Car Driving – Steering and Changing Gears


BEWARE! LOOK WHERE YOU ARE GOING. Your brain, absorbed by the details of how to steer, becomes deadly dangerous if it ever draws your attention off the road as a result - even for a split second! Never take both hands off the steering wheel at once. If one hand is needed briefly for a gear change or a signal, the other must be on the wheel. At all other times KEEP BOTH HANDS ON THE WHEEL. Never mind just satisfying the examiner; other lives depend on you, and your guardian angel sees all!

Holding The Wheel

Other than for turning, hold the wheel between the “ten to two” and quarter to three clock-face positions (see image below).

There is no need to grip the wheel like grim death all the time. That is tiring and leads to a jerky meandering style. All that is required for driving along a straight road is a firm but light hold to keep the car rock-steady. On bumpy roads, or ones which slope unusually much towards the edge, you may need a slight correction from time to time for arrow straightness but there is no need to “steer” consciously. Doing that constantly, makes the car wander, funny as that may seem.

A gentle bend or curve will need very little steering movement; your hands may not need to alter their basic position at all. However, for more than the mildest sweep to the right or left- anything remotely describable as a corner - you must adopt the method for turning I now give below.

Steering For Turns

To turn right you turn the steering wheel clockwise. (As turning left merely needs the instructions applied anti-clockwise, I will not go on to bore you with the intimate details for that!)

With the right hand holding it firmly, pull the wheel from ten past the hour, down to 25 minutes past. During this downward pull, the left hand grip is relaxed, and this hand, still round the wheel at all times, is dropped to the 20 minutes to the hour position. It arrives at the same moment that the right hand reaches 25 past. Now, with a firmly held upward “push” of the left hand and a relaxed, sliding, right hand, the wheel turning is continued. The hands reach the five minutes to and ten past positions near the top, at the same moment (just as they arrived at the end of the downward movement simultaneously), ready for more repeat movements as required. As soon as you are round the corner, the wheel has to be turned the opposite way by similar movements - and quite vigorously for tight turns - for the purpose of straightening up and completing the turn.

In most cars there is a degree of self-centering built into the steering mechanism, so that the steering wheel would return to straight if you just let it go. It is wrong and dangerous to let go completely (as the car is then out of control). But for very small amounts of steering it is acceptable driving to allow the steering wheel to return to the straight-on position itself. Relax the grip of both hands, whilst the wheel slides back through your fingers loosely held around the rim in the proper positions between “ten to two” and a “quarter to three”.

You must never cross your hands or arms on the steering wheel. This is not likely to happen when you are driving along but it can become a temptation at corners, or when you are reversing or maneuvering. Never succumb to it.


Wandering is common whenever the beginner has to have one hand off the wheel for changing gear, or for giving an arm signal.

A little specific practice at single-hand steering in the early lessons on quiet roads, whilst you polish up gear changing and learn to give a slow-down arm signal, quickly eradicates the problem.

However, wandering is also common even among so-called experienced drivers, those who mistakenly try to change gear at the same time that they are turning at a junction. Never change gear whilst turning. Change down for greater control, before you turn. Then steer round with both hands on the wheel. Once you are round, be sure that you have the vehicle under control and driving straight, before you change up again.

Another typical beginner's error is if, in completing a turn, he or she fails to straighten up the steering wheel at the right moment and/or quickly enough; the car goes too far round the corner, and, as a result, swings dangerously out towards oncoming traffic.

Changing Gears

You have to be able to change gear practically from the moment you can start, steer and stop safely. You must learn to change up and down the gearbox on the move as required, scarcely needing to pause for thought, and without ever having to look down. Your hand must leave the steering wheel only for the minimum time required at each change. All this technique should be accomplished in the early days before you leave quiet roads.


By listening and practice you soon acquire the ability to interpret the “language” of the engine and change gear when it “tells” you - relating your knowledge to whether the road is flat, uphill or down, and to your speed. To start with, however, you need a foolproof formula by which to change gear at the correct time.

Here is that formula. It relates to a four forward speed gearbox because, even with five gears, you use the first four in the same way. I describe 4th gear as Top, partly because that is how it was always known before 5th gears became common, and partly because a 5th gear is rarely more powerful.

Except where traffic conditions or speed limits mean you need to hold back, you should move up the gears swiftly, making use of their best range to pick up speed smartly. There are few more annoying drivers than those who invariably dawdle when they could get going. However, unless you require rapid acceleration, never “flog” the engine in any gear.

Formula For Normal Acceleration

Up to 10 or 15 m.p.h. 1st (Bottom)
10-25 m.p.h. (or a rough max. of 40 m.p.h.) 2nd
20-35 m.p.h.(or a rough max. of 55 m.p.h.) 3rd
30-35 m.p.h. and over 4th (Top)

The formula is for normal acceleration of an average car. If you want extra acceleration from a slow speed, as when overtaking, go up to maximum figures.

Initially you will find you have to glance at your speedometer to see when to change gear, but very soon association of ideas makes the “language” of the engine sub-consciously understood and the formula redundant.

As the formula indicate, it is not essential to change at exact speeds. When climbing a hill the normal speeds in a gear might be increased by 5 m.p.h., or when going downhill, reduced by 2 or 3 m.p.h. Then, should it be tending to run away too fast, the “braking effect” of the engine will help to slow the car's progress down the hill. (Engine braking occurs when, instead of the engine under acceleration driving the road wheels and thus the car, the momentum of the car begins to try to reverse the process and actually accelerate the engine. The resistance of the engine to running faster than you would expect for your accelerator setting in the particular gear you are in, can easily be felt holding the car back, especially if your foot is right off the accelerator.)

The normal acceleration formula does not mean that you cannot drive along in 2nd, 3rd or Top gear at lower speeds than those indicated; you can. Most cars are perfectly happy in Top gear down to about 20 m.p.h., wherever conditions are such that you cannot go more quickly. Indeed, you would never trail along indefinitely in slow traffic at 25 m.p.h. in 2nd or 3rd; you would get up into (or stay in) Top (4th) gear, only dropping to 3rd or 2nd when the need arose to accelerate, or you needed extra power to go uphill, or you wanted “engine braking” control because the road started to go downhill.

How To Hold The Gear Lever

There is no need to clasp the gear lever knob tightly, except when the reverse gear is such that the lever has, for' example, to be lifted into position.

Allow your palm to “mould” itself around the knob and then lead the gear lever in the direction wanted, with your palm facing the way you want it to go, and pushing or pulling gently.

Visualize a capital letter H under the floor of your car, with the various lines which form the H, as “lanes” or “channels”. Each selected gear of the four main forward gears is at the end of a “lane” to one corner of the H. The crossbar of the H is the neutral “channel”. Reverse is normally outside the H, as would be a 5th gear if the car has one, these positions being taken off an extension to the H crossbar. When the lever is in the neutral lane, the gears are disconnected.

Whenever you change, use a confident, easy through movement. Where the change involves sideways movement across the neutral channel, allow a slight pause as the lever self-seeks (or you direct it) over, ready to slip into the next gear.

The Clutch When Changing Gear

While gears are changed the engine must be disengaged by using the clutch. Use of the clutch for the smooth take-off is quite different and has been explained already.

The procedure for changing gear on the move is:

1. Depress clutch pedal (below the connection point is enough), simultaneously releasing the accelerator.

2. Move gear lever through neutral to next gear required. Return your hand to the steering wheel.

3. Immediately you have selected the new gear, allow the clutch pedal to come up fully, smoothly, in one unbroken movement.

4. As your left foot is completing 3 your right foot should be smoothly re-engaging the accelerator.

The degree you take up acceleration again depends on the reason for the gear change. It may be hardly at all if you are changing down to slow down, quite a lot if the downward change was to retain speed uphill, or moderate if you are merely changing up to Top having reached cruising speed. To avoid any jerk, your take-up on the accelerator must always be progressive, never sharp.

Where To Change Gear

Imagine that you are driving along a straight, busy road, in Top, and in a stream of traffic travelling steadily at 40 m.p.h. Suppose you are the eighth vehicle in the stream. For some reason unknown to you the traffic is losing speed. Because of this you must slow down. You have an eye on your mirrors. You raise your foot off the accelerator pedal to lose speed, and the speedometer reading falls.

As speed drops to around 25 m.p.h. you slip into 3rd gear.

You will still be travelling with the traffic, but at 25 m.p.h. instead of 40 m.p.h. In 3rd, you are prepared for picking up speed smartly to keep up if the stream soon moves faster again, but suppose the traffic now moves still slower, and shows no sign of picking up speed; if your speedometer now falls to as low as 15 m.p.h. you drop into 2nd gear.

After a short spell hovering around 10-15 m.p.h., you may notice that the traffic is now moving more quickly again. You gently accelerate to match the new speed. Your speed is rapidly restored to around 20 m.p.h., and therefore you change up to 3 rd gear. The stream continues to build up speed, so, as before: you go on gently increasing your squeeze on the accelerator. It is not long before your speedometer again touches 30 m.p.h. You can now slip back into top, and, assuming the stream then goes on to get itself back to a steady 40 m.p.h., accelerate a little, or as required, to enable you to keep in your position.

So it continues, with gear changes up and down as occasion demands.

For an uphill stretch we have already touched on the fact that it may be necessary for extra pulling power, to change down from 4th to 3rd gear, or even to 2nd, depending on the gradient. Change down early so that you can maintain as much of your speed as possible, and briskly. Otherwise you will slow down people behind unnecessarily and much to their irritation.

We also noted how, if you are a wise driver, you take advantage of engine braking for greater car control going down steep hills. This is better driving and saves brake linings. You slow to a speed appropriate for 3rd gear and change down to it before starting the descent. You can, if necessary, then brake on the way down as well, but you are mainly making use of “engine braking”.

For an unusually steep hill, say 1 in 6 (17%), or steeper, slow right down and get into 2nd gear before the start, because it can be difficult to make an extra change (3rd to 2nd) during the descent.

Should 2nd gear subsequently prove to be unnecessarily low for the hill, it is simple to change back up to 3 rd again, unlike the other way round.

The difficult change, however, is not impossible, and it is worth practice at a suitably steep downhill. Speed must be brought down with the footbrake to well within 2nd gear limits first, before the change down into it can be made; afterwards, if speed still begins to “run away” despite the extra engine resistance, the footbrake will have to be used again.

Readers may have heard the terms “gas in the gears” and/or “double-de-clutch”. The full double-de-clutch is more complex but is only necessary with a vintage or older car. However, the learner can master gassing in the gears. It is a half-way house, both for more polished car control in everyday driving and, as explained below, for safety in the event of having to change down at any higher speed than normal.

The procedure is only used for changing down. The objective is, whilst you have your clutch pedal down, to pre-match the relative speeds of the engine and the driving wheels on the road, in the new ratio which will be provided by the lower gear. (At the same road speed the engine has to work much faster in a low gear than in a high gear.)

During Stage (2) of the gear change, you blip the accelerator to provide extra engine revs which will then be just beginning to die away at (3), as your clutch pedal release completes. These remaining higher revs as the gear becomes engaged to take up of the drive, should prevent any jerk being felt by passengers, or any chance of ill-matched reconnection of the wheels to the engine causing “wheel-snatch”, or perhaps setting off a skid. A stronger rev tends to be needed for a change from 3rd to 2nd gear than is usually required from 4th to 3rd. The higher up the speed range for the lower gear you are going down into, the more revs you need.

Learners often wonder what the limits are for a change down to 3 rd gear from 4th, if you have left it rather late going downhill and the vehicle is gathering speed. Although it is not advised for normal circumstances, you can go from 4th to 3rd in most cars at up to 55-60 m.p.h. On a high performance car the figure could be a little higher. However, the clutch pedal must be released exceptionally smoothly after the change. In addition, you must have “gassed in” the gear as explained above. Otherwise, a sudden jerk of your foot off the clutch pedal, or not having high enough pre-matching revs, can produce a frightening wheel-snatch-induced skid, especially on a wet surface.

A late change from 3 rd to 2nd is equally possible if properly handled, but speed then must be below 40-45 m.p.h.

1st gear (Bottom) is really only used for starting off from rest. You would not include it in the general run of gear changing that I have described for keeping pace as you go along. Firstly, the number of occasions you might need to harness the extra pulling power of 1st gear from on the move is very small. Secondly, except on cars which have effective synchromesh on this Bottom gear to help it slip in easily, trying to get down into 1st from 2nd tends to cause a loud graunch, unless speed is down almost to a standstill.

Nevertheless, you have to be able to make this change successfully, because there are times when you do need to drop down into 1st gear on the move: you might find it necessary in a stop-start uphill queue; safety may demand it.

An example of the safety aspect could be when joining a major road out of a fantastically steep uphill side road. Because of checking that the major road will be clear, your approach speed to the junction will be down to hardly moving anyway. If experience then warns you that the engine cannot pull the car up the final gradient in 2nd gear at any slower speed (or perhaps the engine is already faltering), you have two alternatives. You can choose to stop at the junction, regardless of whether or not the presence of traffic on the major road impels you to do so. Then you can start off in 1st gear when the way is clear, knowing that you can avoid any danger of stalling as the engine hauls the car up out on to the major road. Your other choice, which is better driving because it often saves a stop for people behind you as well, is to take 1st as soon as your speed falls below 10-15 m.p.h. Provided the major road remains clear, this then removes the need to stop when you reach the junction itself.

What is dangerous and you must NEVER do, is to attempt to go on in 2nd, and then find the engine stalls as you are half-way out…with perhaps, by then, major road traffic bearing down upon you.

Comfortably under 10 m.p.h., you should find the gear slips handily into 1st without any crunch, whatever the state of the car's synchromesh. However, it needs practice to be able to do this gear change quickly and keep the car moving, otherwise you can find that before you have completed it, the car has stopped and is already running back down the hill! You will be wise to perfect the technique early on. Gas the gear in for an even smoother change.

Should you decide to change gear for any reason, do it. A void repeatedly taking hold of the gear lever as if you are going to change, and then moving your hand back to the steering wheel. This indicates indecision. Test examiners observe it, and they may fail a learner who dithers continuously.

Gear Changing When You Approach A Traffic Hazard

You may be front marker approaching a traffic light which has only just changed to red, a zebra crossing where an “Indian file” of children has just started to cross, or a “Stop” sign. You are certain that you will have to stop. Change into 3rd gear as you get down to about 25 m.p.h.; draw gently to a halt. There is no need to go further down the gearbox when stopping is compulsory. When stopped, pull on the handbrake, come out of gear and take your feet off the footbrake and clutch – the examiner will be watching for safe procedure to hold the car steady while you wait.

If you are a dozen or so places behind the first car having to stop, you may get involved in several “mini” stops before you reach the basic reason for all the stopping. Unless it is a “stop” sign junction line (at which, by law, each of you has to stop in turn) you may not even need to stop by the time you get there. For these “mini” stops, if it is a level road and each one is just for a second, the alternative short-cut drill may be appropriate, using 1st gear. But, where it is still necessary for you to stop when you reach the front, you must then use the full smooth take-off procedure.

Suppose that, instead of a certain stop, you are now approaching a traffic hazard where you may have to stop, such as give-way lines, or perhaps a pelican crossing when you are not sure whether a pedestrian standing nearby has pressed the button - in which case you may be the first to have to stop once the steady amber light comes on. In these sorts of circumstances, as you slow down and prepare to stop, you also change down into second when your speed falls below 15-20 m.p.h., so that you are cautiously ready to re-accelerate should the road turn out to be clear. You are no less ready for stopping but you should try not to stop unnecessarily. This can cause accidents. Drivers behind you will be annoyed if you hold them up without reason.

It is acceptable in circumstances such as those above, though in my view somewhat lazy, to omit 3rd gear, and stay in Top (4th), 'til speed is down ready to go direct to 2nd. In the same way there are a few occasions going up the gearbox to bypass a gear if you do not need much acceleration, but be careful only to skip gears when it makes sense, guided by your instructor.


Coasting means going along under momentum, either out of gear, or whilst holding the clutch down for unnecessarily long. Whatever speed you may be doing, it is banned because the car is then not fully under control. It follows that, when you are moving up to keep your place in a stop-start queue, you should release the clutch pedal fully for as much of the distance you are moving forward as is possible; you should avoid slipping the clutch unnecessarily (as even that might be classed by some as “coasting”, and it would, in any case, cause excessive wear), and you should always wait 'til you are almost up to the point where you want to stop, before your clutch (and footbrake!) go down again.

If the pace has dropped under walking speed but you never quite have to stop the purist rightly expects to see you go down to 1st gear on the move rather than holding on, slipping the clutch in 2nd. In practice, however, you will find 2nd has adequate power unless the road you are on is uphill. There, you will have to be able to take 1st on the move. If things reach the stage where you would have to slip the clutch in 1st, stop. Wait for those ahead to move on a few meters.

5th Gear

5th gears, although they can be used as low as 25-30 m.p.h., are really intended for cruising above 40-45 m.p.h. They help conserve petrol by allowing the engine to turn over more slowly; they also reduce noise and extend engine life. 5th gear need rarely be reached by a learner in town driving. In contrast, you naturally use it on the open road where you can, because of the advantages listed above. Surprisingly, the car’s maximum speed in 4th (Top) may be little short of that possible in 5th. However, the rate of acceleration available will be better in 4th than in 5th, as will performance uphill. 4th is therefore usually a safer gear to be in for fast overtaking.

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