In the eyes of the law, where’s the breathalyzer for drugs?

If we can’t get our game together on alcohol, what’s going to happen when we add legalized marijuana to the mix?

Originally published April 18, 2017

Canada loves being way up there, even number one, in those surveys about the best places to visit or live. Not so cool? We’re number one in alcohol-related vehicle deaths among wealthy countries, according to a study by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) reporting on 2015.

If we can’t get our game together on alcohol, what’s going to happen when we add legalized marijuana to the mix?

I pity the cops tasked with judging a cornucopia of drug-addled drivers, dabbling from both the illegal and legal sides of the aisle. Statistics are magic things; traffic fatalities are indeed down 43 per cent since 2000, but “proportion of deaths linked to alcohol impairment was 34 per cent, higher than any of the other countries in the survey.” Car manufacturers are saving us from ourselves with truly innovative safety features, but we merrily go on testing them with a hardcore of drunks who refuse to give up the wheel.

Police, politicians and advocacy groups have long been dealing with tackling booze, which continues to make up the vast majority of impaired charges. For instance, in Toronto last year, there were 1,376 total impaired arrests with 86 impaired by drugs. In 2015, there were only 24 “impaired by drug” arrests. The more accessible a substance is, the more likely police will see an increase in the number of drug-impaired arrests. But with the looming legalization of marijuana, it’s hard not to anticipate a corresponding spike in not just its usage, but acceptance. Washington state reports since legalization of cannabis five years ago, a full one-third of the impairment charges issued to drivers is for the drug.

I don’t care if you smoke dope; I do care if you get behind the wheel after you’ve done so. Pot can sabotage your reaction time and your focus; if legality entices a new group of smokers (and drivers) who haven’t previously experienced the effects of the drug, a whole new landscapes of impairment will be on our roads.

Police agencies in all jurisdictions of Canada have been working for years to train specialty officers to detect impairment in drivers, due to those substances not readily scientifically measured roadside: the cocaine, the meth, the opiates, the depressants and the hallucinogens. Roadside sobriety tests have long included more than a blow test, and recent pilot programs are introducing saliva tests.

Other countries have introduced drugalyzers, which test for the top eight prescribed drugs – Clonazepam, Diazepam, Flunitrazepam and Lorazepam, to name a few – and the top eight street drugs, including cocaine, cannabis/cannabol, LSD, ecstacy, etc. The drugalyzer units used in Great Britain cost about $4,000 Canadian and about $10 for a test strip.

Police in parts of Canada are already testing similar units. Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax and Gatineau, as well as the RCMP in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and Yellowknife, are administering a saliva test to those who volunteer to anonymously provide a sample. The results can’t be used in court, and are being used to establish protocol going forward on how or if the units might be used.

Constable Clint Stibbe with Toronto Police Services warns that just because a drug is legal, doesn’t mean you will avoid a charge if you are under impairment from it. As of February this year, their Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) are recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada; with no current measurable levels of impairment in place as there are for alcohol – in most parts of Canada, .08 BAC is indictable territory for impaired, but .05 BAC is where suspensions and impoundment set in – testimony from these DREs is accepted in court as expert testimony at trial.

Cannabis presents its own unique hurdles for judging impairment; the drug is estimated to stay in your system for about 30 days, but that number can stumble wildly depending on if you’re a one-time or long-term user. Measuring the buzz, or impairment, can be still harder. Stibbe warns that while a saliva test is a tempting threshold, it is simply another tool for law enforcement to use to augment their powers of detection. With a report released last week concluding for 2017, “the Toronto Police Service has seen an 11 per cent decrease in alcohol-related impaired driving arrests. Drug-impaired driving arrests have increased by approximately 18 per cent year-to-date,” they’re going to need all they can get.

There are a lot of substances, both legal and illegal, that people can ingest before getting behind the wheel. I doubt the legalization of cannabis will ever approach the spectacular carnage we’ve managed to achieve with alcohol, and the prohibition of that product did little to stop it anyway. We will be seeing new and improved ways for people to twist under the law and pay a lot of lawyers to help them.

But keep in mind that at this juncture, with or without a definitive version of a breathalyzer for street drugs, those DREs are considered experts in the eyes of the law.

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Teach teens an escape plan for when a driver is unsafe

We all felt invincible at that age, but every youth needs to know that their safety starts and ends with the driver – period

Originally published April 10, 2017

You’ve no doubt prepped your family for an emergency exit from your home in the event of fire. You’ve taught your kids to run away from strangers trying to give them a ride, you’ve taught your teens to call you if their ride gets impaired and they can’t get home.

I want to you do one more thing: Give them the tools to get out of a car when the one behind the wheel is driving over his or her head.

As the weather warms up, you can feel the freedom in the air. Summer teases in some days, even ahead of spring. Exam schedules loom but so does that intangible sense of possibility, not reserved for the young but surely more embraced by them. The next phase of growing up, that leaving behind of one grade for another or a new start, becomes more fraught when young drivers test their early skills with unknown territory.

There will be a headline in the coming weeks, somewhere in this country, maybe even in your community. There have been too many in the past and each one weighs heavy, stubbornly refusing to fade like so many others. A car full of young people will be out celebrating that end of school, that beginning of so much, embracing the emotion of being young and the freedom of exploring. And somewhere, something will go wrong and in the tangle of metal that is left, there will be tremendous loss. It will be because of speed, it might be because of impairment, but there will always be so many innocents affected it serves nobody to peg the blame, because it could have been any of them.

It could have been any of us.

So what can we do – as parents, as people who love these kids? I shudder when I think of the many times I must have had an angel on my shoulder as we careened around the backroads, seatbelts of dubious vintage as often off as on. Sometimes the lads had travellers, a beer in the cupholder I wouldn’t have sipped from but neither would I have said a word about. These were my friends and I didn’t want to look any younger than I was, didn’t want to be uncool. Yes, I was taught better, and I knew better, but there was that freedom and that bulletproof certainty that as long as I made it home by curfew, my world would be fine.

It’s what every kid thinks. They think we don’t know, because who admits to their children the dumb, dangerous things they used to do? Instead, I think of the friends I lost who were doing the same things I was, except I survived and they did not. And the lesson I passed to my own sons was the nature of dumb luck, instead of the long shadow of blaming someone whose luck ran out.

New cars are marvels of safety and technology, but every nanny system in the world can be overridden by a driver long on confidence and short on experience. Don’t rely on your car to be taking care of your kid, because every car starts and ends with the driver. Period.

We’ve all been in that place. The driver shouldn’t be driving. The driver is taking chances they shouldn’t. As adults, we usually have the experience and foresight to not go along in the first place, or the strength to say something. Many adolescents haven’t developed that yet – that ability to stand up to their peers and be that person who wants to grind the fun to a halt. But I think of those headlines, and I know we haven’t successfully parented until we’ve taught them how to get out of every dangerous situation and do so in a way that preserves their sense of social standing.

They don’t want to look stupid in front of their friends. Neither did I. Neither did you.

Talk to your teen about the skill level of those they drive with. They’re right to not feel safe if the driver is texting or speeding or drinking or high. They’re right to recognize – and feel unsafe – when the driver is driving above their skill set, or when the car is overpowering their experience. And your kid needs to know how to stay safe.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Do you really know if your child is safely strapped in?

A mother got caught in the middle of a debate after posting photos of her child, strapped in and being held upside down in a car seat

Originally published April 3, 2017

A mother from Maine put up a Facebook post to show how you could test whether or not you’d strapped your child correctly into his or her car seat. It was simple, fast and effective. So of course many piled in, clutching their pearls that what she was doing was bad and can’t we think of the children?

Considering how many people get part of the child car seat equation wrong, I think she did a great service. She strapped her kid in, then hefted the seat upside down to prove kiddo was securely fastened in. If anything had gone wrong, her child would have tumbled onto her; beats launching out of that seat in the event of a collision, no?

Child car seats are mandatory, and over recent years laws have extended both their design and their usage. Transport Canada has strict rules surrounding child safety seats, and following them will prevent serious injury or death if you’re involved in a crash. Children are vulnerable, and those car seats work in conjunction with the rapidly changing safety features that manufacturers are using to protect you, the adult. That airbag that could save you could kill a little one; doing any kind of workaround on that car seat could cost you dearly.

Using a car seat correctly is a two-part equation. The seat has to be properly secured to the vehicle, and your kid has to be properly secured to the seat. In her post, that mom from Maine showed exactly how important it is to have those straps correctly placed and tightened down.

Every time people are told not to put their child in a car seat wearing a bulky winter jacket, the hooting starts that we’re being unreasonable and don’t we know anything about Canadian winters? Sure we do. But anything that creates play in the straps creates danger. Don’t use bunting bags on infants, puffy jackets and any cushioning that isn’t part of the seat when you bought it.

I’m guessing some of this comes from the same people who are driving wearing huge chunky winter boots, then telling the officer the car just accelerated all by itself.

Car seat usage is based on the age, height and weight of your child. Until they meet requirements that will allow the vehicle’s safety features – seatbelts and airbags – to operate correctly, you have to protect your child. Transport Canada’s website is a trove of information and tips for parents, including:

  • When purchasing a car, take the seat or seats you will be using with you. Measure; not even all minivans will fit three seats, especially in a row, depending on the size of your family.
  • Don’t cross-border shop for deals. Canada has different, and stricter, laws surrounding child seat use. Make sure you register your purchase to be kept abreast of recalls and updates on the seat. Acceptable Canadian products are stamped with a certification.
  • If the car a seat is installed in is involved in a collision, even if the kid isn’t present at the time, ditch the seat. Much like a helmet, one hit and it’s done. You can’t see how it’s been compromised by absorbing the hit, but it might have been. Make it part of your insurance claim to replace it.
  • Child seats have an expiry date. The plastic deteriorates over time due to ultra violet rays. Straps and buckles can get weakened or compromised with spilled food or cleaners. Also note, “if you own any car seat or booster seat made before January 1, 2012, under Health Canada’s Canada Consumer Product Safety Act, you may not be able to advertise, sell or give it away because it may not meet the latest requirements set out by Health Canada.”
  • If you are disposing of a seat, don’t make it tempting to garbage pickers; cut the straps.
  • Every province provides clinics from a variety of contributors that will install your child car seats for you, or make sure that you’ve done it correctly. I’ve attended several and installers note that there is an overwhelming majority of parents who have done it wrong. Car manufacturers are making it easier to get it right, but go to Transport Canada’s site and find the name of a clinic near you – well worth the time, and it’s knowledge you can pass on.
  • If your child spends time in someone else’s car – a care provider, or grandparents – make sure they are properly secured. Don’t play “just this once” and leave your child unsecured, and don’t use outdated or dangerous seats.

That viral post demonstrated the importance of securing your child snugly into the seat. The seat itself should have not more than a couple of centimetres of give in any direction when it is tethered to the vehicle. Check the straps often – both sets – and maintain the snug fit.

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Luxury tastes growing for Canadians, especially for SUVs

Baby Boomer money, low interest rates spurring rise in luxury car sales – but upscale sedans take a big hit

Originally published March 22, 2017

Want to hear a fun fact? In 1990, there were 65 light luxury truck models sold in Canada. In the luxury market, that accounted for 0.2 per cent. Point two. Now? They account for 60 per cent of that market, which, in 2016, meant 130,124 vehicles. These figures do not include full size pickups, nor Smart or Minis.

It’s no surprise that SUVs and CUVs fill dealer’s showrooms and dominate our roads. Buyers can’t get enough of them, and manufacturers don’t just fill the segment with attractive options, they splinter existing segments and create new ones to wring every last incarnation out of a product line that never seems to get saturated.

Dennis DesRosiers, of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, has devoted more time than usual to the phenomenon in his latest report. Luxury vehicles sales are exploding, and show no signs of stopping. “There was a day when high luxury passenger cars, like the BMW 7 Series, the Audi A8 and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class accounted for over 40 per cent of luxury vehicle sales. Now they account for only 5.9 per cent of sales,” he reports.

Aren’t we supposed to going smaller? Aren’t we supposed to be going electric? Aren’t we supposed to be, well, less like a bunch of kids in a candy store and more, I don’t know, responsible? Manufacturers surely hope not.

First, the impact of luxury sales on the market as a whole is growing at a rapid clip. In 1990, the luxury portion was 3.1 per cent of the market with 39,000 units sold. “In the following decade (2000) its share almost doubled to 5.9 per cent and 91,ooo units. By 2010 its share had increased to 9.0 per cent and 143,000 units. And the last two years it exceeded 200,000 units per year and for the first time reached 11.1 per cent of the Canadian market,” according to DesRosiers.

There are many contributing factors. Low interest rates have helped shoehorn more people into more expensive cars, as have ridiculously extended loan periods. The Baby Boomers, and the huge bags of cash they’ve been sitting on, are cracking open the last of the great pensions and dipping into a too-hot-to-touch housing market. Money, money, everywhere.

The demise of the full-sized sedan that once showcased good taste and perfectly fine utility has been replaced with a clamouring for the higher vantage point of a truck but the all the comforts of a well-appointed home.

DesRosiers notes that the U.S. market is 20 times the size by volume of Canada’s, and vehicle pricing is often lower. When the dollar was closer to par a few years back, thousands of luxury vehicles were imported into Canada. At first blush, this would seem to indicate luxury sales here would falter. Instead, it’s a case of once you go luxury, you never go back. “Now that they own a luxury vehicle, most are unwilling to move back to a mass market vehicle,” says DesRosiers.

The top sellers of the segment are BMW and Mercedes-Benz, followed by Audi, Lexus and Acura. Many badges are now stretching their reach beyond their high-end segments and venturing into mass market territory, snaring buyers who previously would have been unable to sit themselves behind the wheel of something sporting that cachet. Many of those who purchase or lease the high end rollers also turn them over rapidly, leaving behind rich secondary, tertiary and even more, fields.

DesRosiers notes there is good life in more expensive rides. They tend to be better built and better maintained, he argues. Lifespan figures bear out his words: after 25 years, 7.1 per cent of mass market vehicles will still be on the road, compared to 21.8 per cent of luxury, 24.7 high luxury, 58.6 luxury sport and 22.4 luxury SUV. DesRosiers tosses in a brain teaser from 1990 that highlights this longevity issue. “Which brand led the luxury market in 1990? … Volvo was the number one luxury brand in Canada in the late 80s through to 1990s when both Cadillac and Oldsmobile finally outsold them.” You still see these Volvos on the road today.

For consumers, it’s important to note that these aspirational buying habits can come with their own considerations. The people with all the coin buy them and often cast them aside in a few years. That may leave a lovely buffet for those of us striving to get out of our less thrilling mass market offerings, but the fact remains, more expensive cars, even if purchased for a bargain price, come with more expensive upkeep.

Premium buyers demand, and get, the latest in technology and safety. The latest also means the least tested in many cases, and you really need to measure your tolerance for putting up with bugs or glitches. If my dealer says I have to leave my vehicle with them for a few days or a week until they can replicate the problem, can I live without my car? Will they give me a loaner if I’m not Daddy Warbucks?

The report goes further into interesting points about fixed operations for the luxury brands. Dealerships need expensive stand-alones to be successful; if you’re about to shell out for a piece of high-end luxury, you don’t want to be rubbing shoulders with the great unwashed, apparently. Genesis, the upscale Hyundai brand, is facing this right now. The cars are stunning but it is cost prohibitive to develop boutique dealerships that showcase an upscale product that has yet to capture much percentage of the market.

Forecasts are for sunny skies. DesRosiers sees sales of 300,000 luxury units by 2020 and 350,000 by 2025. Brands are increasing their bricks and mortar investment to capture the expanding lucrative aftermarket and service dollars, but the combination of the required glitz means steep buy-in from both brand and dealer principals.

Canadians bought 1.95 million vehicles last year; never were so few of them sedans, and never were so many of them from the luxury segment.

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The little things can mean a lot when it comes to fine print

Warranties and insurance are unforgiving if you make one small (or large) mistake without knowing the consequences

Originally published March 20, 2017

The little things mean a lot.

And sometimes they mean everything.

When a recent bout of unseasonable weather warmed everything from the air to the cockles of motorists’ hearts, some eager beavers flung caution to the wind and had their winter tires rotated right out. “Avoid the lineups come April,” I could almost hear them saying. Who doesn’t want to check a few things off that endless to-do list sooner rather than later?

About those tires. With insurance companies now offering compensation to those who use them, most people called to ask how much of a discount they could expect. Too many others forget they’re expected to uphold their end of the agreement, and keep those tires on between specified dates. It’s usually April 1 or April 15 before they can come off, but each company differs.

The problem? By rushing spring, you could be setting yourself up for a very expensive lesson. If you have a crash before the contracted date and you don’t have on the specified tires, your insurance company can reasonably tell you you’re on your own for the damages. They had a requirement; you broke it. Remember: Insurance companies mitigate risk, and it’s very easy to mitigate you right out if you don’t play by the rules.

That might seem nit-picky, but as some comments on a recent headline-grabbing story made clear, not everybody gets how insurance works. Recent pictures show a once-glorious McLaren Spider, now crumpled by the roadside here in Burlington, Ontario, after meeting its demise by being plowed into a hydro box. Car crashes are a dime a dozen, of course, but there is something almost pornographic about seeing $300,000 worth of car with its face punched in.

Those commenters? Some were up in arms that a claim of such metal violence would be paid out to some drunk brat. They needn’t have worried; get convicted of a criminal code violation – like drunk driving – and your insurance to repair or replace that vehicle vaporizes. Dude behind the wheel was charged with Impaired Driving Causing Bodily Harm (he had a passenger) and Over 80 Causing Bodily Harm.

Maybe ride share and drive share programs are your thing. You’ve sorted out your insurance to make sure you’re all legal, but what about your leasing agreement? If you lease, you’re just borrowing the vehicle, and most leasing agreements, buried in the print you flipped past, expressly state you can’t use the vehicle as a ride-for-hire. As the world changes, leasing companies are finding ways to keep up, but read your contract carefully. A dealer principal related one story to me where the lessee brought his car in for servicing and left the Uber sign in his window. Oops.

Speaking of leasing, you might be considering it. Rates are attractive and for anyone who prefers a new vehicle every few years, it might be the way to go. By now everybody knows to be attentive to the mileage piling up, but consider a few other things that can all act as “gotchas” when it’s time to turn it in.

If you’ve had your leased vehicle for four years, it’s probably going to need tires. If you don’t replace them, they’ll do it and charge you for them. You can’t hand it back needing brakes. You can’t hand it back with holes punched in the dash for aftermarket anything. The workaround, of course, is to buy or lease a new vehicle from the same place, when they are notoriously easy-going on what they’ll overlook, because they have lots of other places to hide the cost of the things it looks like they’re absorbing. A month before your lease is up, have a technician go over it to point out where it might cost you money. Find a set of decent, used (matching) tires if you have to; it’ll be a lot cheaper than the leasing company’s solution. Actually, anything you do will be cheaper than their solution.

Fine print on warranties is a fun minefield. I had a reader learn her backup camera wasn’t included under her “bumper to bumper” warranty, because the term is misleading at best. If you take an extended warranty, make sure you’re aware of the exclusions. Longer warranties are attractive right now in many cases because of computer component and high-tech systems that are still having the bugs worked out. With so many sensors, cameras and modules that work in conjunction with each other, it can get really pricey, really fast. Do yourself a favour: Read a warranty and note what isn’t covered, rather than what is.

It might sound like the biggest snoozefest in the world, but do yourself a favour and read your owner’s manual, your warranty, your sales or leasing agreement and your insurance policy. Better to figure out what you’re going to do instead of what you should have done.

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Everyone pays for insurance fraud, even the innocent

Ever wonder why your car insurance fees are so high? We all pay the price for fraud

Originally published March 13, 2017

What if I told you that between $116 and $236 per year of your insurance premium went to line some liar’s pocket?

It’s Fraud Prevention Month, and car insurance costs – especially in Ontario – continue to escalate. While the amount you pay is the usual calculus of where you live, the driving histories of those who drive your car, how difficult the car is to steal and how much it costs to repair, fraudulent claims remain a substantial portion of that bottom line you are charged each year.

Fraud rings are headline grabbers, as they should be. Sophisticated criminals often working quite literally from street level (those who stage crashes) on up through the ranks of tow truck operators, lawyers and medical providers cost us all.

But what about that time you had the front end collision and had the body shop take care of that older dent in your door while it was in the shop? What if your neck wasn’t really that sore anymore, but you had the chance to keep going to massage appointments for just a few weeks longer? When kids broke into all the cars in your neighbourhood and you suddenly “remembered” you’d left your camera in the car that night, instead of just a cupholder full of change? These opportunistic crimes also add a more substantial tally to insurance fraud than you might realize.

Dr. Yoel Inbar is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, specializing in social and personality psychology. He focuses on moral decision making. What makes us tick. What makes us steal.

“There are several things at play,” he explains. “There’s an assumption this is a victimless crime. That the loss will be against a huge company, instead of against the collective, the other customers. We know, of course, that these costs all translate into higher premiums for all of us.”

People who would not steal a pair of boots from a retail outlet may not feel morally compromised tossing in a few older dings and dents to a larger repair job that has been warranted.

“There is an element of justification, in some cases,” Inbar explains. “You’ve been paying into this insurance pot for so long and not getting anything from it. Some people almost see it as a savings account.”

He also notes we take our cues from what is happening around us, what we come to perceive as norms. “The idea can develop that everybody else is doing it, so I can, too.”

The Financial Services Commission of Ontario (FSCO) states nearly 10 per cent of Ontarians admit committing auto insurance fraud, and 20 per cent know someone who has. The bad news for those contemplating sharing your stories? Fifty-eight per cent have no problem throwing a friend or acquaintance under the reporting wheels. The Ontario figures show males are significantly more likely to participate in fraudulent behaviour, as are millennials. Baby boomers have a better grasp (83 per cent) of what constitutes fraud over millennials (56 per cent), which perhaps explains the gap – sort of. “I didn’t know any better” doesn’t pass the smell test for this one, though.

You might read headlines of organized crime rings shaking down the auto insurance industry and wonder why you should be bothered if your neighbour scores a little extra body work on his or her banged up Impala. You should care because, while those scamming rings get a lot of media attention, in actuality, they aren’t the nuts and bolts of the fraud infrastructure. According to the latest figures available from the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), a KPMG report put out in 2013 using 2010 figures estimates total fraud in Canada at between $768 million and $1.56 billion. They break that figure out into three types of fraud: organized (those headlines), premeditated and opportunistic; they peg the organized crime fraud at between $175 million and $275 million.

Premeditated involves things like treatment programs that never take place; parts of the medical industry capitalizing on either a patient’s lack of knowledge about what they are signing or simply having patients sign blank treatment programs. Opportunistic fraud is that phantom camera in the break-in or the additional mechanical claims.

Even if the organized component of that estimate is low, that still leaves a wide margin of insurance fraud that is being paid out to elements that you and I, average consumers, have much control over. We are ripping off each other. Don’t sign blank treatment schedules from healthcare providers, and make sure you understand just what is being proposed. I’ve had this happen and didn’t even realize until months later. The (now gone) provider had claimed treatments I’d never even heard of, much less received. In a post-crash fog, I’d just been desperate for someone to get me back to work.

Professor Inbar notes that human nature is flexible, and that “possessing salient information can have a surprisingly large effect on the decisions we make.” Small tweaks can lead to big change. Insurance fraud is very much about who is watching. He notes studies have shown people react differently with something as basic as a pair of cartoon eyes attached to their monitor, or a mirror. By now we’ve all grown used to the idea that we are constantly being monitored and filmed; maybe reining in insurance fraud will be an upside to that intrusion.

Make a plan for what you will do in the event of a crash, like where you’d have your vehicle towed. Demand detailed medical and repair reports. Don’t sign blank authorizations. Ask for help if you’re unsure.

You can anonymously report suspected insurance fraud. In Ontario, contact FSCO (855-5TIP-NOW) or for all of Canada IBC (877-IBC-TIPS), or Crimestoppers.

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Bad driving habits rub off on kids, whether you know it or not

Whenever a kid’s in your car, you have an extra responsibility to teach some good driving manners

Originally published March 6, 2017

Pop Quiz: At what age do your children learn how to drive?

a) 16, or whenever it’s legal

b) 14 (or less), because we live in the boonies

c) When they go to get their licence

The truth is, your child is learning to drive from the first time they are cognizant they are in a car and someone is driving. Year, year-and-a-half maybe? Kids are smart.

We spend a great deal of time and money prepping our offspring to get behind the wheel. Some teens can’t wait and some we have to urge to get it over with. Maybe you live in an area with terrific transit and it’s not a consideration, though I’ll never believe the ability to drive is not a skill worth having. Whatever the circumstances, parents, grandparents and anyone else who regularly drives with children needs to keep something in mind: You are teaching them every time you get behind the wheel.

Our roads can be chaotic, our commutes can be exasperating, and whether you’re driving across town or across the country, you will encounter a unique set of circumstances every time you set out. How you handle them will be absorbed in the eyes and ears of those in the back seat, and their own driving behaviour will reflect your actions.

By the time your 15-year-old is asking you if it was okay to run that amber light, it’s too late. You’ve probably been doing similar things for years. Bad habits don’t form overnight, and most of us don’t know or won’t admit that we have a long list of bad habits on full display when we drive. I’m not going to try to save you from yourself, because only some dedicated, voluntary time with an instructor will do that. All I’m asking is that you check some of your actions and resist handing off those often dangerous actions to the next generation.

Some of it is just behavioural; if you’re a frustrated driver who angers easily, your kids already know you will honk and swear at anyone and anything that gets in your way. If you don’t care about the fact this can run the gamut from being uncomfortable to terrifying for your passengers, maybe you’ll consider that you’re teaching your kid to be an emotional driver. Translate that aggression and rage into someone who has little experience behind the wheel, and you’re advocating some pretty deadly decisions.

Flipside, if you yourself are a knotted stressball when you drive, your passivity can be detrimental to anyone taking their cues from you. Don’t teach your kids that it is safe to wave others through stop signs when it is your turn to go; do not enter a highway on-ramp by coming to a halt because you’re too hesitant; do not drive in the passing lane white-knuckling the wheel because you’re scared of all the cars and trucks around you.

Modern technology is, of course, fabulous. You can turn your car into a mobile office no matter where you are, and take calls on the fly. I have a better idea. If your children are in the car with you, focus on them. Instead of patterning the distracted, dangerous action of yapping on the phone while you ignore what’s happening both inside and outside your car, use that time to reconnect with what matters most. Keep your attention on the road and converse with your passengers, who are experiencing the same things you are. Talking on your cellphone while you drive, or push a baby buggy, or walk your kids home from school is not spending time with those kids. Don’t kid yourself. You’re ripping them off.

Brush up on the rules of the road. Things have changed since you got your licence, from the way vehicles actually perform to the laws that govern our traffic. Make your someday-drivers part of the equation. Teach them how to change lanes safely, and how to judge distances. Perfect example? Coming back on a trip one time, a suspected drunk driver cut me off when my son was with me. He handled the call to authorities as we went over figuring out exactly where we were, which direction we were headed, which exit we’d just passed and how far it was until the next one. From staying calm in a dangerous moment to understanding highway markings, he learned what kind of information is needed to help police. He was 14.

When the time comes for the new driver in your household to head into a driving classroom, don’t be surprised when they start critiquing your moves. Maybe you’ve been taking a corner and heading directly into the far lane instead of the curb lane for so long you forgot it’s illegal; maybe you block an intersection because everyone else does it; maybe you don’t shoulder check as much as you should because your car has warning systems.

And maybe you’re passing up a great opportunity to make at least two people in that car better, safer drivers.

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Buying new? Here’s how to make the most out of negotiating

Practice your power pose and start with an assertive handshake to set the groundwork for gaining the upper hand

Originally published on February 27, 2017

The next time I buy a new car, I’m taking Fotini Iconomopoulos with me. I’m not going to say a word, I’m just going to watch a pro handle a negotiation.

Iconomopoulos is a chair for the Network of Executive Women, and her mouthful of an official title – Negotiation, Communication, & Commercial Strategy Specialist – hints at the large corporate stages she works on. Taking her to an automotive showroom might be like taking a Howitzer to a pub league darts night, but her tips for buying a car are gold.

Our conversation was initially about the very real differences between how women and men negotiate, or fail to. If you’re a woman and dread buying a car because the process feels adversarial, you aren’t alone. But what if you could deal from a place of confidence, of strength? What if you could learn a few tips to balance the power scale? Buying a car isn’t just about securing the best price; it’s about making sure you’re buying the right car for your needs.

Iconomopoulos points out all the subtle – and not so subtle – ways a negotiation is controlled, and who does that controlling. It’s imperative that as a buyer, you establish the groundwork for not just what you may eventually buy, but how you will be treated in that transaction.

“You send a signal from the opening handshake,” she says, explaining that in this moment, you are messaging that you will be in a position of control. You can form the groundwork, letting them know this is the first appointment of the day for you, and you have a limited amount of time. “You anchor this position from the beginning.”

As a woman, if you’ve gone into a car dealership with a man, whether it’s your husband, your father, your friend or even your son, you may have experienced a sales representative gravitating towards that man with his or her explanations, even if you asked the questions, even if you’re the one writing the cheque, even if you’re the one who will be driving the car. The industry has worked hard in recent years to rebalance this, but the fact remains that too many still believe that men have a magic chromosome that allows them to understand complicated things better.

“Be prepared,” says Iconomopoulos. “Men are more confident; that’s testosterone at work. Women experience more stress, which is cortisol. You can physically prepare yourself with what I call power poses; they will ramp up your testosterone, regardless of gender, and help ditch the stress,” she says. Literally taking up more space is a non-verbal tell that you are in control. Wear something that makes you feel confident. Stand up straight.

Language, of course, is a huge part of a negotiation. Iconomopoulos suggests ditching the soft language that will present you as “movable.” “Don’t use words like: probably, maybe, around,” she says. Be concise, and look for hints of that soft language from the other side of the desk. “If you don’t hear ‘the price is X’,” says Iconomopoulos, then you have a negotiation beginning. “They’ve just signalled they have room to move. Listen for it.”

I asked the number one thing women do wrong. “They talk too much,” says Iconomopoulos, with a laugh. “Shut up. Silence is far more effective.” She admits women are socialized into much of that behaviour, using more words to justify a question, to overcompensate for, well, everything. She also notes younger women are often less jaded and more willing to step up, a clue that perhaps we are changing how we raise our girls.

I asked Iconomopoulos how to get around the problem of a sales rep addressing the wingman instead of the buyer. I shouldn’t have to leave a trusted friend or family member behind simply because they’re male.

“Go in with a game plan,” she suggests. “You initiate the introduction, you start the conversation, and your companion should simply say, ‘Lorraine is the decision maker.’ Own your presence, and pick up on subtleties. If this isn’t going the way you want it to, be polite and concise and simply say thank you for your time, but we won’t be reaching an agreement today.” You are the one spending money; you can spend it anywhere you like.

Do your research; ask specific questions
Boost your testosterone; pull off a few power poses before you go in!
Establish you are the one the salesperson will be dealing with
Refrain from using “soft” language, while listening for hints of it from the other side
Stop talking
Don’t be afraid to say no and walk away

I often make reference to the fact that the internet has changed the way consumers buy cars, with buyers now able to access a level playing field when it comes to information. There will always be differences between men and women, and there will always be inherent advantages and disadvantages. When it comes to negotiating on a new car purchase, however, Iconomopoulos’s tips hand power back to the buyer – male or female.

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Station wagons offered Dad that little extra “just in case” room

Though waning in popularity now, the wagon was perfect for those unexpected roadside treasures

Originally published February 20, 2017

Just in case.

That is the real reason people buy the vehicles they do. I was having another discussion with an industry consultant, and we were questioning why SUV and pickup sales remain so stubbornly high, even as manufacturers continue to pledge to reinvent themselves as a landscape of subcompact electrics.

There’s the usual emotion-got-the-better-of-me thing, and there are particularly adept salespeople who can push you off your mark. But the fact remains that many of us are driving around in cars that are too big, too small, too expensive to maintain, or simply not what we thought we were buying.

I think there is something else at play, the Alfred Sommerfeld Just In Case dilemma. My father bought honking big station wagons because you never know when you’re going to need a honking big station wagon, and you’d hate to be caught with your pants down if the need for one arose.

I was reminded of this the other day, when I got stuck behind a line of cars who had slowed on a local street for no discernible reason. I finally crept past the hold up: somebody had put a bunch of household goods at the curb, and this required those driving past to decide if these goods should be added to their households. Maybe not every person going by thought that, but my father surely would have. He called bulk collection, good garbage days.

We didn’t have station wagons because we all played hockey or had dogs with kennels. We had station wagons so my father could shop by the side of the road.

Just in case.

Born in 1926, Dad threw away nothing and took full advantage when others did. He would haul me to flea markets and auctions out in the country, sometimes with a specific purchase in mind but more often than not, it was purely a scouting expedition. He was a coin collector, and we’d sometimes come home with a purchase he would assure me was very special, and we’d just stolen it because some people had no clue what they were selling while others were lying crooks. I listened to him though I mostly went along to get a hotdog and a Coke from the cart outside and wonder if the people who’d owned all this stuff were dead, and then I’d make up stories in my head about their lives.

The purpose of our station wagons was the promise they represented. If we could find it, we could bring it home. It didn’t matter if Dad’s new purchase was as small as a coin and fit in his pocket, or had to be strung onto the roof racks, we could do it. There was a box in the back of the car full of stretched out bungee cords and coils of rope.

There was a quilted packing blanket that could protect the delicate edges of a dresser or wrap up a kid too cold to care about the provenance of the warmth. I remember countless times Dad shaking grass clippings and bark and dried mud from that blanket, and then tucking it around whichever kid was complaining.

My Dad could root around in the back of that wagon and find everything from buckets of tools and rags to jumper cables, the same way my Mom could find everything from safety pins to Jolly Ranchers in her purse.

Just in case.

Growing up in a household that prided itself on its ability to haul home Christmas trees or a cord of wood, I ended up doing what many of us do when we purchase cars: I anticipated trips like that, though they may only happen once a year. I’ve had to educate myself on the fact the few deliveries I receive don’t justify owning a truck, and people selling cords of wood usually know they’ll have to bring it to you. Roaming the street with furniture tied to the roof racks like some metallic Sherpa is not what owning a car is all about, though I understand my father’s deep seated need to be able to do it. What’s the point of stumbling upon perfect treasure if you can’t get it home?

My Dad bought a small car just once, when he needed an A to B ride for work. A colleague found him a Morris dirt cheap, and after driving it for a few weeks someone rear ended him and he left it where it sat and walked home. He bought a Dodge Ramcharger. I swear it was because he couldn’t stand to drive by an abandoned but perfectly good bookcase, or to turn down a free load of cinder blocks.

Hatchbacks make up a larger percentage of cars sales in Canada than they do in the U.S. Seems we like practical, and it seems we like to have that little bit extra room.

Just in case.

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Appreciate the power you have to defeat depreciation

There are ways to get your full money back if your car is a write-off in a crash

Originally published February 13, 2017

Dilemma of the week:

A reader got rear-ended and was deemed not at fault. The car, a 2013 Ford, was written off by the insurance company. The bigger problem? The payout was $12,000, yet she had $15,000 remaining on her car loan. The payout was fair; she was a very high miler, and the insurance adjustor went to the top of the pay scale for her.

The issue now is that $3,000 gap on top of having to replace her car.

You might be surprised that a car that looks relatively fine can be deemed a write-off. The problem is often all the tech involved. If an entry level car has several airbags go off, it’s usually a throwaway. Replacing those bags is expensive. If a $12,000 computer system has been damaged, it could be rendered too costly to fix. Another problem is much of that tech is embedded in bumpers and mirrors; even a modest parking lot hit can end up damaging costly sensors and cameras. All of this can add up, and fast.

Before anything happens, this chasm between what you’re getting and what you need can be bridged on a new car in two ways. The first is on your insurance policy, where you can take a Limited Waiver of Depreciation. It’s available on new vehicles, usually for a 24- to 30-month period. It removes depreciation from the vehicle in the event of a total loss. If you paid $30,000 for a vehicle, you get $30,000 and your lease or lien is paid out. Aviva Canada has a five-year protection option, check out details and restrictions. Securing the wavier through your insurance could raise your annual premium by about thirty bucks, depending on your driving record; signing up for it at the point of sale could be around $20 per month, so shop carefully.

The second is through the dealer. When you buy a new car, you can purchase gap insurance to cover the shortfall. You can also purchase it from third-party companies. I strongly suggest starting with your own insurance broker, it’s where you’re likely to get the best deal. Different dealers carry different products, but I was once offered this coverage at a monthly rate at a dealer for what it ended up costing me annually through my insurance.

This information is useful if your car that has been written off is new. My reader, with that 2013, would have been well outside the compensation boundaries even if she’d had gap coverage. So, unqualified for gap coverage, more than fair settlement from her insurance company, and still out three grand. What are her options, from an insurance perspective?

She could sue the at-fault third party. The problem, of course, is that I have a reader with a problem that has a clock ticking on it, and when you need answers in a few days, entertaining watching it drag out in the courts for possibly years does little to solve the more pressing issues at hand.

If you don’t have the resources to simply absorb the loss, is there anything you can do? One dealer I spoke to offered up the following:

“If a new car had a rebate on it, say three or four thousand, you could create the loan on a new purchase without the rebate, and direct that money to pay off that shortfall. The rebate can be applied in several ways, and every customer is different,” he explained.

Be careful inflating the value of a new car loan in other ways when it comes to securing funding. With the extended life of car loans (84 months is now quite common), you run the risk of being underwater on your loan for longer. If the value of your car is less than what you owe, you’re underwater. This is most likely to be in the first few years of your loan, making a write-off collision potentially more costly in more ways than one. Dealers have been known to get creative to get your business; be wary of anyone who is promising you what nobody else could deliver. Be prepared to be stuck with the difference between what your car is worth and what you might owe, and talk to your insurance broker when you get a new car.

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