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Make proper use of gears

Knowing which gear to use and how to change the gears is a fundamental part of learning to drive a manual car. Each and every pupil is taught from a very early stage, not only what the gears are for, but how to change them and make proper use of them. So how could anyone possibly get something so basic wrong on the test?

Answer: Gears are not basic. They can be very complicated, especially when there are other distractions or unexpected happenings. It is in fact very easy to make errors involving gears. 68338 candidates got something wrong with their gears and failed the UK driving test last year!

What follows are just a few examples of the sort of things to go wrong, but the driving test report suggests: “Select the correct gear to match the road and traffic conditions. Change gear in good time but not too soon before a hazard. Do not allow the vehicle to coast by running on in neutral or with the clutch down. There should be no need to look down at the gear lever when changing gear.”

Let’s start with something simple, that almost all of us were guilty of at some point: Looking at the gear stick before a gear change. On its own and as a one-off fault, it probably would not result in a fail. However, repeated looks at dangerous and inconvenient moments certainly would.

In my experience, a pupil looks down at the gear stick just before changing down the gears, not up. This suggests they were on the approach to a junction or hazard and really should have been looking somewhere more useful – like at the junction. If your attention is diverted just at the point a decision was to be made, then the outcome could be disastrous.

If you have this problem, my advice is to force yourself out of the habit. Deliberately stare at something in front of you when you reach for the gear stick. To begin with, your observation may not be very constructive, but you will get out of the habit of looking down. Once you kick the habit, you will be able to look anywhere – to the junction, the lights, the cyclist, etc. You will also appear to have much more time to assess the situation and make your decision.

Having dealt with a repeated minor error, what could cause a serious fault in its own right?

Others gear faults might include: Picking the wrong gear for the situation, too high or too low. Changing gears too early or too late. Not making use of the gear once you have picked it, by not accelerating onto a roundabout for example. Failing to change gear at all, when a new gear was needed.

Whether any of these faults would be upgraded to a serious fault or not, depends on the road and traffic situation and the outcome of the error. Much of the test result will depend on how the test examiner saw it. It is his (or her) experience and judgement that will decide the severity of the fault.

I mentioned accelerating onto a roundabout a moment ago. This is an example from personal experience.

In my local area there are many multiple lane roundabouts with fairly quick moving traffic. My pupil had waited for a sufficient gap to pull out into, but then eased away and didn’t get up much speed. As a result, other vehicles soon caught up and started overtaking. This caused some confusion and a little panic. What he should have done was to make proper use of his gears, and use the higher powered lower gears to create a little more acceleration. With extra ‘pick-up’ he would no longer have been causing a hazard on that roundabout.

This fault could also be seen as “failing to make progress” I suppose, but its full title would have to be failing to make progress through the incorrect use of the gears and accelerator. Whatever you call it, it is still a common fault. Some other basic gear faults are a little more obvious. Not even the pupil committing the fault can argue if the car stalls because the wrong gear was used. If you are trying to pull away in third gear instead of first gear, you may experience problems. Similarly, if forth gear is picked instead of second gear before a sharp turn. Simple errors like these can make the whole drive look really messy, and at the end of the day… presentation counts.

So here is my advice, and it is very simple advice.

Firstly. Use the full MSM (Mirror-Signal-Manoeuvre) PSL (Position-Speed-Look) routine before every junction. This will set you up for an easy gear choice at the vast majority of junctions.

Secondly. Whenever you need to change gear, take your time. A good gear change should take about three seconds. If you try any quicker, you may get the wrong one and have to start again. Get it right first time and there is no mistake.

And thirdly. Always match the gear to the speed of the car, not to the junction that you see ahead. The junction may be clear, but if your speed is less that 5 mph then second gear will probably cause you to stall. Use the gear that matches the actual speed (5mph = first gear).

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