Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We're losing safe-driving skills

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The other day, I was screwing together some IKEA furniture and had the Comedy Channel on in the background. The two go together well. Featured was a rerun of the Red Green Show, and it turned out the subject was the benefit of manual gearboxes.

The Red Green Show was classic Canadian humour, in which actor Steve Smith and a cast of eccentric characters spoofed old-time fishing shows. Words of wisdom included "duct tape, the handyman's secret weapon." Episodes closed with "keep your stick on the ice." The show became popular across the border as well, proving at least some of our American neighbours deserve to be honourary Canadians.

Red Green's theme was that the advent of the automatic transmission signalled the decline of man. Not the decline of mankind, just man or men. When we no longer needed to use both hands to drive, it opened the door to multi-tasking and distracted driving.

This is an interesting point. Our safety establishment is heavily stocked with people who understand neither driving nor safety in a more global sense. This leads to such things as MPI's clip claiming that if you are speeding, you are out of control. It was technically incorrect and illogical. Beyond that, isn't it nice that we paid the government to insult our intelligence? A car you can drive legally in Texas at 130- or 200-km/h in Germany, goes out of control if it tops 100 on this side of the border?

Most people enjoy a challenge as long as it's within a reasonable context. Driving can provide that challenge if people are actually permitted to drive. However, the ivory-tower crowd has decided skills and training are dangerous. What we really need is lots of enforcement, along with a goodly dose of electronics to save us from ourselves. Now they are astonished to find people are distracted and have turned to other things. Red Green's suggestion to bring back the manual gearbox has some merit.

Any parent who is concerned about their child's future as well as their safety might consider getting them a manual-transmission car. First, it will help if they travel around the world and are required to drive, because North America is the only place where automatic transmissions dominate the market. Knowing how to shift gears could become a life skill. Second, it is harder to multi-task when you're also rowing your way through a six-speed gearbox.

My real recipe would be for them to have something sufficiently slow that a lot of shifting is required. Throw in wind-up windows and manual door locks, along with a heating system that occasionally sneaks in a whiff of oil, coolant or petrol just to keep the anxiety level up. A major part of being a good driver is never becoming too relaxed or too complacent.

Current safety tactics continue to backfire badly, no matter how the statistics are fudged. All that money spent on high technology will only counterbalance the continual drop in driving skill. There's nothing wrong with the features themselves, but where is the education to explain how they work, the limitations, and what to do when the systems fail? Twenty years after ABS became mainstream, those of us working in advanced driving are still teaching people how to use anti-lock brakes properly. All we got from the safety establishment was the stupid, simplistic mantra "stomp and steer." Sorry, there's a bit more to it. Among other things, if you are not seated correctly, you will be unable to do a proper emergency stop.

We already have autonomous vehicles that work quite well. They are called taxis, buses and trains. If the money wasted on ill-conceived safety programs were spent to train taxi drivers properly, the way things are done in London, England, then a taxi ride would be a pleasure. A good taxi driver is a true professional, but right now there is little incentive to develop skill.

Oops, sorry, skill and training are words the safety establishment hates. If these folks were in charge of aviation, the Gimli Glider, under the command of Capt. Bob Pearson, would have crashed instead of making that incredible dead-stick landing. Chesley Sullenberger's US Airways flight would have gone into the Hudson River nose-first instead of the water landing that saved all those lives.

'Speed kills', drones the safety dude, while happily climbing aboard a commercial aircraft. Hmm, we fly much faster these days than 50 years ago and crash less. To be consistent with the way road safety is treated, we should be flying in padded airships at 40 knots instead.

Alan Sidorov is an experienced automobile racer, product tester and freelance writer. You can reach him at

www.spdt.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 4, 2013 E3

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