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.