Why I don't recommend taking the road test on manual...

Regrettably, the Ministry's current requirements for the manual road test are seriously outdated; preparing a student for the Test as it stands may result in developing habits that are unsafe and potentially damaging to the car; ProShift does not normally teach those techniques. Until those requirements are changed, I suggest you take the test on automatic. Note that when you pass the test in an automatic, you're still allowed to drive standard - the Ontario driver's license is non-specific in that respect. Warning: When practicing for the road test, one will likely pick up "bad habits" that may be difficult to change later on! I do hope the Ministry will update their requirements soon so I can finally recommend taking the test on standard with a clear conscience (I've brought the matter to their attention a couple of times over the past few years, but regrettably still no changes).

The main problem (there are others that are somewhat less serious) on the road test is the obligation to downshift, in sequence and without skipping gears, all the way down to 1st gear, whenever the driver is slowing down (no exception, except perhaps in the case of an urgent stop). Note that the Ministry's own Driver's Handbook (road test section) states that "the driver may downshift" when slowing down; but for some reason, it's being interpreted as must; if you don't, you will be disqualified.

Incidentally, they've got it right in Europe, where manual shift driving is the norm. Check out what they have to say about downshifting on the official UK road test prep website: www.2pass.co.uk/gears ("About Block Gear Changes" near the bottom of the page - turn your speakers on)

Here are the reasons why routinely gearing down is not acceptable when driving most modern vehicles:

  • Background: Downshifting when slowing down started "in the old days" when most cars were rear-wheel drive, heavy, and had unreliable drum brakes all around which were prone to overheating/fading. The brake system was also very "unsophisticated", and braking balance between the front and rear wheels was poor. Downshifting to maximize engine braking and assist the brakes therefore made a lot of sense (as it still does when operating a heavy truck). Also, since the added resistance acted on the rear wheels, it helped balance the system.
  • Today's vehicles are much more sophisticated, and brake technology has evolved considerably. Most cars now have disk brakes (at least on the front wheels which handle up to 70% of the braking), and the systems are calibrated to provide correct front/rear braking balance under most conditions. Also, antilock braking systems are now the norm with most manufacturers, even on base models.
  • Modern brake systems therefore do an excellent job on their own without extra assist from the engine. In fact, gearing down will throw the system out of balance by adding resistance to the front wheels (since most cars are now front-wheel drive). In extremely slippery conditions, this will increase the stopping distance, or worse, it could cause front-wheel lock-up and result in complete loss of control.
  • Unlike older brake systems, modern brakes are not likely to overheat when driving normally (in racing, engine braking is common practice and does make sense, but drivers must learn to "double clutch" in order to avoid excessive wear or loss of control, and the vehicles are usually either rear-wheel or all-wheel drive).
  • Antilock braking systems are designed to prevent wheel lock-up, especially under slippery conditions; but this system acts on the brakes, not the engine; so gearing down will override the system and could cause wheel lock-up, making this important safety feature practically useless when it's needed the most. To make matters worse, if you downshift while the ABS system is "active", the vibrations caused by the rapid on-and-off action of the brakes are transmitted through the drivetrain, back to the transmission, and interfere with the proper functioning of the synchronizers, causing the gears to grind during the shift. This could damage the transmission.
  • But "I downshift to reduce brake wear" is a common response. When you consider that gearing down causes extra wear to the clutch, the synchronizers, and the engine (aside from potential damage to the transmission), trying to save a few bucks on brake pads at the expense of much more expensive components simply doesn't make any sense.
  • Gearing down instead of using the brakes can also mislead a following driver since you could be slowing down (engine braking) significantly without brake lights warning. This could increase your chances of getting rear-ended.
  • Avoiding unnecessary downshifting therefore results in more effective, smoother, and safer braking; especially in slippery conditions.
  • Driving safely on today's busy roads is already demanding enough, especially with a manual car. Adding unnecessary actions (such as downshifting) doesn't help. And if something does happen, and quick evasive action is required, a driver in the habit of downshifting is likely to drop his hand to the gearshift instead of keeping it on the wheel - this can be disastrous (and is more likely to happen with an occasional driver).
  • Note that it doesn't mean you should keep the clutch down all the way to a stop; one should brake and allow the engine to slow down to about 1,000 rpm before disengaging the clutch (this provides a moderate amount of "engine braking" without any of the problems associated with gearing down). And of course, there are many situations where one must downshift, or where gearing down is desirable - these are covered in the lessons, and the student will be shown when downshifting is required, and how to do it safely, without causing excessive wear to the vehicle's mechanical components.

In other words, the habit of gearing down instead of (or along with) using the brakes when driving a modern car is undesirable and can be downright dangerous. I have other (less serious) reservations about the manual shift requirements on the road test, but this is enough for me to recommend taking the test on automatic; otherwise one has to, in effect, learn how to drive incorrectly in order to pass the test, and then (hopefully) revert back to correct (and safer) driving practices afterwards. More trouble than it's worth. Incidentally, most of the problems I've outlined above have actually occurred while preparing students for the manual road test over the years (front-wheel lock up with resulting momentary loss of control, near-miss when the driver attempted to downshift in an accident avoidance situation, severe gear grinding when downshifting with the ABS system active, etc.). I have therefore discontinued road test preparation lessons on manual.


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