Could low-tech stick-shift cars do for pedestrian safety what back-up cameras, sensors and alarms have failed to do?

BREA, Calif. (WHTM) — Like almost all her friends, 16-year-old Ellie Forgues has a smartphone.

But like almost none of them — and like an increasingly small minority of Americans of all ages — she drives a car with a manual transmission.

What do her friends think of the stick shift and the mysterious third pedal in her car?

“They really don’t know what to think of it because they really have, like, no idea what’s even going on,” Forgues said.

But Her dad, David Forgues, knew exactly what was going on when he bought the used car, originally for Ellie’s older sister, Anwei, now 18, when she was learning to drive. The idea came before either girl was old enough to drive, from the mother on the sidelines of a youth soccer game who had recently taught her son to drive stick.

“I learned to drive a stick. My wife learned to drive a stick. But you don’t really see a stick around very much anymore,” David Forgues recalled telling the mom on the sidelines. “But she said to me, ‘You know, a stick — you can’t text. You can’t use the phone. Your friend can’t borrow your car.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s brilliant.'”

The reason you can’t do those things — or at least can’t do them as much?

“You just don’t have enough physical capability as you’re driving,” explained Matt Fiorentino of Cambridge Mobile Telematics, or CMT, which tracks driver behavior — including cell phone usage habits — for insurance companies. “You don’t have a third hand to to text and drive. So this is the theory why manual transmission actually helps reduce distracted driving.”

The numbers to go with that theory, according to CMT data: Drivers in the U.S., where manual-transmission cars now make up a low-single-digit percentage of all vehicles, are nearly 200% more distracted by their phones than drivers in the United Kingdom, where — although manual transmissions are less ubiquitous than they once were — Fiorentino estimated about 70% of drivers still have one hand on a steering wheel and the other on a shift.

And just to test the theory — just to make sure Brits aren’t simply more conscientious than Americans (“We really wanted to compare apples to apples,” Fiorentino said) — CMT also zeroed in on just U.K. automatic transmission drivers, who — sure enough — used their phones 30% more than their manual transmission peers. (The opposite analysis wasn’t possible in the U.S.: Too few Americans drive manual transmissions to comprise a large enough sample size of data to confirm the theory they fool with their phones less than their clutchless, automatic transmission-driving compatriots.)

The intersection between all that data — and another set of data — is a matter of life and death.

Rear-view backup cameras — and then related sensors and alarms warning drivers of hazards around them — gained traction beginning in the early 2000s. Sure enough, pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. continued a decades-long decline.

But “in 2007, the iPhone comes out,” Fiorentino said. (Competing smartphones, including popular Androids, came out shortly thereafter.) “Pedestrian deaths go up. Cyclist deaths go up. And the past couple of years, they’ve reached record levels.”

That’s in the U.S. — but not in the rest of the world:

(2021 is the most recent year with full data for most major countries. Pedestrian deaths in the 48 non-U.S. countries included here — those with data for most years dating back to 1994 — rose in 2021, after an unusually sharp pandemic-related drop in 2020, but appeared poised to decline again in 2022.)

Fiorentino’s take: Smartphones are everywhere, but Americans have more time to be distracted by them than drivers elsewhere. The reason that matters, in turn?

“If you check your phone while you’re driving on a highway, you travel the length of a football field,” Fiorentino said. “You’re essentially driving blind…. Then if you’re just looking at your phone instead of paying attention to the road and looking out for pedestrians, the likelihood that you’re going to hit somebody with fatal consequences goes up significantly.”

Fiorentino said the average American “drives blind” two minutes of every hour driving, contributing to the record numbers of U.S. pedestrians struck and killed, including the Lebanon County woman fatally hit will getting her mail and more than 7,000 others each year.

Correlation doesn’t prove causation, and Fiorentino conceded other factors — including the ever-larger, ever-higher cars driven by Americans, which might make shorter pedestrians harder to spot — could contribute to the diverging trends. But he said no other explanation is as convincing as the transmission disparity.

So David Forgues’s decision to raise manual transmission-driving daughters in an automatic world?

“I think his intuition was right there,” Fiorentino said. “Your hands are just too busy doing other things to pick up your phone. Now, that doesn’t mean [distraction] never happens. But I think the general intuition is correct.”

Sure enough, recall how “almost none” of Ellie Forgues’s friends can drive a manual transmission?

She said there’s exactly one exception. Where did that friend’s parents get the idea?

“Dad convinced them to get a stick,” Ellie Forgues said.

David Forgues said there are two ancillary, non-life-or-death, ancillary benefits to teaching his daughters to drive stick. The first applies to all families with children who might want to travel internationally.

“[Drive stick] is what the rest of the world does,” he said. “So not only is it a great ‘parent hack’ here, but I feel like when my kids travel, they’re going to be able to drive wherever they go in the world.”

The other benefit applies just to Ellie.

“My school is located on the biggest hill ever,” she said — and no new stick shift driver wants to have to stop and start a lot on a hill. So she leaves early before traffic builds.

“So in addition to not being able to text, she’s never late for class because you have to get to school early to make sure you don’t stop behind anybody on the hill,” David Forgues said.

He said he hopes U.S. insurance companies catch on and offer discounts to people like him whose kids drive cars with manual transmissions.

Alas, they might retort: Too small a sample size.

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