To take your test in a manual or automatic car – that’s the decision every learner has to make. While there’s less to think about learning in an automatic, most learners still opt for manual driving lessons.
More than 1.6 million manual driving tests are taken each year, according to the latest data, compared with just 185,043 automatic tests. Interestingly, automatic pass rates are considerably lower than the overall average of 46.3% (at 38.9%) – according to Pass Me Fast – suggesting that it takes learners longer to learn to drive in an automatic than it does in a manual.
This lower pass rate could be attributed to a number of factors – but it certainly goes against the belief that learning is more difficult in a manual car.
There is already a strong argument for learning to drive in a manual. Once you pass your test in a manual car, you’ll be able to drive an automatic anyway. Whereas those people with an automatic licence will only be able to drive automatics.
Also, taking out learner driver cover is typically cheaper for a manual car than an automatic. Obviously it depends on the value, make and model of the car in question – but generally speaking, automatic cars are in a higher vehicle group because the costs of repairs are higher.
It’s fair to say, however, that if you’re learning to drive in a manual car, you’d benefit from having a few pointers to avoid the dreaded stalling or kangarooing when trying to pull away. We’ve come up with some tips to help you achieve smooth getaways and gear shifts from now on.
1. Be systematic in your approach
There’s lots to think about as a learner driver – pulling away smoothly and safely is just one of them! It’s easy to be overwhelmed by everything and find yourself flustered, which won’t do you any favours.
The key is to keep calm and try not to be rushed into releasing the clutch. Easier said than done, of course, but being systematic in your approach can go a long way. Keep repeating these steps over and over in your head and, in time, you will start to do it without having to think long and hard about it:
Put the gearbox in neutral – if you’re unsure, check that the gear-lever moves freely left to right across its gate.
Check the handbrake is in the upright position.
Observe the individual gear positions on top of the gear-lever, making a mental note of where each gear is.
With the car in neutral, turn the key in the ignition to start the engine.
Depress the clutch pedal with your left foot, putting it all the way to the floor.
Put the car into first gear.
Start to gently apply the accelerator with your right foot to raise engine RPM a little above idle.
Slowly release the clutch pedal with your left foot – when you feel the car wants to move forward, this is known as the clutch ‘biting point’.
Keeping your feet still, release the handbrake.
As the car starts to move forward, continue to slowly release the clutch pedal and press down a little harder on the accelerator.
Take your foot off the clutch pedal completely as you drive forward, ready for a gear change.
On the page, it looks like these steps will take longer to complete than they actually do in practice. Ultimately, as you get more and more confident, you’ll start pulling away in a matter of seconds.
2. Listen to when the car wants you to change gear
Some modern cars will let you know on the dashboard what gear you should be in, based on the speed you are travelling and the revolutions per minute (RPM) or revs. But you don’t want to be taking your eyes off the road every time you have to change gear, especially as a learner driver.
Instead, you should learn to listen to what your car is telling you as a guide for when to change gear. Your engine will start to strain when you need to go up a gear – and as the RPM increases, so will the noise.
The good news is that it’s much easier to change gears than it is to pull away – but you can still cause problems for yourself if you don’t get it right. Here’s how to change gears on the move:
As you take your right foot off the accelerator, depress the clutch all the way to the floor with your left foot.
Acknowledging what gear you’re in currently, move the gear stick either up or down to the next gear (the car will continue to move forward under its own momentum).
Smoothly pull your left foot off the clutch, while simultaneously re-applying pressure to the accelerator with your right foot. You have successfully changed gears!
Depending on the road conditions, you might need to quickly change gears again.
But make sure you don’t hover too much over the clutch with your left foot.
When changing down through the gears, the process is the same, but you might need to apply the brake pedal instead of the accelerator as you release the clutch to complete your gear change.
If you think you’ve changed into the wrong gear – again, the engine will tell you by either juddering (the gear is too high) or screaming (the gear is too low) – so just shift up or down accordingly.
3. Find somewhere quiet to practice
If the idea of having another motorist behind you as you try and pull away is too daunting, you can always practice finding the clutch biting point and changing gears in a quiet cul-de-sac or car park.
Business parks on a weekend are often perfect for a bit of peace and quiet. Usually, there’s little to nobody about, meaning you stall and judder without anyone observing you.
As you build your confidence, you might decide to head onto the main roads.
4. Look after your clutch
You’ll soon have no problem finding the biting point – it quickly goes from feeling alien to second nature. But, in that interim period, you need to be careful not to wear your clutch out prematurely.
If you’re learning in your own car, the last thing you want to do is burn out the clutch, which is likely to cost you anywhere between £300-£1,000 to repair.
There are a few things you can do – or rather not do – to avoid damaging your clutch.
Firstly, you want to be mindful of overusing your clutch. If you’re stopped at a junction or in traffic, make sure you apply the handbrake while you wait for the road to clear, rather than holding the car at the biting point. This can cause unnecessary wear if you get in the habit of it.
You should also let your handbrake take the weight if you’re stationary on a hill. While driving instructors might get you to hold the car at the clutch biting point on an incline, you don’t really want to do this in your own car once you’ve passed your test. It will only lead to burning up the friction material on your clutch disc. Plus, you might inadvertently roll back into someone as you look to pull away!
Finally, once you’re in a position to refine your clutch technique, try to pull away with as few revs as possible. You might be surprised how little pressure you need to apply on the accelerator to get your car to move from a stationary position. Too many revs and you might wheelspin!
The less strain you put on your car, the better.
5. Avoiding skipping gears until you’ve mastered the revs
It’s been known that some driving instructors encourage learners to skip a gear, suggesting it can improve fuel efficiency. But, the internet is very much split on whether missing out gears has any benefits or not.
Your best bet is to not worry too much skipping gears until you’re completely in tune with your car’s revs – which might take a couple of years!
Learning with a friend or family member might make you pick up habits like this – so we would suggest sticking to a professional driving instructor for your lessons.
6. Drop down a gear when you need to overtake
While it is best practice to always try to keep the engine’s revs in a comfortable range, the advice is slightly different when you need to overtake a slow-moving vehicle on a single carriage road.
Overtaking another motorist is probably the most dangerous manoeuvre that we perform as drivers. Ideally, you want to complete an overtake as quickly as possible, minimising the risk of an accident with a vehicle in the opposing carriageway.
That’s not to say that you should exceed the speed limit, but clever use of the gears can help you travel past the slow-moving vehicle with ease.
Often that means switching down a gear to give you maximum torque and acceleration as you approach. While that might mean the revs rise, you will find that your car is more responsive when you apply the accelerator – just what you want when attempting an overtaking manoeuvre.
As a learner driver, your driving instructor will be able to give you further guidance on overtaking safely.
7. Get used to driving in heavy traffic
It’s fair to say that the roads are not getting any quieter. In 2020, the number of cars on UK roads surpassed 40 million for the first time.
With more vehicles on the road than ever, we all better get used to being in traffic more often.
As a learner driver, driving in traffic will put your clutch control skills to the ultimate test. With all that stopping and starting, you’ll be a master finding the biting point before too long!
Practice makes perfect, as they say, so get used to being comfortable sitting in traffic. As you’re getting to grips with that clutch, make sure you leave space between you and the vehicle in front. You’ll often find that the speed of traffic slow is erratic – just as it looks like the traffic is clearing, you come to a standstill again – so keeping a suitable gap will give you enough time to react.
8. Leave your car in gear when parking on a slope
Sometimes, there’s no way of telling when your car’s parking brake is going to fail. If it does so when parked on a slope, you can return to your vehicle only to find it has rolled down the hill – it’s unimaginable to think about the damage that can cause!
As a failsafe, put your car into gear after you’ve parked it up, which will prevent it from moving if your parking brake doesn’t work. Here’s what the Highway Code suggests you should do:
Park close to the kerb and apply the handbrake firmly.
Select a forwardgear and turn your steering wheel awayfrom the kerb when facing uphill.
Select reversegear and turn your steering wheel towards the kerb when facing downhill.
Learner driver insurance from Smartdriverclub
Smartdriverclub provides telematics insurance, often known as black box insurance for learner drivers. You’re given a special device, called a Smartplug, which you install in your car and connect to a smartphone app.
The Smartplug monitors and scores your driving. It records how smoothly you accelerate, take corners, and brake; how fast you travel; and whether you drive after dark.
You can view the results on your app, and find out how to boost your driver score. It’s a great way for learners to improve their driving skills. Plus, if you prove you’re a careful driver, you could get a discount when it comes to renewing your learner driver insurance.
Included as standard in learner driver insurance policies are cover for personal injury, personal belongings, in-car equipment, and your car windscreen. Optional extras include legal cover, breakdown assistance, and keyback cover.