There are an increasing number of endangered species in this turbulent world of ours, but none is rushing to extinction faster than the driver who can get from A to B in a stick-shift car. The art of mastering how to navigate through the H-gate is almost completely lost on the latest generation of car buyers. It’s a troublesome and worrying thing.
Today’s story, dear reader, is not a rant about how stick is the purest form of driving and needs preserving at all costs – like some enthusiast magazines who like cars and drivers might banner wave over – this is a thought that maybe, just maybe, it’s safer and better for every road user if we all know how the gears that make the wheels go round ratchet up.
You don’t learn to ride a horse without knowing how the reins work and you don’t sail a boat without understanding the rigging. Yet we see a driving license as a birthright, and it’s an automatic assumption we can drive a car.
If you have a teenager learning to drive right now, wouldn’t you prefer they were taught to be more like the pilot of that mechanical masterpiece rather than the autopilot passenger?
I can still vividly remember riding shotgun with my dad as an 11-year-old boy and being utterly mesmerized by the way his feet could dance across three pedals in perfect synchronization with his left arm pushing and pulling a metal stick. (I was raised in the land of right-hand drive, remember.) I thought there was no way I could ever learn how to so dexterously coordinate my limbs in a way that could ever get me out of the driveway and off into distance.
That skill set seemed like an Olympic task to me, yet a few years later and after many hours of gear crunching and clutch mashing, I walked into a Scottish driving test center and emerged 30 minutes later with a license to thrill. I had cracked that the left hand connected to the gear shift, the left foot connected to clutch pedal and the right foot connected to the other two – ah, dem bones, dem bones.
My concern here is that the way we currently teach our youth how to move a two-ton piece of hardware around our neighborhoods should be based on the fact that driving is a skill of degrees, where you learn the process of what’s going on underneath the hood first. It’s about an appreciation of how the thing works, not just the result of what it does. Perhaps you get a better appreciation of time when you know how the watch works, and so I believe, it is with cars.
A good dose of healthy respect for the mechanicals and developing a one-on-one relationship with them makes for a better, safer and more considerate driver. If your first driving skill is easily being able to go straight to D and have the old girl do all the work, then it makes for very lazy and selfish drivers. A little ability in automotive foreplay, where you learn how to feather the clutch, slickly slip your stick in and out of the gate and then push a little harder on the precious pedal to get her turning over surely makes for a more organic driving experience.
Having gears to play with also means you need to concentrate more, which means less time to text, adjust makeup or daydream about a bathing-suit-clad Kate Upton in outer space.
Think about it, we should require our new drivers to learn on a manual transmission and to pass their test with a stick-shift car and then spent the first year of driving in three-pedal heaven. If we did, then perhaps they would see the car not as a moving clubhouse, where you tweet, text and twerk ’til you get there, but as a tamed beast to treat with respect during the journey.
Those crucial first months are when teen driving accidents happen most. And given that 23-percent of all car accidents – that’s a staggering 1.3 million a year – are texting-related, then doing something else with your hands might just save a few lives. Oh, by the way, that’s how it’s done in most European countries and their accident stats are reassuringly lower than ours.
A part of me thinks that changing our driving ed and testing rules would be welcomed by our learners. After all, they are thrilled to go watch actors work a manual tranny in Fast and Furious 57, or put the gearbox through its paces in the Need for Speed Rivals video game – it’s cool and clever. Surely if you can buy a fake stick shift for your video driving game, why would you not want to learn how to do the real thing?
Getting a driving license by only ever driving automatics is a bit like learning to ride a bike with training wheels on, expect most drivers never take the baby wheels off. It’s time to learn to read the manual. And car companies, please don’t give me the guff about nobody wants manuals, which is why even Ferrari doesn’t offer one anymore. If we mandated licenses linked to stick-shift cars, I can guarantee there would suddenly be plenty of choices on the forecourt.
We just need to get our act in gear. Perhaps the Oval Office should be more concerned with how the next generation get a true driver’s skill set than whether or not to deport Justin Beiber back to Canada. (He’s a person who perfectly examples the “if I have a license, I can drive a Lambo” mentality.) It’s time to buckle up for a manual revival, and not because of an elitist enthusiast agenda but because it will save lives, make our roads safer and, alright, yes, it’s way more fun diving into the gearbox than paddle shifting around the steering wheel.