How Different Loads Affect Your Driving

Car with roof rack holding surfboard and luggage

When learning to drive, there's so much to keep track of that you can't possibly be prepared for every kind of scenario you may face on the road. In fact, there are plenty of things you will only learn once you're a fully qualified driver. One of the most common issues that many people only become aware of when their L-plates are firmly in the bin is how it feels to drive with different loads in the car.

Put simply, many freshly qualified drivers are surprised at how different a car can feel when there is more stuff in it. The reality is that travelling with anything heavier than your average-sized instructor in the car can have a significant impact on how you should drive.

If your car feels like it's struggling, it doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't up to the job, but there are a few adjustments you should make to prevent wear and tear on your beloved automobile. The key lies in knowing which gear you should be in when the car starts to feel like it's weighed down. Yes, having a firm handle on that gearstick can prevent damage, reduce emissions and improve your overall fuel economy.

Let's get stuck into the details!

Table of contents

Different types of load

Hitchhiker next to a sunny road

Cars are incredibly convenient because they allow you to transport not just yourself, but plenty of other objects and beings, from one place to another. Indeed, over the course of owning a car, it is likely you will load it up with a variety of different things.

Two rules are important here: never overload your vehicle and always attempt to distribute any extra weight you do carry evenly across the car. This allows you to keep the vehicle stable and should prevent any long-term damage. How to go about following these guidelines depends on the kind of loads you're transporting.

Let's take a moment to cover the most common types of weight your car will have to support.

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Passengers

The most obvious additional weight a car must carry is passengers—be they furry or human friends. Regardless of the amount of hair covering them (we're not here to judge) your car can only carry so many living things. An average car provides five seats for people and a boot that could probably safely accommodate a pet or two. Even when you stick to these numbers, it can make a big difference to the driving experience.

You see, the annoying thing about people and animals is that they're heavy, they rarely keep still and some may even provide a running commentary on how you could improve your driving. Feel free to immediately eject anyone doing the latter (as soon as you've found a safe place to pull over, of course).

When you first get your licence your friends might start pestering you to take them on a road trip, but don't let them treat your car like it's a big tin and they're the sardines. Spend some time getting used to driving with other people in the vehicle. Start by taking one or two people on short journeys and work up from there. If any of your friends kick up a fuss, you can send them off to renew their bus passes.

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Baggage

A pile of old suitcases stacked together

No, not the pent-up emotions that are one Celine Dion ballad away from erupting: we're talking about bags of belongings that you store in your car. You may have memories of childhood holidays in which your parents used to squeeze various bits of luggage into every possible nook and cranny of the car before setting off. This wasn't just so they could play an elaborate packing version of Tetris (though we'll never be sure); it was so that the weight was evenly spread out across the vehicle.

As a car is balanced on four wheels, if a majority of whatever you're transporting is located in one particular corner, it will upset the equilibrium of the mechanics. This will then have a knock on effect on things like steering and braking. You know, the stuff that keeps you in control and thus alive!

While you're at it, make sure any luggage you store in your car isn't blocking your view or sticking out in a hazardous way.

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Roof racks

Some people prefer it if the cargo they need to carry isn't taking up space within the car, and this is when roof racks come in handy. Keep in mind that these nifty gadgets count as a load both when they're empty and in use.

Make sure you obtain some professional advice on how to affix your model of choice to the roof of your car and ensure that any loads are fastened down securely before you set off on a journey.

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What extra weight does to your car

Stopping and starting

You'll find that when your vehicle is carrying more weight than normal, you can actually feel the car having to make more of an effort to move. That's because more weight means more friction between the wheels and the road. The result? You might need to use a bit more acceleration to get the car going and maintain a steady speed.

Not only will it take you slightly longer to set off, it can also lengthen the amount of time it takes you to bring the car to a halt. Think about it: by the time your vehicle is maintaining the desired speed, there's a lot more weight propelling it forward.

So, when your car is loaded up, be extra sensitive in the way you work the brake and accelerator pedals. You should be particularly careful when travelling uphill (more acceleration required) and downhill (more braking required).

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Steering

Steering wheel

Similar to stopping and starting, the force of the load you're carrying will also alter the way the vehicle steers. When turning a corner, be sure to take things slow and steady so you can get a feel for how quickly the car is able to respond to movements on the steering wheel.

You might find that the vehicle takes a little longer to start to turn, but don't make the mistake of oversteering to compensate for this delay. Once it starts changing direction it will also take longer to respond when you straighten up the wheels. Not taking enough care when steering can have serious consequences. If you're carrying a lot of weight in the boot, for instance, the rear of the car may swing out too far and endanger other road users.

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Fuel consumption

Because driving with a heavy load often requires more initial acceleration, you inevitably end up using more fuel. Plus, the effort of hauling all of that extra weight means that the car needs more energy and, in car terms, energy means petrol.

Just think—if you go on a hike loaded up with a heavy rucksack, you're likely to reach for the snacks earlier than you would if you were carrying no weight at all, right? The heavier the load, the more fuel you use up! Cars work in the same way.

One of the most obvious ways to reduce your overall fuel consumption is to ensure you're driving in the correct gear…

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How gears work

Manual gear stick close up

What ties many of the driving issues listed above together? The gears! When you put the car in gear, you're connecting the transmission to the engine, allowing it to send power to the wheels of the car.

Gears control the amount of speed and force that the engine transmits. Lower gears provide a lot of force but less speed, whereas higher gears allow for more speed but less force. That's why driving in 5th gear, for example, doesn't require as much acceleration as when you're driving in 1st gear. Throughout a drive you must decide what kind of power the car requires and use the appropriate gear. (Of course, if you're in an automatic, this will be done for you!)

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Adjusting your driving

Setting off

Driving with a heavy load often means finding that balance between safety and fuel economy. As you become a more experienced driver, you'll be able to hear when a gear change is necessary. If it sounds or indeed feels like the car is struggling to keep moving, you probably need to go down a gear or two.

Because driving with a heavy load requires more force when setting off, you may need to stay in a lower gear for longer than normal, to give the car enough 'oomph' to reach a steady pace.

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Hills

A long road with multiple hills

As we've previously mentioned, having a lot of stuff in your vehicle can have a dragging or pulling effect that will alter how the car starts, stops and steers. It comes as no surprise, then, that when you're driving up or downhill these issues are intensified.

When travelling uphill, you may need to overcompensate for the fact that the load in your car will be pulling it in the opposite direction. You should stay in 1st or 2nd gear (depending on the gradient of the hill) to ensure you have enough force to keep the car moving forward. Be prepared for the fact that you will probably have to use more acceleration.

Driving downhill produces the opposite problem—the added weight will propel the car forward with a stronger force, causing you to travel down the hill at a faster (and possibly dangerous) pace. Even though the issue has reversed, you should still use a lower gear. Not for the force it provides, of course, but because low gears restrict speed. As a result, staying in a low gear when driving downhill means that the engine will actually be helping with the braking, because it limits how fast the car can go.

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Tips to prevent wear and tear when driving with a heavy load

Light bulb surrounded by driving objects

  • Check your car's manual to find out the maximum load it can carry and don't exceed it—overloading the vehicle can cause wear and tear on vital components like the clutch and brake pedals.
  • Increase the air pressure in your tyres before setting off on long journeys.
  • Adjust the aim of your headlights (when a car is weighed down the beam may be tilted higher, which risks dazzling other drivers).
  • Travel light wherever possible and don't leave heavy equipment in your car unless you're going to use it.
  • Make sure the weight of any load you are carrying is distributed evenly across the vehicle.
  • Be prepared for the fact that when travelling with a heavy load the car will burn fuel at a faster rate.
  • When stopping, starting or steering, take things slow and steady and be extra sensitive with the brake and accelerator pedals.
  • When travelling up or downhill, keep the car in a low gear to maximise the amount of control you have over the vehicle.

Not making the correct adjustments could endanger other road users and damage your vehicle. Your car is good to you, so it deserves to be treated with care!