Changing Gears

The gears of a car make sure that the engine isn’t strained and runs properly when the speed increases or decreases. Cars normally have six gears – five of which are for going forwards and the sixth for reverse. As cars get increasingly smarter there are some modern cars with an extra forward gear which allows for improved fuel economy over long journeys at high speeds (such as long motorway drives). It is essential to master changing gears to ensure you are driving safely and efficiently.

As you progress through the gears this means you will be driving faster, so there are other considerations you need to think about alongside changing gear such as knowing the speed limit you are meant to be at, keeping a safe distance from cars in front of you, and making sure your positioning gives yourself and others enough room to manoeuvre. In this article, we will run through how to change gear effectively so that you are fully prepared for when you take on this driving skill.

Top tips on how to change gear smoothly

The first thing you need to know before changing gear is that it all starts with the clutch. Make sure you press your clutch pedal down fully before you attempt to change gear so that the clutch plates are separated, reducing the force on the gearbox. At the same time, you need to make sure that you take the pressure off the gas. Once the gear change has been made, you can gradually release the pressure on the clutch pedal to re-engage the clutch while, at the same time, apply pressure once more on the gas. The gear stick should be moved by your left hand and follow a different movement depending on the gear.

It is key to make sure you are in the correct gear for both the speed limit and the type of gradient of the road. A good rule to follow is to always drive in the highest possible gear, but make sure that the engine isn’t struggling. To slow down, make sure you do this in the gear that you are in (by applying the brakes) and then adjust the gear accordingly. A helpful phrase to learn when practising changing gears is: “Use the brakes to slow, and then pick a gear to go.”

When to change gear

Before putting these tips into practice it is important that you get your head around what the different gears are for, and how you should use them. If you have already started to learn to drive you will know that first gear is the gear that normally gets the vehicle in motion, as this has the most power. As you start to move the general rule of thumb is the higher the speed, the higher the gear (there are a few exceptions to the rule which we explain below) and you use the higher gears to help you increase the speed of the car.

This is a guide of the speed ranges for each gear:

  • First Gear: To get the car moving and up to a speed of around 10 mph
  • Second Gear: Up to a speed of around 20 mph
  • Third Gear: Up to a speed of around 30 mph
  • Fourth Gear: To use if you are staying at 30 mph, or wish to increase the speed to around 40 mph
  • Fifth Gear: For increasing the speed above 40 mph and for when you no longer want to increase the speed of the car.

Exceptions to the Rule

While these are the general rules for gear changing you need to be aware that there are some differences when it comes to specific driving situations. For instance, if you are starting the car down a steep hill you need to use second gear instead of first gear immediately.

When driving up or down hills, in general, you need to utilise your lower gears more, so when going up a hill you might need to keep the car in each gear for longer than usual so that it has more power to get up the hill (the same rule applies if you are carrying more weight than usual, such as towing a caravan). Likewise, when going downhill you may need to change into a lower gear than normal for the speed – this is so the car doesn’t run down the hill too quickly as the engine braking is more effective in this scenario.

Step-by-step guide to changing gears

Changing from first to second gear

  1. Put your clutch down and take the pressure off the gas pedal.
  2. Add a little pressure to the gear stick to the left and then move the gear stick straight downwards into second gear (adding this pressure to the left helps prevent the gear from accidentally slipping into fourth gear).
  3. Replace your left hand so you have both hands on the steering wheel again.
  4. Gradually bring the clutch up a little (not too fast!).
  5. Add gentle pressure to the accelerator to gain some speed (make sure you don’t do this too quickly as this is a sure fire way of wasting precious fuel).
  6. Remove your foot from the clutch.

Changing from second to third gear

  1. Put the clutch down and take the pressure off the gas pedal.
  2. Then bring the gear stick back into the middle (neutral) position, making sure it is securely back in neutral before pushing the gear stick up into third gear. Making sure the gear stick is in neutral before moving into third gear makes sure that it doesn’t slip into first or fifth gear.
  3. Replace your left hand so you have both hands on the steering wheel again.
  4. Gradually bring the clutch up a little.
  5. Add gentle pressure to the accelerator to gain some speed.
  6. Remove your foot from the clutch.

Changing from third to fourth gear

  1. Put the clutch down and take the pressure off the gas pedal.
  2. As you are in third gear the gear stick is already in the right position to simply bring down the gear stick directly into fourth gear.
  3. Replace your left hand so you have both hands on the steering wheel again.
  4. Gradually bring the clutch up a little.
  5. Add gentle pressure to the accelerator to gain some speed.
  6. Remove your foot from the clutch.

Changing from fourth to fifth gear

  1. Put the clutch down and take the pressure off the gas pedal
  2. Bring the gear stick back into neutral and then pull the gear stick towards you and then push up into fifth gear.
  3. Replace your left hand so you have both hands on the steering wheel again
  4. Gradually bring the clutch up a little.
  5. Add gentle pressure to the accelerator to gain some speed
  6. Remove your foot from the clutch.

What is Engine Braking?

A great way of prolonging the life of the brakes on your car, and saving you money on costly repairs, is through engine braking. This is the practice of using the engine to help keep your speed down when you are not accelerating or are trying to slow down.

To use the engine to help you brake, you should stay in a lower gear and take your foot off the gas as this rapidly reduces the fuel available for the engine and will slow you down. If you stay in a high gear, you won’t get the same effect as the engine won’t be spinning as fast so will not be as affected by taking your foot off the pedal. This is because the engine spins fast even when you are driving slowly in lower gears.

The lower down you are in the gears, the more likely you are going to be able to control the speed of your car and prevent it moving faster than you would like. Conversely, if you stay in a higher gear then engine braking is not going to work as effectively. For example, if you are going down a steeply inclined hill you will need to be constantly applying your brakes when you could be using the engine to help slow you down instead.

Is it possible to skip gears when changing gears?

Yes, it is, for instance, you might be driving above 30 mph on a flat road and need to now reduce your speed as you have reached a 30 mph zone. In this case, you can go down from fifth to third gear. The same occurs for if you are turning a corner and might need to change from fourth or fifth gear into second gear. This is known as block gear changing.

Key things to remember for your driving test

In your driving test the examiner will be looking out for the following when you are changing gear:

  • Being in the correct gear for the speed limit, type of road and potential hazard
  • Not looking at the gear stick when you are changing gear
  • Being able to change gear smoothly in a controlled and safe way
  • Putting your left hand back on the steering wheel after you have changed gear
  • Not keeping your clutch pedal down or the gear stick in neutral.

Conclusion

Once you’ve got the hang of changing gears it will become second nature, but when starting out it can seem a little tricky. Make sure you have a good understanding of when you need each type of gear and how to get those gears into position before having a go in your driving lesson. The key is to keep practicing!