Should Kids Learn to Drive on a Manual or an Automatic?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Feb 25, 2016

Dear Car Talk:

I'm a single mom, and I have four children (three boys and a girl) who will all be driving in the next two to five years. I want them to learn on a manual transmission. I did, and I believe (of course) that it made me a better, more knowledgeable driver. But above and beyond that, my No. 1 concern is their safety. Do you think it is safer for them to learn on an automatic car, which might be simpler, given all the modern world's distractions? Or would it better to have them learn on a manual-transmission car, which keeps them constantly mentally engaged in the driving process, and therefore more focused?

Is knowing how to drive a car with a manual transmission still something every "real man" needs to know how to do (in which case my daughter as well, obviously)? Or are automatic transmissions so ubiquitous that it's more like insisting that my children know how to shoe horses? I currently have a 2001 Honda Odyssey and a 1996 Honda Accord, both automatic transmissions, so deciding on a manual would mean an investment. But if you think it's worth it, well, that's why I'm giving myself two years' lead time in asking. Kindest regards

-- Karen

Have you considered getting the kids a group application to the circus, Karen? I hear that those Volkswagen clown cars are stick shifts. I'd let them learn on Barnum and Bailey's clutches.

Actually, I think I'd lean toward letting them learn on an automatic. For one thing, it does remove one complication -- shifting gears -- that itself can be a distraction for a new driver. And taking gear-shifting out of the equation allows them to concentrate on learning to steer, brake, accelerate, merge and hold their Pumpkin Spice Latte in one hand while texting with the other. You add a manual transmission to the mix, and they'll have to learn to hold the drink with their teeth. And we all know how many accidents are caused by crotch burns when they drop those drinks.

But the factor that really pushes me to the automatic solution for you is that you don't have lot of money to spare. If you were to trade one of your cars for a stick-shift model, that would cost you some bucks right there. But worse, with four teenagers learning to drive, you'd have to sign up for the Clutch-of-the-Month Club. And clutch replacements now average about a thousand bucks.

Once they've mastered the basics, then I think it's a great idea to give them the skill of driving a stick shift. It is becoming less and less likely that they'll need to drive one, these days -- stick-shift purchases are well down into the single digits as a percentage of new-car sales. And none of the electric cars coming out have stick shifts.

But every once in a while, we do hear about a car thief who gets caught because he breaks into a car but can't drive a stick. And I wouldn't want your kids -- or, by reflection, their mother -- to be subject to that embarrassment.

So once they've all learned to drive well, then you can get yourself a car with a manual transmission. Offer to teach any of your interested children to drive it. By then, they'll have a little experience, be a little more mature and be a little less likely to fry your clutch in one afternoon of hill starts.

They also may be much more motivated to learn, because why? It gives them the opportunity to borrow Mom's car! And with the four of them fighting over the use of the other, automatic car, I bet you'll do some brisk business in driver training. Best of luck to the whole family!!

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