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Automatic or Manual Cars: Which is Safer?

Author: Paul Geraghty - Updated: 18 April 2013 | commentsComment
Automatic Or Manual Cars: Which Is Safer?

If you like to watch a good kerfuffle, go to an auto-enthusiasts' web site, visit their forum, and start a new discussion thread titled either "Manual Transmission is Safer!" or "Automatic Transmission is Safer!" Then step back and watch as the sparks start to fly.

The truth is that there is a broad variety of opinions on this topic. Both sides are able to marshal arguments that seem intuitively compelling. Yet there is little concrete data that could settle the controversy one way or the other.

It is, perhaps, natural to assume, at first, that an automatic drive vehicle would be safer. After all, there is less for the driver to do and so less opportunity for things to go wrong. There is no need for the driver to remove one hand from the steering wheel in order to change gear, with all of the loss of control that implies.

Less Stress With Automatics

Studies which monitor stress by measuring heartbeat have shown that drivers of manual-transmission vehicles do experience significantly more stress than those in automatics. In fact, so great was the differential that drivers of automatics experienced stress levels which were comparable to those of passengers!

Some argue, however, that by very virtue of the fact that there is less for the driver to do, the driver of an automatic is inclined to pay less attention to the road-traffic environment and so is less likely to detect the signs of an impending accident. In fact, some go further and contend that the greater ease of driving an automatic leads drivers to take an excessively relaxed view of road safety and do things that they would not normally do while driving, such as fidget with objects or people (especially children) in the car. The countervailing argument to this is that people in cars tend to do this anyway and, if they are going to act so irresponsibly, it is safer that they do it in an automatic-transmission vehicle.

Driver inattention is a factor in approximately 25% of road traffic accidents. Whether an automatic transmission system helps reduce the problem or, in fact, worsens it by making it more frequent, is not completely clear. One study which measured reaction time to hazard stimuli, however, found no significant difference among the drivers of manual or automatic cars.

More Control With Manual?

Many veteran drivers who have experience of both types of transmission system insist that a vehicle with a manual gearbox is safer because it gives them more control. An automatic is, in effect, making guesses about the optimal gear to be in for any given situation. However refined the engineering that makes those guesses has become, it can never equate to the complexity of a human brain and, while an automatic can usually be relied on to make good choices in normal driving conditions, some insist that manual control gives them greater flexibility to react to something unusual, such as a slippery road or a possible collision, by adjusting gears in a non-standard way.

Ultimately, from a safety perspective, neither automatic nor manual transmission would appear to have any decisive advantage over the other. Had it been otherwise, one would probably have displaced the other by now in general use, and insurance companies (which, after all, depend for their profitability on their ability to make relative risk assessments) would reflect the difference in their premiums. Neither of these things has happened so, if you are pondering which transmission type you would like to have in your next vehicle, there is probably no need for you to be unduly concerned with the safety implications of your choice.

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I think the main problems occur when one swaps from manual to Auto, especially when you're'getting on a bit', the tendency can be to press the accelerator instead of the brake, pressing harder and harder! This is even more of a problem when reversing, because you tend to twist your body and therefore your feet can move across to different pedals! I have driven both types all my driving career, I think that if you're contemplating changing to an Auto do itbefore you retire, when you can cope with the change of pedals etc. Pedestrians have been seriously injured and even killed by out of control Autos even in their own driveways!
Nobby - 18-Apr-13 @ 7:47 PM
MPT, Quite true. However, there are some cars in which both automatic and manual transmissions are common so with good statistical techniques, it should be possible to evaluate safety differences between the two transmission types. Also, some accidents are the result of hitting the accelerator instead of the brakes. That type of accident is much less likely to occur with a manual transmission. Also, with a manual transmission, the driver is much less likely to use a cell phone or do text messaging.
FRE - 21-May-12 @ 4:33 AM
Until now, I've believed that you could kill yourself with either, the risk being more dependent on the driver itself. Now I'm enlightened about this and know that you can clearly blame it all on your tranny, be it auto or manual. Jk.. but what I aimed at was that you could hardly make a sound comparison of whether autos or manuals prove more deadly. There are cars that are practically always bought with a stick shift, and vice versa. This might make the stats look better for autos, because high end cars (that are probably driven way more carefully) usually feature them. Even when comparing a single model's auto and stick variants, what can affect is that autos are usually chosen by affluent people that usually also opt for more optional features, among them some that may enhance safety. Before doing any comparison, there's a lot to be taken account.
mpt - 26-Mar-12 @ 10:09 AM
Why aren't there statistics to determine which is safer, an automatic transmission or a manual transmission?In accident reports, isn't that information recorded along with make, model, age of driver, etc. etc.? Why is this a matter for argument?It would not require the discovery of a new principal of physics to collect and analyze the data to determine which transmission type is safer.The information is important enough that it should be available.
FRE - 11-Nov-11 @ 5:59 PM
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