My husband and I bicker over the right way to drive a standard when approaching a red light or stop sign. My husband kicks it into neutral a couple hundred metres from the intersection and rolls to where the car needs to stop, then applies the brake. I gear down as I approach the intersection and then apply the clutch and brake to a stop, gearing down so I wait out the light in first gear. His argument: Neutral saves gas and grinding of gears plus you don’t have to keep your foot on the clutch. My argument: Keeping the car always in gear means if I need to quickly manoeuvre (like if I’m about to be rear-ended), I’m ready to go. So, who’s right? – Annie, Ottawa
If you and your husband are giving each other the gears over the right way to stop in a standard, you’re not alone.
“It is a contentious issue,” JC Gobeil, owner of ProShift driving school in Ottawa, said in an e-mail. “How you do it does make a difference, but it’s not a Highway Traffic Act issue; it’s a significant wear-and-tear issue and a road-test issue – and it can be a serious safety issue.”
So, who’s right?
“This is a case where they’re both a little bit right and a little bit wrong,” Gobeil said.
Shifting into neutral too early
If you shift into neutral before the light and coast, it increases wear and tear to your brakes.
“In neutral, the only means of slowing down is the brakes, meaning they reach much higher temperatures than when braking while in gear, resulting in much more expensive brake service repairs,” Carlos Tomas, president of Shifters driving school in Toronto, said in an e-mail. “I had a client that burned the brakes on the family Volvo going down a mountain road on the Cabot Trail by braking in neutral.”
Gobeil said the habit also “results in a lot of unnecessary clutching in traffic – so, a little more wear on the clutch mechanism – and slightly less control” on the road. While the Highway Traffic Act doesn’t specify how you drive a stick, your husband’s technique wouldn’t pass the Ontario road test, one instructor saod.
“To pass the test, you have to shift down any time you are stopping or slowing down,” said Stan Prasad, with Stick GTA,.
Shifting sequentially down to first
So what about shifting down before you stop?
“Staying in gear while slowing down means that she maintains all three control options open – steer, brake, accelerate – while her husband only has the first two,” Tomas said.
But if you’re shifting down sequentially – 4,3,2,1 – before stopping, that could cause problems too, Gobeil said.
“Annie apparently downshifts sequentially as she’s slowing down to a stop,” Gobeil said. “[That’s] the old-fashioned approach, not well-suited to modern front-wheel drive cars with disc brakes and ABS.”
Gobeil said downshifting through each gear started back when most cars were rear-wheel drive, heavy and had unreliable drum brakes which were prone to overheating and fading.
But with modern brakes, gearing down adds resistance to the front wheels and could actually increase the stopping distance on slippery roads.
And, with ABS, “gearing down will override the system and could cause wheel lockup, making this important safety feature practically useless when it’s needed the most.”
On Ontario driving tests, students are required to shift sequentially through all the gears – and Gobeil advises that students take their tests in an automatic instead to avoid developing bad habits.
The right way?
The best way to stop is a combination of both approaches, Gobeil said.
“The correct way to approach a stop with a modern car is to start braking as you would with an automatic, keeping the clutch engaged and both hands on the wheel,” Gobeil said. “Continue slowing down and disengage the clutch just before the engine RPM reaches 1,000 and drop your hand down to the shifter at the same time.”
Then, you shift into neutral.
“After that, you can switch to first just before the car comes to a stop – if you plan to stop and go, like at a stop sign,” Gobeil said. “Or leave it in N and release the clutch – always keep your foot on the brake until it’s time to go.”
If stopping for a while, staying in neutral with your foot off the clutch is actually safer than waiting in gear, Tomas said.
“If you’re rear-ended with your foot on the clutch, the natural response is to release the clutch – which will propel you even more quickly towards anyone unlucky enough to be in front of you,” Tomas said. “And in heavy, stop-and-go traffic, if your leg cramps or spasms off the clutch at the wrong moment, it can cause you to lose control of a situation.”
And, keeping your foot on the clutch for every red light could cause the release to overheat and eventually fail, leading to pricey repairs, Tomas said.
As long as you’re checking your mirrors and paying attention, staying in neutral shouldn’t make much of a difference in your reaction time if you need to make a sudden manoeuvre.
“Shifting into first takes a fraction of a second,” Tomas said.
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