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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The necessary violence of life-saving airbags

First-person account describes it as “like a bomb” going off, but these safety devices are proven to save lives – with caveats

Originally published July 17, 2017

It was 5 p.m. on a perfect summer evening. Melissa Moore, 54, was driving her 2017 Subaru Forester on the rural highway just outside Whitehall, Michigan, the town where she lives. She admits the new car purchase had been an exciting step up from years of utilitarian minivans; the Bluetooth, the touchscreens, the newfound luxury, all had made her a little lax on even asking questions about the safety features of the vehicle.

“I knew Subaru had a great reputation,” she admits. “But it still wasn’t like me to not check out safety options.” A deer helped her check most of them out, all at once. A seatbelt and a lot of airbags saved her from certain injury, if not worse.

Most of us think we’ll have time to avoid a deer strike. With your vision up in areas you know deer to frequent (there were four collisions with deer on that day alone where Melissa met hers), the blunt truth is that they often come out of nowhere, and directly into your vehicle. You don’t have any braking distance.

“It was maybe five feet away from me; it happened so fast, it came from the passenger side of the car,” says Moore. “All I could think later was how grateful I was that my 14-year-old daughter wasn’t sitting there. She’s often with me.”


The speed limit in the area is 55 mph (about 88 km/h), the speed she was maintaining. If you factor in driver reaction time, you need about 300 feet (91 metres) to stop a vehicle with good brakes on dry pavement. There was zero chance that deer wasn’t going to land in that Subaru. In fact, it carried on across the road and hit another vehicle, which in turn hit the ditch and was totalled.

Responders figure Melissa managed to hit the brakes and began to steer. Damage to the car is on the front and down the driver’s side. All the airbags in the Forester were deployed, except the passenger dash and the passenger seat. Melissa didn’t even realize her seat had an airbag in it until her son pointed it out. All the curtain bags activated. For Melissa, “everything just exploded. The seatbelt had me pinned in place and all I could smell was the propellant chemical. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. It happened so fast.”

She had a badly bruised shin and a bruised and strained chest wall, where the seatbelt and airbag did their jobs.

Despite the recent Takata airbag scandal, in the U.S. alone, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that between 1978 and 2012, 39,976 lives have been saved by airbags in that country; here in our own country, Transport Canada’s statistics say 300 lives were saved between 1990 and 200o. Airbags were deemed mandatory for all cars and light trucks sold after September 1, 1998.

As consumers, we take airbags for granted, even at the most entry level of cars. Manufacturers are increasingly providing better and better airbag systems throughout their vehicles. But as consumers, we need to remember that safety systems only work when used as they’re designed. Movies and ads would have you believe that an airbag goes off in slow motion, or resembles nothing so much as a large puffy marshmallow. The truth couldn’t be more different: that plastic bag launches like a rocket, at 100 to 300 km/h depending on their location. It deflates instantly.

Crucial to an airbag adequately protecting you is the proper use of your seatbelt, as well as your seating position. There should be a 25 centimetre distance between your chest and the airbag – for the driver, it’s in the steering wheel, for passenger, it’s mounted in the dash. The seatbelt is built to have enough slack in it to receive the initial thrust of the collision before pulling you back into the seat as the airbag cushions you and keeps you in place. Not using a seatbelt means taking the full force of that airbag and will cause serious injury. In fact, Transport Canada reports that eight people have been killed by airbags up to 2001 – and the common thread between them all was that the victims sat too close to the airbag when it deployed.

Both restraint systems are also meant to be used with the seat in the proper position. Reclining will compromise that. A passenger putting his or her feet on the dash risks the force of the airbag blowing up directly under their legs. Don’t put your feet on the dash. Ever.

What will make my airbags deploy?

Generally, airbags will deploy if you hit a “solid, fixed barrier” from 13 to 22 km/h. Some advanced systems will sense a child or other small person in the passenger seat who could be injured by the airbag, and automatically turn it off. Those under 12 should still be travelling in the rear seat.

Melissa Moore could still taste the chemical residue in her throat at the hospital after the crash. While doctors continued to make sure some existing conditions hadn’t been exacerbated – she has some osteoarthritis and lower back issues – she remained shocked that the violence that took place outside the car produced far less damage than what happened inside. “The outside of the car doesn’t even look that bad,” she mused. “Inside was like a bomb went off.”

Airbags. The bombs that save lives.

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Safe boating is something for both land and sea

Getting your craft to the water means using the proper vehicle and procedures for safety

Originally published July 12, 2017 (with video)

There is one right way to trailer a boat, regardless of size.

And so many wrong ones.

For six years, Nissan Canada has been teaming with BOATsmart!, an organization that promotes safety in recreational motorized activities. BOATsmart! is accredited by Transport Canada to provide Pleasure Craft Operator Cards, a requirement in Canada for anyone using a pleasure craft outfitted with a motor. The test is available online for fifty bucks (note: it can take about six hours to complete. The section on buoys is hard – take notes), but once you pass, you’re are licenced for life.

To test out my newly licenced self, I took to cottage country in Ontario for the day. We were driving the Armada and the Pathfinder, Nissan’s (and the industry’s) biggest towers in their segments, and the Titan the Titan XD. The goal? Hook up everything from power boats to personal watercraft to a pontoon boat, get them into the water and take them for a spin.

Driving while you’re towing something isn’t actually that difficult, especially if you’re familiar with large vehicles. You have to be cognizant that you’ve effectively tripled your needed stopping distance, take great care on right turns and downhills, especially, and remember all that additional weight and length will compromise your agility. You take it easy, in other words.

Hooking up that trailer, however? That’s where things get interesting. Having an expert point person guiding you is critical, but you’re still threading a needle. In our case, we were backing up an Armada, a tank of a vehicle, to over 2,000 kilograms (4,500 pounds) of boat resting on a 680-kg (1,500-pound) trailer. Some Nissan trucks (the Titans, for example) have a center line on the backup camera; gently steer and correct until two lines join and you’re there. You still need patience, skill and a gifted yeller. I would not want to do this in the rain, in the dark.

Properly attaching a boat trailer is critical. Missed steps can cause highway mayhem in the blink of an eye. Lining up the hitch is incremental, and requires patience. Once positioned, drop the hitch onto the ball and make sure the locking system is secure. Slide the hitch pin. The hooked chains should be crossed before connected to the vehicle, so if the hitch for any reason lets go it will be cradled. Connect the lighting harness and check all vehicle lights, and spend some time adjusting your vehicle’s mirrors. Before you launch your boat, remove any tie-downs at the rear. It’s an often overlooked step.

While Nissan currently has a sliver share of the massive truck market dominated by the domestics, it is that towing capacity they see as their window in with the Pathfinder and the Armada. All the luxury this demographic wants for hauling kids as well as the ability to get the watercraft where they need it. The Pathfinder has a 6,000-lb capacity, beating the Explorer, the Highlander and the Pilot by 1,000, and the Acadia by 2,000. The Armada hauls 8,500 pounds, edging out the Tahoe at 6,400, the Sequoia at 7,100 and the Expedition at 6,500.

The Titan and Titan XD, both available in 2017 with single cabs as well as crew cabs, don’t lead the field in towing capacity, but Nissan is confident their five-year bumper-to-bumper warranty will be an industry leader. The Titans have an available Trailer Light Check system that allows you to check the lights on your trailer from your keyfob, even if you’re on your own. It’s a nice safety feature, and Nissan’s Around View Monitor (AVM) available on most of their lineup remains the best in the business. It’s a bird’s eye view of your car, and truly delivers the best use of cameras I’ve seen. You can park an Armada in a thimble with it.

We were “working” on fabulous Lake Rosseau for a reason: it’s the spendy part of cottage country where the millionaires and their moochers come to live the high life. Nissan is looking to exploit a demographic whose daily driver is more Porsche than Pontiac, and while the truck lineup they’re offering has price points that start higher than much of the advertised ones of their competition, once you cut through the screaming headlines and rebates of the domestics and go head to head on features, they’re competitive.

Ford has trailer backup assist technology I’ve tried that is spooky but cool. You take your hands from the wheel and use a mouse-like knob as a sensor on the trailer does the work. Backing a trailer is counterintuitive; you are pawing the wheel to the left to shift it right in your mirrors and it’s a lot harder than it looks. Ford has the right idea as we race toward autonomy, and while it takes some getting use to (and more than a little trust), look to the rest of the industry to adopt similar features.

BOATsmart! was on hand to make sure we literally didn’t get our wires crossed, and to guide us through the step-by-step process of properly securing a trailer. The boat itself must be properly secured to the trailer, and skipping steps on either could prove dangerous. A local marine operator regaled me with tales of a large speed boat slipping its trailer on one of the country’s busiest highways, a reminder that towing anything is not for the reckless or careless.

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Summer heat means danger for pets in cars

Even a few minutes in a vehicle while you “pop in the shop” risks the life of your beloved Fido

Originally published July 4, 2017

I wasn’t paying much attention to the older gentleman ahead of me in line at the pet store. The cashier had pleasantly asked where his dog was today, because pet stores are the one place where everybody seems happy to see a dog.

“Oh, she’s at home, and hopefully not tearing the place apart,” he said gruffly. The cashier smiled her best dogs-will-be-dogs smile and continued the transaction. It was the next thing he uttered that made me shift the tower of cat food cases I was holding.

“And now of course, every idiot who wants to is allowed to break my car windows when I leave her in the car,” he continued.

Yeah, that idiot would be me, you old fool.

I watched him head out the doors and wondered why he had a dog at all. Dogs are a wonderful, joyful, pain in the ass. If you have one, you’ve signed up for all that entails, and that means not leaving them behind in cars that can heat up faster than a microwave. Ever. Not even for ten minutes.

Provincial animal protection mandates are in place across the country, and headline-making negligence reports are making lawmakers take heed. In December, 2014, Nova Scotia recently passed legislation with higher fines ($200-$700) for some abuses, and giving more power to SPCA officers to do things like break car windows instead of waiting for police. Breaking a window will always be a call made in the moment if you’re a bystander, but it’s good to know that some places are recognizing that seconds can matter if an animal – or worse, a child – is in distress.

The law in many places is still blurry; we need it bolstered, like they did in Nova Scotia. British Columbia currently has 24 SPCA workers who are able to intervene, and their NDP government continues to push for harsher laws. Currently, you can face a $75,000 fine and two years in jail. In May, 2014, a dog walker caused the death of six animals in her care when she left them in her van. She received a six-month sentence, but it served as fuel for this debate.

Last year, California enacted a law that allows private citizens to rescue dogs from a hot or cold car, but the wording is deliberate, and focuses on causing the least amount of trauma to a trapped pet rather than baseball bat justice.

I’ve put myself through the physical terribleness of being locked in a hot car for an hour, and I can’t imagine how a child or pet would get through a similar experience. Leaving aside the words I have for people who leave their children in the car while they run in somewhere “just for a minute”, let’s address the pups.

A car or van is an oven. Steel and glass and dark interiors, they are ovens, not shelters. In ten minutes the temperature inside your vehicle can rise from 21C (70F) to 32C (90F) American Veterinary Medical Association. Another ten minutes it can get to nearly 38C (100F). In 20 minutes that lovely temperature you’re enjoying outside has turned your car into a deathtrap for your creature.

Don’t bother with cracking the window. If you have your oven on and you open the door an inch or two, it does nothing. Same with your car. Parking in the shade? Nope. The heat – and your animal – is trapped regardless.

Dogs don’t perspire like people. They can only pant and sweat through their paws. If the seats are hot, that removes one option from them. Pile on the frantic behaviour that often ensues by being left behind by the people they trust, and ramp up the onset of their internal thermostats heating up. Distress can set in in minutes, and organ failure and death not long after. Yes, it can happen fast. Would you ever set your oven for 100 degrees and put something living in there? Thought not.

Every province has an SPCA number you can call if you see an animal left in a car. You can also call police. You can run into nearby stores and try to have a car owner paged. Most tips tell you that leaving a car running with the air conditioning on is not a solution, but I’d argue that, at least gently. I have a friend who travels with her dog across the southern U.S. sometimes and it’s much safer to leave her animal locked in a running vehicle while she dashes in for a pee if that is her only option. It’s a solution that introduces other concerns, but if the emergency brake is on so Fido can’t accidentally drop it into drive, I’d take this approach over the roasting car.

There are many who criticize the internet for creating vigilante lawlessness, and it’s as easy to find a sympathetic story about someone who only left their kid or their dog for twenty seconds before all hell broke loose. I’m not an unreasonable person, but “I was only gone for a few minutes” has to become equated with “I only had a couple of beers”. Neither can work, neither can become normal, neither can be acceptable.

My dog-owning kids know they can drop their critters off with me if they have to; I’ve offered to stay with a pup outside a store on a leash, and I’m no dog person. The cashier at the pet store I was at told me staff even offer to go out to cars of customers, like the crotchety guy ahead of me, when they knew there might be dogs left outside.

If your animal is already in distress, a stranger breaking a window will increase that stress in the short term. But before you start calling out the rebels looking for a cause, remind me why I care more about your dog than you do.

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Will stronger penalties be enough to stop rise in aggressive driving?

Bill 213 is aimed to stop the growing fatalities from dangerous speeding, but some people still don’t get the message

Originally published June 19, 2017

Ontario Provincial Police just came off a winter with a 14 year record high snowmobile deaths, with 24 victims. And now, with summer not even officially here, they’re posting more record setting fatality counts on our roads and bracing themselves for a long season of carnage.

Police break down crash statistics into the Big Four: distracted driving, speed, seatbelt usage and alcohol and drugs. So far for 2017, they’re stunned to report an 80 per cent increase over last year in a category that seems to want to bully its way into the big leagues: aggressive driving.

In 2016, OPP reported “65 people died in OPP-investigated collisions last year in which an inattentive driver was either a contributing factor or the primary cause of the death. In comparison to the other Big Four categories, 2016 ended with 55 speed-related, 53 seatbelt-related and 45 alcohol-related deaths.”

That would make distracted – hey you, put down the phone – the big one. But current numbers have police scrambling to contain a growing phenomenon, the aggressive drivers. Up from 15 fatalities all of last year to 27 just to this date, police are quick to point out we haven’t officially entered summer, the dangerous, silly season of people driving over their heads.

Back in April a passel of exotic high-end cars were nabbed off Highway 400. The news flashed images of decaled Mercedes, Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis, amongst others. Stunt driving charges were laid against a dozen of their drivers, meaning the bucket list machinery was towed away on flatbeds, their owners grounded and now beginning a circuitous romp through the court system to sort out the charges. Owners cried foul; police cried fair. News reports say it was surrounding motorists who made multiple calls, and police say dash-cam footage and reports will back them up.

Were they targeted? As I tell my kids whenever I’m driving one of those cars, of course you’re targeted. You might as well paint a neon bullseye on your car. You didn’t buy that car so you could, you know, blend. I’ve also met more than one owner in the category who considers the cost of speeding tickets as the cost of doing business. The rich are different from you and me.

In 2007 when Ontario introduced its so-called Stunt Driving law, the idea was to give police some teeth to round up the street racers, the brats who embraced the aftermarket parts bin like a dog on a bone and then turned our roadways into danger zones for everybody else.

The punishment seemed onerous enough. Police could be judge and jury at the roadside, immediately seizing the car and suspending a licence. The charge would then wend its way through court, and could result in fines between $2,000 and $10,000, up to six months in jail and further licence suspensions between two and ten years. Everybody knew going 50 km/hr over the limit could result in the charge; but it also highlighted the dangerous nonsense that is indeed ‘stuntish’: driving with people in your trunk, turning left in front of a line of traffic to jump the light, weaving in and out of traffic, among other things. It was supposed to stop the idiots, and yet here we are with an 80 per cent increase in fatalities in early June.

Bill 213, a private member’s bill from Tourism Minister Eleanor McMahon seeks to toughen up the fines and jail terms. McMahon is the right one to shepherd this through the wickets; her husband, OPP Sergeant Greg Stobbart, was killed while he was cycling by a driver with five convictions for driving under suspension. Making our roads safer is going to necessarily fall to politicians if drivers themselves seem unable, or unwilling, to cut the crap.

Over the years, I get well-meaning but off centre letters from readers asking why cars are even made than can go more than 100 km/hr. They are written in earnest: why do we need vehicles that are able to go faster than any posted speed limit.

I sigh, and not just because of simplistic thinking. People will manage to break any law and endanger themselves in new and improved ways no matter the vehicle, and no matter the punishment. The downside isn’t that dangerous drivers kill themselves, it’s that they take the rest of us out with them.

I don’t know that stiffer fines and jail times will ever deter the most hardcore Ricky Racers. But short of doing what those readers have asked for – putting lawnmower engines into cars – I don’t see any other answer.

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The car that makes driving fun again is the anti-SUV

Mini Cooper S isn’t without its faults, but its lithe handling is a welcome change from the sea of big rigs on the road

Originally published June 12, 2017

I’m tired of SUVs and CUVs, and it took a 2017 Mini Cooper S Seven to remind me of that.

I know I’m the only one fatigued by various utility haulers; sales prove it. The segments are exploding so fast, I swear if I leave two SUVs in a dark garage overnight, in the morning there will be five of them. Our fuel prices remain incredibly affordable on the world scale, meaning everybody can drive big, bigger, biggest and nobody has to go electric. Yet.

My personal car is a little hatchback Elantra GT with a manual transmission. It was bought with my son in mind, knowing he’d end up with it. It’s easy on fuel, a fun ride and really versatile. Great bang for the buck.

I’ve driven a lot of Minis over the years, and loved doing so. My problem? Stubborn transmission problems are no industry secret, yet buyers, especially those purchasing older models, end up contacting me freaking out at the expense they find themselves facing when they’ve done too little research. That’s some upper class German engineering under that hood, with the repair bills to go along with it. My Mini love maxed out at that point.

I’ve also watched Minis grow, to the point that I’m seeing a vaguely Mini shaped car that was somehow just too big for my deeply entrenched Mini aesthetics. Like many of their brethren, Mini was searching for ways to capitalize all the way to the edges of their segments. Somewhere along the way, they lost the plot with some of the models sacrificing charm for, well, utility. Minis aren’t noted for their back seat legroom or road domination. Everything those CUVs and SUVs use as selling points, and everything I don’t want a Mini to be. I know, selfish of me, but it’s the truth. If you have to noodle something to be everything to everyone, it’ll usually end up being not enough for anyone.

It’s been a few years since I’d planted myself behind the wheel of a Mini. I’d driven the Countrymans (Countrymen?) when they first came out and, while they were fine, they didn’t have the Mini feel that I wanted; that I demanded. Some formulas shouldn’t be mucked with, much like family recipes. With keys in hand to the newest Cooper S five door, I wondered if my love could be rekindled.

I don’t say it often, and rarely in these pages, but I want this car.

We’ve been reaching for bigger and bigger vehicles and surrendering fun. When we’ve chased after reasonably priced compacts, we’ve thrown superior handling back to the sports cars – though you will only pry any vintage Miata from its owner’s cold, dead hands. The turbocharged four cylinder engine in this Mini is exhilarating; it handles with such infinitesimal input from the driver, it’s like it can read minds. The stock 17” wheels make it look cool, but also corner like a dream. I can already imagine having mine kitted out with winters and running all four seasons.

The Seven edition is a nod to the Austin Seven, one of the original Minis. Most of the options are about colour ways and painted stripes; the interior is full of the retro Mini touches and dials that you either love or hate, with lots of extra flourishes and zip-a-dee-doo-dah lights that you also love or hate. I love them. Pricing starts just under $28,000, and while the model I drove was topped up to $38,440, I’d probably add less than $2,000 to mine from the shopping list, and I’d win some back opting for a manual transmission.

We talk often – too often, in fact – about autonomous cars and all the coming changes. We talk about all the safety features that remove decision making from the driving process, and how this will all make driving so much better.

I was reminded this week that I call nonsense on that, and I doubt I’m alone. I love driving. I don’t want to imagine the week or two a year I might have to haul cats somewhere, or help a kid move. I want to smile every time I get in my car and hold a great steering wheel in my hands before the car tells me I don’t have to.

I love a vehicle that’s engineered for the driver, and while I respect that if you’re contemplating how to get a child seat into a car or pull lumber, this one isn’t for you. I also know that many of us aren’t doing that. I still go to the grocery store and the garden centre and the cottage; a super subcompact isn’t for me.

But this Mini is.

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Would you buy a new car completely online?

Montreal dealership first to offer complete service, but it’s not like you’re buying a book from Amazon

Originally published June 5, 2017

The first time I bought a computer I roamed around a store bewildered by dozens of different machines set up and running, each perhaps better than the last but all of them different. I finally pointed to the one I could afford that promised to do the things I needed and left the store, boxes of confusion stuffed in my trunk.

Today, I order everything online and a nice man in brown shorts delivers it all the next day. It’s easier, cheaper and I definitely get a better product. After all, I sat on my previous computer and sourced it all out, my brain uncluttered by store noise. What could be better?

How about buying a car this way?

Chambly Honda in Montreal has partnered with 360 Solutions & Consultations, a Montreal agency that specializes in e-commerce strategy; their philosophy is to find a simple solution to your complex problem. Is purchasing a car a complex problem? Is buying one entirely online the simple solution consumers will flock to? 360 started developing its online car buying platform three and a half years ago; Chambly is the first of 30 dealers across Canada to launch it.

Chambly dealer principal Louis-Martin Racicot sees it as a natural progression as more consumers, especially millennials, find it totally normal to do everything online. He notes that car buyers now do far more research online, and land in showrooms armed with more independently sourced information than ever before.

“We will be looking at three types of situations,” he says. “One hundred per cent online transactions, and [two] hybrid versions: those that start out in the showroom and are finalized online, and those that begin online and are finished in the showroom.” Racicot began seriously looking at the complete online sales platform about 18 months ago, and admits the launch this week has brought a lot of curiosity – not just from reporters, but from his colleagues in the industry. “Some are happy, some are less so,” he laughs. “The first to try something new takes the biggest risks.” Having said that, while it’s tough to anticipate what portion of his sales will be increased by the undertaking, he feels confident buyers will respond.

Louis-Yves Cloutier of 360 makes the case that an increasingly self-serve market will embrace a purchasing cycle that they can control. “Dealers can open a quote and start building a transaction, but buyers will control more of the process.” Showroom pressure has made the Internet a car buyer’s refuge; is this type of platform the natural conclusion of the process? How far will buyers actually go to stay out of the dreaded finance and insurance room?

I asked Racicot how he planned to handle the inevitable: buyer’s remorse. One of the most popular parts of ordering things online is knowing you can return it, usually at the seller’s expense. We may be used to the concept of buying, but we also take for granted the un-buying.

“If you do a transaction 100 per cent online, we want a customer to be happy. It will be case-by-case basis, but there will be a five-day, 500-kilometre buffer zone if someone genuinely needs to make a change. That might be a different vehicle, or a full refund.” He’s cautious about broad money-back guarantees; a vehicle is not a pair of jeans, and consumers entertaining purchasing this way should examine every part of a contract before they sign, just as they would in a showroom. The law doesn’t have a cooling-off period for car purchases, so get any stipulations surrounding an online contract in writing as well.

Not everyone thinks this will even be an issue, however. J.P. Ostiguy is the e-commerce manager for Alta Group, and he disagrees with statistics indicating that the number of people wishing to conclude an entire car purchase online is climbing. “Industry stats showed us there was actually a drop of about 10 per cent between 2015 and 2016,” he says. “We sell thousands of cars, and while the use of the Internet for research increases year after year, people still want that in-person experience when it comes to the final decision.” He even singles out the younger buyers as being more involved in the tactile experience, despite an assumption that generations raised with touchscreens will eschew more traditional methods on something as expensive as a vehicle.

And if buying a car online is the way we’re headed, why – besides outliers like Tesla – aren’t we seeing more of it? Why isn’t a giant like Amazon at the front of the line?

Racicot says it’s not a true comparison. “You need specialists,” he says. “We deal with financing matters – buying, leasing – and issues of warranty and things like that. It’s not like shopping from a catalogue.” The “things like that” no doubt include the hammer part of a traditional sale – the clearcoat and the rustproofing and the nitrogen in the tires. Just as I’m ready to brush off the online sales idea as too gimmicky, too simplified, I admit that this is the one portion of the sales game where the consumer might actually come out ahead. That pressure game is the number one turn off, judging by commentary from my viewers and readers. Out of the crucible of that business office, which feels more like detention than a shopping experience, might we actually feel better about our purchase?

I asked Cloutier whether the numbers show people shunning the add-ons without the intimidation that many experience. While it’s still early going, some early adopters of the platform in the used car market are actually showing significant numbers of buyers taking the extras; he attributes it to consumers moving through the process at their own pace, and making decisions based on sourced information rather than a need to finish the deal.

While online shopping for most things is totally normal, are we going to see cars head the same way? I’m actually torn about the idea that millennials will embrace this. I know far more boomers who walk into a showroom and say, “Give me another one of what I’m already driving,” when a lease is up than I do millennials who would do the same. I’ve done it myself. I’d say that is who would be more willing to take a risk with a dealer they know on a product they’re familiar with.

Cloutier believes no seller should try to target who might or might not embrace this type of technology, to simply offer it up.

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These five driving tips could save a road worker’s life

With our frustrations rising during construction season, don’t forget the people behind the orange cones

Originally published May 31, 2017

A few years back, I spent months trying to get authorization to do a stint working as a flag person on a road crew on a local street. The construction was forecast for most of the year, and I offered to report back a piece regardless of weather. I thought it would be insightful. I thought it would be tiring. I thought it wouldn’t be that hard to set up.

I was wrong.

I’d convinced a friend who worked for the region to help me find my way to a reflective vest and that all-empowering stop/slow sign. I wanted a column; he wanted people to find out indignant drivers endanger workers’ lives every day.

It never came to pass as we ran afoul of rules and regulations over and over, but when I get jammed up in construction – ’tis the season – I hear my friend’s words in my ear anew: “You wouldn’t believe how close drivers come to hitting us every single day.”

And sometimes it’s more than close. The most recent numbers available for Ontario from the Ministry of Transportation reveal that, in 2013, there were 1,694 collisions in construction zones. Seven of those resulted in eight fatalities, and 341 resulted in injuries. While the data doesn’t specify whether the fatalities and injuries were to workers or those in the cars, you can conclude who is the most vulnerable: those inside the car or those standing next to a live lane of traffic.

Every province is currently undertaking its own version of summer hell as it repairs roads. That 150th birthday the country is celebrating? Some of our infrastructure is almost that old. Politicians may be torn between bare maintenance and making jobs depending on the election cycle, but the fact is, sewers must be replaced, bridges must be restored and you can only knit together so many pothole plugs before you finally have to resurface.

If your commute or quest takes a ridiculously long time, take it out on anyone but those tasked to do the job. Remember these five tips to make your journey through construction hell safer for everyone.

Use your tech

You can check at home before you leave, you can have updates every few minutes from most radio stations and you can use apps on your phone like Waze and Google maps to plot your course. Most construction is announced long in advance, and any and all of these things will alert you to the current conditions. Believe them; find a way around, or at the very least, add time to your plan.

Be the worker

Just for a moment, consider those conditions and standing on concrete or hot pavement all day. The person who flips the sign around right as you get there is working in tandem with someone else. They’re not making the call, so cool your jets and consider how much abuse they take for doing their job. Site supervisors have to take into account traffic flow, worker safety around massive equipment and, oh yeah, getting the job done.

Obey the cones

They’re no protection, simply orange suggestions that can mean life or death for vulnerable workers. If you’re worried you can’t navigate them, lift your eyes up and look towards the end of the augmented lane. Your brain will signal to your hands the necessary positioning for your car. If you stare at the cones, you’ll hit them. If you drive outside the cones, be prepared to pay the cost. In downtown Toronto last week, I watched a low-slung car decide it couldn’t wait any longer. The driver pulled out of line to take an apparently empty centre lane workers had sectioned off. Maybe it was the road angle, but the five-inch drop where the pavement had been cut came as a rude surprise. Your appointment, your schedule, your kids and your bathroom break are just as important – and disrupted – as those of everyone else.

Watch the officer

If a cop is on point duty, that takes precedence over the lights. Pay attention. That advanced turn signal is not for you unless the officer points at you. They make eye contact for a reason. Workers and police know to never turn their backs to a live lane of traffic, but that’s a difficult thing to do in the three-ring circus of a four-way intersection.

Slow down – slow down – slow down

This is the answer to virtually every collision, every weather related traffic mess, and the needless injuries and deaths that occur involving workers on roadway construction sites. I’ve written about zipper merging in the past, and the most effective way to do it. I continue to get feedback saying it’s wrong, though science has proven it is correct; science apparently has a very distant relationship with human behaviour. Don’t take out your rage at being held up on other drivers, and please don’t take it out on the people you believe are wrecking your day.

They’re doing their job, and a neon vest and a hard hat is no protection against a speeding, angry or oblivious driver. They deserve to go home to their families in one piece.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Cleaning the garage of junk, trying not to touch the memories

There’s much to deal with after a lifetime of tools, oil changes and car parts

Originally published May 25, 2017

At one time it held a car.

It seems impossible now, even though the cars I own are smaller than the ones my father bought; it’s like the cinderblock walls contracted, the years of dust and grime reducing their measure along with any desire to have anything actually touch them. He threw out nothing, and two decades after his death it now falls to me to decide what can be rescued from 50 years of accumulation.

He saved everything.

I’ve had a go at it over the years, the appearance of a dumpster in my driveway still striking more joy in my heart than any diamond, any bouquet of flowers. I’ve done some renovations and chucked and recycled and reduced. I’m much like my father in every way save that one: I see a chance to purge as a lightening, a rebirth. He saw a dumpster as a shopping excursion.

I was born in this house, and now I am leaving. Unlike my parents who were able to hand the place, near-fully loaded, to an unprodigal daughter, I must deliver a home to market that looks like it was never a home at all. For the interior rooms my father cared little about, this has been a challenge on my back and my wallet, but not my heart. No, it is here in this garage that stories are being whispered in my ear and dust motes are forcing me to see ghosts.


I know the proper way to clean a garage. Remove everything and strew it all across the driveway while the neighbours wonder how such a small space birthed so much detritus. Sweep and hose, and put back everything that must be kept and dispose of anything leftover. Wheat from chaff, mutton from lamb, trash from treasure.

Except my heart falls down that old rabbit hole, the one dug by my father and nursed all those years. What if? What if I need this? What if someone else needs this? You never know, you just can’t tell, it might be useful, it might fit someone, it’s still got some life, we don’t know where it came from so how can we know where it goes?

I long ago got rid of things that actually were useful, were still good. New quarts of Quaker State from when he bought his oil a case at a time. Fram filters in their original cartons, off to a good home, if not a better one. Dad was stocking enough things to do oil changes when he was already hooked up to an oxygen tank, pushing a coupon in one of my hands as he thrust a flyer in the other. I guess he figured he’d be using his quintupled points wherever he was going; I’m sure he arrived at the Pearly Gates with a fistful of Canadian Tire money.

He was a fan of hanging things up, and pounded giant nails into the mortar of the walls. I ditched his mangled metal snow shovels – five of them – but simply hung up plastic ones instead. I’ve left his row of saws as he left them decades ago, now beyond use but still the artwork of a man who would have barked at you in disbelief if you told him he had an artistic soul.

Floor space is limited in a small garage that usually stores four sets of winter tires in the off season. I made the kids clear them out, though I know he’d be proud they all take car maintenance seriously. We don’t crawl beneath the metal beasts to bleed out the old Quaker State and replace it with new, but we make sure someone else does because only an idiot would skimp on oil changes, says the voice in my head.

I found the jacks he’d used beneath whatever station wagon he was working on, and remembered peering beneath, all hunched over little girl full of whatcha doing and can I help. I never cared how dirty I got, and spent much time sitting on the kitchen counter as my mother tried to pry the oil from under my nails while giving my father that face. They’d patch our street with tar and when it bubbled up in the summer heat, my sisters and I would pop the black blueberries with our fingers and toes, then come home to be put back on the counter, again. Kids are supposed to get mucky; my father taught me that.

The garage still has a lot of wheels in it, even absent a car and extra tires. I’ve stored my sons’ longboards for reasons I’m not sure of, though my old roller skates, left behind when I moved out, are still strung up by their grubby pink laces where my father hung them. I’d convinced myself I was so different, but I’m doing what he did. This keeper philosophy is obviously bred in the bone.

Tomorrow, I tell myself. Tomorrow I’ll clear all of this out.

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