Gary Rotstein’s The Morning File: Kids (and car thieves), learn to drive a stick


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A funny story of modern-day criminal ineptitude among the younger set recently came out of Seattle.

Seventy-year-old Nancy Fredrickson was unloading items from the trunk of her Kia when three thuggish teens showed up, one of them pointing a gun in her face. They demanded her car keys and jumped in to drive it off.

Then ... nothing happened.

They couldn't make a fast getaway, or even a slow one, because Ms. Fredrickson drives a stick shift. Between the three of them, not one of the carjackers had the slightest concept of how to make her Kia's five-speed manual transmission go.

"I could hear them trying," she told a television interviewer. "They put the keys in, they turned the lock, but they couldn't figure out how to get it started."

Ms. Fredrickson stood there and watched them give up and run off. It enabled her to laugh about an incident that initially had her in tears. Her neighbors enjoyed the irony as well.

"They can't drive a stick?" one of them exclaimed to KIRO-TV in Seattle "That's like ... unmanly!"

Well, maybe, but to be fair, fewer Americans every year have this driving capability, considering the popularity and simplicity of automatic transmissions. Fewer than 7 percent of new cars in the U.S. have manual transmissions. In 1980, more than one-third of cars sold had manual shifts.

It seems that younger generations have less interest in the kind of gear-shifting, zoom-zoom, driving experience their forefathers -- and a few foremothers -- enjoyed in the early 20th century, when no such thing as an automobile automatic transmission existed.

After all, it takes some time to learn how to drive a stick shift, and who can spare that in your late teens or 20s when there are so many other things to do like, say, go to coffee shops. And it's a lot harder to talk on the phone or illegally text when you need to have a hand available to shift.

All this, of course, explains (in addition to the cheaper price) why the new car the author of The Morning File purchased this spring is a manual transmission. The three young people in his family only know how to drive automatics. They've been offered the chance to learn from Dad how to drive a manual, and thus far, they've treated that with the same disdain as when given the opportunity to wash the car.

Hence, there is no need at present to ever share the car with the kids, which is huge cause for celebration. No need to worry -- as with our other cars -- about them putting scratches on it, leaving debris in it and a personal favorite: setting up the audio system so that a rap CD with explicit lyrics plays at ear-shattering levels the moment the key is turned in the ignition.

It's unfortunate, of course, that if these offspring ever become car thieves, their ignorance will limit their choices. Alas, they'll have no one to blame but themselves -- which is pretty much what they hear from their parents about any of their problems these days:

"You waited till the last night to write that term paper, only to discover the home printer is out of ink? You have no one to blame but yourself!"

"You can't sleep from worries that strife in the Arab world is spiraling out of control, the oceans are rising too fast and we're headed for world calamity? You've been reading the newspaper too much. You have no one to blame but yourself!"

You'd think that manual transmission incompetence among would-be car thieves would capture the attention of the auto insurance industry, reducing the rates of people like myself who are smart (and cheap) enough to purchase a vehicle that can serve as a theft deterrent.

You would be wrong if you thought that. Among the many questions the insurer asked about the vehicle, none had anything to do with the type of transmission. No statistics exist, apparently, to indicate manual transmission vehicles are less likely to be stolen than automatics.

But Nancy Fredrickson of Seattle doesn't need any data of that sort. She's seen it with her own eyes, and she was left more bemused than angry afterward about the younger generation's inadequacies.

"Afterwards, I just said, 'Father, forgive them for they know not what they did,' " she was quoted saying.


Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.

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