EDITORIAL: Me? Shift gears? I think not.

By James Menzies

Today’s Trucking

Ontario’s decision at the 11th hour to delay a rule that would prohibit those obtaining their A/Z licence using an automated transmission from operating a manual-equipped truck has prompted reaction from outrage to indifference.

On one end of the spectrum, the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada and the Truck Training Schools Association of Ontario are crying foul, saying the Ministry of Transportation is threatening road safety with the decision and that lives will be put at risk.

Meanwhile, the Ontario Trucking Association greeted the delay with a shrug and said there are more important issues for the province to focus on. A little-known group called the Ontario Commercial Truck Training Association applauded the delay, noting its 30 or so training school members need more time to procure the required equipment to conduct training on manual transmission-equipped trucks.

 The issue has even garnered some mainstream media attention, with the Toronto Star reporting on the conflict. Is it unsafe for someone who has completed all their training using an automated transmission to get behind the wheel of a truck equipped with a manual? Absolutely. And that’s why it’s banned in every North American jurisdiction except Ontario, according to the PMTC.

But does the issue need policing? Maybe I’m naïve, but I like to think no fleet would put an unprepared driver in the seat of a truck they’re incapable of operating safely. And I’d like to think no driver would take on that responsibility while lacking the prerequisite training and experience.Driving a manual is hard. I learned how to drive a truck using an 18-speed. I passed my road test on such a truck. And I’ve barely shifted a gear since.

With the advent of current generation automated manuals, I can think of few practical reasons to spec’ a truck with a manual. Automated transmissions have become standard equipment with some OEMs and all but standard with others.

Sure, the early generation automatics had their issues. But they’ve come a long way and even provide the foundation for some of the advanced driver assistance systems found in new trucks today. I can think of nothing more distracting or stressful than watching the rpm needle while finding a gear or trying to time a downshift on a steep grade. I know this becomes second nature with experience, but for the uninitiated it’s a huge learning curve.

Would I get dental surgery from someone who didn’t go to dental school? Of course not. Would I drive a manual transmission-equipped truck today? Absolutely not. They’d hear me grinding gears all the way to Queen’s Park.

It’s not like riding a bicycle, it’s a skill that for novice drivers will be lost with lack of use. If I were to drive a manual today, I wouldn’t be much smoother than I was in those early days of my training at WT Safety in Calgary.

I like the idea of a restricted licence for those who haven’t been trained on shifting gears. But I also think the industry should be able to police itself on this one. Are drivers today really driving manual transmission-equipped trucks with no experience on them? Carriers would be crazy to put someone without experience on a manual behind the wheel of a truck equipped with one.

And drivers need to have the confidence to refuse any pressure to do so. It’s a driver’s market and if you are experienced only on auto-shifts, then you can easily find a fleet that offers nothing but. If a fleet manager pressures you to drive a manual when you don’t have experience or comfort level operating one, tell them where to stick their shifter.

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