Ask Joanne

10 years after, she fears taking the driver's test

Special to The Globe and Mail

We’re not always best at judging our own progress so it’s wise to check in with the professionals, and not only because of your forthcoming exam. (iStockPhoto/iStockPhoto)

I learned to drive 10 years ago, but never felt confident enough to take the test and gave up. Now I’m determined to do it. I finally booked a road test to get rid of my “N” status, but it’s been so long since I took driver training I’m worried I have picked up bad habits. What can I do to prepare for the exam? – Vanessa in Abbotsford, B.C.

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Remaining in a graduated licensing program for 10 years may not be the norm, but your fear of picking up bad habits is common with new and experienced motorists alike. We never forget our ideal seat setting or how to coax the best sound from our car stereo, but over time many neglect the shoulder check, forget that there is a method for parking on hills or how to signal before a lane change – not to mention roundabout etiquette.

“It really depends on how much driving you’ve done and all kinds of things, including who you are. It’s like anything, such as cleaning your house: will you consistently do it, or do you become sloppy over time?” says one retired driving instructor.

Graduated licensing programs vary slightly between the provinces in which they’re offered. In British Columbia, you would have qualified to take your full-privilege licence road test after 24 months of prohibition-free driving in the “N” or novice category – and six months less than that if the driver education course you took was government-approved.

We’re not always best at judging our own progress so it’s wise to check in with the professionals, and not only because of your forthcoming exam.

“Everybody really does think that they’re a pretty good driver, but most of them are probably wrong. I’m not really being cynical; there are all these little defensive habits and that’s where people slip up. They forget where they should be looking, and what they should be paying attention to,” says Grant Baker, a manager at Bestway Driver Training Centres in B.C.

“People’s physical driving ability, their control of the vehicle and hand-eye co-ordination seem to get better and better over time, but their observation and defensive habits often go by the wayside – especially if they don’t have someone reinforcing that. If you’ve been driving for 10 years on an “N,” this could definitely be the case.”

If your skills are still sharp, a driver competency evaluation and simulated road test may suffice to prepare you for the real thing, or more instruction may be needed to polish your skills.

The most common lapse in safe driving technique, Baker says, is forgetting to shoulder check before turning. “Usually people remember to check their blind spot when they’re changing lanes, but they don’t always remember before they take a right or a left turn.

“Often they’ll think they’re approaching it in such a way that they should be able to see everything, but they don’t consider that if they hesitate for a moment, a cyclist or pedestrian may come up in the blind spot when they’re getting ready to execute a turn. You never really know, so you always have to be on yourself to remember those safety checks.”

Another common error is many motorists stop looking over their shoulder before backing up. Instead we rely too heavily on mirrors – and these days increasingly on cameras – to do the observing for us, and fail to get a full picture of what’s around the vehicle before throwing it into reverse. “Those are probably the two most common observational areas that people start to get weak on over time, and for which we have to retrain drivers when they come back for refresher training,” says Baker.

To find out where you’re at in terms of being ready to successfully exit the graduated licensing program, an evaluation by a professional instructor is the best thing you can do. Not only will they give you an idea of how your skills relate to the criteria you’ll be assessed on in the provincial road test, they’ll be able to provide feedback and advice about how much practice you require beforehand.

If you discover your skills are weaker than you thought, take some further instruction and rebook the test when you’re confident and comfortable. If you’re faced with an adverse situation, you want to make sure you know what to do. Proactive, rather than reactive, driving will ensure you pass the road test, and guarantee a safer driving future.