Practice Driving, Skill-Building, and Muscle Memory

[Written by contributing writer Amy Tarczynski.]

Today I rowed a boat for the first time in six weeks. As a collegiate rower, it’s a big deal to be back on the water after a stretch of only training on land. The first few minutes always feel a little bit wobbly, but my body still remembers the basic motion of the rowing stroke. Within minutes, I’ve got a feel for the boat again. After a few days, I am pretty much back to the level of technical skill that I had when I left off.

Image of a teen driver who's happy and ready for some supervised practice driving.

Teen driver who’s happy and ready for some supervised practice driving.


Driving a car seems to work the same way. When I went home this winter break and started driving regularly for the first time in months, I had to think twice about the harder stuff, like parallel parking. The basics though, like checking my mirrors or using a turn signal, came naturally.

Both rowing a boat and driving a car are intuitive to me now. However, they are not instinctual behaviors because humans are not born knowing how to do either thing. Learning to row took boatloads of practice and concentration, pun intended. Similarly, those first driving lessons when I was fifteen-and-a-half exhausted me with things to remember: checking my blind spot before changing lanes, which way to turn the wheel when backing up, deciding whether to go through a yellow light, etc. Only after time did those things start to become second nature. For me it was probably after having my license for several months.

Our ability to turn a thought-intensive, novel activity to an easy, routine one is “muscle memory”—a process of first learning something consciously, but using experience to learn to do that task subconsciously. After repeating a complex task enough times, our minds can start to execute the procedure without the help of conscious instructions.

You can see why those six months of required driving practice for teenagers* are so important. It is the time when you begin to train your brain to execute driving tasks. With the help of your instructor at first and a parent later on, you have an experienced voice guiding you through the procedures and helping you form good habits. I remember rolling my eyes a little when my dad would repeatedly tell me simple things that sounded obvious, but the repetition would lead to muscle memory. Nowadays I always check for other drivers getting into their cars when I’m about to back out of a parking lot. When I start to go at a green light, I do a quick scan across the intersection to make sure it’s clear. Again, these things seem easy—but it makes all the difference to do them with intention so that they eventually become automatic.

I was lucky to have someone who took an active role in helping me form good habits. That can be rare since people often forget how unnatural driving is when they first start. That forgetfulness is the source of expert bias—that frustrating conundrum when your parent, for example, doesn’t understand how something straightforward to them, like merging, might be more difficult for you.

So if you’re a new driver wondering when this stuff is going to get easier…don’t worry. It will happen with disciplined practice and the help of your instructors and guardians. But if you’re a longtime driver helping someone learn, remember that driving wasn’t always easy—and try to be a little extra patient.

*[Ed. Note: This is a state-specific requirement. In California, new drivers are required to:

Other states have different requirements, but all states require a supervised practice driving period before a new driver can receive a license. If you have questions about your state's practice driving requirements, check the FAQ page for the state-specific online driver education course from DriversEd.com, and look for a question like "How do I earn my drivers license?"]

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