Save the Manuals

April 1, 2024
We would probably be safer if everyone drove stick

Last month, I was walking my dog along Negley Avenue, a busy road that stretches through four neighborhoods in the east end of Pittsburgh.

Bob, my 6-year-old border collie-mix, stopped to sniff a telephone pole, and I looked up to watch cars as they passed.

That’s when I saw a man reading a book as he drove.

In 2021, distracted driving claimed the lives of 3,522 people in America, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Usually, the distraction is a phone. But a book?

This guy’s head wasn’t even on a swivel. My man was focused on the book, which he held up under the rearview mirror.

“Automatics were a mistake,” I said.

My dog didn’t understand, but I imagine many of you do.

If this clown had been driving a car with a manual transmission, reading a book probably would have been too much of a challenge to try.

The same goes for texting, eating, or recording a video for TikTok.

I know some people will read this and think, “I can drive stick and eat.”

Good for you, buddy. You’re the big winner. For the rest of us, driving a manual forces attention to be paid. Your eyes, hands, and feet are in motion with the vehicle.

You operate the car, and there is a mind meld with the engine. The connection is a feeling, a vibe — human working in unison with machine.

A person driving a manual would be more likely to see a work zone coming, and they would be forced to down shift, decreasing their speed. But we have been moving away from manuals for decades.

In 1980, the year I was born, 34.6% of cars had manual transmissions. In 2000, more than 15% of new and used cars that were sold in the United States were stick shifts. In 2020, that number had dropped to 2.4%.

The “Save the Manuals” online campaign started in 2010, but the effort has failed. There are hundreds of new car models for sale in this country, and only about 30 can come in stick.

When manuals become extinct, we will be stuck with automatics, which are so boring that one man in Pittsburgh thinks he can read a book as he drives.

Boredom is one of the root causes of the distracted drivers crisis. Automatics are so easy to operate that people forget how dangerous it is to drive a car.

So, as the engine shifts itself, the bored driver looks for a new form of stimulation by chaning the song or podcast, or reading the text message they just received.

It’s not an age thing, either. I’ve seen older drivers on their phones, too. And this level of boredom puts us all at risk.

I wish we could save manuals, but we’re headed in the opposite direction with autonomous vehicles. That’s how bored we are by driving.

We’ve chosen convenience over control, and it has cost us safety. RB

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