Updated: May 31
"Doesn't your instructor teach you to change down through the gears?"
During the pandemic lockdowns many learner drivers have been turning to their parents/grandparents to help them practice. This is generally welcomed and has more benefits than it does drawbacks, however, there are often clashes with the style of driving and techniques being nurtured by the instructor (officially considered best practice by the Driving and Vehicle Standards Agency) and the style and techniques the accompanying driver has developed since learning to drive (considered best practice by Mum or Dad)
Some of the common clashes are the use of gears, the use of the handbrake and steering techniques.
The most common clash, in my experience, is the use of gears. "Doesn't your instructor teach you to change down through the gears?"
The short answer is, no we don't, with the exception of beginner lessons where we may use this as a way of familiarising the learner with the gear positions.
In days of old it may have been necessary to change down one-by-one (sequential gear changing), but the flexibility of modern engines and the efficiency of modern braking systems means that we can use cars differently to those, for example, of the pre-1970's.
This is not something that has changed recently - I was taught to drive in the early 1980's in a 1978 Toyota Corolla and was taught to block gear change way back then. I also used this technique when passing an advanced driving test in 1990 and the Cardington Special Test Grade A (super advanced driving test) in 2000.
There are a number of reasons why sequential downward gear changing is not best practice. These include; increased wear and tear on expensive components, increased fuel consumption and exhaust emissions, reduced car control and most importantly - under-developed situational awareness.
The terms used for missing out gears are 'selective' or 'block' gear changing.
There should be no need to rush gear changes. Smooth and even movements are best and this is made possible by planning ahead.
You need to be aware of the situation ahead. What is likely to make you change speed or direction and by how much? By anticipating changes to the situation and planning how you're going to cope with it, you will be able to make good use of the brakes and avoid unnecessarily changing through each gear.
A driver who has developed good sense of situational awareness and judgment will be able to recognise how much the situation will make them slow down and is able to reduce speed using the brakes and then selecting the gear that matches the lowest speed matching the situation. This awareness is missing in drivers who change gear one-by-one out of habit rather than through good forward planning.
Common downward selective gear changes are 5th to 3rd; 4th to 2nd; or 3rd to 1st. A good driver will also be able to make good use of the brakes and clutch pedal timing to skip from any higher gear to any lower gear.
One obvious benefit in all of this, is that you are warning following drivers via your brake lights of your actions. Gears may help slow the car down by using the 'engine braking effect' but this technique gives no warning to following drivers and therefore increases the risk of a rear-end bump.
In addition, when braking, force is heavier on the front wheels, which is why front brakes are designed to be stronger than rear brakes. In a situation where you are changing down sequentially, your hand spends less time on the steering wheel and therefore less time under full control of the steering.
It may seem like a matter of fine margins but fine margins are what defines 'practice' and 'best practice'. These best practices play a significant part in reducing the risk of crashes.
Do you know you can also block gear change up?
Again, a driver who has developed a good sense of situational awareness and judgment will be able to skip gears when accelerating. An example of this is when joining a dual carriageway where you need to match your speed to the flow. Third gear may give you the acceleration capability to quickly get to the required speed but once in the flow and the need for acceleration is replaced by the need for fuel-efficiency, it is beneficial to go from 3rd to 5th gear without selecting 4th. Commonly used block gear changes upwards are 2nd to 4th, 3rd to 5th, 4th to 6th.
Ask for clarification
If you are helping someone practice between lessons, please continue to do so, but if there is anything which you do not understand, for the learner's sake please don't try to change what they have been taught before communicating with their instructor.
For more information I would highly recommend purchasing a copy of The Official Guide to Driving - The Essential Skills. You'll find a competitively priced copy on Amazon