New Orleans I was in Triana, Albania, riding shotgun, talking pleasantly in the car as we drove to a meeting, and I swear I couldn’t help myself from channeling my father, a million others, and, frankly, myself, when I snapped at the driver, “stop lugging the engine!” I was self-aware enough to explain what lugging the engine meant and embellished my remarks with all of the unhelpful things fathers and back seat drivers might say about future wreck and ruin to her car, but, sadly, I noticed no change.
The technical definition of “lugging an engine,” is…
Driving at full throttle with the engine at a low RPM because the transmission is in too high a gear …[and] you also have to worry about low-speed pre-ignition, a phenomenon that can damage spark plugs or even crack pistons.
This only really means something to you in a deep and visceral way if you learned to drive – or taught your children to do so – on a manual transmission car by shifting gears either on a simple “H” on the column or on a five or six gear stick shift on the floor.
I thought of all of this once again while reading an op-ed in the Times by Vatsal Thakkar, who was identified only as a psychiatrist, but I knew him immediately as a fellow traveler in my world. His beef was not exactly my own, but I could agree with his concern that technology was warping our brain so that we become reliant without understanding, potentially endangering ourselves and others. Our current fleet of vehicles dates to 1998 and 2005, so we’re not exactly comfortable with “backup cameras,” but it was on that ground he made his stand, saying…
Backup cameras, mandatory on all new cars as of last year, are intended to prevent accidents. Between 2008 and 2011, the percentage of new cars sold with backup cameras doubled, but the backup fatality rate declined by less than a third while backup injuries dropped only 8 percent. Perhaps one reason is, as a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put it, “Many drivers are not aware of the limitations” of the technology. The report also found that one in five drivers were just like me — they had become so reliant on the backup aids that they had experienced a collision or near miss while driving other vehicles.
Thakkar’s proposed antidote for technological brain rot and inattention was straightforward: the manual transmission.
I heartily agree, but for other reasons than computer takeover. I endured years of scorn from my children, especially my darling daughter, as I insisted they learn to drive on a manual transmission, but it continues to be one of my most indelible accomplishments of fatherhood. I never wanted my children, especially my daughter, to be in a situation where they where anywhere, especially in danger, and were stymied because they didn’t know how to operate a stick shift. I puffed up several years ago when she and a posse of her friends rented a car in Cancun heading down the coast, and realized that all of the Mexican rent-a-cars had manual transmissions, which is still common throughout the rest of world, and she was the only one able to drive the whole trip. Go, dad! My nightmare had always been that she or my son might be fleeing danger and jump into a car and not be able to getaway, but being prevented from enjoying a vacation is also a good life lesson.
Put most constructively, a manual transmission teaches self-reliance. It also teaches respect for this fast-moving hunk of aluminum, plastic, and steel that is sending one or two tons of speed machine hurtling down the highway, and the fact that it is not just push button and steer, but a death machine that warrants, and in fact, demands respect. Finding the pressure point on a clutch, seamlessly shifting into higher gear, saving the brakes on a downshift expertly done, and finding the straight line through the curve allows you to drive the car, rather than the car driving you, constantly informs you of how the machine works, and that brings character than they recklessness to the driver.
Lugging can be a metaphor for life. Moving into a higher gear before you’ve done the work and preparation, can do more than ruin your engine, it can ruin your life.