There’s a lot of caterwauling going on about kids not being able to drive manual shift gearboxes. I think the focus should be on the skills necessary to drive at all, not what the transmission is.

There will always be a manual shift car around for your kids to drive—if they want to. But the shifter is secondary to just surviving in today’s traffic.

There was an article in The New York Times a couple of years back that provided evidence that kids who learned to drive an automatic first, then a manual, had fewer accidents. That was eye-opening to me. I am old-school and believed that starting a kid out with three pedals was the only choice.

My philosophy has changed. My 15-year-old son Bradley just got his permit. I’ve signed him up for a series of lessons taught by a professional. They will drive our 2021 Hyundai Sonata, which has every available safety feature short of a capsule that ejects the driver from the car on impact and parachutes back to earth.

In the meantime, he and I have been practicing on older cars.

He’s had some three-pedal experience. Three years ago, he spent a few hours behind the wheel of his Bugeye Sprite. We were in an enclosed parking lot, after hours with no one else around.

The Sprite in those circumstances was ideal. Its low gearing made it nearly impossible for him to stall, as you are literally crawling in first gear. He also tried our Alfa Giulia Super, but he simply got going too fast, too quickly.

However, as I became more conscious of how just unsafe the Sprite would be in nearly every traffic situation, I decided to sell the car. Then I suffered my stroke and began the switch to automatics.

While waiting to take his permit test, Bradley spent time driving the Volvo 122S auto, the Jag E-type V12 coupe auto, the SL 55 (auto, of course), and the Hyundai. This was all in non-public, enclosed areas.

He says he’s very much looking forward to driving our automatic 1991 Alfa Spider S4.

The more time we spend driving together, the more I am convinced that driving an auto first, manual second, is the way to go.

We experienced drivers take for granted the hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions we make every time we pull into traffic. (This is part of the reason that truly autonomous cars are receding into the future.)

For a novice driver, there’s enough going on with starting, stopping, turning, and keeping up with traffic without adding the distractions of clutching and declutching and gear selection.

Last week, after Bradley passed his written permit test, we had our first foray onto a public road. It was on a mostly deserted two-lane on Sauvie Island, a nearby location full of parks and farms.

Bradley was busy. Keeping the car centered in his lane was not simple. He liked to hug the right side of the road, and I kept looking down the steep embankment, visualizing the wrecker hauling the Elantra out of the ditch.

Dealing with a car that insisted on following us too closely—yet wouldn’t go around when he slowed and motioned them by—was another challenge.

Making sure Bradley was putting on his turn signals took reminding. Deciding who went first when we came to a four-way stop was interesting.

In short, there’s lots going on out there for a kid who is learning.

I got back behind the wheel for our 30-minute trip home on Highway 30—and was glad I did. By then afternoon had turned to evening and it was getting dark. Traffic was a typical mess, with cars and huge pickups cutting in front of me and following too closely behind. Lane discipline was theoretical.

Bradley knows he will be driving a stick in the future. He has several to choose from, including a trio of Alfas: Junior Zagato, Duetto and Giulia Spider Veloce.

But that driving experience can wait until his daily-driving reflexes have been honed, and he has the extra mental capacity to take on three pedals and a manual gearshift.

As a reader of this blog, chances are you lead a car-centric life, and your kids will as well. Those of us who drive manuals—and teach our kids to—may be diminishing in numbers, but we are not headed to extinction.

I look forward to being a comfortable passenger with my son driving in a modern automatic. Once we have passed that threshold, bring on the five-speed.

 

11 Comments

  1. My daughter explained this to me when she was 16 and had a schedule that meant she needed to have a car. Not only did she want to start with an automatic- she wanted me to find her the ugliest car possible. She did not want me nagging her if it was not vacuumed and washed and waxed every week. An AMC Concours sedan in sick puppy brown was perfect for her

  2. John Gillespie

    Keith, I whole heartedly agree with you about leaning to drive an automatic prior to a manual. When I leaned to drive our family vehicles were a 1966 Ford Galaxie 500 289 V8 automatic and a 1969 Ford F100 360 V8 with a “3 in the tree”. Guess which one my father insisted I master before I could drive the other, that’s right the F100. His teaching me to drive the pickup sure added a lot of strain on our relationship. I think that by allowing me to learn the manual after having acquired all the other basic driving skills would have saved some rather heated exchanges that took place in the cab of that truck. I think in this age of rampant bro-dozers, SUVs and distracted drivers it is all the more imperative to teach basic car control and driving survival skills before getting to the fun stuff that only 3 pedals can deliver. But what do I know? I’m old.

  3. Michael Ingelido

    I agree 100%. Driving in today’s environment for a novice (or lots of others) is tough enough. Having an automatic is just one less thing to complicate/endanger the experience.

  4. C.A.Meschter

    Most kids can’t steal a stick

  5. Agree totally. I learned on a stick because that was all we had when I was nine. We lived in a dirt road trailer park and had a network of roads thru private citrus groves nearby to practice in. By the time I was 14 and could get a permit to drive on public roads, I was already an “expert”. My kids drove go karts and learned on the road in automatics. When they wanted a manual car, I showed them the basics in a very large Catholic Church parking lot near the house. When they were getting it, I told them to come home when they felt they were ready and walked home so I wouldn’t put pressure on them.

  6. I guess I am the odd man out in this crowd. I have two grandchildren turning 16 next spring, and I am acquiring a stick shift car so that they can learn to drive a manual-shift car. The reason is that I expect them to be spending time in Europe and Japan, and in those places manual-shift cars are the norm. In addition, most young people are intimidated about even trying a manual-transmission car. This shouldn’t be. Sure they can learn to drive with an instructor in an automatic. But after that, they should learn stick-shift driving, as young as possible. Why be intimidated by a technique that isn’t really very hard? After all, my mom and my wife’s mom both drove stick-shift cars (and they were decidedly not sporty people–one drove a Chevy Bel Air and the other a VW Beetle). So, how hard can it be? If we want young people to dig old sports cars, they had better be eager, not intimidated, to drive, say, a Fiat 124 Spider or a Triumph TR3 or 4 or 5, or an E-Jag.

  7. My wife and sister-in-law both learned how to drive a manual car from their mother. She felt that learning how to drive a manual first was a better way to better understand how a car worked. Low gear to start, rev the engine and move to higher gears to go faster, downshift to slow down, etc. Push the clutch in to disengage the engine from the gearbox to stop. Basic stuff.

    Now, my sister-in law wants her children to learn the same way and believes that having them engaged with needing to steer and shift gears will make being on a phone to talk or text very difficult.

    Getting the phone out of the hands of kids may be the single best way to save them from having an accident! Driving a car with all the latest safety devices is a close second.

  8. Steve Strojny

    Great job, totatly agree about being confident and competent just driving an automatic. The fun can come later. My Boss 302 Cougar is only a dream away but was the best car years of my life. I know Bradley will have wonderful 3 pedal days ahead. Thanks for all you do.
    Steve

  9. Keith,

    Automatic is the way to start with the kids. Safety is first, second and third on the list of importance. Both my boys were several years into auto-only driving before I even thought about introducing them to the stick. My older son eventually learned the manual on my 2014 BMW 328i, and soon his younger brother will take a turn with my ‘21 MX-5. Thanks for sharing the experience with your son.

  10. Keith your Pro driver will probably tell Bradley “you go where you look” To correct the problem of “hugging the right side of the road, have Bradley pick a spot with his eyes in the middle of the road ahead of him, guide the car towards that spot…..

  11. Great, well thought out advice. The TBird Turbo 5 speed and the Tiger 4 speed are safe from the grandkids for now. That may change at any time!

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