Michael Schumacher you ain't, honey...
April 21, 2006 10:21 AM   Subscribe

Driving a Stick: Help settle the debate before I shove the gearshift up my boyfriend's wazoo...

I've read previous threads here on learning to drive a standard, and Googling has not been satisfactory as some sites say X and others say Y. So...

Background: I drove a stick for more years than not in the US and find myself searching for the clutch/reaching for the gearshift in automatics.

I can count on both hands the times I've driven in the last 8 years here in Rome, due to the vast cultural differences in driving (Lanes? What lanes?). Last Sunday proved a perfect time to reacquaint myself with the wheel as there was no traffic around.

The Argument: I was taught that using the engine to slow you down was good for A) long steep downgrades and B) in cases of emergency. Overuse of this technique was bad news for your transmission. I want to say that my mechanic uncle backed this theory up, but to be honest I learned to drive stick many, many moons ago and don't totally remember who told me this.

The boyfriend has apparently been taught the complete opposite, as he was constantly telling me to use the engine as my technique "would wear out your brakes in 3 months." This might also explain why I alway push the imaginary passenger's side brake when in the car with him.

I was willing to conceed difference in style/techinique were it not for the fact that his harping pissed me off to the point where I was concentrating more on ignoring him than the traffic around me (at which point I pulled over and made him drive)

So MeFites: which is worse for your car and tangentally, is this an EU vs. US technique?
posted by romakimmy to Travel & Transportation (46 answers total)
I've worked at dealerships for years.

My answer: Brakes are cheaper than transmissions.

It's alot easier to replace them, and engine braking is not good for your transmission.
posted by smitt at 10:23 AM on April 21, 2006

I've asked two seperate mechanics the same question and they've given me basically the same response as smitt. Yes, you'll probably wear out your brake pads a lot faster using the one technique, but they're a huge amount cheaper to replace than a transmission and anything that goes along with it.
posted by almostcool at 10:26 AM on April 21, 2006

I've always been told that blipping the throttle on a downshift to match engine speed to transmission/wheel speed was the proper technique for the least stress on the drivetrain. It's not that hard once you get the feel for it on a particular car, but then again, this could be false, too. Curious.
posted by Thistledown at 10:30 AM on April 21, 2006

Every car I've ever owned was a stick. I agree with this approach:

The Argument: I was taught that using the engine to slow you down was good for A) long steep downgrades and B) in cases of emergency. Overuse of this technique was bad news for your transmission. I want to say that my mechanic uncle backed this theory up, but to be honest I learned to drive stick many, many moons ago and don't totally remember who told me this.

...besides, I think that the engine sounds like shit when you keep trying to use the transmission as a brake. It sounds like the engine is about to bust out of the hood.

Tell your boyfriend to sit back, be quiet and enjoy the ride!
posted by bim at 10:34 AM on April 21, 2006

Yep, it will wear the brakes out faster. That's the point. Brakes are supposed to be replaceable. Brakes are easier and much less expensive to replace than a transmission or an engine.
posted by jlkr at 10:34 AM on April 21, 2006

I asked my mechanic about this about, oh, six or seven years ago. He said that engine braking was very important in the early days of automobiles, and is still important on the very very long downgrades (like, say, coming down the Sierras).

But modern brakes, he says, are so good, wear so long, and are so resistant to overheating, that you should almost always just put the car in neutral and brake to a stop. You'll spend a hundred bucks on brakes every two or three years... no biggie.
posted by Malor at 10:35 AM on April 21, 2006

jlkr: "Yep, it will wear the brakes out faster. That's the point. Brakes are supposed to be replaceable. Brakes are easier and much less expensive to replace than a transmission or an engine."

Sacrificial parts, as designed, as stated. Add my 10 years of driving stick to your side.. now as for clutch vs. neutral at stoplights, that's an open debate. :)
posted by kcm at 10:41 AM on April 21, 2006

I agree with the braking rather than engine-braking people.

I've heard Click and Clack add the caveat that being in neutral while driving adds some element of danger, as you can't switch to accelerating as quickly as you could if the car were in gear, but I kind of can't imagine many situations where that would make much difference.
posted by MarkAnd at 10:47 AM on April 21, 2006

It's strange but I think of that "thunk-wheeee" sound of an engine unclutched into a too-low gear as being quintessentially Italian. The time I've spent in Italy has mostly been in hilly/mountainous areas and most Italian cars are small and manual shift so that skews my perception but perhaps it's just an Italian cultural preference.
posted by TimeFactor at 10:49 AM on April 21, 2006

MarkAnd: "I've heard Click and Clack add the caveat that being in neutral while driving adds some element of danger, as you can't switch to accelerating as quickly as you could if the car were in gear, but I kind of can't imagine many situations where that would make much difference."

My argument for double-shifting at stoplights is just that - I'd rather replace the throwouts once in awhile for the safety that comes with being able to get the hell out of the way quickly if I see someone about to rear-end me, etc. It's happened enough. Sorry for the mini-sidebar.
posted by kcm at 10:49 AM on April 21, 2006

a related click and clack column
posted by lemhuxley at 10:52 AM on April 21, 2006

Wikipedia seems to back your boyfriend.

Placing a vehicle in a low gear causes the engine to have more leverage (mechanical advantage) on the road and the road to have less leverage on the engine. This is what allows cars to slow down using their relatively flimsy engine parts. The engine maintains a high rotational speed to dissipate a lot of power without forcing too much strain on the engine.

My personal experience also sides with him. Plus, I feel like engine braking also causes me to drive a bit slower, and safer.

Oh, and your car is always engine braking, so the comments about it being bad on your transmission are a bit misplaced.

Engine braking is always active in all non-hybrid cars with an internal combustion engine, regardless of transmission type. Engine braking passively reduces wear on brakes and helps a driver maintain control of the car. It is always active when the foot is lifted off the accelerator, the transmission is not in neutral, the clutch is engaged and a freewheel is not engaged. This is often called engine drag.
posted by dead_ at 10:56 AM on April 21, 2006

I can't imagine ever being in neutral while driving, unless sitting at a red light for an extended period, or completely stopped in traffic.

Engine braking is an essential part of driving. The institute of advanced motorists (glove-wearing UK beard-strokers) says you can drive normally without ever touching the brakes. Or so I've heard.

That's probably a bit much, but really this isn't an either/or question. You brake with both -- braking with the clutch down just puts far too much pointless stress on the brakepads; braking with just the engine puts too much on the transmission. So, er, you're both right and both wrong.
posted by bonaldi at 10:57 AM on April 21, 2006

I think it's something that has been passed down from previous generations. My dad learned to drive in the 1950s, his dad, in the 1920s. What was true then isn't necessarily true now--my dad never learned to not pump the brakes on his ABS-equipped car. He felt the same way about down-shifting as your boyfriend, no matter how many transmissions he had to replace.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:00 AM on April 21, 2006

Best answer: Also, you brake much faster with both (which is why you fail your driving test for doing an emergency stop with just the brakes). Ergo is better.
posted by bonaldi at 11:04 AM on April 21, 2006

Trucks (18 wheelers) use the compression braking technique, along with an 'engine brake' which is commonly referred to as a 'Jake Brake.'

Wikipedia article on the Jake Brake. Interesting little read.

Also, Engine Braking is another article to take a look at.
posted by drstein at 11:09 AM on April 21, 2006

Anyone who thinks that engine breaking sounds bad isn't doing it right. You don't just slam it into a lower gear and wait for it to slow down.

It's like normal shifting: for it to be smooth, the engine speed and gear must match. You can use light brakes or gravity to help in this. I use engine breaking when appropriate and there is barely any sound. The Engine Braking article drstein posted is a good overview.
posted by jockc at 11:22 AM on April 21, 2006

The brakes on automatic cars and manual cars are the same. Regardless of which you drive, it would be unheard of to replace the brakes more than twice in the cars lifetime. If you are doing that much braking where you have to replace them more than twice, then you should definitely look into your driving habits. Hard braking will wear out your brakes more but unless you are constantly tailgating other drivers, that should never be an issue. In an emergency situation, using engine braking will never stop you as fast as the brake pedal. In long, steep downgrades it may be necessary to combine the brake pedal and the engine, but even in mountainous areas, the instances where you need to worry about the brakes overheating are rare with the average sized car.
posted by JJ86 at 11:29 AM on April 21, 2006

bonaldi & jockc++
posted by AwkwardPause at 11:38 AM on April 21, 2006

I'm also an engine braking person. I can't imagine giving up the feeling of control the car has when it's in gear. Plus it helps keep up the speed going around the corners.
posted by mullacc at 11:45 AM on April 21, 2006

JJ86 - I guess driving certain high performance cars with performance brake pads (which wear out very quickly) would count as a driving habit? I've had several cars which eat brake pads at a rate far in excess of what you site and it was not due to me hammering the daylights out of the car...
posted by daveleck at 12:02 PM on April 21, 2006

'engine brake' which is commonly referred to as a 'Jake Brake.'

Which should be banned, given how loud they are. Assholes. Sorry for the rant.

Noting something alluded to above -- engine braking bad, but motor braking good -- if you have or get a hybrid or electric car. In these, you want to use the motor to slow the car, because that energy is partially recovered, where the energy soaked up by the brakes is thrown away as heat and noise. The transmissions of hybrids are build for this load, and at least on the Honda Civic and Insight hybrids, the engine shuts down cylinders and opens both valvesets to allow the engine to mostly freewheel (one cylinder is kept firing to make sure restarts on the others go smoothly) which puts less braking into the engine and more into the electric motor.

Otherwise, yes -- brakes are built to stop cars, tranmissions aren't. Even full up brake replacement isn't going to cost what many transmission repairs would.
posted by eriko at 12:06 PM on April 21, 2006

The transmission is not significantly worn by engine braking. However, if you do not rev-match appropriately, the clutch will wear out faster by downshifting for braking purposes. Also, fuel injected cars inject no fuel while you are engine braking, but they do inject fuel to idle in neutral, so it saves gas to do the downshifting thing.
posted by knave at 12:07 PM on April 21, 2006

Best answer: "Engine Braking", in my experience, is often used to describe two different things. It might help to clear on which one is being discussed.
The first version is deliberately putting the car into too low a gear for the speed the car is doing, that is, if the car is doing 50 in 4th gear, you'd drop it into 3rd (or even 2nd, in more extreme cases) without slowing down into the 3rd gear speed range. This causes a characteristic "thunk-vrooom" sounds as the engine hits higher revs.
This is often used in older cars (pre-60) that have poorer brakes and/or no "synchros". In a modern car, it can cause unnecessary wear.

The second version is really "Downshifting to match speed" not "Engine braking". In this version, you lift your foot off the gas and let the engine revs drop thus slowing the car. When your revs/speed reach an appropriate spot (usually, but not always, the point you would upshift if you were accelerating), then you shift into the next lower gear, and use the engine again to slow you down. Rinse and repeat until you are stopped.
In this technique, you are generally using your brakes and engine in unison as a deceleration force, changing the ratio as needed.
This version is a Good Thing(tm) and should be used.

It should be noted that in some states coasting on a downgrade is illegal(though how they'd catch you, I have no idea).
posted by madajb at 12:12 PM on April 21, 2006

...you should almost always just put the car in neutral and brake to a stop.

I was taught that this is dangerous: if you get rear-ended while you're in neutral (or have the clutch fully depressed), you could be pushed into an intersection before you could brake enough to stop.
posted by timeistight at 12:20 PM on April 21, 2006

to replace than a transmission

how many times did your boyfriend car's transmission blow up?
I'm willing to bet the number is zero, unless he's a horrible driver and tone-deaf when engines are involved.

on the other hand, overusing the brakes means you'll wear them out quicker, not just the (relatively cheap, esp. if you can replace them yourself, which I doubt) pads but possibly damage the (expensive) discs.

so, driving properly means using delicately the engine to brake.

and if you rely too heavily on brakes when driving in montagna, downhill, you're putting yourself (and others) in very grave danger -- overheat the brakes and they'll just die on you, improvvisamente

when your fear of Rome traffic disappears (it will, it always does) you can see for yourself. assuming you guys drive the same car, from the moment you start driving it as often as he does, the brakes will wear out in a matter of months.
posted by matteo at 12:27 PM on April 21, 2006

I have been an engine braker ever since I learned manual, about 20 years ago.

My current car, a 1993 Toyota Paseo, I have replaced the clutch once and the brake pads twice over the course of 220k miles.

YMMV (groan)
posted by tomierna at 12:42 PM on April 21, 2006

If I'm traveling at a good clip and light a ways off in front of me turns red or there's a stop sign, I'll use the second method madajb mentions to help slow me down before applying any brake. The engine doesn't break 4500 rpm unless I'm really downshifting quickly.

As to wear on the engine, how is deceleration any different than accelleration? In both cases, similar but opposite forces are experienced by the transmission.
posted by pmbuko at 12:49 PM on April 21, 2006

I second tomierma,

Have replaced brake pads 2 times and clutch never. 1997 Saturn SL, 275000 KM.

I engine break regularly. It is quite light though (the saturn), whether or not this makes a difference.. Because of this I tend to stop short when driving a automatic. Drives the wife crazy.

Results may vary!
posted by vidarling at 12:50 PM on April 21, 2006

Regardless of which you drive, it would be unheard of to replace the brakes more than twice in the cars lifetime.

JJ86, my car is 36 years old, and it averages just over a thousand miles a month. That means, even if I never drove it again, I'd have been foolish to change the brakes any less than 216,000 miles ago. As it happens, I guess that I'm very foolish indeed, because I change the brakes once a year. My belief being that, when it comes to the ability to stop a 1-tonne lump of metal travelling at 70 mph, it's better safe than sorry.

As to the original question, use both brakes and engine. Sticking to one technique or the other, simply because of dogma, is foolish. Also, as bonaldi states, here in the UK you'd fail your driving test if you relied solely on the brakes whilst performing your emergency stop.
posted by mad judge pickles at 12:58 PM on April 21, 2006

Best answer: First, this:

I can't imagine ever being in neutral while driving, unless sitting at a red light for an extended period, or completely stopped in traffic.

If you're sitting at short lights and whatnot with the clutch in and the transmission in gear, you're putting extra wear on the throwout bearing; if you plan on keeping your car for many years, you'll need a premature replacement.

Now, let me give this my two cents, summarized thusly: brakes are best for big changes and stopping, engine braking is good for holding on downgrades and slow changes, and engine braking without rev matching is bad under all circumstances.


When slowing down the car a significant amount within a short period of time (versus coasting), use the brakes. That's what they're for; they're inexpensive to replace and designed to wear out. They're consistent and they're predictable, and they're not fragile.

Oh, and did I mention that your brake lights go on, so that the person behind you knows you're stopping?

There is no better way to stop or slow your car, provided the brakes are in good working order.

Engine Braking

If you lift off the throttle, the engine no longer has enough air/fuel coming in to maintain the current engine speed, and so the engine -- and the car, if you're in gear -- must slow down. The higher the engine RPMs, the more significant the effect.

There is no better way to hold a steady speed downhill than engine braking, because holding the brakes on for an extended period of time can cause them to overhead and fade. Select a gear that keeps the engine RPMs sufficiently high that if you lift off the gas AND the brake, the car holds a steady downhill speed. In essence, the amount of engine braking is prefectly balanced out by the force of gravity.

What about engine braking to a stop, or nearly so?

Your engine is fragile compared to your brakes. Your engine is inconsistent compared to your brakes. Your engine is expensive compared to your brakes. None of this is in dispute.

If you are slowing down, and you downshift through the gears, you should be attempting to match the engine speed as you downshift, so that no braking or acceleration is being imparted by the engine. In practice, there's always a little impact (or a lot, if you're clumsy) but you're trying to avoid putting load on the engine. Let the brakes do the work, that's what they're for.

But I hear race car drivers using engine braking!

Actually, you're hearing them match the engine speed as they downshift, so that when they're done braking they can immediately push the gas and speed back up. Rest assured, however, that they're using the brakes to stop the car.

I don't care about the expense, and my engine is strong as a horse; I want to stop my car with engine braking anyway

Cost and reliability aside, here's why you don't want to, no matter what you might think: engine braking is a very inconsistent thing, and is not easily modulated. That is, if you're slowing down at x rate of speed, and the car in front of you stops more quickly than you anticipated, you can't increase the value of x -- unless you hit the brake. The same applies if you're slowing down at x rate, and realize you're going to stop early; you either have to put the car in neutral (to coast further) or press the gas to change the value of x.

Under either circumstance, you're modulating your rate of deceleration* with two different tools (the engine AND the gas or brake, or shifting into neutral.) That's not as smooth, not as consistent, and not as reliable as simply modulating brake pressure to change your rate of deceleration.

If all this is true, why do people use their engine to stop their car?

Why do people do anything that's not in their best interests? Bad advice, lack of understanding, lack of knowledge, unusual priorities -- heck, some folks do it because the sound of their engine racing makes them feel "racy" and cool.

At the end of the day, here's how you slow a stickshift car:

If you're making a minor speed adjustment: lift off the gas, and downshift (match revs!) if necessary.

If you're making a major speed adjustment: use the brake, and downshift (match revs!) if necessary.

If you're stopping the car: use the brake, and go into neutral at the point at which you would have downshifted.

Anything else?

Yes. Some people like to engine brake without matching revs, like this:

1. Car is running at 2000RPM in 3rd gear;
2. Driver lifts, gas, pushes in clutch, and shifts into second ;
3. Driver lets out clutch without matching revs**, making the car slow suddenly as the engine zings up to 4500RPM.

Doing this is incredibly stressful on the transmission, on the engine, and on the driver behind you, who did not see any brake lights and thus lost a few tens of a second reaction time.

*yes, I know deceleration doesn't exist, but I didn't want to cloud the issue just to appease physics folks

**that is, make sure the engine is turning at the speed that it would be if the new gear were already engaged, before you engage it.
posted by davejay at 2:08 PM on April 21, 2006

Also, as bonaldi states, here in the UK you'd fail your driving test if you relied solely on the brakes whilst performing your emergency stop.

This is fascinating, for two reasons:

#1: downshifting takes longer than just hitting the brake and clutch in;

#2: the fastest way to stop a car is *always* by locking all four wheels, although you give up the ability to control the car's direction.

I can only assume that in the UK, drivers are trained to keep the car in gear during panic stops because most (all?) cars in europe are front-wheel-drive, and so keeping the car in gear keeps the wheels turning so that you can steer the car -- in effect, poor man's anti-lock brakes.

In the US, this isn't the case, because many cars are rear-wheel-drive, so there's no pseudo-anti-lock effect; they taught us to "pump" the brakes instead (before anti-lock, that is.)
posted by davejay at 2:11 PM on April 21, 2006

Best answer: I use engine braking almost everywhere....for a few reasons;

1) It gives me something to do while driving.
2) My car redlines at 8000rpm, so when I downshift, and revmatch it makes a hellova lota noise, so the people around me know i'm there.....this is ESPECIALLY important when on a motorcycle.
3) It keeps me involved in driving, so my mind won't drift off and i won't do stupid things.

That being said, there are two ways to do it.

1) lift off gas, clutch in, blip throttle, downshift and let clutch out.
2) Lift off gas, clutch in, out of gear, clutch out, blip throttle, clutch in, downshift, clutch out.

The second way is called double-clutching, and is the 'more proper' thing to do. When you are in neutral and the clutch is out, the input shaft of the transmission is conencted to the motor, so when you blip the throttle the syncros and gears come up to engine speed, then you can engage the clutch and select a gear.

However, if you have some super fandagled tripple syncro setup in your trans, a double clutch probably isn't necessary.
posted by TheDude at 2:26 PM on April 21, 2006

There is no better way to stop or slow your car, provided the brakes are in good working order.

Yes there is: a combination of both. As soon as you take your foot off the accelerator, engine braking begins. Just using the brakes (ie clutch in) is nonsense. However, I think we're discussing different kinds of engine braking because

#1: downshifting takes longer than just hitting the brake and clutch in;

There's no downshifting involved. I mean you fail if you depress the clutch while slamming on the brakes. You put the clutch in at the stall point.

#2: the fastest way to stop a car is *always* by locking all four wheels, although you give up the ability to control the car's direction.

No, that's lethally wrong and is called skidding. That's what anti-lock brakes are for. The most obvious demonstration of this is on a skidpan. You lock all four wheels and you'll slide for ages. You pump the brake (or ABS pumps it for you) and you'll stop in a dramatically shorter distance.

But it's not as wrong as:

If you're stopping the car: use the brake, and go into neutral at the point at which you would have downshifted.

Go into neutral when the car has stopped moving. I don't do it at the lights because I'm lazy and the minor wear incurred is, well, minor. But to go into neutral before you stop moving is extra wear on the brakes when the engine could be helping and it seriously slows you down if you need to get going again in a hurry. Essentially, you've just become a passenger in two tonnes of moving vehicle.
posted by bonaldi at 2:37 PM on April 21, 2006

madajb has it - those in this thread that advocate "engine braking" are really just advocating that you match revs as you decelerate (with the assistance of the brakes during most instances of deceleration). No one in their right mind really thinks it's fine to just slam your car into second gear when you're doing fifty. Whether or not a person matches revs, I think, is a matter of confidence. Personally, I think that if you're coordinated enough to drive a stick shift, matching revs should be doable. But, I can see why some people would be better served by just putting it in neutral if matching revs is too distracting for them.
posted by mullacc at 2:44 PM on April 21, 2006

It should be noted that for the USians in the thread, having your vehicle in neutral at ANY time other than when it's parked, is generally illegal; this includes sitting at red lights. How a cop would know to give you a ticket, I have no idea. It's enforced about as frequently as the laws many states have against driving with parking lights on.

They also created new fines for coasting downhill ($75)

21710. The driver of a motor vehicle when traveling on down grade upon any highway shall not coast with the gears of such vehicle in neutral.

MN state code for coasting
posted by nomisxid at 3:00 PM on April 21, 2006

#2: the fastest way to stop a car is *always* by locking all four wheels, although you give up the ability to control the car's direction.

Say wha?
If you have a cite for that, I'd love to see it, since it is directly contrary to every driver safety course, road course, and DMV manual I've ever seen.
Though, to be fair, I've heard credible evidence that locking the wheels can help on loose surfaces (gravel, for instance).
posted by madajb at 3:27 PM on April 21, 2006

Just for the record, I learned to drive manual in the UK and I engine-brake, but in the "good" way mentioned by madajb.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:39 PM on April 21, 2006

Best answer: former UK driver, stick shift by habit: was taught to use only engine braking, shifting down through all the gears, only touching the brake when you were in second, and being in first just before you came to a stop. Two separate BSM instructors showed me this technique; both were ex-army.
posted by scruss at 6:19 PM on April 21, 2006

The most effective braking is just before the wheels lock up, not after! Suggesting that a skid is a good idea is dangerous.

Anyway, engine braking is fine. It takes a bit of finesse, like everything else with driving it's better once you're so comfortable with it that it's not concious.

I can't imagine not using engine breaking on a twisty downhill (just for example), I'd feel completely out of control.

I've never ever had a transmission blow, not on any of my motorcycles, not in any of my cars.
posted by The Monkey at 9:39 PM on April 21, 2006

I only engine break on long hills, and never to the extent that the engine strains. Maybe boyfriend is right, but he doesn't have to be smug. Driving is mostly habit. I have been driving stick since the first day I drove a car. It would be very difficult to me to change.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 9:48 PM on April 21, 2006

Brake pads are cheap and cheap to replace. Transmissions (and bearings and valves among other engine parts stressed during engine braking) are expensive and even more expensive to replace. Use your brakes for braking and your transmission for applying power to the wheels.
posted by caddis at 9:58 PM on April 21, 2006

Hmm, so many comments to comment on.

The coefficient of friction between two different surfaces is lower when sliding (skidding) than when stationary (rolling). This has been proved many times with a block on an inclined plane. Skidding bad, very bad.

A transmission does just that: transmits energy from the engine to the wheels. If the engine and transmission are strong enough to generate the power and transmit it to the wheels, they are strong enough for the reverse.

Matching the engine speed to transmission speed is important in both up-shifting and down-shifting. Get it wrong in either direction and bad things will happen.

When going on long downhills, you should use the engine to control the speed of the car. Long use of brakes will cause them to get very hot. I friend of mined warped his rotors when he hit a puddle of water after using his brakes to control his speed and not the engine/transmission. It was not a cheap fix and the mechanic told him to use the engine/transmission.

I use both techniques, braking and downshifting, depending on the situation. I often will downshift to slow the car down. My 1992 Toyota Corolla has over 200,000 miles on it and is working great. Yes, I've replaced the pads a few times, nothing out of the ordinary. I have had to replace the clutch once, again quite normal. My mechanic said I must be doing something right to get as many miles out of the clutch as I did, especially since I mainly do city driving.

I think it is a good idea to downshift, at least occasionally, to be able to do it instinctively. Many years ago I had some a**hole run a red light across an intersection late at night, just as I was entering on the long held green light. I was doing about 50 mph. I just missed T-boning the other car, and likely killing, or at least serious injuring the other driver. I instinctively hit the brakes AND downshifted to third and actually stalled the car after I came to a complete stop, still in third gear. I believe to a certainty that the only reason I did not crash was because my body "knew" what to do because I had practiced downshifting. That technique has saved me on other occasions as well.

The point about the brake lights not coming on with downshifting is valid, so know what is going on behind you at all times, like you should anyway. I won't downshift when people are close behind me unless it is an emergency.

The more driving techniques you know and can use, the more options you will have to address different driving conditions and possible emergencies.

Another friend of mine who used to race cars explained that racers train their left foot to work both the clutch and the brake at the same time. They do this so they can use the left foot to brake while the right foot hits the accelerator. They do this technique when cornering. The braking loads the suspension and forces the weight of the car down. This improves the traction and lets them go through the curve faster. Maybe that’s for another thread.
posted by tbird at 1:54 AM on April 22, 2006

For most normal drivers in regular cars, braking with or without engine drag should depend on the situation.

If you're needing to slow down on a down grade, it might be worth leaving the car in gear as you brake (or just downshifting), and then taking it out only when you start to come to a halt to avoid stalling. This will produce engine drag to help you slow down. If you're needing to slow down on a flat road, with no other traffic around, then simply taking it out of gear and slowly coasting to a stop should be fine too. It's the jamming of the gear to a lower gear and significantly reving up the engine rpm to slow down that's going to reduce the life of your clutch.

If you're interested in saving money on the longer term, I'd say brakes are cheaper to replace then clutches. Therefore, the less you use or strain your clutch, in theory, the longer it should last. Three cars ago I used to (almost entirely) engine brake only - that clutch lasted only 50,000 miles before it went out. Two cars later, with a complete change in driving habits (pulling the car out of gear well before coming to a stop), I've not had a clutch go on me in over 150,000 miles on two cars. I've perfected the ability to pull the car out of gear WITHOUT using the clutch, which is easier than it sounds when you've got the foot off the accelerator and in the process of slowing down. There is a point when the cars is going slow enough that the gear shift comes out quite easily without any noises from the transmission. Given the right situation (see paragraph above) this point at which this happens can be anywhere from 40 mph or less. I'm not saying everyone should do this, but it works for me. I figure the less I use the clutch the longer it will last. I've currently got 80,000 miles on this car on the original clutch. I also haven't lost the ability to downshift if I really needed to.
posted by jldindc at 4:49 AM on April 22, 2006

Response by poster: Wow so many answers. Thanks to all, first off.

I'm thinking I should have been slightly more specific in terms of our respective techniques. ie I always downshift, most certainly while braking, match revs etc. And the boyfriend doesn't hard downshift and neither of us make the enigine scream out in RPM agony. There is no tachometer though, so I can only compare our shift with engine sounds (Ford Ka, affectionately nicknamed la Kacca)

I shift/downshift/brake/whathave you on instinct. Attempts to recreate my driving technique while sitting in front to the computer...well let's just say the mouse is a lousy replacement for the gearshift and I managed to unplug my UPS while 'pushing in the clutch'. The best description of how I drive is madajb's Downshifting to match speed.

The nagging came up most frequently when approaching already stopped cars (ie sitting at a light). I full well know that, in Rome, the probablilty is quite high that one of these aforementioned stopped cars will suddenly pull into that teeny tiny gap between a bus and the car that was previously in front of it. I know this, and I'm going to stop/slow down first, then inch forward as neccessary; the boyfriend will have already been aiming for that teeny tiny space. So I'm thinking that this is where the conflict begins.

Bonadli's comment about the emergency stop is interesting. I knew that Italian drivers exams are all done in manual cars by requirement. (and I postulated that about most EU exams as well). US exams don't require that - I had to redo the practical exam in my sister's automatic* last year when renewing my (expired) license. I don't remember 'emergency' stop being part of it, but it was 6am the morning I had a return flight to Italy at 11am.

Various comments about the army and motorcycles also reminded me of yet another possible reason why we drive 'differently':
  • He got his license during his military service, driving carri armati - tanks
  • This is the first year he's owned a car. He's had a motorcycle license for around 4 years, and before that it was motorinos. I can see where he might have gotten into the habit of overrevving the motor while downshifting to let cars know he was there. Must make note next time I am on the back of his bike.
  • I have to repeat this, because it never fails to tickle my funnybone: He got his license drivng tanks

  • put the car in gear, clutch in, brake down sitting at lights. I know that puts more wear on the clutch but I was also taught what timeistight said about being in neutral. Since being rear ended at a stop light once, I say screw the clutch in this case.
  • Ditto on the brake lights; I at least tap the brake while slowing down to let those behind me know.
  • I do double clutching sometimes, but I'll be damned if I remember where the hell I picked that one up.
  • I've attempted heel & toe back in the day but as I have child size feet, I have yet to meet a car where I can actaully do this
  • I sure as hell don't ride brakes on a steep downhill in any car; I got my learner's permit/inital post-license experience helping my mother drive a loaded station wagon on family trips cross country.
  • am also wondering how much of his bitching had to do with the fact that it was the first time I ever drove la Kacca. My previous car was a Nissian 4 gear Sentra that had a friction point from hell. I subsequently shift la Kacca "like a race car driver"
Thanks for all the answers (any full on mechanics out there?): I'm going to agreed to disagree with him on this one. But if he opens his mouth to disagree while I'm driving, he's gonna get the air freshener shoved in there as I'd rather be concentrating on traffic around me for now instead of imitating his style of driving.

Cheers y'all.

*Which sucked balls as I kept reaching for the fucking gearshift. The DPS chick was not impressed despite my explainations of 'I normally drive stick'.
posted by romakimmy at 5:15 AM on April 22, 2006

I have to say. Um, wow. I am officially wrong. I have always driven manuals, and ALWAYS used the engine to slow down, as I was taught. So many stories about how one of the best things about having a manual is that you don't wear out your brakes.

Consider me misinformed. i'm gonna go smack my family and tell them again that ya'll know, hmmm... um...everything, as it turns out. So thats really helpful. Thanks smartys!

This was SO not my question. I'm amazed it was new. I am so pleased that i have learned. I Heart askmefi.
posted by metasav at 11:19 PM on March 22, 2007

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