Could Your Manual Transmission be Enough to Foil a Car Thief?

If you often find your vehicle’s make and model on the list of most-stolen vehicles in the country, you may wonder what—if anything—you can do to make your vehicle less attractive to would-be thieves. Despite a nearly endless variety of anti-theft devices, from keyed steering wheel bars to ear-piercing alarms, one of the most effective theft-prevention devices may lie just below your vehicle’s shift knob, foiling thieves at no extra cost to you. Statistically, there is a significant discrepancy in the theft rates between manual and automatic transmissions.

How do theft rates differ between manual and automatic transmission vehicles?  
FIAT 500L gear shift

Over the last three decades, the ratio of manual-to-automatic transmission vehicles has dropped dramatically. While about one in three passenger vehicles manufactured in 1980 featured a stick shift transmission, fewer than 7 percent of all new vehicles manufactured in 2010 had a stick shift. Because of this reduction in the number of stick shift vehicles, many drivers who came of age in the 90s and early 2000s have never encountered anything but an automatic transmission.  Additionally, a study done in the mid 1990’s showed that roughly 68% of car thieves began their criminal car stealing career while still being of ‘school age’.  When taking all of this into account, it is a fair assumption that today’s millennial car thieves may not even know what constitutes a manual transmission, so wouldn’t have the driving skills to steal a car with an automatic transmission.

A successful auto thief operates largely by stealth; for a successful theft, he or she will need to be able to enter the vehicle without drawing unwanted attention, then start the vehicle and drive it away quickly enough to prevent chase or capture. This means that most car thieves are opportunistic by nature, and an unfamiliar shift knob is likely to present far more of a complication than an easy-to-operate automatic shifter. By that same token, a vehicle that is left unlocked—or with the key in the ignition—is far more likely to be stolen than a secured vehicle.

There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to indicate that the theft rates of manual transmission vehicles are dwarfed by the theft rates of automatic vehicles; although insurance companies don’t sort their statistics by transmission type, many police officers indicate that they rarely, if ever, receive theft reports regarding manual transmission vehicles.

Can a manual transmission really be enough to prevent a car theft? 

If you live or park your car in a high-crime area, you probably won’t want to rely on your vehicle’s manual transmission as its sole anti-theft mechanism. However, you may find yourself with a comparative advantage over your neighbors who have automatic transmission vehicles; given the choice between taking off with your manual transmission vehicle and an easier-to-operate automatic transmission vehicle, few thieves will choose the tougher option.

Because a manual vehicle that has been parked with the transmission in neutral can be rolled away fairly easily from the outside, those considering installing an anti-theft device on a manual transmission vehicle may want to invest in a device designed to keep the wheels from turning when the engine is off. This essentially eliminates the one vulnerable theft point for manual transmissions, while also ensuring your vehicle won’t accidentally roll away if you’ve inadvertently forgotten to use the emergency brake.