When to Shift to Neutral

When to Shift to Neutral

Last Updated June 12, 2023 | Meghan Drummond

Neutral gear isn’t really a gear at all. It’s the stage where no gear is engaged. Though cars with manual transmissions need neutral to start their car, many drivers with automatic transmissions are at a loss as to what exactly neutral "gear" is good for.

While your car is in neutral, the engine and wheels can turn independently of each other. That means your gas pedal will have no effect on the wheel axles. There are a few practical benefits of having this ability, but it’s also been dangerously misused.

A gear shifter in an automatic transmission vehicle

Don’t Drive in Neutral

Neutral isn’t even a gear, so it’s definitely not a driving gear. Somehow a rumor got started that your car would save gas if you put it in neutral and coasted downhill. This is not only inaccurate, but it’s also incredibly dangerous.

With modern vehicles, if you’re not accelerating, your engine already has cut off fuel consumption and you’re not wasting any fuel while you coast. All you have to do to stop fuel consumption is take your foot off of the gas pedal. That means that shifting to neutral does not save fuel. There are ways of improving your fuel efficiency so you can squeeze a few more miles out of every gallon, but the savings don't add up on this solution.

Your car isn't intended to drive in a "non-driving" gear, and being able to react quickly to unexpected situations is invaluable.

"Shifting to neutral does not save fuel"

Trying to drive in neutral is dangerous because while your car is in neutral you can’t operate the gas pedal and you'll be relying purely on braking to modulate speed. You lose nothing by staying in drive and gain additional control in the event of the unexpected.

It’s also not a good idea to switch your car into neutral at red lights. Your car will always roll downhill in neutral, and you won't be able to react as quickly if you need to shift before you touch the gas. Your best-case scenario is that you’ve done something pointless, your worst-case scenario is that you’ll inadvertently cause an accident by coasting backward into someone.

A hand shifting an automatic transmission car to neutral

Use Neutral When Your Car’s Stuck

If you’ve ever gotten stuck in the snow and needed to push your car out of a drift, neutral gear is best for that. Since the wheel axles can rotate unimpeded, the car is easier to push than if it were in drive.

If you need to be towed and the vehicle towing you doesn’t have a dolly, that is also a good time to shift to neutral. Essentially, neutral gear can be used to get your car out of a jam, whether that involves friends and pushing or getting your buddy with a winch to give you a helping hand.

Use Neutral When Your Gas or Brake Pedal isn’t Working

Few things are more terrifying than your gas pedal getting stuck or your brakes failing while you’re driving. Unintended acceleration, in particular, seems to be a perennial boogeyman and fear of drivers.

While in neutral, your car is still able to coast. By shifting to neutral, you can coast your car to a safe location since you’ll still have control over the steering wheel.

Despite neutral existing as one of the more useful "just in case" safety precautions in an automatic transmission vehicle, very few people know how to correctly use neutral and aren’t able to take advantage of the safety benefits it offers.

Hopefully, you now understand the purpose of neutral and will be able to use it in the event that your throttle or brake get stuck while driving. Keeping a cool head and knowing what to do can help you avoid an accident in spite of mechanical failures.

This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.