How and When to Change Gears

Every day’s a school day when it comes to learning to drive. There’s so much information to take on board, so many processes to fathom. But amongst it all, the same few issues always rise to the top. And one of the questions we get asked more than any other is: how and when should I change gears?

It’s one of those things that can seem almost esoteric when you start. Experienced drivers will tell you that you’ll know when it’s time to change gears from the sound of the engine, forgetting how hard it is to concentrate on things like engine noise when you’re worried about just staying on the road. So, how do you take the fear and mystery out of one of the most common driving procedures?

How to change gears

The actual process of changing gears is pretty simple. The trick is in mastering the process without needing to take your eyes off the road, which is what is required if you want to pass your driving test. So, here’s the mechanics of what you need to do.

  1. Take your right foot off the accelerator and gently depress the clutch with your left foot.
  2. Release the steering wheel with your left hand and use it to manoeuvre your gear stick to the correct position.
  3. Return your hand to the steering wheel.
  4. Slowly release the clutch while simultaneously reapplying pressure to the accelerator.

To see the process in action, check out our YouTube video:

When to change gears

So, once you know how to change gears, the next step is to know when you should. As a general rule, you will change gears as your speed and/or driving conditions change. First gear is, funnily enough, the gear that you always start out with, then you will progress through the others as your speed increases or decreases.

As a rough guide, you can use your speed to direct you to the correct gear choice.

Speed                   Gear Conditions
0mph to 5mph 1st Gear You will almost always (downhill starts excepted) start out in first gear, and move up into second virtually immediately.  First can also be used in heavy, slow-moving traffic.
5mph to 15mph 2nd Gear Unless you are travelling on rough ground or narrow lanes at low speed, second gear is generally a transitionary stage as you begin to accelerate and get into the stride of your journey. Once you have reached between 15-20mph you should be moving up into third gear. Second is also a good choice for slowing into turns or towards traffic lights.
15mph to 30mph 3rd Gear While some vehicles can manage higher speeds in third gear, for fuel economy, it’s sensible to move into fourth as soon as you exceed 30mph.
30mph to 40mph 4th Gear Fourth gear is the standard selection for town and city driving. It’s the most economical choice for speeds of around 30mph.
40mph upwards 5th Gear Dual carriageways, motorways and all other open roads are the perfect environment for fifth gear driving.


In short, gear changes need to happen whenever the car is speeding up or slowing down for a manoeuvre – emergency stops excluded. The right gear will allow the car to perform at its best and make a significant impact on your fuel expenditure.

What your driving test examiner will expect

Learning to drive isn’t just about learning to pass your test. You also need to be able to drive safely and efficiently for the good of everyone on the road. BUT that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good idea to know what your test examiner will expect you to be capable of.

You need to be able to:

  • Assess the conditions you’re facing and select your speed and gear accordingly.
  • Change gear smoothly and safely without taking your eyes off the road or losing control of the car.
  • Remember to return your hand to the steering wheel as soon as you’ve changed gear.
  • Avoid coasting with your clutch down or your gears in neutral.

Although it can seem a lot to master, learning to change gears isn’t that scary. With a bit of practice and a good instructor you’ll soon wonder what you were worried about.

If you’re learning to drive in Wolverhampton, Birmingham, or the Black Country, get in touch and see how DGN can help.

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