Controlling your vehicle

Controlling your vehicle

Before you start driving your vehicle, make sure that you understand what the gauges, indicators and warning lights on the instrument panel mean. If you’re not sure about any of them, check your vehicle handbook.

Warning lights

The warning lights let you know when there’s a problem with your vehicle. Knowing what these lights mean and what to do when they are lit will help you protect the engine and other equipment from damage.

The lights will vary from one vehicle to another but these are the most common ones

  • oil pressure
  • ignition
  • ABS (anti-lock braking system)
  • brake condition
  • water temperature.

Some vehicles have on-board diagnostic systems that tell you when there’s a problem with your car. They differ from one car to another. Check your vehicle handbook to find out more about the diagnostic systems in your car.

Starting your car

Different vehicles have different ways of starting the engine. Look at the vehicle handbook to make sure you know how your car starts.

Most modern cars are fitted with anti-theft devices such as steering column locks and immobilisers. These are usually turned off when you unlock the car or when you put the key in the ignition.

Cars with petrol engines have a choke: this reduces the amount of air in the air/fuel mixture that goes into the engine, which helps to start the engine when it’s cold. Modern cars usually have an automatic choke, but older cars may have a manual choke. Check the vehicle handbook if you’re not sure how to use this.

Cars with diesel engines may have a preheating device to help start the engine: if there’s an indicator light, you should only start the car when it goes out.

When you’re about to move off, it’s vital to check all around you to make sure it’s safe to go. Use your mirrors and look all around you to see what other road users are doing and to check the road.

Although your mirrors help you see around the car, there are blind spots your mirrors can’t reach. You must turn and look behind you before you move off to check these areas.

Mirrors – Signal – Manoeuvre

Whenever you move off, use the Mirrors – Signal – Manoeuvre (MSM) routine to keep you and other road users safe.

  • Use your mirrors to check around you.
  • When you’ve decided it’s safe to move off, signal to other road users what you’re going to do, eg turn on your indicators to show you’re going to pull out.
  • Manoeuvre your vehicle onto the road.

Using the gears and brakes

If you’re driving an automatic vehicle, make sure you put your foot on the footbrake before you select ‘drive’ otherwise you’ll stall the engine.

Put your car into gear so you can move off when it’s safe to do so. When you’re ready to go, check the road ahead and behind you again before moving off slowly.

To keep full control of your car when moving off, you’ll need to know where the biting point of the clutch is: this is the point at which the car begins to move. The biting point differs from car to car so when you’re driving a car for the first time, practise finding the biting point before you move off.

Parking brakes differ from one car to another: make sure you know how to release the parking brake. Check the vehicle handbook if you’re not sure.

Dry steering

When you’re manoeuvring, be careful not to turn the steering wheel when the car isn’t moving: this is called dry steering and it can cause

  • damage to the tyres
  • wear in the steering mechanism.

Checking the controls

As soon as possible after you set off, check the controls in your car are working correctly.

  • Turn the steering wheel to check power-assisted steering is working.
  • Choose a safe spot on the road to test your brakes.

Slowing down and stopping your car in a controlled way is vital for good driving: it reduces wear and tear on your car, saves fuel and keeps you and other road users safe.

The distance your vehicle will take to stop depends mainly on how fast you’re going and the road and weather conditions.

  • The faster you’re going, the longer it takes to stop.
  • It takes longer to stop in wet or icy conditions.

The stopping distance is made up of two parts

  • thinking distance – the distance you travel from when you decide to brake to when you start braking
  • braking distance – the distance you travel from when you start braking until your car stops completely.

Check the typical stopping distances in The Highway Code.

Use our stopping distances game to test what you know about stopping distances.

Anticipating the need to brake will help you brake smoothly and safely: watch out for things around you that you might need to brake for, such as pedestrian crossings or cars pulling out of junctions.

Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) can help you brake safely and effectively by helping to prevent skidding but they won’t shorten your stopping distance.


Whenever you park, make sure the place you choose is

  • safe – eg could it cause an accident by being too close to a junction?
  • convenient – you’re more likely to cause damage, either to your car or someone else’s, if it’s an awkward spot
  • legal – check The Highway Code for more information on parking rules.

When you’ve parked the car, you must turn off

  • the headlights
  • the fog lights (if fitted)
  • the engine.

If you’re parking at night on a road where the speed limit is more than 30 mph, you must leave the parking lights on.

Reverse parking

Reversing into a parking space makes your car more manoeuvrable but make sure you check all around you while you’re reversing.

It’s often a good idea to reverse into a space in a car park: this will give you a better view when you drive away, especially if you have passengers in the back of the car.

Sometimes it’s possible to ‘pull through’ one car parking space into a space on the next row so you’re facing forwards ready for when you drive away. If you do this, be careful to make sure another driver isn’t planning to turn into that space from the next row.

Parking on a hill

When you’re parking on a hill, you can use the wheels and the engine to make sure the car can’t roll away in case the parking brake fails.

  • Turn the wheels slightly towards the kerb: if the car rolls, it will steer into the kerb and stop.
  • Leave the car in gear: if the parking brake fails, the engine should stop the wheels turning. (This only applies to a car with manual gears.)

Getting out of the car

Make sure that you and your passengers check before opening the car doors. Watch out for other road users, particularly cyclists and motorcyclists, when opening a door on to the road, and for pedestrians when opening a door on to the pavement.

Before you set off, make sure you know what the dashboard warning lights in your car mean: check your vehicle handbook and see the instrument panel section for more information.

Make sure you know where to find the switches and controls you’re likely to need while you’re driving such as the controls for the windscreen washers and wipers, demisters, indicators and headlights. You’ll need to be able to use these without losing control of the vehicle while it’s moving. Look in your vehicle handbook if you’re not sure where to find any of the controls.


Using dipped headlights

Use dipped headlights

  • at night
  • whenever the light is poor, even during the day, to make your vehicle more visible to others – eg in rain, drizzle or mist.

Fog lights

Only use fog lights when visibility is reduced to 100 metres (328 feet) or less. You must not use fog lights at any other time because they can dazzle other drivers.

Flat and convex mirrors

Most interior mirrors and some exterior mirrors are made of flat glass: flat mirrors give a ‘true’ reflection of what is going on behind you.

Many exterior mirrors have convex glass: this means it is slightly curved so it gives a wider field of vision. However, this also makes it harder for you to judge the speed and position of vehicles in the mirror. A car behind you will look smaller in a convex mirror so it could be closer to you than you think.

Changes to road and weather conditions

The road surface and the weather can change while you’re driving so you may need to change controls in your car or change how you’re driving in response. For example, if it starts raining, the road surface will be more slippery so you’ll need to increase your distance from the vehicle in front and reduce your speed as well as turning on your windscreen wipers and possibly your headlights. If the weather changes from being cloudy to very sunny, you might need to pull down the sun visor and/or put on sunglasses.

Always try to use the accelerator smoothly and steadily. This will

  • reduce fuel consumption
  • reduce wear and tear on your car
  • make your driving safer
  • reduce the amount of damage your car does to the environment.

Make sure the driving seat is adjusted so you can use the pedals easily and comfortably. If you’re too far from the pedals, you won’t be able to press the accelerator pedal smoothly.

Be careful not to over-rev your engine when moving away (ie don’t press the accelerator more than is needed to make the car move) or when your car is stationary because this will waste fuel and make it harder to control your vehicle.

Using cruise control, if it’s fitted on your vehicle, can help to save fuel because it keeps your speed steady. Only use cruise control if you can travel at a steady speed for a long period, eg on a clear motorway. Check your vehicle handbook for details on how to use cruise control.

Using the gears

Most modern cars have five or six forward gears; older cars may have fewer gears. The speed at which you’ll be travelling when you’ll need to change from one gear to another will vary depending on the number of gears in the vehicle and how they’re configured.

The way the gears are arranged on the gear lever varies from one car to another: make sure you know how the gears are arranged, including how to put the car into reverse, before you move off.

Choosing the wrong gear can

  • make the car accelerate too slowly or too quickly
  • make it difficult to control the car effectively
  • increase fuel consumption and wear and tear on the car.

Travelling in the highest suitable gear will help you save fuel and reduce wear on the engine.

You don’t always need to use all gears when you’re changing up or down. Missing out gears – sometimes called selective changing or block changing – can give you more time to concentrate on the road and allows you to keep your hands on the steering wheel for longer.

When you’re braking and changing down gears, it’s best to brake to the speed you need to go and then change down into the appropriate gear so you may be able to miss one or more gears.

You can also use selective changing when you’re changing up gears, but be careful not to accelerate too fiercely or for too long in the lower gears.

Driving on hills

Use the gears to help your car drive efficiently when you’re going up or down hills, especially if your car is loaded.

When you’re driving uphill, change down to a lower gear to avoid the engine struggling to give enough power.

Driving downhill, you can use a lower gear to increase the effect of engine braking and reduce the risk of overheating the brakes.

It’s a good idea to leave your vehicle in gear when you park, especially when parking on a hill. If the parking brake fails, the engine should stop the wheels turning. (This only applies to a car with manual gears.)


Good use of the steering wheel is essential for keeping your vehicle under control. Keep both hands on the wheel unless you’re changing gear or working another control with one hand, and put that hand back on the wheel as soon as you can.

Don’t rest your arm on the door because this restricts your movement and therefore your control of the steering wheel.

Grip the wheel firmly but not too tightly: you should be able to turn the wheel easily when the vehicle is moving.

The steering lock is the angle through which the front wheels turn when you turn the steering wheel. The further the wheels turn to the left or right, the smaller the turning circle of the vehicle. Usually smaller vehicles have a smaller turning circle than larger ones.


Being able to manoeuvre your car accurately is an important part of driving: you never know when you might need to turn the car around, and you may have limited space in which to do it.

Before you start to manoeuvre your car, you need to check it’s

  • safe – eg is there enough room; can you see where you’re going?
  • legal – there are rules about where some manoeuvres can be carried out, such as reversing around corners: check The Highway Code for details
  • convenient – other road users shouldn’t have to slow down or change course to avoid you.

You’ll also need to check that you can control your vehicle – for example, if you’re reversing downhill, are you confident you can keep the car under control?

Always use the Observation – Signal – Manoeuvre/Position – Speed – Look routine to make sure you can manoeuvre safely.

  • Observation: use your mirrors and look behind you to check blind spots.
  • Signal: give a signal if it will help other road users understand what you’re doing.
  • Manoeuvre: carry out the manoeuvre using Position – Speed – Look
    • Position: move into the correct position on the road in good time to make the manoeuvre.
    • Speed: adjust your speed so you can make the manoeuvre safely.
    • Look: keep looking ahead and around you for possible dangers such as other road users or pedestrians.

If you have reversing aids such as camera systems or proximity sensors, you’ll still need to check all around you before and during a manoeuvre: these aids can add to, but not replace, your normal checks.

While you’re manoeuvring, avoid using the accelerator, brakes and steering suddenly or harshly because this will make it difficult to carry out the manoeuvre correctly and you could end up getting in the way of other road users.

The manoeuvres you should know are

  • reversing into a side road on the left
  • reversing into a side road on the right
  • U-turn
  • turn in the road
  • reverse parking (see more about this above in the Stopping and parking section.

If you’re unsure about how to do any of these manoeuvres, speak to your driving instructor or take a look at The Official DVSA Guide to Driving – the essential skills.

Never make a U-turn

  • on a motorway
  • in a one-way street
  • where there’s a ‘no U-turn’ road sign.

Controlling your vehicle

Don’t reverse your car further than is necessary: it’s difficult to see where you’re going and, while it makes your car more manoeuvrable, the fact that your steering has a greater effect makes it easier to get into difficulties.

Avoid coasting: this is when your car is moving but it’s not being driven by the engine – either when the clutch pedal is held down or the gear lever is in neutral. If your car is coasting you have less control over it; doing this while you’re travelling downhill will mean you’ll quickly pick up speed, and you’ll then need to brake harder than should have been necessary.


Skidding is caused by the driver trying to go too fast for the amount of grip the tyres have on the road. Skids happen when you change speed or direction so suddenly your tyres can’t keep their grip on the road.

The three factors that cause a skid are

To avoid skidding,

  • don’t accelerate suddenly or harshly
  • don’t brake harshly
  • don’t brake while cornering
  • watch out for slippery road surfaces and keep your speed down if you think the road is slippery
  • use engine braking as well as the brakes to slow the vehicle down
  • keep your vehicle in good condition – brakes that are in poor condition can snatch or pull unevenly, which can cause skidding.

If your car begins to skid,

  • release the brake pedal – braking makes a skid worse
  • turn the steering wheel in the same direction as the skid and ease off the accelerator to bring the wheels back into line.

If the front wheels are sliding, release the accelerator and don’t try to steer until the wheels begin to grip the road again.

Different vehicles will react differently when there’s a risk of skidding, depending on whether they’re front- or rear-wheel drive, and on the systems fitted to the car, such as anti-lock brakes (ABS) or electronic stability control/programme (ESC or ESP). Check the vehicle handbook to find out how these will affect the risk of skidding.

Engine braking can be useful when you’re driving in slippery conditions because the car is less likely to skid under engine braking than when using the brake pedal. Change down the gears in plenty of time but be careful with the accelerator and clutch, particularly in very slippery conditions, because these can cause skids too.

Before you tow a trailer or caravan, check your licence allows you to do this.

For more information about the licence rules for towing with a car, see GOV.UK.

Remember to check your insurance policy before towing: not all policies will cover it.

If you need to use a recovery service while towing, check whether it can recover a trailer or caravan. It’s a good idea to carry a spare wheel for your trailer or caravan and other equipment so that you can make minor repairs if necessary.

Use your vehicle handbook to check the maximum size and noseweight of trailer or caravan that your car can safely tow and how to attach a trailer or caravan to it. It’s important to follow these recommendations otherwise you could damage your vehicle or cause an accident.

Coupling and uncoupling a trailer or caravan

Take care to couple the caravan or trailer to your vehicle correctly, following the instructions in the vehicle handbook. Before you set off, check

  • the trailer or caravan is loaded correctly, with the right noseweight on the tow bar
  • the breakaway cable or secondary coupling is properly connected
  • the lights and indicators are connected and working properly
  • the jockey wheel and assembly is fully retracted and stowed
  • the braking system is working correctly
  • all windows and doors are closed
  • the tyre pressures are correct, the tyres are the correct sort and in good condition
  • any fuel supplies, such as liquid gas cylinders, are secured and turned off.

When you’re uncoupling the trailer, lower the jockey wheel and corner steadies then disconnect all the connections.

Driving with a trailer or caravan

Towing a trailer or caravan will create extra blind spots around your vehicle. Make sure that you check carefully all around you before manoeuvring your vehicle. You may not be able to use your interior mirror so fit side mirrors with extended arms to help you see past the caravan or trailer.

There’s a lower national speed limit for all vehicles towing trailers

  • on a dual carriageway or motorway, maximum speed 60 mph (96 km/h)
  • on a single carriageway, maximum speed 50 mph (80 km/h).

If there are three or more lanes on a motorway, you mustn’t drive a vehicle towing a trailer in the right-hand lane.

Towing a trailer or caravan will change the way a vehicle handles. You’ll need to

  • allow more time for braking
  • give yourself three times the normal distance and time to overtake safely
  • allow for the extra vehicle length, particularly when turning or emerging at junctions – you might need to take a different position on the road to give you enough space to turn.

If you use your brakes too heavily, eg when going downhill, your vehicle may suffer brake fade – a loss of braking power caused by the brakes getting too hot. To help avoid brake fade

  • change to a lower gear
  • use engine braking to slow the car
  • don’t allow the car to coast.

‘Snaking’ is when the trailer begins to swerve from side to side while you’re driving. If this happens,

  • ease off the accelerator slowly
  • reduce your speed gradually until the snaking stops.

Reversing with a trailer takes particular care because the trailer can move in a different direction to the one you’d expect. You can get detailed guidance on reversing from caravanning organisations. If you can, practise reversing in a quiet car park.

Remember that your caravan may be higher or wider than your car: check whether there are any height or width restrictions on your route.