A few years ago we interviewed Jay Leno and asked the question: Are stick shifts dead? It should come as no surprise that we focused almost entirely on a visceral connection between driver and car and the performance thereof. We discussed somber statistics about the percentage of automatic cars purchased in the United States. AutoPacific pegged that number at 90%. Jay recounted that the launch of the Taurus SHO had less than 3% of its poultry population popping the clutch. Continued development of F1, CVT and eight even nine gear automatic transmissions are pushing manuals even farther off the CAD drawing board. What’s an enthusiast to do?
Fast forward three years and some of our perspectives have changed. I have two kids so safety concerns often out weigh performance pursuits. My kids are already interested in things that make them go fast whether a bike, skateboard or car. My neighbor Jason has two teenagers. His daughter recently got her license and he asked my advice on the purchase of late model VW Bug. We chatted budget before I asked the question I always ask:
“Are you looking for a stick or an automatic?”
“Oh, definitely a stick,” he replied with conviction. “It’s one more way to keep their hands off their phones and out of trouble.”
Damn, there it was. It couldn’t be more obvious. Why didn’t I think of that.
So, it is with great sincerity and a little selfishness that we offer this plea: Manual transmissions may save our children, buy more of them.
In our opinion, we don’t focus enough on driver education. We focus on bumper-car safety regulations in the event of an accident and driver distractions. Both are important but is it enough? The Government Highway Safety Administration, “The States Voice on Highway Safety” at GHSA.org, lists ten tips to manage distractions while driving:
- Turn it off. Turn your phone off or switch to silent mode before you get in the car.
- Spread the word. Set up a special message to tell callers that you are driving and you’ll get back to them as soon as possible, or sign up for a service that offers this.
- Pull over. If you need to make a call, pull over to a safe area first.
- Use your passengers. Ask a passenger to make the call for you.
- X the Text. Don’t ever text and drive, surf the web or read your email while driving. It is dangerous and against the law in most states.
- Know the law. Familiarize yourself with state and local laws before you get in the car. Some states and localities prohibit the use of hand held cell phones.
- Prepare. Review maps and directions before you start to drive. If you need help when you are on the road, ask a passenger to help or pull over to a safe location to review the map/directions again.
- Secure your pets. Pets can be a big distraction in the car. Always secure your pets properly before you start to drive.
- Keep the kids safe. Pull over to a safe location to address situations with your children in the car.
- Focus on the task at hand. Refrain from smoking, eating, drinking, reading and any other activity that takes your mind and eyes off the road.
We offer number 11. Drive a manual transmission.
Only nine states have a handheld ban on cell phone use. Novice drivers, typically under the age of 18, get targeted in 21 additional states and need to put down the phone or face the gumballs. The state bans against text messaging are more encouraging. Thirty-five states in total have excluded you from legally texting your friend you’ll be there in five minutes. At the time of writing this article the administration is considering a nation-wide vehicle cell phone ban. But we maintain the issue needs to be fought from more angles. Because one thing we Americans know how to do is angle. Angle our way through stop signs when no one is looking. Angle the speedometer slightly higher than posted limits. But worst of all, angle our eyes at our phones and windshield at the same time while keeping another eye out for cops.
Education, laws and technology all help to improve safety and save lives. And while we might argue lane departure warning systems give the angler a false sense of security to spend more time focused on their phone, we believe the system works. Let’s face it though, the government isn’t going to ban reading, writing, reaching, picking, poking, pulling, jamming, dancing, waving, pointing, eating, drinking and whatever else it is you do in a car. And believe us, we don’t want to know. But then in comes the stick shift. The standard. The manual. Three-on-the-tree. Four-on-the-floor. Five-or-six-take-your-pick. With one hand on the wheel and the other grabbing gears, chances are strong you’ll throw everything else down so you can shift up. We can’t think of a better way to get drivers engaged, cut down distractions and make people appreciate the power and responsibility of wielding around nearly two tons of metal, glass and rubber.
In the 1950s our parents and grandparents discovered the luxury of the automatic transmission, as Oldsmobile was the first manufacture to offer one in mass production called the Hydramatic. It followed suit that luxury and automotive status were attributed to couch potato driving in a “smarter” car. Consequently parents never taught their children to drive a stick. And their children passed a lack of knowledge to their children and so on and so on. We believe stick shifts are here to stay for the enthusiast. But we hope that driving them for safety and engaged driving becomes the primary message. I know a decade from now my kids will be driving manuals in an effort to keep them as safe as possible. I only hope that there are more Jasons out there who are willing to reverse the passive driving trend and educate teenagers about the privilege of being behind the wheel.
To my neighbor Jason, thank you for inspiring this story.