Riding The Clutch: What Is It & How To Avoid

You’ve probably heard the phrase “riding the clutch”. It is a term often used by driving instructors and you probably have sensed that this is a bad driving habit, but what exactly is riding the clutch and why should you care? 

“Riding the clutch” refers to the act of unnecessarily keeping the clutch pedal partially pressed down. To help you understand why this is bad for your car, we’ll explain the role of the clutch, proper clutch control techniques to show the consequences of riding the clutch, as well as ways to break this bad habit. Avoiding riding the clutch is not only a basics regarding driving but also regarding the proper maintenance of your beloved vehicle. Why? Read on to find out. 

Riding The Clutch: Why Should I Care?

Simply put, in any vehicle with a manual transmission, the clutch is the mechanical device which transfers the rotational power from the engine to the drivetrain, that is the wheels. It does this by connecting the shaft coming from the engine and the shafts which turn the wheels. 

The clutch is a crucial component, because the engine generates power all the time, and has parts which are constantly rotating, but the wheels are not constantly spinning, and when they do, they might not be rotating at the same speed as the parts in the engine. This is where the clutch comes into play. The clutch allows the car to speed up, slow down or come to a complete stop without turning off the engine. 

riding the clutch
The clutch disc or plate is a part of a vehicle’s manual transmission system that delivers power from the engine to the wheels. Photo Credit: The Motor Guy

To facilitate the changing in speed, the clutch temporarily interrupts the connection between the wheels and the engine long enough so that you can switch gears to speed up or slow down. You can also say that the general purpose of a clutch is to maximize efficiency of the system by controlling the connection between spinning parts that travel at different speeds. 

There are many parts to the clutch/transmission system. If you master clutch control, a well-treated clutch can last up to 80,000 miles. But if you have the bad habit of “riding the clutch” as well as others such as feathering the clutch in certain situations, you’re going to need to replace those parts much sooner, sometimes as soon as you hit the 35,000 miles. And that is not going to be cheap. 

The Principal of Clutch Control

In a vehicle with a manual transmission, the basic principle of smooth clutch control is to fully disengage the clutch when changing gear by pressing the clutch pedal to the floor with your left foot, and then re-engage the clutch by lifting off the pedal to fully release it. Fully disengaging before re-engaging will prevent the gears from crashing into each other, thus will allow you to change gear smoothly.

When the clutch pedal is completely pressed and the clutch is fully disengaged, there is no longer a direct connection between the engine and the driveshaft, so no torque is transmitted from the engine to the wheels. In the re-engagement phase, when you fully lift your foot off the pedal, again there is full connection between the engine and the driveshaft. Now the engine can directly transfer torque to the driveshaft. 

When shifting properly, the clutch pedal needs to be released quickly to re-engage the engine to the driveshaft. When the engine and driveshaft re-engage and their speeds equalize, you will feel a definite lurch, which is distinctive to a manual transmission vehicle. 

However, in certain situations, the clutch is intentionally released slowly. In this case, the clutch disc will “slip” against the flywheel, and this amount of friction will allow the engine a smoother transition to its new rotational speed. 

Here, the clutch plate will be partially engaged and thus the driveshaft only receives a fraction of the engine’s rotational power. This is commonly referred to as “half clutch”.  

Such routine slippage of the clutch disc against the flywheel causes wear-and-tear on the clutch that is similar to the wear on a brake pad when braking. Surely, some amount of wear is natural and unavoidable, but you can still minimize it with better clutching and shifting techniques. 

The rule of thumb is to release the clutch as close to the correct engine speed for the gear and vehicle speed as possible. That is when upshifting, you’ll need to allow the engine speed to fall before releasing the clutch to achieve a smoother transition. Conversely, when downshifting, you’ll need to increase the engine speed with the accelerator before releasing the clutch.  Smoother transition directly translates to minimal clutch wear and lower maintenance costs.


What Does Riding The Clutch Mean? 

riding the clutch meaning
Riding the clutch happens when a driver fails to take their foot off the clutch pedal after changing gear. Photo Credit: nearsay.com

In a vehicle with a manual transmission, riding the clutch refers to the practice of needlessly keeping the clutch partially disengaged. This usually happens when a driver fails to take their foot off the clutch pedal after changing gear. 

This results in the clutch disc slipping against the flywheel and some engine power not being transferred to the drive train and wheels. The friction between the clutch disk and flywheel creates heat and ultimately wears your clutch out prematurely. 

Habitually resting your foot on the clutch while driving instead of on the floorboard or dead pedal is a bad habit to get into. It’s a very common habit among beginner drivers, but is not limited to learners alone. Riding the clutch is something that anybody can do while driving. 

You should keep your foot off the clutch at all times, only unless you need to start your car, to shift up or down and to stop. Even though you think there’s no pressure being applied with the foot simply resting on the clutch pedal, there most certainly is.

Although this slight pressure is not enough to allow the clutch disc itself to slip, it is enough to keep the release bearing against the release springs. This causes the bearing to remain spinning, which leads to premature bearing failure.

So treating your clutch pedal like a resting place can cause extra stress and wear on certain components. And as the clutch is considered a wear and tear item like tyres and brakes, clutch wear won’t be covered by your new-car warranty. You’ll eventually need to repair or replace your clutch much earlier, and it is not cheap. 

The cost to repair a clutch can range between $500 to $2,500, depending on the make and model of your car. Clutch replacement is more affordable if you own a Japanese economy car, and will be much more expensive for performance cars, exotic cars, and European models.

It should be noted that although riding the clutch is a bad habit that you need to grow out of, many drivers routinely use this technique effectively in stop-and-go traffic, as it is easier to control the throttle and acceleration at very slow speeds. Riding the clutch is also intentionally used when driving in reverse, as the distance to be traveled is short while fully engaging the reverse gear results in too great a velocity.

Another note is riding the clutch should not be confused with “freewheeling” or “coasting”, a common practice where the clutch is pressed down fully allowing the car to roll either downhill or from inertia, or to roll into a parking space or over speed bumps via inertia. While this technique is not damaging to the car, it can be considered a tricky way to drive since you will not be able to quickly accelerate if needed.

How To Avoid Riding The Clutch

Automatic transmissions are undoubtedly convenient, especially in city traffic. But a manual transmission still wins hearts for the pure, unadulterated fun of driving that it offers. It is however not as convenient as an automatic transmission, so you will have to learn how to strike a balance in your driving. If you want to enjoy your manual transmission, you need to form good habits to properly take care of your clutch.

It takes some effort to break the ingrained habit of riding the clutch. It may take you a bit of practice to feel like you’ve really got your shift together, but it’s well worth the effort, both in terms of avoiding premature and costly replacement as well as forming good driving habits.

Now that you have grasped riding the clutch meaning, you need to learn how to avoid doing so. 

If you do have the habit of riding the clutch, the biggest clue that you’re causing excessive wear-and-tear to the clutch is a distinctive burning smell from the clutch plates as they slip on the gearbox shaft. If you do notice this smell, adjust your footing accordingly.

Automatic or Semi-automatic Gearbox

There are a few ways to avoid riding the clutch in a manual car, but the other way to avoid it altogether is by buying a car with an automatic or semi-automatic gearbox. With no pedal to rest on, and thus more foot space, you’ll never need to worry about riding the clutch, and having to pay expensive repairs when the clutch fails prematurely.

Adjust Your Driving Position

One reason for riding the clutch could be a poor driving position. If you sit too close to the pedals, you might not have enough legroom to put your left foot in a comfortable position elsewhere and might end up unintentionally resting it on the clutch pedal. 

To remedy this, you need to find ways to adjust your driving position. The best way to do this is to press the clutch pedal with your leg locked in a fully straight position, then move the seat until you are pushing the clutch pedal against the bulkhead in the driver’s foot well. Once the seat is adjusted, take your foot off the pedal, and you should have enough leg room to comfortably move your foot away from the clutch pedal and rest it on the floor.

Many cars come with an off-clutch footrest that makes it far easier to avoid riding the clutch. However, if you’re driving a car with a cramped footwell, see if you can position your foot behind the clutch pedal. It’s not ideal, but at least you can drive without touching the clutch pedal unduly.

Use Neutral More

The rule of thumb for manual transmission vehicles is to use neutral more and your clutch less. You need to have your foot on the clutch to start your car, to shift up or down, and to stop. Otherwise, keep your foot off the clutch. 

When you’re going downhill, downshift and use your brakes or shift into neutral and use your brakes to slow down. In traffic, allow a greater distance between your car and the one in front of you and coast a little more with the traffic flow.

When you’re stopping at a red light, don’t keep your car in gear as this will make your clutch suffer from unnecessary wear and tear. When you’re putting your car into gear while stopping, you’re essentially pressing the three main parts of your clutch into one another: the spring, the bearing, and the diaphragm.

Instead, let the clutch out, put your car in neutral and use your break until the light changes. This allows it to relax and avoid excessive wear.


Changing Gear: Be Quick and Decisive

When you need to change gear, try to see far down the road so that you have room to think ahead about the obstacles which you will encounter. The purpose is to try to maintain a constant speed rather than changing gear every now and then.

Also, be decisive and quick handed. Don’t linger when changing gears. This is a common problem with new drivers when they are first learning how to drive a manual vehicle. Changing gear only requires a mere few seconds. The longer you press down the clutch pedal each time you change gear, the more unnecessary strain and wear you are putting on your clutch. 

Although changing gears happens in a blink of an eye, you’ll be changing gears many times on an average journey and this can add up very quickly over time.  

Use the Handbrake when Parking

Whenever possible, you should use the handbrake to secure the car when parking instead of leaving your car parked in gear. Leaving a vehicle parked in gear puts strain on the clutch even when the engine is switched off. Instead, using the handbrake will reduce the amount of pressure put on the clutch disc when you are not driving, thus less wear in the long run.