It is no secret that I enjoy tinkering on cars and trucks, but despite that, I am not much of a hotrodder. I don’t care that my truck can blast past most things on the road; I drive it as responsibly as I can, obeying the speed limits, avoiding stupid mistakes, and more importantly, avoiding sketchy drivers. But there is something I have come to realize since I started driving that old truck: I drive much more carefully knowing that I am wholly responsible for everything that happens to it on the road.
My F100 is not going to do any brake assistance; it isn’t going to swerve from a collision; it isn’t going to recover from a pothole on its own; it won’t shift its own gears; it doesn’t stop on a dime (drum brakes on the rear); it doesn’t have airbags. I could go on, but you get the point. The old Ford won’t do anything I don’t tell it explicitly, and as the driver of that truck, I am required to devote my entire attention span to driving it carefully. For example, if I dared to text while driving, I would end up in the ditch.
So, I’ve painted an “awful” picture here to many, but I think this truck which requires my constant attention has made me a better driver; I always drive it with a slight anxiety that keeps me alert to every possible negative outcome. Let us contrast this to cars with modern safety features.
Safety Isn’t So Safe
Consider first the airbag: airbags, because they can (notice can not will) save lives, makes many drivers feel too safe driving, as if, “Oh, if I get into an accident, I’ll be okay.” I am not against airbags, far from it, but I think they give an unwarranted sense of security: you simply are not safe driving 55MPH under any circumstance. If you have an oncoming collision or a foul meetup with an oak tree, that airbag may save you, but it is far from gauranteed.
While I think airbags are a net good, I cannot say the same for the various brake assist and collision avoidance technologies. This lessens the attention and responsibility demanded of the driver, leading to a more apathetic driver who can start texting or using social media. The same can be said of other technologies like the automatic transmission vs. the manual.
Ultimately, the safest most careful drivers are those who are devoting their entire attention to driving, safety features present or not. Most of the mentioned safety features make it easier to devote less attention to driving, leading to distracted drivers. If you don’t believe me, drive a car from before 1990 or so and you’ll understand.
How to Actually Drive Safe
If the root problem is that drivers aren’t paying attention to the road because of overconfidence in their safety features and ease of use, it follows that we should seek out ways that demand more driver attention. My first suggestion is simple and doesn’t require buying a rat trap like my F100.
Switch to a Manual
Don’t give me any of that “Automatics are just as good or better than manuals now!” crap. Even if that were true (it isn’t, because it is an unfair comparison to CVTs and autos with 10 gears), the point is a manual car must be consciously shifted into the correct gear at the correct time with the clutch smoothly reengaged for a smooth shift. When you’re first learning, it can be quite anxiety inducing because you don’t know exactly when to shift, and your clutch work is going to be terrible until you get the hang of it. Even once you have mastered it and shift on a sort of autopilot, there are still times when that gets interrupted, especially in a 5 or 6 speed, when you may need to drop from 6th to 3rd which is a difficult shift in many cars.
Speaking of smooth shifting, a great way to embarass yourself is to shift poorly with your mother or girlfriend in the car. I guarantee you’ll focus on making smooth clutch work then. Also, when you get good at it, you find you can shift better than even modern automatics, making for a more pleasant ride. All of this helps to increase focus on driving.
And manuals are not an anachronism: most cars in Europe are manual, and all real sports cars should be manual (I cringe at a 600HP sports car that has a freaking automatic!). In fact, my friend recently bought a 2021 Kia Soul with a 6 speed in it. My own 2004 BMW 330i ZHP has the 6 speed as well. You don’t have to buy a rust bucket to get the manual experience.
Drive an Old Car
I don’t wholeheartedly recommend this like the stick shift, but if you are mechanically inclined, buying an older car that lacks some of the safety features above is also an option, but not so much for the lack of features, more for the “steering wheel play” and other weirdness. If you don’t know what that is, an older car tends to “wander” from where the steering wheel is oriented and doesn’t come back. This can be due to aging components or just more primitive steering systems like my old ‘65 Mustang had. This leads to a little game of keeping the vehicle straight.
(My truck has a lot of play and powersteering. This is actually worse than a lot of play without powersteering, because you can so easily over-correct the vehicle!)
Sounds like a terrible idea I know, but if the driver is constantly having to keep the vehicle straight, with no additional safeties outside of seatbelts, he tends to drive much more carefully. I provide my own experience for example: too often, I zip around in my ‘04 BMW, taking risks that I shouldn’t and feeling overconfident in it. When I drive the ‘73 Ford, I’m a little anxious even driving 55MPH, afraid I may over-correct on the steering wheel play, avoid potholes like deathtraps, and I even brake far sooner than I would in the BMW.
Truthfully, I don’t really recommend making a much older car your daily driver over a more recent one in terms of safety, but I do recommend driving one occaisonally just to illustrate that we aren’t nearly as good at driving as we think, nor are we that much safer in the deadlier instances. If I head into town with the BMW, it practically drives itself there; with the F100, it is an event.
The purpose of this article is not to convince you to give up safety features and drive a Hudson Hornet, it is to properly frame the act of driving an automobile: hurling down the asphalt in a metal/fiberglass box with a strap and airbags for safety. Forget the silly collision avoidance systems, your best defense against an accident is your attention to the act of driving.