Day 269: How I passed the behind the wheel driving test on my first attempt in California!

I wanted to write this as a record for myself and also to help out other people that are going for their test. I actually passed my test the day before, however the previous day’s blog post was all about the ‘shake’. There was an earthquake the morning of the exam! It was crazy. I woke up at 2.30am and couldn’t go to sleep for about two hours. I had my driving exam at 10am. This is definitely not ideal exam prep! Here’s a summary of what I did to pass the California DMV behind the driving wheel test. Its about my experience.

1. Find a convenient and available DMV location and time

You have to book like a few months in advance in California. It was really annoying. In September, I wanted to do it in November before I went travelling to Australia. However, the only free time was in December or when I came back in January. At the start of the year, there were less bookings. The alternative is to check back regularly on a daily basis or even several times a day for cancellations. The best time to check is Sundays as thats when there’s a lot of cancellations. Also check as many locations as you can get to. I looked all the way up and down the Bay area for a DMV time.

I ended up choosing San Mateo as its half way between where I live and work. So its convenient for me to get to. Its also much flatter than San Francisco. It does make a difference to choose a course that is less hilly. Its less busy on the roads than in SF. The other factor was also finding a driving school. Schools service their local area. I didn’t have a car, so I had to book a car. You can’t arrive on your own as then the instructor (DMV tester) will ask how you got there. If you drove yourself, then that’s a fail! So I wanted to go with another driver with a car. I found Olympic Driving School which had great Yelp reviews which serviced the San Mateo area and that also influenced which DMV I chose.

2. Book a lesson with a local driving school

I had some friends that didn’t take any lessons and passed. Some already had cars and driving experience. I also had some friends that failed too. I felt for me, I preferred to take a lesson to get an understanding of the road rules and to pass the exam. It was critical for me to pass as I was moving to Mountain View and I need a car to get around. I’m actually moving in one week. I also chose a rental property near the Caltrain, shops and my work that is within a walking distance. This is for convenience and also because I didn’t need to drive. So the place I’m moving into has a high walking store (69/100) so everything I need to do day to day is within walking distance. I didn’t want to have to worry about driving anywhere. But I knew I also needed to drive to go to other places or if didn’t have time to walk.

When I researched online and from talking to other people, I found several options. I’ve also added the cost next to it for Olympic Driving school in USD.

* 1 hour behind the wheel lesson + book the car for the test (2 hours). The lesson is before the test on the same day. Total time 3 hours, cost $150.
* 2 hour behind the wheel lesson. Total time 2 hours, cost $120.

At the minimum, I knew I needed to do the first one. I figured that because I was new in the U.S, I wanted to get more time behind the wheel. I wanted it for my own confidence in driving, to know the local road rules and also for the public’s benefit. Everyone else is driving according to the local rules so you need to as well. In hindsight, I’m glad that I took the lesson. I also passed on my first time. So it worked for me. I can’t tell you what to do, only what I did. The driving instructor gave me a lot of great tips and advised me of many rules which I wasn’t aware of. My instructor knew the course really well and the paths generally taken. They also knew the type of things I would be tested on and the points of failure for other drivers. In addition, what is most critical, they taught me how to drive in California road rules. If they taught me anything, its how to drive safely not simply to pass the test. I’ll go through in more detail what they taught me and what I was tested on.

3. I did my 2 hour lesson the day before the test

This was important because the lesson was fresh in my mind. I was keen to do it earlier in November and then do the test in January. However, there was too much time inbetween. In addition, I was going to be in Australia in December and driving on the other side of the road! I didn’t want to mix up the systems and confuse my mind. So doing it before the test was critical.

4. Look over the shoulder (chin to shoulder)

I do look over my shoulder, really ma I do! However in Australia its more of a quick glance to check out my blind spot. In California, your chin must be practically on your shoulder. You have to over-exaggerate it. As my instructor says “Just do it!”. You need to do it for the test. I found the motion to be really weird as well as the direction you have to check. If you turn left, look chin to shoulder to your left. If you turn right, look chin to shoulder to your right. You need to do this for changing lanes as well. Essentially, you’re checking your blind spot and want to make sure there’s nothing next to you.

chin to shoulder

5. Practice pulling over to park and reversing

This tests your parking ability. I found this to be very difficult because everything is in the opposite direction. The first time I pulled over whilst practicing, I touched the curb. This is a FAIL. I made sure to never touch the curb again.

The next couple of times, my wheels got too close to the curb. Everything is different in the upside-down (stranger things reference for those that know!). When reversing, you don’t need to adjust the wheel. Keep it straight. I had a natural tendency to tilt it. If you need to adjust it, move the wheel in the same direction you want the car to go. If you want it go towards the curb, move it right. If you want it to move away, move it right. I really struggled with this because I’m using to parking and reversing on the other side of the road.

Reverse with your hand behind the passenger seat, facing the rear window and moving the wheel in the direction you want to go in

I never felt comfortable or nailed this in my 2 hour lesson despite doing it 6 times. So I made sure to specifically keep practicing this on the day of the test. The driving instructor also made me park in a different spot each time to practice it. In the test, they didn’t test this because the roads were really busy. I would highly recommend practicing this though.

6. In a four stop sign intersection, the first to get there has right of way and shall inherit the earth

This is very peculiar as we don’t have this in Australia. This situation occurs when there’s a stop sign at each intersection on a cross street. Its actually a little hard to recognize. But if you look in each direction and there’s either a line across the street or you see a hexagon sign, its a 4 stop sign. If you get there first, then you go. This includes cars stopped on your left or right. If you’re turning across a lane, you can also go first.

Also make sure to stop for 3 seconds at the stop sign. YOU MUST COME TO A HARD STOP OR YOU WILL FAIL. Count the 3 seconds if you have to. You have to stop a slightly longer distance away from the stop line than in Australia. It has to be obvious that you have stopped.

I found this really weird, because I stopped a lot closer in Australia and I could see if other cars were passing on my left or right. Because of the 4 stop sign rule, drivers stop further away as they know other drivers will stop and you can go first. However, you can still roll up and stop a second time if there’s something blocking your view. So stop once. If you can’t see, take your foot off the gas and allow the car to roll forward. Then come to another stop. Check left and right again, then go if its safe. I found it a lot more comforting knowing that I can stop a second time.

There’s certain spots where they can test you where they know there’s barriers e.g. a fence, a hedge or some cars. I would drive around the area beforehand and understand what these are. In any case, if you can’t see then stop a second time to check that its clear.

The 2 stop intersection also confused me because of the 4 stop situation. A two stop is where going back and forth has stop signs (in opposite directions). But left and right, do not. This was the same as back home so that was ok.

In the example below, driver B is turning across an intersection. You need to give way (driver A) turning closest to the road you are turning into. If driver A is continuing straight, you also need to give way too. If its a two lane road, driver B can turn into the closest lane to them and not have to wait for Driver A to turn.

7. Master your destiny and the controls

When the test starts, you will be at the DMV and they will want to check the car is safe to drive and you know the controls. They will ask the following in roughly this order:

– Left indicator (you need to indicate)
– Right indicator (you need to indicate)
– Brake light (step on brake)
– Parking brake (point to hand brake)
– Gear stick (put hand on transmission/gear stick)
– Lights (point to light)
– Wind wiper (point to windwiper)
– Emergency (point)
– Defrost and airflow (point to two dials with two fingers in V shape)
– Hand signs (Show the hand signs for left, right, stop)

This heading will make more sense when you read the next section.

8. Do not press the wind wiper when intending to indicate left (AKA how not to look like a fool)

This is critical. I was really nervous and on the first turn out of the car parking lot, he said turn left. So I flicked the left indicator. Or what I thought was the left indicator. In my nervousness and out of habit, I flicked the windshield wiper! To my horror, the windshield wiper starting going. I realized my mistake and quickly pressed the actual left indicator on the other side.
windshield wiper

I thought I had failed. On the first turn. I hadn’t even gotten out of the car parking lot. My heart sank. I thought at least I’ll get the experience of doing the course once and come back another time to do another test. So I had pressed the left indicator but that still meant the windshield wipers were on. After I did the turn, the windshield wipers continued to keep going. It occured to me that I didn’t know how to turn them off. I had used it briefly when I was practicing the day before as it was raining. But since it wasn’t my car, I didn’t know how to turn it off.


I pulled the windshield wiper down. But this only intensified the motion! It started going faster. I managed to move it back one so it didn’t go as fast. But it was still going. I kept moving it back and did it too far. The windwiper kept going. I couldn’t get this thing to stop!

I thought to myself, I’m going to end up doing this test with the windshield wipers going the entire time. After some time and a couple of turns, the windshield wipers were still going. This went on for about two minutes. Eventually I figured it out and stopped the stupid thing. I was dying inside. The instructor was marking stuff on his pad. I thought he was making mental notes and writing “this driver doesn’t know the difference between the indicator and the windshield wiper”. Once I stopped the wiper, I calmed down and relaxed. So I would highly recommend knowing how to use the windshield wiper and knowing which one is which.

8. Know the driving speeds

This was rather confusing. In residential areas, the speed is 25 miles. Near a school with children its also 25. There’s also sections near highways or bigger roads which are either 30 or 35. Going with the instructor, they were able to tell me which parts of the course were different speeds. You need to look for the speed signs and be familiar with the course.

If you go over the speed limit, you will fail. You can’t go too slow either. If the limit is 25 miles you can’t be below 20. You should be at 22 – 23 miles.

I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but in a car parking lot the speed is 5 miles. That’s a really slow crawl. I was apparently too fast in the car parking lot.

9. Wait for pedestrians to cross the road or you will fail

This is self explanatory. The first time this happened, I didn’t see the pedestrian looking to cross in the DMV parking lot. I didn’t know where the crossing was. The second time this happened on the street, I was too close after they passed by. You have to make sure they almost get to the other side of the road and are very clear of the car.


I did well in the car park when coming back as I stopped once for people crossing. Then at the next crossing, I noticed a parent and her kid a few steps away peering behind a car. The tester made some notes and my instructor saw it later and commented that I did well there.

10. Stop a half length behind the car in front and see their wheels

When I started practising, I would stop too close for Californian standards. My instructor showed me a diagram of a half length of a car as the safe stopping distance. In reality, it ended up being a car distance. As you need to see the rear wheels of the car in front. I’d recommend stopping a lot further away than you are used to in Australia.

11. Watch a Youtube video of your course

I heard about this from someone else. So on the night before the exam, I spent about 30mins watching videos of the course. Here’s one I watched for the San Mateo course.

It was really useful as I recognized the roads and landmarks from earlier in the day. The driving instructor also commented on things that were “gotchas” and how to tackle parts of the course. I realized what I was watching was almost like a lesson. There’s also plenty of videos with driving tips you can watch too. I recommend searching for the DMV you are testing at and watching the videos. Keys to success!

12. Keep calm and carry on

My last tip and my biggest tip is to stay calm. Generally in life, I have a positive mindset. I have thoughts about what success looks like and mentally reinforce that image. So I kept having thoughts about passing the test and what I would do after I passed the test.

I’ve seen videos of amateur fighters training for the UFC. They practice walking into the ring, then telling them they have won, holding their hands up, and going through the motions of what to do when they win. In a similar way, I believe you have to have positive thoughts. If you have thoughts about failing, you will probably fail. If you have mental thoughts about it, you’ll also execute that action. Whenever I went into a competition, I always thought I would win. I always spoke about winning and referenced coming first place. I don’t have negative thoughts cloud my mind.

In reality, I was still nervous. Clearly, since I had hit the wrong indicator! But I was able to calm myself down, collect my thoughts and pass the test.

keep calm and carry onEveryone wants you to pass. The driving instructor and the tester at the DMV want you to pass. You want to pass. You don’t want to have to go back to the DMV as the lines are long and you have to rebook again online. The tester is there to pass you if you perform well. I have the same thoughts when I do public speaking. Everyone wants you to succeed. They want you to do well. They are not there to see you fail.

The testing instructor recognized that I was nervous too. How could he not? He also made some jokes and spoke to me as I was doing the test to calm me down.


Overall the test was straight forward. After the tester told me I had passed, I had to confess to him that I was nervous and used the wrong control for the left turn signal. The testing instructor replied that I was a good driver and figured that I was nervous. We both laughed about it.

So that’s my experience. These are my keys to success. Hopefully it helps you too! I also want to see you pass. If not, please practice clear of Mountain View where I drive. Just kidding but not really 😛

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