The panic zone

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Most of the situations that are confusing to a new driver are more the result of inexperience than poor driving.

Building confidence as a new driver

As a new driver, when you get your P1 licence and start driving on your own, you'll find yourself in countless situations that may make you nervous. After having the safety-net of an experienced driver beside you throughout the learning process, you'll find that when you're left to your own devices, it's easy to panic in lots of different situations. With a bit of positive thinking and mental preparation, you’ll find you can handle most situations.

Many drivers feel that the second they get their Ps they should go for a long drive on their own. Before they know it, they're far away from the comfortable back roads of the Ls driving days and in the middle of a four lane freeway, with no one to tell them what to do and no idea of what lane to get in.

A lot of young drivers make the mistake of thinking that once they get their Ps, the front passenger seat doesn't ever need to be filled again. Ideally, if you feel nervous or apprehensive about driving in a situation, you can still ask someone to come with you to help you out.

Crash statistics show that the majority of crashes that happen in the first six months of driving solo stem from inexperience. The best way to improve your driving skills is to slowly extend what you're comfortable with, taking advantage of the help a more experienced driver can give you, then learn from that and practice it over and over again until it becomes second nature.

Observation, Speed, Position

The easiest way to avoid dangerous situations is to follow the "Observation, Speed and Position" rule.

  • Observe what's going on ahead of you at all times. If you can see problems happening before they occur you're already on top of the situation.
  • Slow down if you see a hazard. This will give you more time to check out the situation and decide what to do.
  • Decide what to do. This could mean changing your position on the road, changing lanes or even pulling over onto the side of the road if necessary.

Tips for getting out of situations

Most of the situations that are confusing to a new driver are more the result of inexperience than poor driving. Here are some common situations that may prove stressful and how to get out of them.

  • Problem: A row of buses parked at a bus stop are all indicating that they’re about to move and you're almost upon them. What do you do?

    Answer: Slow down and wait for the buses to make their move. Always look ahead so these sort of situations don't catch you by surprise.

  • Problem: All of a sudden you hear an emergency siren close by. There is nowhere for you to go and you don't know what to do.

    Answer: Keep calm. Emergency vehicle drivers are highly trained and know how to deal with heavy traffic. Slow down and look for an opportunity to move out of their way. And, always make sure your stereo isn't up so loud that it's drowning out sirens or other sounds from the streets.

  • Problem: It starts hailing or raining very heavily and you can’t see much. There’s no safe place to pull over and wait out the storm.

    Answer: Once again, slow down and increase your distance from the cars in front of you, even if you can hardly see them. Put on your headlights to improve your visibility to other cars. In really bad conditions, you may even need to turn on your hazard lights.

    Remember, focus as far ahead as possible, or you'll be on top of the car in front of you before you know it.

  • Problem: There’s a great parking spot but you need to parallel park, and there’s lots of other cars waiting to get past you.

    Answer: Don't panic. Put your indicator on so that the other cars will know you’re going to park. The first temptation is to start waving like a crazy person for the cars to pass you. Just stay calm and pretend that those other cars aren't there. You'll be surprised how easy it'll be if you remain composed.

  • Problem: You're in a busy shopping centre car park and you’re part of a long line of drivers looking for a park. A spot comes up and the pressure of getting into the spot starts stressing you out.

    Answer: Once again, keep calm and focus on the job at hand, not the people honking their horns at you. A good way to deal with parking problems is to practice parking in difficult spots when there aren't too many cars around.

Are you ready?

Geared quizzes an L plater on whether he feels ready to drive on his own.

Daniel Pervis
Time spent on Ls: 12 months
Hours logged driving: 62

  • How confident do you feel about getting your P1s?

    I feel pretty good! I've been trying to practice in a broad range of situations, and I've been covering all the situations that they warn you about in the DART handbook. I feel pretty confident.

  • Where will you go for your first trip on your own?

    I might drive down to visit my mate in Wollongong and stay overnight.

  • Do you feel confident about making that first trip on your own?

    Not really. Getting out of Sydney is pretty stressful. I see my dad freaking out when he does the same trip and think, "How am I gonna do that?" What I'll probably do is leave a bit early so I beat the Friday arvo work traffic.

  • What driving situation do you feel you need the most practice in?

    Multi-laned freeways. The two times I've done it have been really stressful. It's hard to change lanes when everyone's going so fast.