A Driving Instructor's Blog

Disc and Drum brakesThis often crops up with my pupils, especially when mum or dad is involved in their driving practice.

Back in the day, the standard way new drivers were taught to slow down was to change down through the gears sequentially, using the engine to slow the car down after each change, then completing the stop using the brakes. One of the main reasons it was done like this was because of ‘brake fade’ – a phenomenon whereby the brakes worked less effectively as they got hotter, which happened if prolonged (especially downhill) or harsh braking occurred.

In those days, most brakes were drum brakes. In these, the brake shoes are semi-enclosed and not easily cooled by air flow. Nowadays, most cars have disc brakes at the front, which have an open design and so are readily cooled by air passing over them. Furthermore, technology has improved significantly, and the materials used to make brakes and brake pads are much less prone to the problem of brake fade than their counterparts from the latter half of the last century were.

To do sequential changing properly requires good anticipation and forward planning. The whole point is that with each gear change down, the clutch needs to come up to allow the engine to slow the car down. And here lies the problem – mum and dad only know about 4-3-2-1, but don’t understand why, so little Johnny is taught to simply de-clutch about 200m away from the approaching traffic lights, and carefully move the gear lever from 4, to 3, to 2, then to 1st gear while coasting the whole distance.

It seems to have escaped a lot of people’s notice, but we are now well into the 21st century and, as such, Driving: The Essential Skills (TES), says:

As a general rule, use the brakes to reduce speed before changing down to the most suitable gear for the lower speed.

In the early stages of learning to drive, it may help you to become familiar with the gearbox if you change down through each of the gears in turn. Be guided by your instructor.

It also adds:

Missing out gears at the appropriate time will give you more time to concentrate on the road ahead and allow you to keep both hands on the steering wheel for longer.

Changing down

As a general rule, it’s preferable and safer to brake to the desired speed and then change down into the appropriate gear. It might be necessary to maintain a light pressure on the footbrake while changing down.

That’s quite clear. Current practice is to use the brakes to slow the car down, then change into whatever gear you need for the new speed (although sequential changing is still perfectly OK if it’s done properly). Since many modern cars have 5 or 6 gears, it is quite feasible to slow down in 6th from 70mph and just de-clutch near the end to a stop (actually, you might be pushing your luck a little if you do this from 6th, and may have to drop it down a gear or two part way through, but it will certainly do it from 4th or 5th). You will also note that TES says you can brake at the same time you’re changing gears – if you end up with an instructor who insists on teaching you how to be a police pursuit driver because he’s got a copy of Roadcraft, and who won’t let you brake at the same time you’re changing gears, find another one quickly!

Missing out gears is referred to as ‘selective’ or ‘block changing’. It is absolutely OK to do it – in fact, it is the preferred method, and it is certainly a lot easier to do than sequential changing (but I stress again, sequential changing is fine if it’s done right). You have far less to worry about, which is good for learner drivers.

Unless you are due to take part in the next British Grand Prix, or somehow get access to a time machine and decide to go and live in the 60s, forget about brake fade – you’re not going to experience it except in the most extreme of circumstances.


As an aside, I saw someone post on a forum some highly misleading information about brake fade, and everyone immediately believed him. Brake fade of the kind normal people experience does not cause irreversible damage to your brake pads. Brake fade is usually reversible, and is simply a result of them overheating – going away once they cool down.

I mean, if it was really as terminal as this guy suggested, every car on the roads in the 60s and 70s was pretty much unstoppable by the driver.


As another aside, I recently saw someone comment how they had given refresher lessons to an older driver and had “had to stop them changing sequentially”. This is totally unnecessary – sequential changing is perfectly acceptable if it is done properly, and there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to change someone’s driving style if that’s how they were originally taught.

A few years ago, I taught a woman in her late 40s who had ridden a motorbike her whole life, but who wanted to switch to a car now she was older. She’d taken lessons 30 years ago, and had apparently got to pretty much test standard. Best of all, it came back to her quickly (though she was nervous). She changed gears sequentially, and she did it beautifully – I didn’t make even the slightest attempt to stop her because she did it so well. She passed first time with a couple of driver faults – which were nothing to do with the gears.

Sequential gear changing is perfectly OK.

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