Speed and gears

The following information should help with the understanding regarding the connection between your road speed and gear selection. It's not meant to be a definitive guide, think of it instead as a set of flexible guidelines which you can change depending upon the circumstances and the vehicle you are driving. These guidelines also assume you’re driving a modern well maintained car.   


There’s a saying in driving called brakes are for slowing and gears are for going. Reduce your speed first, then when your speed is right for the conditions consider the most suitable gear. As much as possible separate the braking from the gear changing, if you do overlap the two do so at the end of the braking process. Braking shifts the weight of the vehicle forward this reduces its stability, for this reason it’s safer to have two hands on the steering wheel for as long as possible when slowing.


Some brake/gear overlap will be necessary when:


  • Selecting a lower gear on a downward slope, this is to stop the vehicle running away as you go for the lower gear.


  • Slowing down from a higher speed, for example turning off a fast road. If you come off the brake too early the vehicle will have a tendency to pick up speed again. 


  • Slowing down for a sharp turn for example a narrow side road, again you may need to hold on to the brake as you go for the lower gear to control your speed on approach. 


Tips on slowing down and gear changing:


  • The engine is always the first brake, come off the gas pedal in good time to allow the engine to bring the speed down first. 


  • There are three phases to braking. Brake lightly at first, progressively increasing the pressure as required to slow or stop, just before you reach your desired speed or stop ease of the pressure.


  • Slow down in the gear you're already in, then when you want the power to go, consider the most suitable gear for your speed and the conditions. 


  • As the clutch pedal comes up hold it at the biting point for a second or two. This allows the clutch plates to come together smoothly which smooths out the gear change. 


  • Bring your speed down in good time on approach to a hazard or junction, this will give you time to look, think and decide what to do. It also gives you time to use all the controls smoothly.  


Understanding gears:


First gear - gives you the most power but least speed, use for moving off and manoeuvring at very low speed. 


Second and third gears - are the working gears, use for hazards such as: 


  • Junctions

  • Roundabouts

  • Sharp bends

  • Steep hills

  • Narrow roads or urban streets


Second and third gears give you the power to drive the vehicle at lower speeds. They also give you engine braking when you need to hold the vehicle back.


Fourth and fifth gears - give you the most speed and fuel economy but the least power. Use when:


  • You have built up your speed

  • The road opens up

  • It’s safe to make progress   


Matching your gear to your speed:


First consider a safe speed for the conditions. A safe speed will depend on:


  • How much of the road ahead you can see.

  • The speed limit.

  • The road, traffic and weather conditions.

  • How much control you need to do what you intend to do.


When your speed is safe for the conditions, then consider the most suitable gear. 


For example, if: 


  • You have stopped or almost stopped - first will usually be the most suitable gear to select. 


  • Your speed is down to a walking/running pace around (5 mph to 20 mph) - second will usually be the most suitable gear to select.


  • Your speed is down to a cycling pace around (20 mph and 30 mph) - third will usually be the most suitable gear to select.


  • Your speed is down to between 30 mph and 40 mph - fourth will usually be the most suitable gear to select. 


  • Fifth gear can often be selected above 40 mph unless you need lots of power or engine braking.


The above information is only a rough guide, there is often an overlap between the gears, you will have to adapt to the circumstances and the vehicle you are driving. For example: 


  • You will need to stay in the lower gears for longer or use them earlier on hills (depending upon how steep the hill is). This is to stop the engine losing power driving up a hill or to stop the vehicle running away driving down a hill. 


  • You will need to stay in the lower gears a little longer when you need to build up speed positively for safety reasons. For example joining a dual carriageway or motorway from the acceleration lane.


  • You can use the higher gears sooner if the road opens up and you don’t need the power to build up your speed positively or you don't need engine braking to hold you back. 


  • You will need to stay in the lower gears for longer or use them earlier if the vehicle is fully loaded or towing a trailer.


Listening to the engine also helps you decide what gear to select; a noisy engine is usually telling you to change to a higher gear (unless you need lots of power or engine braking) and a sluggish engine is telling you it wants a lower gear. A more powerful vehicle will usually take a higher gear sooner than a less powerful vehicle.


Safety is always more important than saving fuel so where you need extra power, control or flexibility use the lower gears.


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