Manual or Automatic: Which Makes for Safer Driving?

Reader Andrew writes: “We have two cars, both with manual transmissions and have two teenage daughters that had little choice but to learn how to drive with the stick shift. There was some grumbling from the teenagers and some specific concerns from my wife about how the clutch might survive. But in the end, they both learned how to drive stick and I think they are safer drivers because of the manual transmission. This is extension of one of your main points of the book — the more driving-related things that demand your attention, the more carefully you drive. You learn to pay much more attention to the car itself through awareness of RPMs (both through the gauge and aurally).”

Andrew’s comments struck a chord, because while researching the book I had looked in vain for some definitive answer to the whole manual/automatic debate. Indeed, my editor, a manual advocate, had egged me on in this regard. But alas, it seems to be one of those enduring “mysteries” of driving, beyond easy research (if anyone knows of anything please advise). John Groeger, author of Understanding Driving has done some cognitive psychology work on “automatic” behaviors, like shifting — his argument was that any task, however, seemingly minor, is never purely automatic.

There are arguments both ways. As Andrew suggests, shifting provides a better sense of engagement with the vehicle and feedback with the road and driving environment (it has also, of course, been more fuel efficient, though the gulf seems to be disappearing). The very necessity of shifting would seemingly prevent the driver from engaging in as many non-driving tasks (though I’ve talked to many people who say that’s simply not the case, citing people quite regularly talk on a hand-held cell phone while shifting with one hand and simply not gripping the steering wheel for a moment). On the other hand, if every action like shifting requires cognitive workload, then stripping out the task of repetitive shifting would seemingly free resources, leaving the driver with spare capacity to look out for hazards, etc. (in an ideal world, mind you).

I tend to instinctively side with the manual shifters — on the idea that a more engaged driver is a better driver — though, ironically, I drive an automatic. So maybe it’s a moot debate. As to which is safer, I suspect it all comes down to the individual driver more than the shifting system. Many European countries where manual shifting is still more prevalent do have superior traffic safety records to the U.S., but there are so many differing variables (driver demographics, driving environment, etc.) that it would be well-nigh impossible to sift out shifting as any kind of prime mover. Even looking at crash records of manual versus automatic cars would be murky (e.g., do different types of people drive each type of car, are they driven in different sorts of places, are the types of cars in each case similar, etc.). So I remain on the sidelines. How do you all feel out there? Any militant manual trans types? Any automatic partisans? Anyone know of any real research?

This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 7th, 2009 at 8:36 am and is filed under Cars, Drivers, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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January 2009

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