I loved Peter Attia’s recent post on the evidence that manual transmissions might in fact be safer in many circumstances than automatic transmissions. Peter emphasizes that for older people and those in urban driving conditions, automatics might be a better choice, but for most others stick shifts might be safer. As I am sometimes prone to do, I dug into the research myself as I am about 18 months away from having a teen driver in my home. Here are my conclusions, which are similar to Peter’s but with an important twist – for newer (read: teen) drivers, the very act of driving manual might be too distracting which tilts the safety profile back in favor of automatic transmissions.
The Reality of Safe Driving
Let's be honest. While we know what safe driving looks like, few of us really practice it.
We know that a safe driver puts his cell phone out of reach, giving it no attention as they focus intently on the road. This safe driver isn’t at all distracted by fighting kids – all passengers are silent and staring out the window. Yup. The actual reality is far different.
Those cell phones? They are devices DESIGNED to get our attention – text messages, blinking lights, notifications, apps to solve every possible problem…and more. So when that text message comes in, we just want to take a quick glance at it, so we maybe take our eyes off the road….for a second.
Or the kids are fighting in the background, we turn towards a conversation partner in the front seat, and we lose focus again…just for a second. In fairness, it happens to everyone from time to time (or maybe more), and yes it may only be a few seconds. But those seconds add up across a lot of drivers, so it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that there has been a marked increase in traffic fatalities over the last several years, reversing a decades-long trend.
Technology's Role in Driving Safety
To combat this problem, car companies have been investing more and more in taking driving decisions out of our hands. It started decades ago with automatic transmission, but the trend has continued with parking sensors, cruise control, automated lane changes, lane departure warning systems, blind spot monitoring, and more. Car companies seem to have concluded that the answer to the question of safety is "keep taking effort out of people's hands”. But a thorough read of the published studies on the topic may lead to a surprisingly different conclusion: if safety is our primary concern, many of us should go back to the dark ages and start driving a stick shift.
Manual vs. Automatic Transmission: The Pros and Cons
Certainly, driving manual is less safe in some circumstances, particularly when we are in urban areas with lots of stop-and-go traffic and complex decisions. In these situations, we need the quick reaction time and maneuverability that an automatic transmission brings. Elderly people generally benefit from automatic transmissions to compensate for slower reaction times. And when teen drivers are just starting out, the complexity of operating a manual vehicle is itself a distraction. However, once they are more familiar with it, the stick shift gives its most important benefit – it’s much more difficult to text and drive.
The research I did for this article made me rethink the question of what cars we should be driving. While I await the day when the car can do everything, until then, I might switch my car to manual transmission mode (yes, that’s an option on many cars – check it out).
Bonus material on vehicle safety, you should:
Follow the rules of the road, refrain from reckless driving, not text and drive, not drive under the influence of any substance, keep a good distance between vehicles, wear seat belts, plan ahead, and check the vehicle before driving.
• G.W. Horberry, T.F. Horberry, M.J. Regan, "The influence of driver distractions on driver behavior and crash risk: a review of the research evidence," Accident Analysis & Prevention, vol. 41, no.3, pp. 474-481, 2009.
• A.F. Jones, M.C. Horberry, T.F. Horberry, "The effect of mobile phone use on driver attention," Transportation Research Part F:Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 203-220, 2009.
• D.G. Simons, D.C. Chabris, "Gorillas in our midst:sustained in attentional blindness for dynamic events," Perception, vol.28, pp. 1059-1074, 1999.
• M.D. Regan, G.W. Horberry, T.F. Horberry, "The impact of driver distraction on safety critical events," Accident Analysis &Prevention, vol. 43, no. 6, pp. 1823-1832, 2011.
• D.L. Strayer, J.M. Drews, D.C. Crouch, "Inattentional blindness while driving," Psychological Science, vol. 16, no. 3, pp.287-289