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Should Learning To Drive A Manual Be Mandatory?


Should Learning To Drive A Manual Be Mandatory?

If you’re someone who got their Malaysian driver’s license before mid-2014, you are part of a large pool of people who share a unique bond. If the title hasn’t clued you in to that yet, it is because all of us had to learn how to drive a manual – it was the only option at the time, and it was something that we all endured regardless of whether we preferred nasi lemak, roti canai or dim sum for breakfast 

In a way it gave us all memories to bond over. The dreaded hill start test, trying not to stall while out on the road, and figuring out when was the right point to shift up. Some of us breezed through it, while others struggled and stumbled through it, but at the end of the day we all had to do it.

In the years following the introduction of the automatic license in Malaysia, there was a topic that popped up on occasion and it was whether newer drivers are ready to handle real world driving if they couldn’t handle the rigours of a driving a manual car. The problem is that there are pretty solid points on both sides of the aisle – so let’s get to it.

Manual Cars Build Character

After the vast majority of license holders completed their mandatory manual licenses, it was immediately obvious that they would almost never have to drive a manual car again. Even as early as the 1980s, automatic cars were popping up in the market and by the 1990s, they were becoming common in every segment of the market. By the time we entered the 2000s, manual options were scarcer than automatic variants.

And yet, learning to drive a manual helped drivers appreciate the convenience of an automatic transmission. It also presented the additional mental challenge for most who did not find it natural, as dealing with a clutch and gear shifts in traffic meant paying more attention to how traffic was flowing and getting ready to move off from a standstill.

There is some pretty solid logic to the idea that being able to drive a manual means that you will be better able to multi task when on the road – not to mean that you can play with your phone or fiddle with your car’s head unit, but you will be more ready for dealing with various changes in condition or erratic drivers on the road.

More Than A Mindset

To equate driving ability with whether one can drive a manual car is a bit of a tricky problem. The vast majority of current professional race-car drivers have probably never had to race with a manual car, and the next generation is likely to follow that route as race cars are adopting sequential gearboxes by and large – but nobody doubts the driving ability of a professional.

The secondary question is that we look at being able to drive a manual car as a testament to competence, but we never questioned not having to learn how to brake without anti-lock brake systems, or shift without synchromesh gears, or a myriad of other things that were introduced over time to make driving easier and more convenient. Why then should the manual transmission be the gatekeeper?

There’s also a very strong argument that driving a manual car badly doesn’t make one a good driver. For those of you who can recall, while everyone was forced to take the driving test with a manual car, it would hardly be fair to say that everyone was proficient at driving a manual car. Crunching gears, lugging the engine, slipping the clutch excessively, or holding gears unnecessarily were all part of the abuse that these cars suffered.

Where do we go from here?

The reality is that a lot of more local seasoned drivers view the ability to drive a manual car as a competence test because the general requirements for our driver’s licenses are woefully low compared to other countries. We wouldn’t have to regard it as a litmus test for driving ability if we had better standards in place for driving.

In other countries, the driving license syllabus includes advanced and defensive driving techniques. Drivers must be able to control a car during a skid and recover it among many other situations that a driver may face on the road. Guided driving hours during both day and night are required as well – all important things that our current driving tests never cover.

This is also why there’s immense value placed in modern active and passive safety systems during global NCAP (New Car Assessment Program) testing and scoring. These systems may be unnecessary or intrusive for drivers with more experience, but they definitely bridge the gap and fill the holes in ability for the less trained, less seasoned drivers.

Whether these systems make us worse drivers – well, that’s something we’ll discuss another time.

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