at any time and for any reason? Does my teen know I will cancel the license if they drive irresponsibly or violate traffic laws?
When you are sure your teen is ready for a DL, confirm that they have completed the required hours of driver training.
Then, sign the certifying line of their instruction permit.
Your teen is now ready to take a driving test with a DMV examiner if they have held their permit for at least six months from the day it was issued. (The waiting period is mandatory even though your teen may have already practiced all the driving skills listed here.)
Your teen must not drive to the DMV office alone on the day of the driving test.