By Cooper Powers
I’ve been driving for almost a decade now, and I’ve learned a lot: Never trust a blinker until the turn is made; keep your tires aired to specification; and, for Heaven’s sake, memorize which side of the car that gas cap is on.
We live in an amazing time of technological innovation where cars have not only become more accommodating, but also safer. However, while these machines only condense the margin for error, the human error in driving still remains. We scarf down burgers, apply makeup, and are less than diplomatic about letting people cut into traffic as they leave Starbucks (because they made the decision to buy a $10 coffee, so they can afford to wait).
But maybe it’s unfair to be critical of drivers themselves. After all, blunder-prone humans are who teach other blunder-prone humans how to drive.
Maybe the issue is not how we are taught to drive, but what we are taught to drive.
Automatic and standard transmissions are both ingenious automotive designs and offer, in my opinion, very different learning styles.
The automatic transmission, a modern marvel of fluid and gear dynamics, is the go-to choice for teenagers to learn on. It only has two pedals; a stop and a go. This makes perfect sense intuitively; teens and novice drivers are still learning the rules of the road, so there is no need to complicate things further, right?
By comparison, the standard transmission must feel like a space station module in terms of complexity. A third pedal with a shifter that must be moved into five (varies by model) different positions? Please, spare my apoplexy for the mocha-latte lane cutter. Yet it is precisely this reason that I argue that learning to drive a standard transmission is better, and ultimately, safer.
The first car I learned to drive was my parent’s 2005 Ford Focus. It was obviously a standard (that’s all we drive in the Powers Family), and I was certainly terrified.
My father shouldered the task of teaching his son to progress down a section of asphalt without it simulating a killer run in an international rodeo (for those who may not know, if you don’t make a concerted effort of both acceleration and clutch release in first gear the car will lurch forward).
Hard liquor for nerves wasn’t available to me during this time, as it would have served as not only a poor example of parental responsibility but also enforced bad inebriated driving habits. Every lesson was one of patience and practice. If I stalled out, I had to master my clutch release. If I grinded the gears, I had to recheck my RPM shift range.
I had no hands to do extraneous things, and I had to stay focused on all the tasks at hand.
Be aware, my tutelage was during the advent of mechanical texting cellphones (think Cingular sliders and the fabled Motorola Razr). Granted, I had no cellphone at the time to distract me—my parents were under the impression that there were still operable payphones on well-lit streets in abundance but most of the spare nickels they shoved at me were spent on Paydays and gum instead. However, most of my friends who drove automatics were a walking PSA about the dangers of texting and driving: Too many texts, too much horsepower, and too little sense.
This relaxed operating style didn’t approach driver’s education with the same gravitas as it should have. Still, after much coaching and practice, I passed all my road tests and felt a great sense of accomplishment. More importantly, I embraced two major qualities while learning to drive stick and they transcend even beyond the road: Self-confidence and patience.
When you’re piloting—in the basest sense—a missile with air conditioning, you must be certain of every action you’re taking. After all, your driver’s license gives photo documentation—that may or may not have been captured on a bad hair day—of your accountability for yourself and other drivers on the road. Nothing is quite as reassuring to your self-confidence as throwing that stick into a gear and knowing that, at any moment, you’re ready to react to whatever happens. I have learned the techniques needed behind the wheel to deal with potential dangerous situations. Much like life, you must believe in yourself and know your limitations, because doing so will reveal any stumbling block or speed bump (pun intended) that must be dealt with astutely. Don’t deal in “what ifs?”. Instead, deal in “what nows?”.
Take it from me, just as driving a standard has built my self-confidence, it has also taught me the importance of patience. I lived with someone who smacked when they chewed their food and left dirty dishes everywhere, all the time. I have been to the edge of madness and found my way back through the abyss. It is not easy to learn patience, especially if you are quick-tempered like I am. It is vital to master though because a single, intemperate mistake could mean disaster or harm in any instance behind the wheel. So, when it is so hot it feels like a convection oven in traffic and the all the stoplights seem to have it out for you and it could be easy to just step on a pedal to cut someone off, remember patience. I remember that I have to make several steps involving gears, clutch, and speed to cut that person off who may be just as hot and frustrated as I am, and that thought tempers me.
Think about taking up a standard transmission. It may make you a more competent driver or may reinforce all the good habits you already have. Sure it will be hard, but someone once said nothing that comes easy is worth having or enjoying. And yes, you may become magnanimous with letting people into your lane. Who knows, maybe that Starbucks patron is someone you know, and they bought a Venti to share in rush hour.