Cars come in all shapes and sizes with varying degrees of added extras, home comforts and flexibility. The variety of “controls” in the car is quite astounding but the most important are those that control the movement of the vehicle and your ability to see.

Work your way through the menu to learn about the things that are under your control when you get in the driving seat.

Starting & Stopping the engine

Starting and stopping the engine

How to start your car will depend on the make and model and various technology involved. If in doubt, always consult the manufacturer’s handbook.

In most cases if you turn the steering wheel or try to do so an audible click will be heard and the steering lock will engage. If the wheel does not turn at all then it’s already engaged. To disengage the lock you will need to insert the key into the ignition. Then wiggle the steering wheel left and right whilst turning the key clockwise, you will meet some resistance do not force it apply a little pressure increasing until it gives. This will take a little practise.

The standard starting options though are:

  1. Insert key and turn clockwise (through two clicks) – until you hear the engine start (at which point you can release the key). OR: 
  2. Press clutch pedal to the floor (left foot on left most pedal of three) and hold it down while pressing the Start/ Stop button (you can release the clutch pedal once the engine has started). OR:
  3. Any others you know about!

It won’t always be necessary or desirable to start the engine as soon as you’re in the car.  You may, for example, wish to adjust the mirrors or turn on the radio. However, if you turn on the electrics before starting the engine, it will be a drain on the battery so I wouldn’t recommend you make this a regular habit! If you’re waiting for someone, be aware that waiting with the engine running is an offence and more and more councils are clamping down on drivers who leave their engines idling. An idling engine can produce up to twice the emissions of a car that’s in motion. These include chemicals such as sulphur dioxide, particulate matter and nitrogen oxide to name a few. All of these could contribute to asthma, heart disease and even lung cancer and also have a negative effect on the environment by contributing to poor air quality.

“You MUST NOT leave a vehicles engine running unnecessarily while the vehicle is stationary on a public road.” – See more at:

You may need to run the engine for a short while to help defrost the windscreens and mirrors but aside from this, it is good practise to not start the engine until you are ready to go.

To stop the engine correctly, you will likely do one of the following:

  1. Turn the key anti-clockwise and then remove it. OR:
  2. Press the start/stop button. OR:
  3. Anything else pertinent to your model/make of car!

Steering wheel

The steering wheel is the only way you have of controlling the direction of your car and it has only two similarities of the handlebars on a bike:

  1. You have to bring the wheel back to centre to keep going in a certain direction (that is you will go round in a circle if you don’t)
  2. The more you turn it the tighter the vehicle will turn.

Some key differences would be:

  1. There is a slightly time lag with the effect of the steering wheel compared to handle bars mainly because a car is heavier and bigger and takes longer to turn than a bike.
  2. Steering wheels will generally turn about 1.75 times at full lock.

The steering wheel is obviously connected to the wheels of the car but in most cars it is more accurate to say that it is connected to the front wheels of the car. It is possible to get rear-wheel drives but these are very rare. This affects how your vehicle turns


The accelerator is a very sensitive pedal, the car will respond to very light touches. When you press the accelerator, without the car in gear, you will make the engine run faster; you will be able to see the rev. counter jump up and you will hear the engine roar. When the car is in gear and the clutch pedal is up pressing the accelerator will result in the car going faster. However, in and of itself pressing the accelerator will not make the car accelerate—it has to be used in conjunction with other controls to get the desired effect. You can read in the use of gears section how you can get greater acceleration by being in lower gears.

The accelerator should, like the brake, be used gently and lightly and pressure increased as necessary to get the desired effect. There should be little reason to have excessive revving or wheels spinning, (as well as being noisy and alarming to others it is also a waste of fuel and therefore is bad for the environment and your budget!) so you use the accelerator well. You should only use the amount of acceleration that is necessary for the task in hand. If you are going uphill then you will need more accelerator just to keep the same speed but if you are going downhill the reverse is true. If going uphill or overtaking you will need to press the accelerator a little before you want the car to respond as there will be a slight time lag between pressing the pedal and the car actually going faster.

In which situations will pressing the accelerator only generate noise and the engine running faster (but not make car go faster)?

What reasons are there for not using the accelerator more than necessary?

How can you best position your feet so that you can use the accelerator well but also be able to quickly press the brake instead?


There are two different types of braking system on your average car. The footbrake operates brake discs on all four wheels and the Parking brake (or Handbrake) works only on the back two wheels. The footbrake will not only bring the car to a stop safely, it also activates the brake lights so that those who are behind you get some warning that you are going to slow down / stop. The footbrake should be used lightly at first (so that people can see the brake lights and have time to react), you should then increase the pressure gently until the car slows down enough or comes to a stop. You may hear this referred to as progressive braking. Pressing the pedal too sharply will make an uncomfortable stop and will potentially cause problems for other road users. It is important then that you give yourself plenty of time to stop or slow down. An “emergency stop” should be a very rare occurrence if you are planning ahead.

Is using the brakes the only way of slowing the car down? What benefit is there to using the brakes to slow the car? What effect will going uphill or downhill have on the amount of braking you need to do?

clutch & gears

Gears are a way of managing the amount of power taken from the engine to the wheels, this is an important way of preventing the engine from working too hard and overheating. There is a separate section about use of gears.

In order to change gear you need to press the clutch pedal all the way down, this is because the clutch controls the link between the engine and wheels (via the gear box). When the clutch pedal is down the engine can do something different from the wheels without there being a conflict. When the clutch pedal is up and the car is in gear then the wheels and the engine will do the same thing. This means if you leave the clutch up and press the brake enough to stop the car then the engine will stop too. If you put the clutch down just before the wheels stop then the engine will continue to run. It is important to leave the clutch up for as long as possible though because this helps send the message to the engine that the car should be slowing down.

In first gear only you will need to get used to finding the ‘biting point’. This is the point at which the engine and the wheels are just starting to work together, after this point the engine and wheels will do the same thing. You can identify the biting point through sound (the engine tone will drop as it is suddenly having to work a little harder), through feel (you may notice a slight difference in the pressure on the pedal) or by sight (the rev. counter will drop ever so slightly or the bonnet may raise ever so slightly). Uphill the clutch pedal will need to be slightly higher than on level ground but you can identify it in the same way.

Using the clutch well, will not only mean less expense for you (they cost a lot to replace/repair) but will also give a much smoother and controlled drive. Each car may feel a little different so it is something you pay attention to when driving new cars. The clutch pedal works with the other controls, for example moving off requires good coordination between clutch and accelerator, changing gear smoothly requires using clutch, accelerator and gear lever in well-timed movements, stopping efficiently requires good timing between brake and clutch.

Why do we want the clutch to remain up as much as possible? What makes the car stall?

Find out what ‘coasting’ is and what ‘riding the clutch’ means?

The gear lever should only be operated when the clutch pedal is pressed all the way down. When the clutch is pressed down the gear lever should move easily into any of the different gear positions. My car has six gears and reverse and the diagram on top of the gear lever shows the position of those gears. The gear lever should always automatically return to the middle position (in this case between 3rd and 4th gear). Almost all modern cars have spring gear boxes – this middle position is referred to as neutral.

auxillary controls

Auxilliary controls (those that are not strictly essential for driving but provide much needed extra support to improve the experience) are many and varied and will depend on the make and model of your car. The following controls though are required and you must demonstrate that you can operate them safely whilst on test:


Some cars have daytime running lights (DRL) – this means that there are always lights on whilst you drive, however some DRL’s are only the front lights, others have front and rear lights, some are a separate set of lights and some operate the sidelights or dipped headlights. Your car handbook will let you know if you have DRL’s and what lights they put on.

Regardless of whether you have DRL’s you will have Side lights, Dipped headlights, Main or Full beam and Fog lights. These are the ones that you must be able to operate safely and correctly.

Side lights are positioned to the side of the car and are less bright than the “normal” or dipped headlights. They are often used at dusk or in wet and overcast conditions. They are designed to make you more visible to other roads users but they are not sufficient to help you see when it is dark.

Dipped headlights are what most people would consider the normal lights – they will light your way in the dark as well as making others can see you in the dark. They sometimes have options for varying the angle of the lights and incorrect settings can dazzle other road users or restrict the distance ahead you can see. Your car handbook will tell you what options you have and which are correct.

Main beam, sometimes referred to as full beam, is actually the dipped headlights being angled up allowing you to see farther along the road. This is particularly helpful at night when there are no street lights to provide additional light. Because they are angled up they will dazzle other road users if you keep them on, so when you meet oncoming vehicles you need to “dip your lights” – that is take the main beam off.

UK cars are required to have rear fog lights and many also have front fog lights. Fog lights must only be used when visibility is less than a hundred metres because they are very bright and will dazzle other road users if you have them on unnecessarily. Some cars have rear fog light on one side only but it is more common now to have rear fog lights that are on both the left and right.

For all the lights you will have symbols on the interior display that tell you when they are on. These are normally green for side lights and dipped headlights, blue for main beam and orange for fog lights.

Windscreen washer and wipers

Being able to see clearly is absolutely essential if you want to drive safely, this is why there is a requirement for you to be able to see a number plate at a required distance

You must be able to read (with glasses or contact lenses, if necessary) a car number plate made after 1 September 2001 from 20 metres.

You must also meet the minimum eyesight standard for driving by having a visual acuity of at least decimal 0.5 (6/12) measured on the Snellen scale (with glasses or contact lenses, if necessary) using both eyes together or, if you have sight in one eye only, in that eye.

You must also have an adequate field of vision – your optician can tell you about this and do a test.

but in order to see clearly you also need to keep your windscreens clear. Your car will have in-built features to help you with this -namely wipers to clear of water and washers to squirt screenwash at the windscreen and then wipe it off again. These are very useful and allow you to clear the windscreen whilst on the move but they may not be enough on their own. Please remember it is your responsibility as a driver to keep you windscreen clear enough to see well so if that means cleaning it before you set off or stopping to clean it part way through your journey then do.

Wipers will often have various speed settings and the front and rear wipers will often operate independently of each other – you can have front ones on but not the back or vice versa. It is quite standard to have a single wipe setting, an intermittent setting, slow and fast settings. Again your car handbook will tell you what features your car has. Mine for example has an automatic setting due to sensors on the windscreen. The controls for these are normally on a stalk to the left or the right of the steering wheel and you select whichever setting you require.

The washer facility normally means that screenwash is squirted on and then wiped off – you may occasionally have to do this several times in order to clean your windscreen. The quality of your screenwash, the frequency with which you wash your car and the quality of the rubber wiper blades will determine how effective this feature is. You will likely damage the wiper blades if you use them to clear snow or ice of the windscreen so do take car and look after your wiper blades.

Horn and Direction indicators

Communicating well with other road users is a critical part of keeping everyone safe. People are most likely to be hurt and things most likely to be damaged when someone is surprised by another persons actions. There are a variety of ways in which you can communicate with others including making eye contact, gesturing* (be nice!), talking and road positioning but there are two main controls in your car that also allow you to communicate. These are the direction indicators and the horn.

The direction indicators are likely to be on a stalk to the left or right of the steering wheel, You will push the stalk up or down to indicate left or right. When you do this a symbol and sound on the driver’s display will let you know you are indicating. You should not need to take you hands off the steering wheel to indicate. Many cars have a self-cancelling feature but regardless it is your responsibility as the driver to cancel the indicator when you have finished changing direction. If your direction indicators are not working for any reason then … you should get them fixed! (But whilst you are driving it to the garage you would be wise to employ arm signals)

The horn is used to warn other people of your presence and many people use the horn incorrectly. This is what the Highway code says about the use of the horn:

Rule 112

The horn. Use only while your vehicle is moving and you need to warn other road users of your presence. Never sound your horn aggressively. You MUST NOT use your horn

while stationary on the road
when driving in a built-up area between the hours of 11.30 pm and 7.00 am
except when another road user poses a danger.

Rule 214
Animals. When passing animals, drive slowly. Give them plenty of room and be ready to stop. Do not scare animals by sounding your horn, revving your engine or accelerating rapidly once you have passed them. Look out for animals being led, driven or ridden on the road and take extra care. Keep your speed down at bends and on narrow country roads. If a road is blocked by a herd of animals, stop and switch off your engine until they have left the road. Watch out for animals on unfenced roads.

The expectation is that your horn will be rarely used. Some examples of legitimate uses are coming up to blind corners or bridges (where you cannot see round the corner or over the over side of the bridge) where the road is narrowed. In these situations it may be helpful to give a little toot to let other people know you are there (at night your lights will warn others of your presence). If your car is out of control you may need to sound your horn to warn people but I hope this is a very very rare occurrence. It may also be necessary to sound the horn if you feel that another road user seems to be heading into your path because they seem unaware of your presence (perhaps a vehicle reversing towards you or a pedestrian who is looking at their phone and not you). Always bear in mind though that if you have the option of moving out the way that might be a better plan for all.

*It is very much discouraged that you “wave” someone across the road or in some way tell others what to do – this is primarily a matter of safety (you cannot guarantee that you have seen the full picture and you do not know what the other road user is thinking and therefore you don’t know if what you’re encouraging is a good plan), it’s also a matter of autonomy (the other road user needs to be responsible for themselves and make their own mind up about what they should do. You don’t want to rush them or pressurise them)

Windscreen demisters

If seeing is crucial then it is as important to keep the inside of the windscreen clear just as the outside. For this your car will have demisters – if they are not working effectively you may have to use a cloth to wipe off the condensation that forms.

The controls for demisters in my car are buttons to be pressed, in some vehicles you need to select positions on a dial. Once again your trusty car manual will tell you how if you don’t want to have to use trial and error.

anything else?

Car manufacturers are continually coming up with improvements and additions to the driving experience, many are related to safety, others are about comfort. When you get a new car it is your responsibility to find out about its various features and use them correctly.

It is not only important to know how and when to use them but also to be able to identify when something goes wrong. The most likely way you will know if something is “wrong” is through a warning light on the driver’s display. Any red warning lights required immediate attention and you should cease driving the vehicle until it is fixed. Battery, oil and brake warnings are the most common. Amber / orange warning lights are normally less time-sensitive – you can keep driving for a while whilst you arrange for it to be taken to a garage and looked at. Anti-lock braking, steering and engine management warnings are common. Our car handbook will you show you what the various symbols mean and what you need to do.