Engine braking and driving.

From a GQ thread that derailed somewhat.

Stan Doubt opined that one shouldn’t downshift in “normal driving”. I pointed out that many drivers “normally” encounter circumstances that DO warrant downshifting, provoking the following:

A twofer! ( poor analogy and an ad hominium attack) I’d have taken it to the pit if I was interested in responding in kind. I’m not. I am aware that my views on downshifting border on religious, and are certainly debatable.

At risk of taking a rehtorical question literally, the answer to SD’s question is: I don’t pore over every post. SD’s presumed definition of “normal driving” doesn’t apply to myself, anyone in my immediate family, or any of my close friends or neighbors. It doesn’t apply in any place I’ve ever resided. (two Rocky Mountain states, and the Tirol region of Austria) Of the four cardinal directions, only if I went south would I reach the next city without traversing a grade that warranted downshifting.

Yes I am aware that my experience places me in a minority. My concern is that “normal” drivers don’t/won’t/can’t recognize “not normal” cirmumstances that warrant downshifting.

In the Rocky Mountain US, it is common to see not only “flatlanders”, but locals who really should know better, riding thier brakes for 10-15 miles while decending a pass. I can smell the brakes, sometimes I can see the smoke coming off them. In recent years (perhaps the last 15-20) , in my observation, it is becoming rare to see a driver that is NOT abusing thier brakes to some degree; Which I define as relying on thier brakes to control average speed. They are on the brakes more than half the time/distance. They are on the brakes for EVERY turn. They are on the brakes to avoid overrunning traffic that was visible a half mile back. Most of the folks pulling large trailers seem to have something of a clue, but even among those there notable and frightening exceptions.

I can ascribe such dangerous (IMO, obviously) driving only to ignorance. Those folks can’t know any better, or they would use the damn shift lever. Certainly brakes have improved greatly in the last 20-30 years. The increased margion of safety this should have provide seems to be offset by the complaciency it engenders.

European drivers mostly DO downshift on mountain grades. I attribute this largely to the relative rarity of automatic transmissions there, though the driver education and licensing are also much more severe than US standards. Manny tranny drivers shift as a matter of course. Even a European driving a luxury car with a slushbox was most likely raised driving with a clutch.

I doubt many will argue for riding thier brakes down long grades.

Yet I have never limited my downshifting to long grades. The practice of downshifting as a vehicle slows (Stan Doubt’s normal driving) seems to draw more critics:

A cite from the GQ thread:
Ray, of NPR’s “Cartalk”: “The problem is that downshifting is murder on clutches! If you downshift through all the gears every time you stop (like your hubby does), you’re effectively doubling the number of shifts you make, and thereby cutting the life of your clutch in half!”

If the cite above were correct, then the “normal” life of a clutch in my '86 Ford must be around 500,000 miles, as it has gone over 220,000 miles and still has a fair amount of lining left…it has been downshifted at essentially every opportunity during it’s entire life. By “murdering” my clutch I’ve only gotten twice the clutch live vs. what many people seem to think is the life of a car.

I agree that a “simple” downshift is hard on clutches. I cringe when I experience such as a passenger. I maintain that manually sychronized downshifting (double clutching) puts minimal wear on a clutch. If I seldom downshifted, I would likely not have this skill when needed.

Telemark says:

Brake linings for one wheel, one time certainly are cheaper. Pads/shoes for all four, turning the drums/rotors makes it about a wash. Based on getting around 100-120K miles on a set of brakes, compared to around half that for people who I know don’t downshift, and my experience with clutch life, I claim I can probably save 3 sets of brakes by the time I wear out a clutch. I don’t know when the clutch would have worn out without all my downshifting. Three sets of brakes do not appear represent a savings over one clutch. If you don’t do the work yourself, then you can factor in an extra 2-3 trips to the shop worth of lost time and hassle.

By the time I clean and repack the wheel bearings (why wouldn’t I?) brakes/clutch is getting close to a labor wash on a RWD vehicle. (FWD or 4WD normally complicates clutch access considerably) By the time I pull the Iron, take it to the machine shop, wait or return when finishied, and re-install, I have burned a Saturday. Changing a clutch, even on a 4WD burns the same Saturday. Frankly, neither represents my preferred way to burn a Saturday, and if I thought I was experiencing anything below normal wear, I’d damned sure change my ways.

Cost and hassle aside, a failed clutch is seldom a safety concern. A natural consequence of burning through brakes twice as fast is that you are twice as likely to be driving with brakes at/near thier end of life. By not downshifting you are going to be relying on them as your sole means of deceleration if/when they fail. Wear issues aside, You are also more likely to warp a rotor, boil the fluid, or suffer other ills related to severe braking.

It’s moot to me though, I don’t downshift in “normal” driving to save the brakes. I downshift in order to to be in the correct gear to accelerate when the reason I was slowing down goes away: Red light becomes green, turn is behind me, car in front of me finished turning into driveway, whatever. This is my main objection to automatic transmissions.

Finally, I’ve been accused of being a Mario wannabe. (and one of the Tappet bros. alludes to this in the above cite) Ain’t so. Heavy braking is the way to get around a racetrack quickly. If you ain’t accelerating, and you ain’t braking, then your coasting. Coasting doesn’t cut your lap times.

Are you serious? I’m a Michigander. Relatively flat here. However, twice in my life I have had to cross the Appalachians while driving a stick. I’d probably be a corpse right now if I hadn’t had the sense to downshift while descending a pass. I’ve gotta admit is was scary the first time when while driving I saw in the distance (gasp!) mountains. I never saw anything like that here in Michigan. However, I had been told ahead of time by local folks that if I was gonna travel through mountainous terrain, I’d better well have the sense to use the gear shift rather than the brakes when descending a pass. I’ve gotta figure it would suck big time to have my brakes fail in mountainous terrain.

This is very true. ‘What to do when faced with a steep gradient’-type questions are standard fare for the written test, and you do occassionally see road signs along with the usual gradient warnings, simply stating ‘use low gear’

Very serious.

culled from a current GQ thread

Not everyone gets the warning you did. Not everyone heeds such warnings. Note that the posting quoted above never mentioned an alternative to riding your brakes down the grade.

Obligatory link to the Straight Dope Mailbag article on “Jake Brakes”:


10-second summary: Most large trucks are equipped with “engine brakes” that increase engine compression specifically to slow the truck down.

Then I guess I should be glad to be alive. Had I ignored this, I’d guess someone in Virginia would have scraped my dead body at the bottom of the mountain.

Well people sometimes do die when thier brakes fail on mountain roads. It is a scary thought, and IMO, NOT downshifting is tempting fate. I do think you are slightly overstating the magnitude of the threat though.

None of the 3 cases of mountain road brake failure I have non-UL knowlege of (I know the names of the drivers) resulted in a crash, much less injury. It doesn’t sound like Wolfstu’s dad crashed either. Boiling brake fluid may still allow braking with multiple pumps on the pedal. Burned out linings start making rediculous amounts of noise, stink, and smoke. Front and rear systems are designed NOT to fail simultainiously, so there is usually enough of a warning that less than a total idiot is able to pull over and stop before serious disaster occurs. Mybe your stuck on the side of a mountain, and you get a well deserved lecture on mountain driving from the tow truck driver, but this flavor of ignorance is usually not fatal.

In the OP I mentioned that brakes are much better now. Front, and even four wheel disks are often standard equipment, where in the past, if offered at all, they were a “performance” option.

Many, if not most, modern passenger car brakes WILL survive an abusive trip down most mountain passes if in good condition, if there is enough lining left, if the brake fluid water content is low enough, if the driver isn’t activly accelerating between curves, and if the driver is staying reasonably close to the posted speed limit. (which is a consideration for establishing such)

Note the string of ifs above, and note that I said passenger car. A loaded pickup truck l, any large truck, or anything pulling a trailer need not apply.

I know this because more often as not I’m following one or more of these. They ride the brakes the whole way, and I downshift and maybe touch mine once or twice for the serious switch-backs. I can be in a pickup truck with 2000# lbs of camper in the bed, and I still don’t need brakes to control my decent.

Another place engine braking is very useful is in stop-and-go traffic. If you leave a couple car lengths in front of you and pay attention two or three cars ahead instead of just the rear bumper directly in front of you, you can modulate your speed nicely without ever using your clutch or your brake, reducing wear and tear on both. And it’s a lot more relaxing to just cruise along at a steady (but slow) pace, instead of stopping and starting a million times.

Moderator’s Note: Shifting from Great Debates to IMHO.

We really should make a rule against bad puns during thread moves :wink:

I think Stan Doubt’s point about being calling “Mountain Passes” normal driving is correct. But, going down hills using engine braking is an essential technique. Yes, when I was younger, I slid right out onto a main road after cooking my brakes coming down a mountain. If anything was coming I’d have been T-Boned.

I also agree with Kevbo about downshifting. People always say, “brakes are cheaper than clutches” like that’s the end of it. If you’re down-shifting correctly by either blipping or double-clutching (my preferred method) then you’re putting minimal wear on your clutch while every stop puts real wear on your brakes.

Also, the argument about “having both hands on the wheel” or whatever, in case of emergency situations is a little bit exaggerated. I mean, that would be an argument against having manual transmissions at all. For instance from the other thread. . .

You do have as much control downshifting, as a matter of fact, being in a gear where you’re not going to lug the engine if you have to accelerate is part of why I like downshifting.

One also might as well say, “you’re going to have to accelerate again so you might as well downshift”.

I like being in the appropriate gear for my speed at all times. I don’t like going 20 mph in 4th gear, much less being in neutral.

Lastly, downshifting is fun, so fuck it. What if it wears my clutch out a little faster? So I need to spend $500 6 years from now instead of 7 years from now?

If you downshift correctly, the wear on the clutch is next to nil.

The only time a properly-driven manual transmission car should experience clutch wear is when getting started from a stop.

Plus everyone knows real men only drive with one hand anyways :wink:

No - the argument is having both hands on the wheel while slowing down, because that’s the time your most likely to lose control or to encounter a need to slow more quickly than you originally thought. The latter point also gives another reason that not using the brake can be a problem - should you need to suddenly slow yourself further, the extra half-second saved by already being on the correct pedal is rather useful.

You misspelled “read porn.” Hope this helps.

Real men don’t need porn :wink: