A Driving Instructor's Blog

Another update to an older post, which has seen an increased number of hits recently.

A while ago, I suddenly started getting hits from someone (the same person) searching using “will you fail if you use clutch brake”. I’m not quite sure what they were 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. The options you have are:

• 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. Your options are now:

• 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 you’re 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 (so not good at holding it on the bite). 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 (so not good at finding the bite).

Riding the clutch properly 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. The drivers involved are 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 – and badly – 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, and one of my ex-pupils recently told me he’d been quoted not much less than £1,000 for his Mondeo), it isn’t something you want to be having replaced regularly.

It isn’t written anywhere that you must be able to ride the clutch like an expert. The examiner doesn’t automatically expect you to drive like one, although if you do then he cannot fail to be impressed – which might work in your favour if you make a small mistake somewhere else. However, if you come to a set of lights (or a crossing) which have just changed to red and you make no attempt to use the handbrake, and you do it regularly or get into a mess because of it, you’re chasing down a fault.

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 while they’re with me (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 finding the bite with the footbrake on unless it causes them to stall, causes delays in moving away, or results in jerky control (which is very often does). The examiners will view it that way, too, and you won’t fail for it unless it leads to other problems.

Do you use the clutch to brake?

NO! You use the brake to brake – the clue is in the name. You only put the clutch down if:

• you’re changing gear
• you’re stopping
• you’re going slowly and you are deliberately coasting to control the car

If you immediately put the clutch down when you want to slow down from normal speeds, the car will not decelerate at all except due to gravity. If you’re going down a hill or around a corner gravity or centrifugal force will actually make it speed up. It’s called “coasting”, and the lack of engine braking is one big reason why you shouldn’t coast around most corners or for extended distances.

If you want to slow down, the first thing you should do is take your foot off the gas. The engine will slow down, and if the clutch is up it will cause the wheels (and therefore the car) to slow down. This is what is known as “engine braking”. You lose all that if you put the clutch down and break the connection between the engine and wheels.

But should you never coast?

As I said above, you can coast at low speeds if you need to control the car (e.g. in slow-moving traffic) – after all, it would be stupid if you were travelling at 5mph (the slowest many cars will go with no gas and the clutch up) when everyone around you was travelling at 2mph. You coast a little every time you change gear or come to a halt. And some corners – very sharp ones, for example – lend themselves to coasting (partially, at least) because you have to go very slowly. Just make sure you regain full control by finding the bite as soon as it is safe to do so.

If you’ve had someone teach you to change down through the gears (“sequential changing”) instead of just slowing down and going into the one you need, you should not put the clutch down and keep it down while you change through all the gears. The whole point of sequential changing is that you bring the clutch up after each gear change to utilise engine braking.

So are you saying it’s OK to coast?

People have a major hang-up over the issue of coasting, and even most instructors (and driving books) just think of it as riding along at speed in neutral, or free-wheeling around corners with the clutch down. Both of those things are bad, and they’re what gives coasting a deserved bad name.

However, coasting is a description of something, not a chronic illness. As soon as you pull over and stop the car, you have to coast a little. When you change gear, you coast a little. When you stop at traffic lights, you coast a little. And when you are moving very slowly, there comes a point where you have to coast, otherwise you could end up driving into the back of someone or something.

So, when you do a turn in the road, if you don’t coast at least a little, you’re likely to end up on the pavement or ramming hard into the kerb. At very low speeds in heavy traffic, coasting – in the sense of describing the control technique used – is a useful and essential tool. But this does not mean you should fling the car around corners on two wheels with the clutch down or listen to your taxi driver when he tells you coasting down hills in neutral saves on fuel. Coasting like that is dangerous.

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