Highway chargers won’t be needed if you’re going to the cottage

Instead of updating current infrastructure, electric vehicles open up different options

In the last couple of Motor Mouth columns here, David Booth has raised some great points on the future of electric vehicles, alongside the hair-raising costs they will entail. I’m not going to question his math (hell, I don’t even question his hairstyle) but I want to toss a little wrench his way, a few what-ifs. We all know if there are ten factors to an equation, tweaking even one ever so slightly can drastically change the outcome. There are far more than ten factors to this subject, so you can imagine the combinations and permutations that could exist. Remember, it was only a couple years ago that diesel was the answer. Diesel who? Things move pretty fast.

I happen to think Booth’s suggestion of extended-range electric vehicles is sort of brilliant; don’t tell him I said so. Canada is a unique place with regards to geography and climate, and one size does not fit all. We are also the last country to the table when it comes to choice in our vehicles; for the most part, we get what everybody else has decided they want.

Just a few years ago, we were being offered hybrid vehicles that had electric ranges of about 30 kilometres. We laughed. I know they had to start somewhere, but that hybrid was basically like wearing a pair of five-inch stilettoes but bringing a pair of flats with you; we all know you can only last so long in the heels. But the development of electric technology has set a blistering pace in regards to battery range, with Tesla and even General Motors nudging up nearer to the current capacity of many gas-powered cars. One of everybody’s biggest concerns? Boom. Gone.

And I believe it soon will be gone with every electric offering. And here is where I offer up a slightly different scenario to Mr. Booth, to augment the one where he is envisioning long lines of traffic clogging up those gas-and-pee stops along the TransCanada Highway. My cottage is 275 kilometres from my home. I used to laugh at the thought of owning an electric vehicle, except now? Well, now with electric engine offerings coming in family friendly sized vehicles (no offence, Smart), and a range well within reach of my own private splinters-and-mouse turd paradise, why not?

In Booth’s scenario, I won’t do it because I’ll never make it home; I’ll be stuck in some charging nightmare at an ONroute station. Except …

Except, I’ll have charged up at the cottage. Just like I’d have charged up at home. I never could have gassed up at the cottage, but I could certainly charge up, and drive back home bypassing the highway hell. The technology is changing, but so will people’s patterns.

I’m not suggesting that there will be a stampede to the EV sector, but there will be a shift. There are outliers who drive far longer distances to a weekend cabin or other destination and for whom EVs don’t make sense, but for the most part, cottage zones tend to be within two to three hours of major centres and people’s homes. Unlike Booth’s engineering math, mine is less scientific: how long can I stand to be trapped in a metal box with a handful of whining kids, a screeching cat and a migraine? It takes two and a half hours to get to our cottage.

We’ve been suggesting electrics will work for urban dwellers because they can charge at home, and then again at work places that are adapting with each new build and ongoing retrofits. That end trip either has to have a charging station, or the charge has to last long enough for a return trek. We’ve never questioned those consumers entertaining purchasing an electric vehicle will have to kit out their homes with a station; I’m saying those same consumers would consider doing the same at a vacation home.

Booth is right that the infrastructure equation sports too many zeros if we treat it like we do existing driving patterns. I’m proposing that vehicles with long-range capabilities will cause a shift in driver behaviour away from the traditional filling stations. That won’t solve all the problems, but it’s the beginning of those tweaks I mentioned up top. Make enough tweaks, and things that were once impossible can start to shift. Electric cars have so many variables at play.

I almost always stop for fuel on my way home from the cottage, but only because I don’t leave the cottage with a full tank.

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Government finally shining a light on dimmed tail lights

Rear illumination will be added to new cars’ daytime running lights, according to memo, but we can do better

Ask and ye shall receive. Finally.

If there is one topic (other than left-lane hogs) that consumes the comment sections of drive sections it is cars travelling with darkened rear lights due to drivers blithely unaware their fully lit dash and daytime running lights do not automatically activate their rear ends. The federal government, according to a memo obtained by the CBC under the Access to Information Act, is about to finally correct something they should have done nearly thirty years ago. Better late than never?

Daytime running lights (DRLs) became mandatory in this country in new cars sold from December 1, 1989. This means all cars have those smaller headlamps at the front that remain lit at all times. Unfortunately, many manufacturers decided to light up their dashboards at the same time, while forgetting one more system: the tail lights. Because those DRLs supply some front lighting, there are folks who didn’t realize their full lighting harness was not engaged. A lit dashboard took away the only clue that drivers of yore could always count on as a reminder. And it’s downright deadly to come upon a car whisking down the highway at top speed, invisible – especially at dusk or into the night – until you are almost on top of it.

If a car has an “auto” setting on the lighting stalk, the problem is taken care of, provided it remains in that setting. Many – including me – advocate pulling on your full lighting system every time you get in the car. It’s a good habit to have. The auto setting is a close second, but too often, people could be driving an unfamiliar car, be getting into their own after someone else has fussed with the settings, or even had it into the shop or a detailer and had the settings altered. It’s not foolproof, and some cars don’t have an auto setting at all though they do have DRLs. Confused yet?

The CBC report shows that Transport Minister Marc Garneau proposed auto manufacturers address the problem in February of 2016, but they could reach no consensus. Surprise. Now the government has stepped in with regulatory standards to be set this fall and mandatory adoption of the new lighting systems by September of 2020.

I propose the Minister go one step farther; many of those cars on the road today, and many of those that will remain on the road long after the 2020 introduction, can be fixed with a software tweak that can rectify the problem. Most lighting systems go through the electronic control module (ECM). For many of the affected cars that will predate the fix, a technician would need about a half hour to update the software if the manufacturer would unlock it. Rear lights engaged when DRLs are and dash is lit. Voila.

This is not all cars, but it is many of them. Some brands, like Mercedes and Saab, have always engineered their vehicles to be properly lit. Across the spectrum it’s a dog’s breakfast of makes, models and years, with some delivering the safest lighting system and too many others failing.

The go-to for some observers is to accuse drivers of being too stupid to drive if they’re unaware their full lighting isn’t on. I reject that argument because manufacturers have created this problem where one shouldn’t exist. Education is always better than derision, and chances are very good that someone you care about – and yes, probably you – has fallen down the DRL rabbit hole. There are simply too many ways to fail the test, and if the goal is to keep our roads safer (and it should be), it makes more sense to nip the problem in the bud, at its point of inception, then to slap on Band-Aid solutions or blame drivers who may not know, or who are making a one-time error.

Good on Transport Canada for finally creating legislation to the auto manufacturers that has been long overdue. But go one better and mandate this vital safety fix in as many cars as possible while you’re at it.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Commercial drivers finally coming under stiff scrutiny for impairment

New Ontario laws address those drivers in control of larger vehicles – but do they go far enough?

Talk about burying the lead.

Queen’s Park has proposed new rules and regulations for Ontario surrounding the impending Canadian legalization of pot. Stiffer fines, better detection (look for drugalylzers, tested last year in several parts of Canada and used in many other countries) and more licence suspensions. All good; getting impaired drivers, regardless of what that impairment is from, is the right step.

But buried beneath that headline, several paragraphs in, is something more interesting, at least to me:

Commercial Drivers Creating a zero tolerance approach prohibiting commercial drivers from having the presence of either alcohol and/or drugs in their system, as detected by a federally approved screening device.

Wait. Wasn’t there always some kind of law on the books that commercial drivers had to be stone sober? Nope. They currently just have to be regular sober. Like the rest of us who aren’t driving with a G1, G2, M1, M2, or are 21 years of age or under. Who knew?

The headlines are trumpeting the coming changes relating to marijuana use, and how police will be detecting and charging those who drive under the influence. Forget all the sky-is-falling alarmists; people have been using dope and driving as long as they’ve been using alcohol and hitting the road. Cops know it, and have been looking for all manner of impairment, always. They didn’t always have the tools they needed to push charges, and this proposed legislation will help that.

But the proposed changes regarding commercial drivers is sliding under the radar. This is huge. But I’d go one step farther: it should apply to all drivers driving for a commercial purpose, too. Like cabbies and Uber drivers and pizza delivery people. I asked Ministry of Transportation spokesman Bob Nichols what the proposed changes were actually targeting.

“The proposed zero tolerance requirement for the presence of a drug or alcohol in the body of commercial drivers is not expected to apply to Uber drivers, as they operate vehicles that are not considered by the Highway Traffic Act to be commercial vehicles similar to large trucks, school buses and transit vehicles.”

How is it not already law that school bus drivers can’t have any alcohol in their system, or any other drug? Hearing about a drunk school bus driver is not an everyday occurrence, but it happens, like here, and here and here. Come to think of it, once is too often.

The new legislation would affect those commercial drivers of large vehicles, but most commercial hauling companies have an in-house statute already regarding blood alcohol levels. It varies in different places, but in most western countries, it’s a variation of the requirements faced by airline pilots. Some states institute their own BAC level for rig drivers beginning at .02, for instance, instead of .05 for the general population. Many restrict alcohol consumption within 24 hours of a shift. The trucking industry takes it seriously, but it was news to me that government legislation is only now looking at formalizing this in Ontario for these operators.

A commercial driver’s licence (CDL) covers vehicles such as heavy rigs, school buses and dump trucks; taxis, Ubers and pizza delivery drivers can get along fine with just a G licence. But once you cross into the realm driving for any commercial purpose, rules should be more stringent. Anyone driving for a designated commercial purpose, whether they’re hauling goods or schoolchildren or drunk partygoers, should be legally required to have a zero alcohol and drug level in their system.

The proposed legislation is a start.

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Beware of hurricane-affected cars flooding the used market

Dredged from flood waters, vehicles that should be sent to the scrap heap are often sold on to unsuspecting buyers

Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S., but they have the second highest car ownership numbers: 1.8 per household. They trail only Dallas. When Hurricane Harvey delivered its deadly blow recently, many of those cars – estimates go as high as a million – were destroyed along with tens of thousands of homes. It may be difficult to tally the ongoing human costs of such destruction, but every part of the recovery is dependent on replacing many of those vehicles.

If you see pictures during the storm, it’s stunning: cars submerged, cars floating, cars stranded on highways now turned into thundering rivers. And yet just a few days later, with the flood waters subsided, it’s hard to believe the water was once up to the eaves of suburban homes. Like many of those homes, those cars may look okay from the outside, but they are write-offs. And just like after Hurricane Katrina and Sandy and others in years past, those flood cars will show up by the tens of thousands across the U.S. and even in Canada, sold to unwitting buyers.

Buyers who should know better. Those flooded cars will have electrical systems so compromised they will be dangerous, if they can even be rehabbed enough to start. That’s before you get to the corrosion that will be setting in and destroying the bodies and frames. Once you get them across state – and country – borders, title washing increases.

Insurers are handling claims hand over fist; Houston is not a city known for its transit and to live there is to drive there. Rental companies and car lots were both funneling tens of thousands of cars to the city, the demand through the roof after the disaster of the hurricane. For those with a cheque in hand, replacing their vehicle will be about the supply of new or nearly new vehicles. But for a significant number of those impacted by the storm, the situation is not so rosy. From Wired: “Roughly 15 per cent of Texas vehicle owners don’t have any kind of car insurance, despite laws saying they must, according to Hanna, at the Insurance Council of Texas. Of the remaining 85 per cent, just three-quarters have comprehensive insurance policies that are sure to cover flood damage.”

Those flooded vehicles are totalled, but unscrupulous salvagers will dry them out and sell them to those who have few options. They’ll also sell them to those who can’t pass up a deal too good to be true. As a buyer, how do you protect yourself?

The Automobile Protection Association (APA) rarely endorses buying a car from the U.S., unless it is a collector or rare find; at the very least, they recommend doing extensive homework on the purchase. When you can find the same make and model here in Canada, you will be buying it with the consumer protections of this country, and it will adhere to our standards.

Flooded cars will have telltale signs that even with a cursory view will tell a story. Jeremy Young, operations manager at Krown Rust Control, says that rust forms immediately. “Look at the bottom edges of body panels,” he says. “There are drain holes and the paint will become discoloured where rust is leaking out. If salt water is the culprit, even if it’s been sprayed off or vacuumed from carpeting, it will return fast. Salt forms a chemical bond.”

He acknowledges the number one place for damage is in the electrical system. “Disconnect the back of the headlight; right at the connection, there’s two wires and a clip. Undo that, and take a look. You’ll see corrosion.” Check for things other than water; flooding often brings soil and debris with the water, so look for odd things in weird places. Pull out the spare tire, where the depression it sits in often accumulates water and is frequently overlooked by those tarting up a car for quick sale. Headlights and even dashboards may be foggy or have condensation in them. Carpets are hard to dry out, and moisture can remain trapped for weeks beneath them. Feel them; smell for mold with the windows up. Check out every single electric system, something you should do with any used car, not just a suspect one.

The best advice about buying a used car is always the same: get an independent mechanic to get it up on a hoist. He or she will know why this hot car is such a great deal – and steer you away from it.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Back to school means sharing the road safely

Speeding and distracted driving can kill, but even pedestrians need to follow the rules to stay safe

Head’s up, folks. The kids are back in school.

While the overall Transport Canada figures for 2015 (latest available) suggest a slight downward trend in pedestrian fatalities, some places, like Ontario, are posting sobering numbers. “Pedestrian fatalities in OPP jurisdiction increased significantly in 2016, with 38 deaths last year, compared to 25 in 2015.” (opp.ca.) While it stands to reason that urban centres will produce more pedestrians and cyclists making contact with vehicles, there are still things that all involved can do to push these numbers down.

Most of those pedestrians who die are in the senior (65+) age category. A Toronto Public Health study released last year showed that 67 per cent of those pedestrians involved in a collision with a car had the right-of-way; drivers are usually at fault. Seniors are overrepresented for several reasons, though leading the pack is the difficulty in recovering from injuries as we age.

Little ones don’t fare well, either. While traffic planners drop speed limits and introduce traffic calming measures, drivers are still speeding and still interacting with their phones and onboard systems. Front collision avoidance systems on many new cars – those that automatically apply the brakes – will save pedestrian lives. But what is needed far more than every safety feature manufacturers can dream up is a competent, engaged driver. Do one thing behind the wheel: drive.

Remember too, when your children are your passengers, they’re learning from you. Driving lessons don’t begin when they’re 16; they start from the moment they’re in the car, observing how you handle the ever-changing streetscape as well as the in-car distractions. Don’t get drawn into squabbles and sulks, and don’t take your eyes from the road.

You’ve been driving through school zones all summer without having to slow down. Take this into consideration on your route, and accept that it’s going to take you some extra time to get where you’re going. Anticipate increased speed monitoring in these areas, and not just during back-to-school week. Constable Clint Stibbe with Toronto Police Services told me of busting a woman doing double the posted limit one morning last year in a school zone, then busting the same woman the very next day – going the same speed. Sometimes, laws are not enough.

Pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders, motorcyclists and those on scooters are all on the dangerous end of the equation upon meeting with a vehicle. All road users have a responsibility to know the law and obey it, and stay focused on what they’re doing.

Drivers:

  • Slow all the way down in school zones. Always
  • Follow the laws for school buses
  • Obey crossing guards. Those guards know things about the kids they’re protecting, and hold their signs up until every kid is clear for a reason. They know that little ones may drop something and dart back onto the road. They’re watching for things you can’t see
  • If you drive your child to school, drop them a block or two away. Reduce congestion in front of schools
  • Kids do dumb things. You did dumb things. Be ready for dumb. Hitting a child isn’t something you want to live with, even if it wasn’t your fault
  • Don’t honk unless someone is in imminent danger

Parents:

  • Set a good example, and take routes you want your child to take when they’re not with you. Don’t jaywalk.
  • Teach your child to make eye contact with a driver before they step off a curb
  • Tell them not to cross a street while they’re texting, or even talking on their cell phone. Distracted is distracted, even for pedestrians
  • Obey the crossing guard
  • Rules of the road begin now, long before they learn to drive. Explain that drivers may be making right turns on red lights, and that drivers may be distracted. If your child is on a bicycle, teach them they are subject to the law, just like drivers
  • Please put some reflective tape on backpacks and jackets, and have working lights on the front and back of bicycles. As we head into winter, your child might be invisible by 5pm.

Our cities are going to see more pedestrians and cyclists, not fewer. Share the road.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Top reasons insurance won’t cover you in a crash

Any dishonesty on your part can result in loss of coverage – but you may not know until it’s too late

Car insurance can be a tricky thing. The only way to really test it is to have something bad happen. All that legal fine print and those payout limits may seem agreeable in the abstract but you can often discover the cold, hard facts are little balm when facing the emotional, as well as physical, fallout from a collision or claim.

But what if you’re doing things that could result in you having no insurance at all? Don’t bother reaching for that little pink slip in your glovebox. It doesn’t mean a thing if the carrier decides you’ve broken any of their cardinal rules. You may be knowingly or unknowingly, putting yourself in jeopardy and leaving yourself without coverage. Some may seem obvious; others may be a surprise to you.

Deb Arnold, with Sound Insurance Services Inc., outlines the top eight most common reasons you might find yourself on the outside looking in when it comes to your car insurance.

Being charged with impaired at the scene of a crash. Liability and Accident Benefits coverage will still respond but the company does not have to repair or replace your vehicle. The wording is clear: just being charged – not convicted – is enough to negate your claim.

Allowing an excluded driver to drive your vehicle. It may seem like no big deal if a friend or family member asks to borrow your truck for a move, or if you ask them to drive your car if you’ve had a few too many. But it’s your responsibility to make sure they hold a valid driver’s licence. Any collision they’re involved in will count against your insurance record, but if they’re not licenced, you won’t have a claim to make.

Allowing an undisclosed regular or frequent driver to drive your vehicle. Typically, they might pay the claim but they’d either re-rate or cancel the policy afterwards. Simply put, the insurance company is covering who you say drives the car. If you fail to tell them someone else drives the vehicle every weekend, or a new household member is using it regularly and you haven’t notified your company, you could find yourself in trouble. In the event of a re-rate, they might cover the claim but back charge you to include what you should have been paying.

Undisclosed Uber or Lyft use. There are insurance products now available that properly cover you as a car-for-hire driver. They will cost you more (though nowhere near the previous commercial rates intended for other industries), but read the time limitations involved; you can only drive so many hours per week, in most cases. If you have a terrible driving record, you might want to rethink the Uber thing.

Undisclosed commercial use. You’re rated for personal use but you’re a courier. Whether you deliver pizzas or flowers or contracts, that’s a business transaction.

Having a policy rated for one location but it’s actually garaged elsewhere. For instance you live in Toronto but you’ve disclosed the vehicle is garaged in Kincardine for a cheaper rate. Arnold is seeing more of this as Ontario rates remain sky-high, and the temptation is there. Likewise, if you move from Vancouver to Halifax, you have to change your insurance address as well as your plates.

Saying you’ve installed winter tires but haven’t. This has not yet been tried in court, however, it is a risk not worth taking. The carrier may pay the claim and simply remove the discount, though there is always the risk they will deny the claim.

Registering a vehicle to one name and not disclosing who is actually driving the vehicle. People with challenging driving records will try this but if they have a collision, policy will be voided for non-disclosure. “Challenging” is Arnold’s word; mine is “terrible”. If someone can’t secure insurance in their own name, don’t put your name down instead.

But how will they know, you ask? The insurance industry is very dedicated to cracking down on fraud. With howls coming from their clients and the media about soaring costs, they have investigators who will do just that: investigate. Never underestimate the intentions of a pissed off ex-spouse or a nosy neighbour. There is an anonymous hotline available on the Insurance Bureau of Canada’s website (800-IBC-TIPS), and people use it.

It’s important to note that if a company has cancelled your policy, this is a question you will be asked when looking for another one. It’s also easily discoverable, and insurance companies aren’t in business to take a risk on anyone who has already proven themselves to not be worth that risk.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

On the road to autonomous cars, the middle ground is most dangerous

As cars get smarter, people are relying more on vehicle safety systems and less on their own driving

Houston, we have a problem. Well, actually not just Houston. But newly released figures from the National Safety Council in the U.S. are startling.

Road fatalities have increased 14 per cent since 2014. After decades of plummeting rates, the recent, hard uptick is concerning for everyone. While the latest figures available from the government of Canada show our 2015 still on a slight downward trend (1669 deaths over 1709 in 2014) law makers and car manufacturers always keep their ears up for signs of troubling trends to the south of us that often make their way north. We drive the same cars and we play with the same toys.

You probably saw the recent article, and others, that say automated features in modern cars are making drivers lazy and dangerous. You shouldn’t be surprised; every time a new safety feature is unveiled by one manufacturer, and the others rush to copy it, all I can see is driver skill getting just a little farther away in my rearview mirror. Getting a true handle on why the increased fatality rates are occurring is intricate: higher employment and cheaper gas more people are driving more miles; in some areas, high housing costs means more of those people are extending their commutes.

The safety features in modern cars are breathtaking in scope and complexity but the over-reliance and complacency of drivers threatens to take back with one hand what those safety breakthroughs are giving us with the other.

I’ve been yipping about the downside to the upside for years; new vehicles are capable of performing pretty amazing feats of technology, but too many people are handing over the operation and decision making to the car. It’s where the road to autonomous driving is leading us, but we’re not there yet. Carmakers are eager to strut their latest stuff, but their eye is on a far bigger prize: full autonomy. Their holy grail is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Level 5 autonomous driving designation: “fully-autonomous system that expects the vehicle’s performance to equal that of a human driver, in every driving scenario – including extreme environments like dirt roads that are unlikely to be navigated by driverless vehicles in the near future.”

That’s not really what is causing the most concern, however. It’s the Level 3 designation. “Drivers are still necessary in Level 3 cars, but are able to completely shift “safety-critical functions” to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions.” The vehicle is mostly super great. Until it’s not and the driver has to surface from their reverie and take over. Level 4 is fully autonomous and “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.” Level 4 does not cover every driving scenario, hence it’s not Level 5.

We are currently in a terribly dangerous phase of our driving culture despite the explosion of technological advancement. We are neither here nor there; we are in the middle of a transition that can have no totally safe mode. We have exciting, ever-changing automatic features on our cars but many drivers who either don’t know how to use them or trust them too much, endangering themselves and those around them. If fatality rates continue to spike in the U.S. in the alarming double digits served up the last two years, manufacturers as well as law-makers are going to have to reassess their dash to the finish line. Too many bodies piled up on the way to a promised utopia of far fewer casualties makes for lousy optics.

Everyone from the Center for Disease Control to Mythbusters has proven that handsfree use of a device is just as dangerous as a handheld; it’s your cognitive ability that is compromised, and your mind is sunk deep into a conversation rather than the road whether you’re holding the phone or not. Increased fines and punishments are being implemented in most jurisdictions, but too many users are mirroring the bluster of that other ornery group who have declared you will have to take it from their cold, dead hands. And increasingly, that is what’s happening.

Why shoulder check if you have a chime that will let you know what’s up? Why look outside your car windows before you back up if you camera is showing you what’s back there? Why not stab through layers of on-screen directions to find that playlist even if your eyes are off the road? Why worry about tailgating when your car will brake itself for you? Who cares if you’re texting when your lane departure warning will let you know you’ve LOL’d once too often? Too many people drive like they’re bowling in an alley with the bumper guards up. What can go wrong?

A system can fail; a driver can get in a car without those bumper guards. The same way traction control has a generation not even knowing their car has just saved them from spinning out of control, we will have drivers forgetting they are making multiple errors, some of which could be tragic without that car-as-lifeguard. I don’t care if every car has parking assist. Nobody ever has to learn to parallel park again. Parallel parking is useful but not vital to staying alive. It’s an assist, not a safety feature. Not knowing you’re drifting all over the road or about to smash the car ahead of you is dangerous, and until the car can make the entire chain of decisions, a driver is required to know what to do. Too many are forfeiting.

If you read this space with any regularity, you know I detest the word “infotainment”. Information is information; entertainment is entertainment. Manufacturers who collide these together do a disservice to the very consumers they’ve pledged to protect. Learn how to work your onboard navigation system (including traffic settings and things like toll roads) when you’re in dry dock, program it and leave it the hell alone.

Manufacturers, don’t make me rabbit-hole down three levels of screens to adjust the temperature or cancel the nav lady’s voice. Drivers, start using your mirrors and stop relying on a flash from your side mirror to let you know what’s going on around you.

I don’t want Canadian statistics to start to trend the way American ones are. Our stricter laws are a help; only 29 U.S. states and D.C. have laws requiring all occupants to wear a seatbelt. We die on our roads because we drive too fast, we drive impaired, we drive distracted and we don’t buckle up.

How do you save someone from themselves? We’re not there yet.

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New licence-reading app may help pets trapped in cars

While WindshieldInk has its limits as a personal texting app, it may be useful in other ways

Would you like people to be able to contact you via your licence plate?

A new enterprise, WindshieldInk, is banking that you will, with the launch of an app that allows you to send messages to people who have signed up to receive them.

When I learned of this new incarnation, an alarm went off. I recalled the first time I’d heard of something similar and dismissed it then as a creepy way for motorists to use their vehicles as a dating service. Too invasive, I thought, when I learned of bump.com. I wasn’t the only one; the app is long gone. Perhaps actually saying in their advertising, “”So that cute guy just drove by and you think you just missed your only chance to talk to him. Thanks to BUMP, now you can contact him just by taking a picture of his license plate. What are you waiting for?” was a clue this wasn’t gonna go smoothly. Privacy, anyone?

In 2014, General Motors’ Chinese division created DiDiPlate that would let text someone simply by scanning their plate into your phone. It’s as creepy as it sounds, and the idea sunk beneath the waves.

But Ken and Glenna Kuchling had a different idea. About twenty years ago back in Calgary (the couple now lives in Toronto), Glenna pulled into a parking spot and saw a deceased gentleman behind the wheel. She called police, but the moment replayed itself. What if his wife had been in a nearby shop? How do you connect with people when their licence tag is the only information you have?

Fast forward to today, and while Ken freely admits there are other similar apps on offer, the Kuchling’s are looking to market theirs in a different way, and perhaps to a different demographic.

“For company fleet management, it’s an updated 1-800-How’s-My-Driving,” he explains. For police forces, it could allow the public to input suspected stolen vehicles or trailers to more readily locate them.”

We discussed the range of applications for the program, but I kept snagging on the obvious: people have to have already signed up to receive your anonymous text that they’re about to be towed, that their muffler is dragging, or they left their lights on. It requires a level of interconnectness that most people won’t assume is warranted. I’ve watched most interactions on our roads, and I’m going to assume that if someone texts me about something I’m doing while I drive, it’s unlikely to be sunshine and roses. Flip side, how many people really care if someone is getting towed? “Not my problem” is a popular go-to in these stressful times.

Instead I kept coming back to the other possibilities of the app. What if a situation didn’t require the target to be necessarily already a customer? The obvious one for me? Children and dogs left in hot cars.

The issue remains in the headlines around North America, not because there’s nothing else to report, but because it remains a stubborn problem that is getting worse, not better. There are no available Canadian statistics, but on average in the U.S. since 1998, 37 children have died of heatstroke annually after being left in a hot car. 2017 is already at 26; if you want a heartbreaking read, scroll through their names and ages at this site.

There are no statistics for the toll that being left in a car takes on dogs, except for official ones like police K-9 dogs that prove no closed car is safe for a pet in many months of the year. “During the last week of May 2015, a total of 11 K-9 dogs in states including California, Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma and Wisconsin died due to heat exhaustion,” according to Veterinary Pet Insurance, proving this is an education issue. Whenever I write about it, I can count on my mail being hit with swear-laden missives from people I wish didn’t own dogs.

As Windshieldink rolls out its program, it is looking to team with SPCAs for just this situation. “In Ontario, you can use the Windshieldink mobile app to send an email message directly and instantly to the SPCA. Simply enter #SPCA in the license plate/#ID field of the mobile app, select ‘Ontario’ as the origin, input your message, verify the #ID, and hit ‘send,’” says Ken. “We recommend that you tag your ‘signature’ and GPS location into your message. The whole process takes less than 30 seconds and the message is emailed directly to the SPCA. They will get a clickable map link showing where you are located and if you included your phone number, they can call you back.”

Apps like Windshieldink require buy-in from a majority of drivers that may prove tough to engage. While you can send and receive notifications (you choose how you want to be contacted) anonymously, many of us are becoming increasingly leery of information we give out. For corporate and emergency applications, however?

I’m with the puppies.

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Even in their twilight, drive-ins offer more than just a movie

These days, going to a drive-in movie theatre is about the experience

The weather this summer may be unpredictable for outdoor activities, but you know where the climate is almost always perfect? In your car. So, take advantage of a cheap and fun idea you already know but have probably forgotten about: Go to a drive-in movie.

While real estate values in larger centres have priced out many of the venues you might recall from your youth, the industry is still alive and well in many parts of Canada. Where else can you bring your kids, your dog, your date (or all of the above) and watch a brand new release in a vintage setting?

“There used to be eight to 10 venues in the Toronto area alone, but it’s always a land cost issue,” Brian Allen, president of Premier Theatres, which owns five drive-ins in southern Ontario, explains. You can find drive-ins in most Canadian provinces, with the exception of Alberta and the Yukon. Click here to find the one nearest to you.

Families make it a ‘tailgate party’ for kids and adults at Docks Drive-In in Toronto.

Allen is clear about other factors at play in the decline in venues. If you want to screen first-run movies at your facility – and to compete, you have to – you need to invest in the latest digital equipment. That can get costly for a business that isn’t year round, and is also weather-dependent in many instances. A little rain can be worked around, but a deluge will cancel the evening.

For decades, drive-ins used the same 35-millimetre films as everyone else. But the switch to digital has proven too expensive for many of those already operating on the margins of the movie industry. When the changes in format were done in 2013, it was estimated it would cost about US$70,000 per screen to accommodate what Hollywood would be sending.

The first drive-in opened in Camden, New Jersey in 1933. Numbers peaked during the 1950s and ’60s at around 4,600 venues nationwide. Today in the U.S., there are just more than 300 operating, while Canada has about 30. While many have predicted the demise of the drive-in, and the numbers certainly bear out that trajectory, some are embracing the changes and investing in creating a new version of an old pastime.

“We’re selling the whole experience, not just a movie,” explains Allen. “We have modern playgrounds, immaculate facilities, and great concession offerings. We welcome dogs, we play the national anthem before the movies begin. It’s an entire experience people are after.”

You needn’t worry about the down-in-front problem with today’s SUVs; certain areas are marked for larger vehicles. Allen considers the experience to be akin to urban camping, and while the drive-in will forever be a cheap hotel room for some demographics, being able to have your little ones already in their PJs until they crash with their bellies full of popcorn and Twizzlers, leaving parents to watch the grown-up movie that usually follows the kiddie one, is an easy way to spend a Saturday night as a family.

The Premier website shows elaborate neon signs and video of a long line of urban campers making their way to screenings of Hollywood’s latest offerings. It’s high-tech and a far cry from the clunky speakers we once hung on our windows as we slowly drained Dad’s battery drinking smuggled beer.

When I was young, we’d stuff the trunk with kids, believing we were doing an end-run. Premier offers Carload Thursday – eighteen bucks a car, regardless of how many are mashed in there. They have cheap Tuesdays at $6 a head (regular price is $12), and kids are just a couple of dollars each. In peak weather, the screens are sold out, with more than 1,000 cars at the site in Oakville on a summer weekend.

Daniel Cojocaru drove himself and two friends in his 1969 Plymouth Fury to an opening night show of ‘Shrek’ and ‘Evolution’ at the Docks Drive-In in Toronto.
If I really want a taste of my youth, however, perhaps I’d best be heading to Saskatchewan. The Jubliee Drive-In at Manitou Beach was started by a group of businessmen in 1955. Over time, it came to belong to just one family, the Crawfords.

The area of Manitou Beach and nearby Watrous in Saskatchewan are noted tourist areas, featuring the second saltiest body of water in the world at the centre of their spa and resort. While the permanent population of Manitou Beach hovers around 250 and nearby Watrous is nearing 2,000, the Jubilee draws about 85 per cent of its patrons from visitors to the area.

Tara Hayden worked for the Crawford family for nearly two decades before taking over the operation of the site four years ago. The theatre changed hands after the Crawfords retired, and four years later the village of Manitou Beach bought the property.

“The community was in danger of losing the drive-in at the time. The changeover to digital threatened to close it,” she explains. In true prairie spirit, the surrounding areas held fundraisers to buy some used equipment to keep the place going. Hayden says it’s common in Saskatchewan, which still has four drive-ins.

Right now, Hayden, the local girl who now works full time in car sales, keeps a movie schedule in an attempt to at least break even. Last year the Jubilee was open for six months; this year, after June weekends and adding Thursdays in July, Hayden plans on running every day for the final two weeks of August and closing up shop on Labour Day. She says next year is up in the air.

“It’s funny,” she continues. “When my son was 15, he was running the 35-millimetre projector. The family who runs the Prairie Dog Drive-in in Carlyle (nearly four hours away) was visiting and it turned out their 15 year-old daughter was running their 35-millimetre projector. These two kids deep in conversation over equipment that was decades old. It would be such a shame to lose these places. They really are important parts of their communities.”

She says now their visitors are coming back with not just their kids, but their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Everything old can be new again, especially if a community values it.

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A simple solution for nighttime distractions: turn the screen off

The bright infotainment unit draws your eyes onto it and off the road

Originally published July 31, 2017

A key selling feature in most new vehicles is how large the screen in the dash is. Touchscreen or ringed with dials, size matters.

It’s a boon for aging eyes. It’s also easier to locate your information with a shorter glance, surely making them safer. But it took a recent road trip with a friend who has a little attention deficit disorder (ADD) to make something very clear to me: they’re a huge distraction.

I’ve always preferred clean cockpits, streamlined dashes and fewer toggles and toys. Driving should be about driving, not mashing away at a phone or a screen every few seconds and sending distracted driving crash rates higher than alcohol and drug impaired ones. We’re entertaining ourselves to death.

My co-driver showed me how he dealt with it: he didn’t just dim the screen, he blackened it.

Duh. I’ve since found the setting in every car I’ve been in, and after some initial adjustment and several more long trips, I realize it’s the best driving tip I’ve received in a long time. No more flashing from a navigation system as it scrolls through knots of roads, no more visual updates from radio stations about what they’re saying out loud anyway. Especially at night, you have reduced eye strain from competing light sources. It’s a dashboard, not a midway.

Set your navigation system at the outset, and you continue to get directions verbally, and in some cars, in a reading near your speedometer. I did it in baby steps, first dimming the screen then outright shutting it down. It takes less than a second to pull it back up, but the fact remains, the fewer places there are to draw your eyes to, the more likely your eyes will stay on the road, the only place they belong.

If you’ve driven past vehicles with kids in the rear compartment watching movies on seat-mounted screens, you know how distracting they can be to other drivers. I know they’re not in my car, but try to take your eyes from them. It’s hard. Our brains are hardwired to detect changes in our surroundings for our own safety; the problem now is that we are providing distractions that are becoming a danger themselves.

Car manufacturers are in a tough spot of their own design. Nobody is going to start offering less connectivity, fewer bells and whistles or outdated software. The toothpaste is all the way out of that tube. Modern safety systems on cars have advanced with the same speed, but the cynical among us can’t help but wonder if much of that safety is needed to combat so much of that distraction. If I wasn’t futzing with a nav system or poking through six levels of input feeds, maybe I wouldn’t need lane departure warning, a feature I half-jokingly call text assist. It’s always up to the driver to be competent and safe, but how many cookies are you going to throw down in front of a kid before they go for them?

I drove up to James Bay once, and if you’ve seen it on a map, you’ll know it’s hour after hour of nothing. A straight line on the navigation map, never wavering, never changing. It’s similar to heading across the Trans-Canada Highway through parts of many provinces and all of Saskatchewan. There is only one road to James Bay and nowhere to go but up to the top; we didn’t need a map, but by habit had it displayed. It was worse than distracting, it was hypnotic.

It takes a lot of people a long time to finally understand the many features offered on their new car, if they ever do. I tell them to put the owner’s manual in the bathroom; it’s an easy way to ensure at least some of it gets read. But many of the small things, like disengaging the horn when you depress the locking button on your keyfob, get overlooked. Most of us know there is an arrow on the gas tank icon that shows you which side to fill up on (really useful on rentals). More high-end cars have automatic high beams, so you know that feature will start to show up farther down the food chain in short order.

Manufacturers aren’t just making leaps and bounds in the safety arena, they really are tweaking the smallest things to make your ride both incredibly comfortable and a seamless transition from your home or office. These are all good things, but remember that many of them are still distractions, no matter how useful or pretty. Find the built-in firewalls that can cut out the ones you don’t need all the time.

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