5 Things Your Kids Won't Learn in Drivers' Ed — But Should
Automation is making our cars safer. But are we losing basic driving skills as a result?
On June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447 fell into the Atlantic Ocean on a routine overnight flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, killing all 228 passengers on board. While the cause of the crash is still under investigation, here is what Federal Aviation Administration investigators think unfolded on that fateful night.
Four hours into the flight, the Airbus A330 experienced turbulence and extreme icing, causing its speed sensors to malfunction and stop transmitting critical information to the plane's automatic pilot, which apparently caused the plane to slow down. The pilots in the cockpit shut off the autopilot before the plane stalled. Unfortunately, they were as blind and confused as the autopilot. Rather than increase the plane's speed and thus lift, they apparently slowed the plane even further, a move contrary to basic rules of flight. As a result, the plane began to stall and plummeted to the sea.
If this course of events is true, it raises a question: How could seasoned pilots for a top airline, flying one of the industry's most advanced jets, not know how to regain control of the stalling aircraft? Investigators concluded that modern airline pilots spend so much time minding automated systems and so little time actually flying that some are not up to the task of piloting a plane when the automation fails.
So why are we telling you about Flight 447 in a story that is supposed to be about automobiles? It's a warning: We fear that car drivers, pilots of the roadways, are becoming too reliant on automated systems and have let their driving skills lapse, and even worse, that our kids will never know how to drive without these systems.
While not as automated as airplanes, cars are clearly becoming increasingly computerized. These computers have input in controlling everything from braking to navigation to traction. Anti-lock braking systems keep us from braking too hard. Traction control keeps us from skidding out. Adaptive cruise control makes sure our vehicles automatically maintain speed and slow the vehicle when it comes too close to the vehicle in front. And these are only a few of the technologies that automakers are working on to make vehicles safer. Their efforts are paying off; vehicle-related fatalities are at an all-time low.
However, what happens when these automated systems fail? Will we — or, more importantly, will our children — be up to piloting an automobile without all the high-tech bells and whistles?
Frankly, we don't know. So, just what skills are in danger of disappearing? Here, we list five driving skills that are very important but that are becoming increasingly unnecessary.
Fewer than 10 percent of new cars sold have clutch pedals, and driver's education courses haven't featured manual transmissions in their cars for decades. Consequently, the chances that a driver will encounter a manual transmission along with someone willing to teach them how to use it are growing rare. Even the Richard Petty Driving Experience, a NASCAR-themed driving school, has found it necessary to push-start patrons so they can take off in fourth gear for their oval-lapping fun.
It's a shame, really. Manual transmissions provide unexcelled vehicle control. But probably their greatest benefit is that they more thoroughly involve the driver with what he or she is supposed to be doing: driving. It doesn't take a behavioral scientist to conclude that a more engaged driver is a safer driver.
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Three things that are not taught in driver education: How to deal with bicyclists, how to deal with motorcycles, and probably most important, how to deal with big rigs on the freeway, especially within a city. Share the road with the bicyclists, even if it means you have to <horrors!> slow down for a moment or two to safely get around them; watch for the motorcyles - they're vehicles and pay all the attendant taxes and fees to use the road as well; and for God's sake, don't cut in front of an 18-wheeler and then stand on the brake, expecting it to stop on a dime. You never know what kind of load they're carrying.
Have to agree. I'm 47, so suddenly I'm an old guy. Back in the stone age of 1980, my dad made me learn to drive in a stickshift pickup. I even took my road test in that truck before I ever got behind the wheel of an automatic. I was pissed at the time--but I am so thankful for it now.
I'm also a private pilot, and fly 1979 Cessna with old style instruments and no auto-pilot. I got a chance to test fly a new $632,000 Cirrus. The demo pilot just kept turning on the auto pilot and the "glass cockpit" NAV features. Don't get me wrong--they're way cool tools and would be great to have. However, he wouldn't stop and let me see how the plane actually handles. He was a 20-something, and frankly, I'm not sure he really knows how to "fly the plane" or how to find his way from point A to point B if the GPS signal is lost.
When I taught my kids how to drive (their high school had done away with drivers' ed) I made it clear to them that would not get their licenses until: (a) they could drive a stick, (b) hold the car on an incline without letting it roll backward or forward, (c) parallel park, (d) change a tire, (e) identify certain items in the engine compartment, i.e. dipstick, oil filler, etc. I didn't care what the state said--my authority was greater.
Automobiles are just part of the problem in their pathetic lives. Steer into a skid? Modulate the brakes manually because the ABS has failed? Even changing a flat tire seems to be a challenge because they've never been taught how to operate a jack and secure the vehicle properly so it doesn't fall on them. They should learn how to drive in a car with no power steering, no power brakes, manual transmission, no ABS, etc. Feeling the raw mechanics of a car firsthand may do them some good.
In my state you used to have to be able to drive a manual transmission to get your license. All my siblings had to do it, but I was the youngest and by the time I was ready to get my license they had eliminated that requirement. Didn't matter because my first car was a stick, so I learned out of necessity.
BMW runs a skid school for young drivers that tours the country every so often. This type of training should be integrated into every driver education training program. At least our state has significantly increased the amount of classroom and behind-the-wheel training required because they got tired of watching 16-year-olds kill themselves because of lack of skill. It still doesn't go far enough. I understand those safety conscious Germans have an excellent driver's education program. Maybe we should adopt it here.
I think knowing the "mechanics" and having a comfort level with the car makes for a better driver. Everyone in my family knows how to do routine maintenance and none of us are mechanics or work with our hands by profession. If you are a boat captain or a pilot, you may not be the mechanic, but you know how the systems function.
When she did her driving test, the state would not allow test to be taken in manual transmission vehicles as they said they were "not safe" (as quoted in regulations) I told them we only have manual transmission vehicles and was told to "go rent or borrow a car then". My work mate (a military attorney) made them a written offer - bottom line she took the driving test in a manual transmission vehicle an the proctor was highly impressed.