A Driving Instructor's Blog

The last few days, I’ve been getting hits from someone searching using “will you fail if you use clutch brake”. I’m not quite sure what they are asking, so here’s a summary of how to control the car (assuming you know the basics, of course).

Imagine you’re approaching a t-junction to turn right. Imagine it is a slight downward slope. So, on your approach you will look at what is going on around you, assess it, decide what you’re going to do once to arrive, then do it. Basically, this will either be “go” or “don’t go”. I am guessing that the question people keep asking is based on the “don’t go” option, and they want to know how they should handle it.

So, you’ve arrived at the junction and had to stop. You’ve put the car into 1st gear, you’ve got the clutch down, and the footbrake on.

• if you can see it is going to be clear to go after a couple of cars have passed, you don’t need to use the handbrake
• if you’re going to wait for any significant length of time (e.g. if you can’t tell when it is going to be clear), use the handbrake and release the footbrake
• when you see a gap coming, get ready
• once it is clear, drive away normally

Now imagine the exact same situation, except that you are going up a slight incline. You get to the give way lines at the junction.

• if you can see it will be clear to go after a few cars, you could use the upward gradient along with a little gas/bite to slow the car to a crawl, and time your arrival to meet the gap (you could do this in 2nd gear, though 1st gear is most likely the best option)
• you could use the gradient to stop, and hold the car still using gas/bite, then just drive away from this position when the gap appears
• you could stop, apply the handbrake, then find the gas/bite and take the handbrake off again to meet the gap when it comes
• if you have to wait for any significant length of time, use the handbrake anyway

I think this is what the question is about: is it OK to hold the car on gas/bite (i.e. to “ride the clutch”). The answer is yes – as long as it isn’t to excess and it is in control . The driving examiner will look at how you use the clutch in these situations.

When you are out on the road, look at how many cars rock back and forth at traffic lights. Look at how many people sit with the brake lights on (so probably not using  the handbrake at all). Look how many people roll back when they move off.

Riding the clutch takes practice if you want to avoid it going wrong, and not many people are as good as they think they are at controlling the car this way, which is why you see these things when you are out there. They’re often just lazy, and if you do it like that on your test then you are asking for trouble. Be careful, and don’t be afraid of the handbrake (although try to avoid using it for every little pause).

It’s worth pointing out that holding the car at the bite point too much wears down the clutch plates. A new clutch plate should last for 60-100,000 miles or more. If you ride it a lot, it can fail in less than 20,000 miles. And since they cost several hundred pounds to replace (my old Citroen Xantia cost me £395 + VAT when I had it done about 12 years ago), it isn’t something you want to be having to have replaced regularly.

It isn’t written anywhere that you must be able to ride the clutch like an expert. The examiner doesn’t expect you to drive like an expert, and he or she won’t fail you unless, for example, you come up to a set of lights (or a crossing) which have just changed to red and make no attempt to use the handbrake, and that you keep doing it, or get yourself into a mess by not doing it.

One last thing: personally, I don’t like my pupils finding the bite when they have the footbrake on, so I don’t teach them to do it and I stop them doing it if they develop the habit (it can develop by itself when a pupil isn’t sure how to coordinate their feet). The reason is that without gas the risk of stalling – which is already quite high in a learner – is that much greater. But if I get someone who can already drive, I don’t try to stop them doing it unless it causes them to stall, causes delays in moving away, or results in jerky control. The examiners will view it that way, too, and you won’t fail for it unless it leads to other problems.