Have you been confused by the gear shift levers in a new car?
Most people have found themselves behind the wheel of an unfamiliar car, usually a rental, and experienced the disorienting sensation of not knowing how to do what you do every day in your own car. How do you put the windows down? What about unlocking the doors? Where the heck is the fuel cap release? It’s frustrating, but there’s also the chance that it could be dangerous.
You aren’t likely to get into trouble with things like a hard to find fuel cap release. but a gear shift lever that’s out of the norm is a different story. Once you’ve been driving for awhile there’s an intuitiveness to what you do to move from park to drive or reverse. Once upon a time, Park was always at the top with one notch down putting you in Reverse and Drive sitting even further down. There was no need to look at the lever because you could feel that you were in the right gear. You could also see it because the lever moved and then stayed put in each gear.
Modern vehicles don’t always follow this tried and true pattern. Get behind the wheel of a BMW and they have an electronic lever that moves to switch gears but then bounces right back to its resting place and puts reverse at the top so you push forward to go backward. Mercedes-Benz went old-school with a stalk on the steering column where reverse is up, drive is down, and park requires pushing a button on the end. There’s a big dial to select gears in Ram and Dodge vehicles and Lincoln has push buttons on the dash next to the infotainment screen.
I’ve driven each of these brand’s cars and it’s confusing. The dial setup in the Dodge and Ram was the easiest for me to get used to while that Mercedes-Benz stalk was as counter intuitive on day one as it was after a week of driving. It’s also right where your wipers are often located making it easy to hit entirely by mistake. The biggest problem comes when a driver suddenly needs to take action and doesn’t have time to think about how to change gears.
An accident in New York earlier this year brought to light the problems that these unconventional shifter levers may pose for new vehicle owners. A woman in a Mercedes that was only a few months old found herself stuck on some train tracks with the gate at the back of her car. According to Consumer Reports, witnesses said she drove forward at the last second rather than backward and out of the train’s path.
There’s no way of knowing exactly why she did this, but it does make you wonder if gear shift confusion played a part in the accident. Yes, we all get used to exactly where every control is in our cars after we’ve owned them for awhile, but that old muscle memory is hard to change. Years of shifting in a certain pattern could cause the wrong reaction in an emergency.
New gear shift levers are fine, but as they change they need to remain safe. If they’re confusing, then they have the potential to be dangerous. It’s something to think about when you buy your next new car.