How to Pass the California Driving Test in 2021

How to Pass the California Driving Test in 2021

by Zutobi · Updated Mar 18, 2021

The California Driver’s Performance Evaluation can be a daunting practical test for first-timers. Managing everything necessary to ensure both your and others’ safety on the road is a lot of pressure. Don’t worry, though! We’ve compiled everything you need to know to pass on your first try.

What is the California DMV Driving Test?

The California DPE (or Driver’s Performance Evaluation) is a 20-minute practical test given to drivers before a license is issued to them. During the exam, you will drive on the road and demonstrate various safe driving methods for your examiner.

The purpose of the driving test is to make sure you know how to practice safe driving in real-life situations. If you have a physical condition like poor vision or a lost limb, it also lets you demonstrate that they do not affect your ability to drive safely.

What is the Difference Between the DPE, SDPE, and ADPE Driving Tests?

The DPE (Driver’s Performance Examination) is the standard driving test that everyone takes when they first get their license. Unless you have a condition that can impair your driving, this will be the test you can expect to take. 

The SDPE (Supplemental Driver’s Performance Evaluation) is given to those with physical, mental, or other disabilities that might impede their ability to drive normally and consists of extra conditions. For example, you will be tested on your ability to drive while distracted by conversation. You might also be asked to reach a destination without help or instruction by your examiner.

The ADPE is similar to the SDPE, but it is only applicable to certain areas and regions. The driver’s license issued only applies to the areas in which you were tested. This allows you to have limited mobility traveling in your neighborhood, commuting to work, or other tasks you might not need a full license for.

How to Pass Your California Driving Test

The DPE covers the information in the California Driver’s Handbook and puts the information within the practical test. The test lasts about twenty minutes and goes over common actions drivers can expect to encounter, such as:

  • Making turns
  • Stopping at controlled/uncontrolled intersections
  • Lane changing
  • Driving on in generic traffic (if relevant, also driving on the freeway)
  • Backing up straight

Make sure you read and study your handbook carefully! You can also make use of amazing study aids like our California summarized handbook and practice tests

You should also have a general understanding of the anatomy of your car. You will be asked to locate essential mechanisms of the car, such as headlights, defrosters, parking brakes, and windshield wipers.

Most importantly, you need to practice behind the wheel! You can find everything they will score you on the California DMV Website. Here is an example of the official scoring sheet they use during the exam!

What if I’m Under 18?

If you are under 18, you have extra criteria to prepare you for the road. You will need: 

  1. To practice driving for at least six months.
  2. Six hours of behind-the-wheel training with a licensed driving instructor.
  3. Fifty hours of driving practice. Ten of those hours have to be at night. An adult 25 years or older with their own license has to verify that you practiced under their supervision. 

CA Pre-Driving Checklist

To complete the California DPE, you will need to provide your own vehicle and vehicle proof of insurance that lists you as the insured driver. If the vehicle is deemed unsafe to drive, you will have to reschedule your road test (you can find the full pre-driving checklist here).

It must have

  • Two license plates, one w/ registration.
  • Functioning turn signals and brake lights.
  • A working horn.
  • Tires with no bald spots and at least 1/32 tread.
  • Brakes (you will be asked to step on the brake pedal to see if it works properly).
  • A driver’s side window that rolls down.
  • A windshield that allows a full unobstructed field of view for you and the examiner.
  • Two rear view mirrors. One must be on the left, outside of the vehicle.
  • Driver and front passenger doors that open from both the inside and outside.
  • A securely closed glove box.
  • A passenger seat permanently attached to the vehicle.
  • Working seat belts.
  • Working emergency/parking brake.

If you use a rental car, you have to have papers that state you are allowed to use it for the driver’s test, and it has to be insured under your name.

Automatic Fails on the California Driving Test

Your examiner will keep track of any mistakes you make during the driving test. Don’t sweat it if you see them make a mark on your scoresheet. You can miss up to 15 points before you automatically fail.

However, there are some things that will result in an automatic fail on the driving test. In general, this refers to things that could cause a fatal crash or force the examiner to intervene. Try to avoid these six errors in particular:

  1. Unsafe Lane Changes. If you do not use your mirrors or check your blind spot, you could cause a crash!
  2. Failure to Yield. If you do not know when to make safe turns, stop, or give pedestrians and emergency vehicles the right of way, you are a road hazard.
  3. Illegal Turns. Turning when you are not supposed to leads to road risks. Your examiner will not pass you in good conscience.
  4. Signs of Inexperience. Your behind the wheel practice should help you get familiar with operating a vehicle. If you do not show knowledge of traffic signs, crossing lines, and other basics, the instructor will insist you practice more before you get your license.
  5. Lack of Attention to Surroundings. If you check your phone, miss critical safety road signs, or if you have tunnel vision while you drive, you will need to take your exam again.
  6. Rolling Stops. You should always come to a full stop at red lights, stop signs, and other road situations. A rolling stop (where you keep creeping forward at a stop) will fail you on the spot.

These things create openings for serious accidents. If you do them while an instructor is watching, you’re almost sure to do them when you have a license. The examiner will protect you and others on the road by failing your exam on the spot!

If you avoid dangerous moves like above, you are well on your way to passing your CA behind-the-wheel test! Just stay calm, be attentive, and put your handbook into practice.

The DPE can seem daunting, but you will be a pro driver long before the test if you study and practice! It doesn’t have to be dull and boring either. Check out Zutobi’s practice tests to master all the road safety rules!

Will I Need to Take the Behind-the-Wheel Test Again?

Many people only have to take the California behind-the-wheel test when they first apply for their license. However, you may need to retake the test at the DMV’s discretion if:

  • You do not renew your license in a timely manner
  • Your license was suspended or revoked
  • You have a foreign license
  • You have vision-related disabilities
  • You have a limited-term driver’s license due to disability
  • You don’t have your driver’s license in your possession
  • You possess a non-state junior, provisional, or probationary license
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