There’s no dispute that cars are safer than ever. Yet after decades of decline, traffic fatalities are now rising with the tally including vehicle occupants, pedestrians, and cyclists. Contrary to common terminology, vehicle crashes are no accident. Except for a few errant Teslas, cars don’t crash themselves. Driver error is a factor in almost every crash. So why are crash rates up and what should the parent of a new driver do to better prepare their kids?
The problem is two-fold, beginning with distracted driving. Our phones have such a hold on us that the majority of drivers are distracted at least some of the time. Additionally, with the complex infotainment systems in new vehicles, simple tasks like adjusting the climate control or changing a channel requires taking your eyes off the road.
The second issue is the inadequate driver training in the US. Unlike in many European countries, we don’t teach car control. When a new driver hydroplanes or skids on hard packed snow, or even has to emergency brake or swerve, they have no experience with handling those situations. Stability control and ABS can only do so much. Also, most drivers are clueless as to what is going on with their own car, never mind those around them and the potential hazards ahead. Situational awareness and lane discipline are completely lost on most drivers. Our high-tech cars and gadgets have isolated drivers from the act of driving.
To make better drivers I have two suggestions. The first is to enroll your child in a comprehensive defensive driving school program. The potentially life-saving skills taught in these programs far exceed those available in a basic program and are definitely worth the financial investment. Second, have your child drive a manual transmission car, which requires using both hands and thereby reduces the chances that they will be distracted by their phones.
In addition to the standard driving lessons, when my son got his learner’s permit, I enrolled him in the Skip Barber Teen Driving program. The one-day course was not inexpensive, but a heck of a lot less than we spent on ski and music lessons. What he learned in that day was life-changing and far more valuable than what the basic driving school could impart. There are two excellent advanced defensive driver training programs available to Fairfield County families: the Skip Barber Teen Safety and Survival program at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville and the Tire Rack Street Survival at Lime Rock Park and Consumer Reports test facility in Colchester.
When it comes to selecting a car, instead of giving your kids a hand-me-down, oversized SUV, get them a good, late model underpowered car with a manual transmission. There’s a saying: you can’t text while you’re shifting. Which is true. Furthermore, the learned skill of mastering a manual transmission makes drivers more in tune with the vehicle and in my opinion, better drivers.
However, there is more to it than just practicality. There is serious satisfaction from working the three pedals and shifter in perfect choreography. Stick drivers enjoy the sheer act of driving and therefore tend to be more focused on it. There is a higher level of situational awareness when driving a manual, and those lessons and skills will stay with drivers long after that first stick shift car is gone.
Over the last two years, manual trans vehicle sales are up, defying predictions. If you are an enthusiast, or want your offspring to become a better driver, here are some new models that offer three pedals.