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Starting (nearly) from scratch: learning how to drive stick shift in Germany

After passing her test in Canada with an automatic car, The Local’s Shelley Pascual had no idea what she was letting herself in for when she jumped into an Auto in Deutschland and found herself confronted with a gear stick.

This article is available to Members of The Local. Read more Membership Exclusives here.

In countries such as the US and Canada, automatic cars are much, much more common than manuals. When I was in driving school over a decade ago, I didn’t even know there was an option to learn how to drive using gears.

If you are one of the select few who can operate a manual vehicle, others tend to be in awe of you. Even today there are only a handful of friends and family I know who possess the valuable skill.

Young Drivers of Canada, the biggest driving training organization across the country with 140 locations, stopped offering their manual transmission lessons in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in 2013. This is despite the fact that the GTA is Canada’s most populous metropolitan area with over six million inhabitants.

Looking back, I wish I had learned at 16 how to drive a manual car rather than an automatic. But how was I to know I’d end up moving to Germany years later – a country where about 80 percent of the new cars have a gear stick?

If I had known then that it’s way easier to switch from manual to automatic than the other way around, I would have saved two years of my life.

Sucking it up and learning once and for all

When I relocated to the city of Braunschweig in 2012, I was delighted yet bewildered when I found out I could easily exchange my Canadian driving licence for a German one without having to complete any tests – even though I hadn’t the slightest clue how to operate the majority of the cars in the country (bizarre, I know).

FOR MEMBERS: What you need to know about German driving licences

Friends from countries like the UK and Germany would only chuckle when I told them about my predicament. But I couldn’t change the hands of time. And I knew at that point if I ever stood a chance of driving in Deutschland, it would mean I’d have to suck it up and learn how to operate a stick shift automobile once and for all.

My partner and I didn’t have our own car, but we did have access to his family’s wheels whenever we visited them. The only issue for me was – you guessed it – the car was a manual vehicle, meaning I didn't know how to drive it.

But much like my vigour for learning German, I was determined to learn how to operate the family’s Kleinwagen. Still, it took me about two years before I could say I properly achieved this feat.

To be fair, I could have probably learned stick shift in a few months. But since there was no rush for me to learn, and I didn’t want to cough up loads of cash for the lessons, I chose instead to learn the freestyle way and practise whenever visiting my in-laws.

Shelley decided against taking lessons at a driving school. Photo: DPA

The biggest hurdle by far was getting out of first gear. Adding another foot to the mix felt like the most unnatural thing to me.

We would go out to practise in empty parking lots, and over and over again I’d lament the fact that my right foot just couldn’t get in sync with my left foot when it came to getting into first gear. For months I pressed much too hard on the accelerator while failing to find the clutch. Over and over again the car jolted and stalled.

During these first few practice sessions there were times when I thought I’d pack it all in, vowing that I’d never buy myself an automatic. Slowly but surely though, I managed to get my feet to coordinate with one another and the shuddering stalls became ever less frequent.

Each time we visited my in-laws I had the chance to practise, which isn’t to say I improved bit by bit. Sometimes I’d make lots of progress, such as getting onto a country road without making any glaring mistakes, only to feel I’d unlearned everything a few months later.

The autobahn was less scary than I anticipated

Soon enough though I was able to drive on city roads comfortably and decided it was time to try out the autobahn. When I finally got onto the highway, I was surprised to find it was actually less scary than I had anticipated.

Having learned to speed up in the ramp during my driving school days, I did the same while driving the Kleinwagen by switching directly from third gear to fifth gear.

And once I was on the autobahn, aside from the lack of a speed limit in certain sections, and the rule that cars can only overtake on the left, I found it very similar to driving on Canadian highways.

On highways in Canada the speed limit is usually 120 km/hr and it’s common for cars to overtake on both sides (something I’ve come to despise, as the German rule which states cars can only overtake on the left makes much more sense for the flow of traffic).

SEE ALSO: Six reasons why I never want to drive on the autobahn again

Reaching a milestone

It must have been sometime in 2014 when I unwittingly reached a milestone in my drawn out process of learning how to drive stick shift. While I felt fine for the most part driving manual vehicles, the only passenger I’d ever had was my partner.

The memory is vivid in my mind: we were at a friend's house and all wanted to go out for drinks, but no one wanted to be the designated driver. After a bit of nudging I was eventually talked into being the one who would refrain from drinking any alcohol that night.

Photo: DPA

On the outside I appeared cool, calm and collected. But on the inside I was terrified at the thought of being responsible for the lives of four other people.

In the end I had worried the entire night for nothing, as the drive home went smoothly. Needless to say, it boosted my confidence and the handful of times after that when I had passengers, I became more and more at ease.

What also helped me become a more confident stick driver was the fact that after I arrived in Germany I also learned to drive a manual transmission moped. I’d tell myself, “if I can drive a two-wheeler without a metal shell protecting me from the dangers of German streets, surely I can manage a four-wheeler with a shell.”

SEE ALSO: Here’s a little-known East German vehicle that’s actually amazing

Nowadays I still don’t own a car, meaning it’s not often I find myself driving at all. When I visited family in Toronto last Easter, I rented a car for about a week which was (sorry, not sorry) automatic.

Nevertheless I have plans to buy a Kleinwagen of my own in the near future. And I’ve decided it will be of the stick shift variety.

I want to do this not because it will be better for fuel consumption or that I’ll have more control over the vehicle, but because I don't want to take the easy way out.

While I’m now fine in pretty much all road situations on German streets and highways regardless of a vehicle’s transmission, if you asked me to parallel park on a slope with a manual car, I’d still find myself in a bit of a pickle.

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COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

Certain countries around Europe have stricter policies than others regarding drinking and driving and harsher punishments for those caught exceeding legal limits. Here's what you need to know.

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

European countries set their own driving laws and speed limits and it’s no different when it comes to legal drink-drive limits.

While the safest thing to do of course, is to drink no alcohol at all before driving it is useful to know what the limit is in the country you are driving in whether as a tourist or as someone who frequently crosses European borders by car for work.

While some countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance for drinking and driving, in others people are allowed to have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood while driving.

However, not only can the rules be different between countries, they are usually stricter for commercial (or bus) drivers and novice drivers as well. Besides that, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is extremely difficult to estimate, so the old “one beer is ok” standards no longer safely apply.

In the end, the only way to be safe is to avoid consuming alcohol before driving. Any amount will slow reflexes while giving you dangerous higher confidence. According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is no ‘safe’ drinking level.

How is blood alcohol level measured?

European countries mostly measure blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount, in grams, of alcohol in one litre of blood.

After alcohol is consumed, it will be absorbed fast from the stomach and intestine to the bloodstream. There, it is broken down by a liver-produced enzyme.

Each person will absorb alcohol at their own speed, and the enzyme will also work differently in each one.

The BAC will depend on these metabolic particularities as well as body weight, gender, how fast and how much the person drank, their age and whether or not (and how much) they have eaten, and even stress levels at the time.

In other words there are many things that may influence the alcohol concentration.

The only way to effectively measure BAC is by taking a blood test – even a breathalyser test could show different results. Still, this is the measuring unit used by many EU countries when deciding on drinking limits and penalties for drivers.

Here are the latest rules and limits.

Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Croatia

In most EU countries, the limit is just under 0.5g/l for standard drivers (stricter rules could be in place for novice or professional drivers).

This could be exceeded by a man with average weight who consumed one pint of beer (containing 4.2% alcohol) and two glasses of red wine (13% alcohol) while having dinner.

If a person is caught driving with more than 0.8g/l of blood alcohol content in Austria, they can pay fines of up to € 5,900 and to have their license taken for one year in some cases.

In France, if BAC exceeds 0.8g/l, they could end up with a 2-year jail sentence and a € 4,500 fine. In Germany, penalties start at a € 500 fine and a one-month license suspension. In Greece, drunk drivers could face up to years of imprisonment.

In Denmark, first time offenders are likely to have their licences suspended and could be required to go on self-paid alcohol and traffic courses if BAC levels are low. Italy has penalties that vary depending on whether or not the driver has caused an accident and could lead to car apprehension, fines and prison sentences.

In Spain, going over a 1.2g/l limit is a criminal offence that could lead to imprisonment sentences and hefty fines. 

Norway, Sweden, and Poland

In Norway, Sweden, and Poland, the limit for standard drivers is 0.2g/l. It could take a woman with average weight one standard drink, or one can of beer, to reach that level.

Penalties in Norway can start at a one month salary fine and a criminal record. In Poland, fines are expected if you surpass the limit, and you could also have your license revoked and receive a prison sentence.

Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia

The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have one of the strictest rules in the European Union. There is no allowed limit of alcohol in the blood for drivers.

In the Czech Republic, fines start at € 100 to € 800, and a driving ban of up to one year can be instituted for those driving with a 0.3 BAC level. However, the harshest penalties come if the BAC level surpasses 1 g/l, fines can be up to € 2,000, and drivers could be banned from driving for 10 years and imprisoned for up to three years.

This is intended to be a general guide and reference. Check the current and specific rules in the country you plan to travel to. The easiest and best way to be safe and protect yourself and others is to refrain from drinking alcohol and driving.