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Is a stick shift an anti-theft device?



Stick shift transmissionIt's folk wisdom: If no one really drives a manual transmission anymore, then no one's going to want to steal one, right?

Makes sense. It makes good sense, in fact. That little stick on the floor might as well come with a big car insurance discount; one look down and any thief with a drop of sense is going to move right along.

The numbers would certainly seem to agree, at least at first.

After all, the manual shifter really has become one of the most unpopular rides on the road. In 2011, sales of stick-shift cars and lightweight trucks made up just 5.1 percent of the U.S. market, according to federal government figures. And that number represents y a slight improvement over the 3.8 percent of 2010.

Compare that to 22.2 percent in 1990 and a healthy 34.6 percent in 1980.

Driver's ed classes often don't cover manual shifting anymore, and parents wonder if they should even bother teaching their kids how to drive a stick. (The answer is yes, but more on that later.)

And the Internet says ...

Neither insurance companies nor the government breaks out theft data by transmission type (in case you're wondering, thefts sank to a 40-year low in 2011; about 700,000 vehicles were reported stolen in the U.S.), but police say that only a tiny percentage of stolen cars have manual transmissions.

Yet there are always the headlines. Like this one out of Orlando: "Would-be car thieves gave up because they couldn't drive a stick shift." Or this one out of Tennessee: "Deputies: Carjacking failed; car was stick shift.")

The incidents are frequent enough to back up the wishful thinking on the part of manual enthusiasts (There will be at least one reader comment after each story to the effect of  "A stick shift vehicle is the best anti-theft device you can have.")

Both the people who investigate thefts and the companies that write the checks for stolen cars say that's simply not true. You only read about the failed thefts, not the successful ones. Some cars are stolen because they have stick shifts: Ask any owner of an Acura Integra Type R.

The idea that a stick shift would serve as a deterrent to car thieves -- most of whom are skilled at bypassing sophisticated anti-theft systems -- is a lot of bunk, says John Abounader, executive director of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators.

In fact, he and others say, a manual transmission is easier to steal.

"If I saw a car in a parking lot and there's nothing in front of it, I'd simply put it in neutral and push it away," says Sgt. Don Lusk, a veteran detective with the Michigan State Police auto theft squad in Detroit.

Why there is no five-speed discount

What about the argument that one transmission type is more expensive to insure than the other? Wrong again.

The big insurance companies say they don't consider whether a vehicle has a standard or automatic transmission when determining rates. (Try getting an auto insurance quote online; they'll never even ask, though eventually your Vehicle Identification Number will tell them.)

What they look at is the overall rate of losses for that model of vehicle, says CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner. (See "How a car gets a bad reputation.")

"There are some features that will bring a discount off your comprehensive coverage," the policy that pays if your car is stolen, Gusner says. "But the transmission isn't one of them."

For a look at discounts for anti-theft devices and other safety features, see our Guide to Car Insurance Discounts.

Stick shift: learn it, drive it

As mentioned, it's still a good idea to learn to drive a stick shift.

Here's why, courtesy of Eddie Alterman, the editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine who launched a "Save the Manuals!" campaign in response to dwindling industry production of the stick shift:

  • It's enjoyable: "It's more fun to have control over the gears," says Alterman, noting "the gratification of a well-timed heel-toe downshift."
  • It's revivable: "You can start your car if it's got a dead battery by popping the clutch on a hill, whereas with an automatic you have to get a jump or a tow," he says.
  • It requires focus: "If you're worried about your kid texting while driving, there's no way they can do all this at once," Alterman says. "It's a big deterrent to doing anything behind the wheel other than driving."
  • It's fuel-efficient: When driven correctly, a manual transmission delivers more miles per gallon than an automatic.
  • It's cheap: A manual transmission has fewer parts, so it's less expensive to repair. When offered as an option, it also typically costs less to buy.
  • It offers control: "You think there would be all these unintended acceleration problems if people had stick shifts?" says Alterman.
  • It will get you from Point A to Point B: Bottom line -- what if there's an emergency and the only vehicle has a stick? 'Nuf said.

So get behind the wheel and start shifting. Enjoy. Just don't expect the thieves to steer clear.


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1 Responses to "Is a stick shift an anti-theft device?"
  1. Greg Thoelen

    Most expensive high performance cars are stick shift. And unless all you want to steal are beater Toyotas and Hondas, a car thief would preferably know how to drive a stick shift if they were stealing an expensive car. Sure not everyone can drive stick, but it won't stop it from getting stolen. And the nonsense that kids can't text in a stick shift. I'm able to text, shift, steer, and eat a burger all at the same time without a problem. It's definitely not as easy as it is in an automatic but it can be done. I do agree, however, that people who shift manually will less likely throw it in drive when they want to reverse and go through a building.