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DMV Drive Test Cheat Sheet

The Ultimate Driving Test Guide

In this video, Instructor Jay breaks down the ins and outs of the DMV drive test. This in-depth guide combines all the knowledge, tips, and advice that have been gleaned from years of teaching new drivers. So tune in to take advantage of all that experience and get ready for your behind the wheel license test!

DMV Driving Test Cheat Sheet, Video Transcript

Did you know that nearly 90% of all adults have a driver's license?! It's no wonder why taking the DMV Test is such a giant milestone in the life of almost every teen. At Drivers Ed Direct, we want that milestone to be memorable for all the right reasons, so join us today as we break it all down for you and take the mystery out of your DMV road test!

Welcome all you future drivers out there. I'm driving instructor Jay and in my 10 years of teaching the rules of the road, the DMV Driving Test is a topic ALL of my students want to talk about -- they want to know what to expect, how to pass, and how NOT to fail. Let's get right into it!

 DMV Test Breakdown

When considering that you may be driving for 50 years or more, most people are surprised with how incredibly short the DMV test is. In fact, most tests are in the 10-15 minute range, and it's very rare for a test to last over 20 minutes. The truth is, you'll probably spend more time waiting in line for your test to start than taking the actual test itself.

Side note: Check the links in the description for a complete list of everything you need to bring to the DMV on your test day.

When your drive test finally does begin, the DMV examiner will come to your car and introduce themselves. Contrary to public opinion, most DMV examiners are very nice, friendly people just like you and me... and believe it or not, they actually want you to pass your test! Think about it, put yourself in their shoes for a minute. Imagine if you spent your entire work-life in a car, 5 days a week, 8 hours a day with hundreds of strangers ... and I should say unlicensed strangers who may be decent drivers or may be the worst drivers in the world. They have no idea what kind of driver you are... trust me, they are hoping and praying that you are a good driver and that they can tell you "congrats, you passed!" after your test.

So now that you know the DMV examiner is on your side, it's time to make a good first impression. You want to show them you know your stuff right from the get-go, and you can do this by acing your pre-drive test. This is the portion of the test that happens before you ever move the car. First things first, make sure that your seatbelt is on. A no brainer, but a terribly embarrassing way to fail your test before it even begins. Now, before getting in the car with you, the DMV examiner will usually walk around the vehicle and ask you to turn on your turn signals and step on the brake. They will be looking at your signal lights and brake lights to make sure your car is in good working order. It goes without saying that you want to show up to the DMV in a vehicle that is in good working condition with properly inflated tires, working lights, et cetera.

When the examiner gets in the car with you, they will then quiz you on a handful of pre-drive test questions, asking you to identify controls for your headlights, windshield wipers, window defrosters, hazard lights, parking brake, horn, and gear shifter. They'll also ask you to demonstrate your 3 hand signals -- right, left, and stop. My fellow driving instructor Liz made an outstanding video covering the pre-drive test in great detail. I highly recommend you check out her video by clicking here.

After you've aced the pre-drive test and made that good first impression, now it's time to make a great second impression when you start actually driving the car. The examiner will really get an idea of what kind of driver you are based on how you navigate out of the DMV parking lot. Drive cautiously and keep your speed nice and slow, keeping an eye out for pedestrians and other vehicles. Depending on the DMV you're at, there will most likely be a sidewalk you have to cross when exiting the parking lot. Don't forget to yield BEFORE this sidewalk, do not drive through it. Even if there is no stop sign, you must always yield to all pedestrians before driving over a sidewalk when exiting a driveway.

After leaving the DMV, your drive test is basically broken down into 2 parts: 50% in residential neighborhoods, and 50% on major city streets, though not necessarily in that order.

In residential neighborhoods, your examiner will grade you on your steering control, lane positioning, speed control, smooth braking, traffic checks, right of way rules, navigating a curved road, left turns, right turns, curbside parking and reversing alongside the curb... pretty much the basics.

On major city streets, the examiner will grade the same basic concepts like lane-positioning, speed control, traffic checks, left turns, and right turns. In addition, they will have you make a few lane changes.

After driving around for about 10 minutes, you'll head back to the DMV where you finish your test by simply pulling into a parking spot. And that's it, that's the moment of truth when the examiner will let you know if you passed or failed, along with some notes of what you did wrong and how you can do better.

 What's Not on the DMV Test?

In the state of California, the road test is actually pretty straightforward and only covers the most essential of driving skills. For example, you will NOT be tested on freeway driving, 2-point turns or 3-point turns... and to the relief of many students, the DMV won't test you on parallel parking. However, if you live in a state or country that does test parallel parking, check out the video link above to learn how to parallel park with the best of them.

 How to Pass the Test

According to the California DMV website, the purpose of the driving test is to determine if you:

  1. Are able to safely operate a vehicle.
  2. Use safe driving habits.
  3. Can apply your knowledge of traffic laws in real life situations.
  4. Are physically able to operate a motor vehicle.

In other words, they simply want to make sure you can safely and legally drive a car without needing any assistance from anyone else.

The best advice I can give you for your test day is this: just be the best driving version of yourself. Remember, you've spent hours upon hours practicing, and you know how to drive. Just go out there with a smooth, calm confidence and show the DMV examiner that you know your stuff. Drive just like you normally would: don't drive overly cautious or differently from how you've been practicing.

And remember that "first impression" we talked about? If you put the DMV examiner at ease right from the beginning, they'll be pulling for you the whole test. Like I mentioned before, the majority of examiners are very fair and if they ask you to do something, then they really want you to try it. They won't ask you to do something illegal and it's a myth that an examiner will try to trick you. Don't forget, they want you to pass!

Another easy way to increase your chances of passing is to get familiar with the area around your DMV. The test route is usually contained within 2-3 miles of the DMV office, so practice driving on the streets around the DMV, and get to know the various intersections, speed limits, and traffic situations in that area. Also, make sure you practice around the same time of day as your scheduled test so that you get a good idea of how the traffic flow will be.

 How Not to Fail the Test

While there are several ways to fail the drive test, they fall into two basic categories:

  1. Making too many little mistakes.
  2. Making one major mistake called an "automatic fail" or "critical driving error."

Let's discuss both briefly.

Committing Too Many Minor Mistakes

You can make 15 minor mistakes and still pass your DMV test. Commit 16 or more minor mistakes and you fail your test. What are minor mistakes? Mistakes that aren't deemed terribly dangerous, but still are not considered proper driving. By far the most common minor mistakes made on DMV tests are missed intersection traffic checks, which can easily be avoided by making sure you look left and right before you pass through any intersection, even when you have the right of way. Other common minor mistakes include not coming to a full 3-second stop at stop signs, not maintaining a consistent speed, not driving or stopping smoothly, and not scanning the road or checking your mirrors often enough.

Committing an Auto-Fail or Critical Driving Error

More common than failing for making 16 minor mistakes is failing for committing a single auto-fail or critical driving error. These would be major mistakes that the DMV would consider dangerous or highly irresponsible. Let's list them all and discuss them briefly:

  • 3 Wrong on Your Pre-Drive Test: Remember the pre-drive test we discussed earlier where you identify the lights, gears, and other controls? If you miss 3 of those, your test is over. We've never had that happen to one of our students, so please don't be the first!
  • Failure to Use Auxiliary Equipment: What the heck does that mean? Well, it's the technical way of saying that you need to know how to actually use the vehicle's controls like the headlights, windshield wipers, hazard lights, etc. This is a rare auto-fail, but it can happen. Imagine it rains during your drive test -- if you don't know how to turn on your headlights and use your windshield wipers while driving, you just entered the auto-fail zone.
  • Disobeying Traffic Safety Personnel: This one is pretty rare as well. Just remember, if you encounter a traffic cop, construction worker, or school crossing guard that is directing traffic, you must obey them.
  • Striking an Object: Seems obvious -- if you hit something on your drive test, you probably shouldn't be getting a license. Where we actually see this happen is during the curbside parking portion of the test. The DMV considers the curb an object, so if you "strike" it while driving or parking, that can be considered an auto-fail. That's why we always recommend that our students approach the curb very slowly, at a walking pace. Also, err on the side of parking a little too far away from the curb rather than too close to it. After all, if you park more than 18-inches away from the curb, it's just one minor point off... much better than getting an auto fail for accidentally hitting it.
  • Disobeying a Traffic Sign or Signal: Another no-brainer. For example, if you run a red light or blow through a stop sign, you just said goodbye to your driver's license. Likewise, if you're at a green light and you don't go when it's safe, that's also disobeying a traffic signal and earns you a critical driving error.
  • Making a Dangerous Maneuver: This auto-fail is open to a wide range of interpretation, but some examples include swerving, taking a turn way too fast, slamming on the brakes unnecessarily, and so on. If it feels dangerous, it probably will get you failed.
  • Improper Speed: Of course, if you drive too fast, even a few miles over the speed limit, you can fail. But the reality is that more teens, believe it or not, fail for driving too slowly. This is probably because many drivers on the test are either nervous or trying too hard to drive cautiously. But if you drive way too slowly, you may be impeding traffic behind you and are also showing the examiner you are not comfortable driving the safe speed limit. In general, it's okay if you drive a few miles under the speed limit, but if you go 10 mph below the speed limit for no reason, you will fail your test. And a quick note about posted school zone speed limits: You only slow down in a school zone when children are PRESENT. If you don't see any kids on the sidewalks outside a school, you shouldn't slow down unnecessarily.
  • Making a Lane Violation: A lane violation can occur when you accidentally drift out of your lane into another lane, or when you make a lane change without first doing your mirror and over the shoulder traffic checks. Remember, don't forget to S.M.O.G. before lane changes! Any lane violations will result in the dreaded auto fail.
  • Examiner Intervention: We saved the "best" for last because it is the most common auto fail. An examiner intervention auto-fail can be verbal or physical. Verbal examiner intervention is when the examiner has to help you by telling you what to do, or what NOT to do. If they tell you to "slow down, you're going too fast" or "it's safe to go now, it's your right of way" or give you any sort of driving advice, then you have failed. Remember, the DMV examiner should only have to give you simple driving directions like "turn right ahead at the light" or "make a left lane change" or "pull over to the curb" -- it's 100% up to you to execute the requested maneuver safely, without their help. Likewise, physical examiner intervention is not good -- you don't want the examiner having to grab the wheel for you at any time.

Why is examiner intervention the most common auto fail? Because the examiner will often have to intervene when you begin to make any of the other auto-fail mistakes we covered previously, like dangerously speeding, making a lane violation, and impeding or forfeiting the right of way.

There you have it, those are all of the technical ways one can fail the DMV test. Check out the link above if you want to see the actual Top-10 specific reasons students have failed their drive test -- this list was based on data from over 500 real DMV drive tests, so definitely give it a watch.

 Final Thoughts and More Pro DMV Test Tips from Drivers Ed Direct

All right everybody, now that you know what to expect on the DMV test, let's go over a few more things that will give you some next level prep for your behind the wheel test:

Following DMV Examiner Directions

When the examiner gives you directions to make turns, curbside park, and make lane changes, they will rarely say something like "make a right turn in two streets" -- it will always be "make a right turn" and then they expect you to make the turn on the very next street. Therefore, it is important to start a S.M.O.G. and slowing down sooner than later so you don't have to rush or end up missing the turn, as that could lead to an automatic fail.

Keep Both Hands on the Wheel

Always keep both hands on the wheel, even when you are patiently waiting at a red light. Of course it's ok if you take one hand off the wheel for a quick second to itch your nose or something -- that's fine. Otherwise, keep those hands glued to the wheel!

Keep Your Head Moving With a Purpose

As I mentioned earlier, forgetting traffic checks is the #1 point people miss on the drive test. When you consider you'll probably drive through over 20 intersections on your test route, missed traffic checks can add up. By not looking at intersections or potential hazards, your examiner has to assume you didn't see the hazard or were not aware of the intersection. However, if you are continually scanning the roads for hazards and doing your intersection traffic checks, the examiner will note that you keep your head and eyes moving... Side note: people who keep their head moving on the test (that is, do lots of traffic checks) often get a perfect score for mirror use, too.

Know Your Right of Way

Most driving students know how to handle their all way stops or protected turns -- those are pretty easy. The real question is, do you know how to handle more complex right of way situations like 2-ways stops, T-intersections, and unprotected left turns? Not knowing the right of way -- either impeding someone else's or forfeiting your own -- often leads to an auto-fail because it creates a dangerous maneuver or examiner intervention.

Handling a T-Intersection

An uncontrolled T-intersection, as we just mentioned before, is one type of intersection that often trips students up. Look out for an uncontrolled T-intersection that usually appears halfway through the residential route. Remember, cars on the terminating street must yield to cars on the through street at an uncontrolled T-intersection. Before turning onto a T, slow down to about 3mph and be prepared to stop if there is cross traffic approaching.

Don't Forget to S.M.O.G.

By now hopefully you know that S.M.O.G. stands for Signal Mirror Over-the-shoulder Go, and you know you need to S.M.O.G. before every single lane change. However, many people forget to S.M.O.G. before the following maneuvers, which the DMV technically considers lane changes:

  • Entering bike lanes
  • Making rights turns without bike lanes
  • Entering left turn lanes, even with a median in the road
  • Entering a center-left-turn lane
  • Pulling over to the curb to park
  • Pulling away from the curb to enter traffic

If you forget to S.M.O.G. before any of those situations I just listed, it's an automatic fail!

Right Turn on a Red Light

On your drive test, we recommend not making right turns on red lights, unless asked by your examiner. While it is 100% legal to make a right on a solid red unless there is a "No Turn on Red" sign, not a lot of people know that you're allowed to wait for the green! While waiting for the light to turn green may frustrate drivers behind you, the DMV handbook explicitly says that waiting for the green light "is not illegal." Waiting for the green light not only makes for a much easier turn, it will make your next lane change after the turn much easier, as cross traffic from our left will be held back by their red light. We won't have many other vehicles to compete with!

If you do plan on making a right turn on red, you need to make sure that not only the left side (cross traffic) is clear, but also keep your eye on the left turn lane from the opposite side of the intersection -- they may have a green arrow, so you don't want to impede their right of way. And of course, watch for any pedestrians approaching the intersection -- the last thing you want to do is block the crosswalk while waiting to make your right on the red, and then realize you impeded the progress of a pedestrian. As you can see, there are many, many things that can go wrong when making a right on a red -- that's why we urge our students to avoid doing it during their test unless the examiner requests that you do so.

Center Left Turn Lanes

Practice using center left turn lanes -- you know, those lanes in the middle of the road that have solid yellow lines on the outside and dashed yellow lines on the inside. There's a good chance you'll have to use a center turn lane on your drive test when you return to the DMV, so you'll want to be comfortable merging into the center turn lane using S.M.O.G. and then making a left turn into a driveway without impeding the progress of oncoming traffic or pedestrians.

 Let's Wrap It Up

All right one and all, that's a lot of information to process, but if you take it to heart and combine it with a healthy amount of practice behind the wheel, you will be well on your way to earning a driver's license. If you have other questions about the test, or would like to see us do a mock DMV test video, comment below. We also love hearing your personal DMV test stories, so please share them as well. And finally, please take a quick second to like the video if you found it helpful and please subscribe if you haven't done so already.

From Jay and everyone here at Drivers Ed Direct, thanks so much for watching and may all your stops be smooth and your lane changes graceful. We'll see you all and out on the road very soon, after you earn that license of course!