Driving a Stick Shift: No Big Deal

A joke floated around social media a while back. It basically said if you want to stop today’s young people from “borrowing” your car, get one with a stick shift. Nothing thwarts a young adventurer like a manual transmission .

There is some truth to that bit of humor but learning to drive a manual transmission is no big deal.

All it takes is a little patience and a bit of practice. And like riding a bike, once you’ve mastered the skill, you’ll never forget it.

Know Your Pedals

The first thing you’ll notice when you get in a car with a manual transmission is the extra foot pedal under the steering wheel. The little skinny pedal on the right is the accelerator. The pedal in the center is the brake. The pedal on the left is the clutch.

When driving a stick, you use both feet. Your right foot will work the brake and the accelerator, just like it does when driving an automatic transmission. Your left foot works the clutch.

Successfully changing gears requires coordination between your left and right foot. This doesn’t mean you need the agility of an Olympic gymnast to master driving a stick. It simply means you’ll need a bit of practice.

The Basics Are All You Need

The basics of driving a stick are the same, regardless of the vehicle. The number of gears may vary and there may be a slight difference in the gear configuration (reverse on the far-left vs on the far-right.) But the mechanics of shifting between the gears are the same.

A diagram on the top of the stick will show the gear configuration.

Moving Through the Gears

Find a large, empty parking lot where you can practice. You don’t want to learn how to drive a stick in the middle of rush hour.

  • Use your left foot to push the clutch all the way to the floor.
  • Put the gear shift stick into the “neutral” position. It will wiggle freely from side to side when you’ve got it in neutral.
  • Use your right foot to apply the brake.
  • Turn the ignition key to crank the car.
  • Keeping the clutch and brake depressed, release the emergency brake.
  • Slide your gear shift into the first gear position.
  • Move your right foot to the accelerator but don’t press down on it. You’re not quite ready to go yet.
  • Moving your right foot releases the brake. If you aren’t on a flat surface, you may roll a bit. Unless you’re in danger of hitting something or someone, no big deal.
  • Now comes the part that requires coordinating your feet.
  • Slowly begin to release the pressure on the clutch with your left foot.
  • At the same time, begin to gently press the accelerator with your right foot.
  • You’ll be able to feel when the gear begins to engage. When the car begins to move a bit, continue steadily releasing the clutch and increasing the amount of pressure to the accelerator.
  • You should be on your way now.
  • When you need to switch to another gear, which won’t take long, lift your right foot off the accelerator at the same time you depress the clutch with your left foot.
  • The car will keep going while you’re sliding the gear stick into second gear.
  • Release the clutch with your left foot while you’re slowly depressing the accelerator again with your right foot.
  • You’ll begin to build speed now.
  • Repeat these steps to move through all the gears.

 Important safety note:  if you need to stop, depress the clutch and brake simultaneously. If you don’t, the car will sputter and die. You’ll have to restart it to get going again.

And there you have it. Driving a stick just takes a bit of practice. Once you’ve got it, it’s a skill you’ll keep for life.

Andrea Leptinsky


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