Kenya’s driving test – how to drive smoothly with manual gears

Manual gear shift

Most cars these days come equipped with automatic transmissions. This innovation eliminates a common challenge for new drivers — the need to manipulate the clutch pedal and manual gear shift to manage engine revs and avoid stalling as the car drives at varying speeds. Kenyan student drivers however must learn how to drive cars equipped with manual transmission as these are the vehicles used for the official tests. Stalling the test vehicle or failing to take off smoothly from a start, or failing to change gears smoothly can be grounds for failing the Kenyan driving test.

The transmission system is an essential part of every vehicle. The running engine can turn at different rotational speeds — so-called revolutions or revs. Measured in revs per minute (rpm), these are sometimes indicated in rev meters on the dashboard. On the other hand, the car’s driving wheels can also turn at different speeds as the vehicle starts moving, speeds up and slows down, eventually to a stop. The role of the transmission system is therefore to synchronize the engine and wheel speeds in order to prevent problems such as the engine stalling when the car stops or slows down.

By connecting the engine to the driving wheels, the transmission system enables the engine’s speed to be managed using a system of gears in order to match the revs of the driving wheels. For example, as the car starts to move faster, the engine must be disconnected from the wheels and a different gear engaged in order enable the engine to return to a lower rev while maintaining the same driving speed and even enable to car to continue accelerating. Were there no transmission and gear system, the engine would continue to rev higher and higher as the car accelerates, eventually limiting the top speed, and running very inefficiently.

The clutch is a key part of the transmission and is used to disengage the engine from the driving wheels. In manual transmission vehicles, the clutch is connected to a foot pedal. A gear shift lever is used to select the best gear for use in connecting the engine to the driving wheels for a particular speed of the car.

In comparison automatic transmission vehicles do not have a clutch pedal. And the gear shift lever is only used to select “forward” or “reverse” motion. The car handles the routine gear shifting automatically and smoothly.

The manual gear shift lever is usually located in between the two front seats and is controlled with the left hand. The lever is topped with a knob on which is inscribed the layout of the lever’s positions that correspond with each gear position. All these positions are arranged either forward of or behind the normal rest position of the gear lever. Different vehicle brands can have slightly different layouts of these gear positions, especially for the reverse gear. You should glance down at the gear knob of unfamiliar vehicles before you start off to make sure you know the layout.

The gear lever is used in conjunction with the clutch pedal, whose purpose is to disengage the engine from the vehicle’s driving wheels while the gear is being changed. You first depress the clutch pedal with your left foot, then you shift the gear lever to the position of the desired gear using your left hand; then you finally release the clutch pedal gently in order to re-engage the engine and the driving wheels. The hallmark of experience is when you are able to accomplish this orchestration smoothly and almost subconsciously every time.

Success will be evident when the vehicle continues to move smoothly without jerking forward as you re-engage the clutch. To do so, you must be keenly aware of the vehicle’s speed, the engine’s revs, which gear your are shifting from and to, and the layout of the vehicle’s gears. In vehicles lacking rev meters in the dashboard, you can often listen to the whine of the engine to gauge when to shift to another gear. But this becomes more challenging when driving cars which have ultra-quiet engines. Ultimately, your awareness needs to be so keen that you can accomplish this procedure without looking at either your speedometer, rpm meter, or gearshift knob. The only way to master this is to practice, practice, practice.

To put a vehicle into motion from a stationary position, you must engage the clutch with your left foot (and brake with your right foot), select the first gear, then remember to disengage the vehicle’s handbrake before applying a bit of throttle (accelerator pedal) with your right foot and then releasing the clutch pedal gently in order to put the vehicle in motion.

A special condition that is often tested during the Kenyan driving test concerns starting from rest, with the handbrake engaged, on an uphill without allowing the vehicle to roll downhill even a bit. Failing to demonstrate this skill can cause you to fail the practical test. Getting this right every time will require a lot of practice for it requires balancing many senses and vehicle controls.

As the vehicle speeds up from rest, you will need to gradually shift the gear lever through positions 1 (for takeoff from rest) through to 2, 3 and 4 (or even 5, for vehicles that have this). When climbing hills, it may be necessary to shift to a lower gear (e.g. from 4 to 3) as the vehicle slows down in order to avoid stalling, or in order to maintain the desired speed.

Driving a vehicle safely and without inconveniencing other road users requires a polished awareness of the behavior of the vehicle, other road users, conditions of the road, and traffic and road signs and markings, while orchestrating your management of the vehicles pedals and gear levers smoothly. This is the hallmark of a properly experienced driver. It is advisable that you practice your skills until you can do so reasonably consistently before you sign up for a practical test.

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