Is a Stick Shift an Anti-Theft Device?

It’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.

Or will he? Does the evidence back up this bit of wishful thinking on the part of manual enthusiasts? (Take ‘SpotsJ10,’ who comments after reading a story about a foiled thief, “A stick shift vehicle is the best anti-theft device you can have.”)

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 2010, sales of stick-shift cars and lightweight trucks made up just 6.7 percent of the U.S. market, according to federal government figures. Compare that to 22.2 percent in 1990 and a healthy 34.6 percent in 1980.

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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, in 2009, nearly 800,000 vehicles were reported stolen in the U.S., one every 40 seconds), but police say that only a tiny percentage of stolen cars have manual transmissions.

If that’s not enough, there are always the stories. Those stories that roll around every year or two about the would-be thief who looks down and realizes that he is unable to drive the car away thanks to the presence of a gear shift.

In 2008, it was a carjacker in Florida who pulled a woman from her car, wrested the keys away, got them in the ignition, then sat there stumped by the 5-speed. Busted. The man was jailed on carjacking charges.

But all this leaves out a crucial piece of the equation: a thief’s motive. A thief, say police, seizes opportunity. He takes what is easy to take, and what will be useful to someone, and nearly everything finds use at a chop shop.

Good in the clutch

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.

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.)

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 last year 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.