#20: Clutching at Stoplights

Today’s question for Dr. Buzz and his panel of experts comes from Peter M. in NYC:

I’m a new rider–when stopped at a light, is it ok to leave the scooter in 1st gear and idle or always return to neutral when at a stop??

Dr. Buzz: WIth a question like this, my first step is always to consult the bible of motorcycle riding technique, David L. Hough’s Proficient Motorcycling. When that fails me (which is rare), I check More Proficient Motorcycling. In this case, a brief flip through both didn’t provide an answer. Surely Hough’s newer Street Strategies could help, but I don’t have it.

Also, this is the kind of question that would be answered by taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, which every scooterist should take before facing the mean streets. But I’m shamed to admit that never got around to that. I know what I do, but I’d never presume to insist I’m right until I’ve consulted the experts.

So I turned to the web. And found that your question stirs up a bit of controversy.

It seems most riders (at least on the Harley and sportbike threads I’ve found, for what they’re worth) argue that keeping it in gear allow you a ‘quick getaway’ if a car behind you threatens to rear-end you or anarchy breaks out in the intersection.

A minority feel that shifting to neutral relieves your clutch hand, and also that being in neutral prevents an accidental release of the clutch that could launch you into the intersection (or car in front of you) or stall your bike. They argue you can get into gear quickly enough.

I’d trust MSF above anonymous Harley riders anyday, so I checked MSF’s site and their PDFs and didn’t see any clear instructions. Personally, the first argument seems a bit overly paranoid, and the second argument seems to make more sense to me. But in practice, I vary between the two. If I know I’m going to be at the light for a while, I’ll definitely shift to N. If it’s a stop sign or a light I suspect is about to change, I won’t bother.

I’d love to hear what our commenters have to say, especially if they have MSF experience. I just asked Mrs. Dr. Buzz and she claims her MSF instructor told her to stay in gear, and then we got in an argument about it. Thanks a lot, Peter M.

Do you have a question for our so-called experts? Email Dr. Buzz! Your confidentiality is guaranteed.

Note: Dr. Buzz is an unlicensed, mostly-fictional doctor. Take his advice, and that of his team of experts, with a grain of salt.

12 thoughts on “#20: Clutching at Stoplights”

  1. Not a problem with a normal modern scooter.

    That said cagers often don’t see you I have ridden in the meat wagon because of that. That hit was a T-bone Two days in the hospital concussion the shoulder never healed and so on. This has happened to many others. I have been struck from behind at a stop light no injures and just needed to replace the rear fender. It happened when I was trying to turn right on red and so was the car behind me. I was watching for cross traffic and so was she.

    Both times young drivers. I would not shift out of first until there is a cage stopped behind me. YMMV

    Mike in Flossmoor

  2. I was having a cocktail with Dr. VanDerHook this morning and he said that it’s all situationalist (excuse his word choice as English is not his first language). He said that one should have their eyes peeled for the timing of the lights as well as traffic from all sides. If the light indicates a quick change (from previous experience or by walk/don’t walk indicators), then it makes little sense to go into neutral if you are about to go again. If you are traveling on a small street that crosses a major thoroughfare that would likely be a long wait, it makes sense to relax the clutch hand. If one feels the traffic you are driving in is so dangerous that shifting into neutral is taking your life in your hands and risking it on a game of Hul Gul, he’d suggest walking or an automatic clutch vehicle.

  3. I thought I once read somewhere that extended periods of clutching can cause wear on the throwout bearing (but that was in manual shift cars). Any thoughts?

  4. I was thinking about mentioning that, SWF, but here was my reasoning:

    HOLDING THE CLUTCH would put marginally more stress on the clutch plates and cable, but

    SITTING IN NEUTRAL would cause a little more wear and tear on the transmission and shift cables

    I think the impact in both cases would be pretty negligible over usual wear, even over time, and they balance each other out, so I didn’t even bring it up, or we’d end up talking about getting flat spots on your tires from sitting too still at a light.

  5. I don’t think sitting in neutral would have any wear. On a vespa, nothing should be moving any differently than when in gear except the shifting cross isn’t up against any gears. THolding the clutch in will exert a force on the pressure plate and cause more rapid wear. But I’m not sure how that adds up over time in relation to stop light use.

  6. Sitting in neutral doesn’t cause wear, it’s the engagement of first gear while at a dead stop that causes wear. That loud clunk and surge forward during engagement comes at a price.

    Holding both brakes down while engaging first gear helps, for the same reason holding the brake when shifting from park (or neutral) into gear is recommended when shifting the automatic transmission in a car.

    When you shift down to first gear at a slow road speed, the gear speed and road speed are closely matched or often perfectly matched, minimizing or eliminating the impact of the gears coming together. A perfect sync condition like that can’t happen once the bike is stationary, because there is no way to match zero road speed with the speed of a running engine .

    This is the same benefit as double-clutching, but you’re achieving the gear and road speed match by timing your shift into first right before you stop (instead of having to rev the engine as you do in higher gears, though you could do that if you wanted to shift into first at an unusually high road speed).

    If you are weighing the costs of transmission and shift cable wear against transmission wear, opt to wear your clutch. It’s considered a wear item and is fairly cheap to replace; your transmission isn’t.

  7. Hi,

    I’m no expert, but I do commute regularly to DC from suburban Maryland on a PX, and have thought about this issue many times while sitting in traffic.

    As one of the prior posters suggested, I downshift with the clutch pulled in as speed decreases, for example when approaching a stop, so that the gear is appropriate for the current speed of the scooter. So I roll to a stop in first gear, with the clutch pulled in. At that point, it seems possible to shift between first gear and neutral and back without any of the characteristic cruciform “clunk” which occurs if you go from higher gears to neutral to frist gear.

    When I was just learning to ride, I found this article, which I’m sure is familiar to many 2strokebuzz readers and which some kind folks on Modern Vespa pointed out to me, very helpful as it explained the “clunk”: http://www.bajajusa.com/Gentle%20art%20of%20shifting.htm

    Also, when taking the MSF course in Maryland, we were taught to always stay in gear at a stop, for the reasons cited above, namely to be able to pull away quickly in an emergency. I have come to disregard that advice on my regular commute. I figure wearing a high-viz vest is better protection against being rear-ended than scooting into an intersection filled with traffic.



  8. of no expert opinion here, but this is how i roll:

    first is familiarity with the light. as a lot of us in urban areas know, light times can range from seconds to minutes, so application of holding in the clutch or dropping into neutral depends largely on wait time.

    if i’m rolling into a light that i have seen turn red, i generally drop into neutral. adjust, stretch, whatever, all while keeping an eye on the moving traffics light. once they go to yellow, i go into gear.

    if i’m coming up to a light that i don’t know how long it’s been red, i stay in gear with the clutch pulled in.

    if only we had lights like in europe where you get a “yellow” before it turns green….

  9. When I took the MSF, they told me: A. Stay in first gear at a light and B. Motorcycle clutches are to be used, they do not wear like automobile clutches (hence all the friction zone talk and clutch feathering at the beginning). Because of this, I tend to be a ‘stay in gear always’ person unless my hand is really hurting, and then only when as above, with a car of group of riders stopped behind me already.

    With that said, some argument could be made that the ‘in first gear at the light” is a side effect of the MSF mantra of always matching engine and bike speed with downshifting and engine braking (4T only please) along with the desire to keep the time spent with new students hunting for neutral all the time. Additionally, the hand-shifted scooter places your hand on the clutch in order to shift, whereas a bike, with a foot gear selector, it is easier to accidentally engage gears without clutching and dumping the rider.


  10. Reader Tony M from British Columbia emailed Dr. Buzz:

    “Dear Dr. Buzz, a case in point was last years death of a motorcyclist in the city of Victoria B.C.due to having his bike in neutral at a traffic light. As the lights turned red, a large dump truck waited at the front of the line. A motorcyclist seeing an opportunity to get ahead of the crowd, filtered between the line of waiting vehicles and stopped immediately ahead of the dump truck with his bike in neutral, the driver of the truck could not see him. The truck driver anticipated the green as most commercial drivers in the city do, floored it as soon as the light went green and ran over the motorcyclist before he had a chance to get in gear and killed him instantly. I ride a 250cc scooter, but took a motorcycle driving course and we were told NEVER to leave our bikes in neutral at a stop sign or traffic light. Hope this helps, enjoy your articles.”

  11. When I do leave in the clutch and in 1st gear, I also squeeze the front brake hard too. I had a clutch cable break once and almost hit the car in front of me and almost dropped the bike too. Now I prefer to put the bike in nuetral unless I pull up to a red light that has been red for awhile. Then squeeze both levers and wait.

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