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Even after you've studied the Florida Driver Handbook cover to cover, and can recite the speed limits in every possible zone, it still comes down to the fact that nothing is more valuable than actual driving experience.
Knowledge is important, but putting that knowledge into practice will make the difference between you becoming a confident, safe driver or a hesitant one. There's no substitute for putting your hands on the wheel and maneuvering that car properly into an open lane in traffic.
That's why the State of Florida has required that as a first-time driver, you get at least 50 hours of driving experience, with 10 of those hours at night, before you can obtain your actual operator's license. In fact, your parent or guardian will need to sign a statement that says you did complete those hours during the 12 months that you had a learner's license.
A lot can be said for getting hours of behind-the-wheel experience on a wide, quiet road with just a few stop signs. Simply becoming comfortable with the car's controls and how they respond is important. But you can ultimately become a safer and more confident driver (without becoming over-confident) if you also work on skills in a range of less-than-ideal situations.
This isn't to say that you should immediately go out in a tropical storm and practice stopping at railroad tracks during a downpour, but becoming accustomed to all kinds of weather and road conditions is a valuable part of your training. Always within reason and within safe practices, of course.
Here are some skills you might want to work on when you and your licensed driving companion feel you're ready:
- Parking: Try parking on a downhill slant, an uphill slant, a hill without a curb, and even between two parked cars (parallel parking).
- Intersections: Get experience at four-way stops, two-way stops, open intersections with no stop signs, and a variety of traffic light configurations.
- Freeway driving: When you're ready, practice merging onto the freeway and getting up to speed in a safe manner. Try passing, changing lanes, and exiting the freeway.
- Railroad crossings: Become familiar with the various types of railroad crossings in your town. You might find areas with safety gates and flashing lights, or a crossing with no gates and just a caution sign.
- Bad weather driving: Road conditions and visibility vary greatly depending on the weather and time of day. If you can, get experience driving in fog, wind, and rain, and at different times of day.
You're in training, so you're not expected to be perfect. Don't put yourself into situations that you and your licensed companion don't feel you're ready for. Stick with the basics until they become boring, and then move on to something a little more complicated. If you keep your skill level in mind at all times, and gradually move up to more difficult conditions, you'll be a well-rounded, safe, and experienced driver before you know it.
Here's a little friendly advice for new drivers from someone who's been there. They don't teach you everything in school!
- Don't order mega-size drinks at the drive-through. They tip over in the drink holders when you turn or stop, and if you hold the drink between your legs for stability, then you can't operate the floor pedals.
- Don't try to eat a sandwich or burger while you're driving. The mayonnaise-covered tomatoes will fall into your lap and you'll have to make a snap decision between swerving to the curb (bad) or leaving the grease stain on your jeans (bad).
- Don't make or receive calls on your cell phone while you are driving. It's bad karma, everyone else on the road will be irritated with you, and you won't realize you're going too slow and swerving all over the place until you cause an accident. Same goes for applying makeup while driving: just don't!
- Don't under any circumstances send a text message when you're at the wheel. The police officer won't be sympathetic when you explain that you absolutely, positively could not wait until you pulled off the road to text "c u soon" to your best friend, so instead you rear-ended someone while your eyes and thumbs were busy on the keypad.
- Don't be lame and give in to peer pressure. If some nimrod in the back seat asks, "How fast can this thing go?" ignore them―they're not the one who will get busted or cause an accident. Someone in the car has to be the grown-up: you.
- Don't panic and jump out of the car if you notice a bee on the inside of the windshield. Ever seen your car roll down the street without a driver? You don't want to.
- Do wear your seatbelt every time you get into a car, even for a short ride. Something as common as stopping suddenly to avoid a cat darting across the street can cause your face to meet your steering wheel. The results won't be pretty, and your prom date will find an excuse to back out.
- Do be vigilant for other drivers who are not as with it as you are, and keep your distance. You never know when they will decide to enter your space (since they won't bother to signal), and the element of surprise isn't as fun on the road as it is at a birthday party.
- Do install a dog barrier in the back of your car before taking Rover for a ride. Rover will want to be in the front seat with you, and trying to swat him back with one hand while steering with the other is a sure way to take out a whole line of parked cars.
- Do obey speed limits so that you will have time to react should an unexpected obstacle (a person, another car, an animal) appear. Besides, no one will believe you got that huge dent going "only 10 miles an hour."
- Do listen to your stereo at a low enough volume that you can hear emergency sirens. Those fire trucks are a lot bigger than you, so you'll want to know one is approaching before it runs you over.
- Do take it easy, pay attention, and take the rules of the road seriously. In a few years when you can honestly say you've never had a ticket or an accident, people will respect you, and it will be an enormous point of pride.
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