Learning to drive: Reasons for stalling when moving off in a manual car

Learning to drive: Reasons for stalling when moving off in a manual car

Are you learning to drive? Do you experience car control or stalling problems when pulling away? Rest assured that what ever standard of driving you have reached during your lessons, stalling the car is common, can be frustrating, and for some, quite difficult to overcome.

This is true for beginner drivers who are practicing the basics to a partly trained driver learning to deal with car control in busy traffic? I passed my driving test in 1979 (Yes I passed first time – just!!) and although the roads were not as busy as they are now I remember panicking every time I found myself head of the queue at red traffic lights. I remember feeling so worried about holding up the cars behind that, try as I might to take my time pulling away, I used to rush my feet and experience the abrupt stop and deadly silence of the engine cutting out. As was always the case by the time I’d got ready to go again the traffic lights had returned to red. I experienced the same challenges when entering roundabouts. I learnt to drive in London, found the whole process frustrating and never believed I would pass the driving test. I certainly could not have imagined that 36 years later I would have already spent 23 years helping others do the same!

So what are the main reasons for stalling a car? Is stalling just an emotional response to pressure (as it was in my case) or more of a technical issue that can only be resolved by taking a step back and practicing foot coordination? Depending on the individual and the quantity and quality of driver training they have received, it could be either, or a combination of the two. For example:

Panic Stalling

Panic stalling is an emotional response to pressure which is something most people experience whilst learning to drive. For example, an individual may be very capable and confident at getting the car moving on quiet roads but may feel pressure on busier roads to move the car away quickly to avoid holding up vehicles behind. This pressure tends to instigate a feeing of rushing/panic similar to the human fight or flee response, which in turn causes loss of vehicle control. The only way to overcome this is by prolonged practice and fine tuning the sensory movements needed to accurately and safely coordinate the foot pedals and handbrake. If you are taking driving lessons at the moment and experiencing this for yourself please be confident that you will eventually become at one with the car and the process will become completely automated.

Technical – stalling a car due to incorrect co-ordination of hand/foot controls

The other reason people stall the car when learning to drive is because of incorrect technique; either due to insufficient time being spent on the basics or incorrect instruction. A good percentage of students I teach have had previous driving experience and a reasonable percentage of those students have been taught to get the car moving by lifting the clutch pedal to the biting point first, sometimes with the foot brake applied, taking the hand brake off and then pressing the accelerator pedal. This may be okay for creeping along in a very slow queue of traffic where there is lots of time to move off and where little power is required from the engine to start or maintain such a low momentum, but it’s not okay for general driving when it’s important to pull away securely and/or promptly; entering a roundabout for example. It is vitally important to press the accelerator pedal first to increase the engine speed to achieve the power necessary to move off before transferring the power to the wheels by raising the clutch pedal. Not using the accelerator at the correct time significantly increases the likelihood of stalling the car and guarantees a sluggish response from the car when moving off; which, depending on the circumstances could be safety critical. It also affects the confidence and progress of people when they learn to drive as the following example demonstrates.

I recently booked a two hour assessment lesson with a student who already had 25 hours of driving experience but lacked confidence when it came to dealing with hill starts, traffic lights and roundabouts etc. When we first met he seemed anxious frustrated and quite demoralised and had quite a low opinion of his driving ability because he didn’t feel he was improving. He said he had not driven for three months because he couldn’t face making the same mistakes time and time again and was about to give up.
Once we got going the source of his problems became quickly apparent by the incorrect order in which he was using his foot controls when pulling out from side roads. He was braking, putting down the clutch pedal, selecting first gear and stopping at the give way line (OK so far) but when preparing to move off he maintained right foot pressure on the brake pedal (no use of handbrake) whilst lifting the clutch to the biting point with his left foot. The result of this was either the car continuously stalled, limped or slowly stuttered out of the junction potentially causing a danger to himself and other road users; not good for developing confidence either. Not wanting to get too technical I explained the brake was trying to keep the car still at the same time the clutch was trying to make the car go which was causing the engine to labour and possibly stall once the footbrake was released.

The solution

After a brief chat and explanation we moved off and I talked him through the correct use of foot controls to eliminate his mistakes/mis-teachings and start rebuilding his confidence as a driver. For anybody else having similar difficulties these are the instructions I used to approach and turn right out of the end of a road ensuring everything is done in the correct order:

  • BRAKE gently, just before the end of the road put the CLUTCH DOWN and select 1ST GEAR as you stop at the give way line.
  • Apply the HANDBRAKE (not always necessary unless to prevent the car rolling back or if you need to wait for passing traffic).
  • To move off from the junction RELEASE THE FOOTBRAKE.
  • Squeeze the ACCELERATOR pedal gently to raise the engine revs (usually to about 1700rpm) and keep the ACCELLERATOR still to maintain the revs.
  • Raise the CLUTCH pedal to the BITING POINT and keep the pedal still once you feel the car pull a little and hear a dip in the engine revs.
  • RELEASE THE HANDBRAKE and keep both pedals still whilst the car starts to move.
  • As you complete the turn gently squeeze the accelerator pedal a little and slowly lift your foot off the clutch pedal.

To conclude: After talking him through a few corners he started pre-empting my instructions and within the hour had almost eliminated the control issues that had so dented his progress and confidence. Within two hours he had negotiated several sets of traffic lights and a few roundabouts safely and confidently and was driving in a much less stressed and positive manner. It was clear from his body language that he was relieved, more relaxed, confident and even excited about how a simple modification to technique could change the way he drove.

The astonishing thing is this was such a simple thing to fix yet this Young man spent so long doubting himself and his ability. Although this post doesn’t cover every possible problem people have dealing with junctions, my hope as an instructor is this post may help others experiencing similar difficulties move forward, enjoy and progress through the process of learning to drive. It needn’t be a painful experience!