If you see (or cause) an accident, don’t ignore the victim

Last week’s hit and run – in which an 11-yr-old boy was left in the road and ignored – shows we need a reminder of what it means to be human, not just a good driver

Originally published: March 14, 2016

It takes a special kind of coward to hit something with your car and take off. “Hit and run” minimizes what can actually happen. Hit and damage, hit and injure, hit and kill. Those are more exact.

I’ve been told how human responses can kick in at a base biological level; that fight or flight response we’ve all felt triggered in that fraction of a second when we must decide, and we must decide right now. I don’t know if the person who hit and killed Maurice Richards of East St. Louis on March 9th was making an instantaneous decision to flee after slamming a car into the 11-year-old. It was raining; it was just 6:30 p.m. and the child wasn’t jaywalking; he was at a corner of two streets. Unless you are impaired or a fool, you know if you’ve hit an 11-year-old child hard enough to leave him crumpled and dying in the street. It takes a certain kind of person to run.

The headline this week wasn’t even about the coward who fled. Instead, it was about a series of drivers who drove around the supine boy and ignored him. He died in that street as cars – multiple cars – swerved around him without stopping. Without calling for help. He lay there long enough for the rain to drench his clothing. And people drove around him.

You and I have a contract. You might not think we do, but we do. We have a social contract that says if I see your kid in trouble or your elderly parent needing a hand, I help. You do the same for me. It doesn’t matter if today I am able-bodied or out of danger, one day I won’t be and every day someone important to me isn’t.

I don’t get to drive around your child lying hurt in the road. What those motorists in East St Louis did was abominable. If worried for their own safety, they could have made a fast call. A phone is at the end of virtually every arm these days. If they didn’t know what they were seeing, they had a responsibility to risk being wrong.

You want to know why you risk being wrong? Because it’s brave. My mother was walking down a major thoroughfare near our home one day nearly half a century ago. Ahead of her was a small girl, maybe 7, skipping as she proceeded on her own. As my mother watched, a car pulled up to the youngster and a man leaned across the front seat to speak to her. My mother quickened her steps to close the gap. When she saw the man push open the passenger door to let the girl in, my mother charged into action; she stood between the car and the girl, and told her not to get in a car with a stranger. The tiny girl looked up at my mother quizzically, and said, “but that’s my Daddy.” My mother felt terrible and that man thanked her profusely. This is why you need to be strong enough to risk being wrong. How could you live with yourself if you weren’t, and had done nothing? My mother told us that story later and felt foolish, but I realized what a hero she actually was.

The world is a different place when viewed through our individual eyes. I’m aware I’m a woman of a certain age who risks greater bodily harm inserting myself into a situation than say, my 6’4” son who has worked as a bouncer. I know that weapons and drugs are everywhere in this world, and situations aren’t always what they seem. It does not release me from that contract, because without it we stop being a community, we start being lesser people. The day I won’t risk being wrong to help you when you need help, is the day we have lost to the fear and hatred that threatens to consume us.

I can’t release the despair of that young boy lying in the rain. I don’t know if he was conscious but if he was, he realized nobody was stopping. Someone finally used their car to block traffic and get to him, but first responders couldn’t save him. You don’t have to be doctor or a police officer to assist someone who is hurt. You don’t have to perform CPR or risk further injury if you’re unsure of what to do.

You have to call for help, and you have to hold a child’s hand even as he dies. That is the contract. That is what we owe each other.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Secure your pet – but don’t take safety for granted

Most pet safety systems don’t offer the protection they promise, and some are even dangerous

Originally published: March 7, 2016 – With video

“The safety of children travelling in vehicles is very important to Transport Canada,” according to the Transport Canada website. So important, your kid will be bundled up or tied down according to strict government regulations, from birth until he or she is delivered into a regular seatbelt. And that is as it should be. But what about your pets?

If you’ve ever pulled up to a stoplight and had Buddy in the next lane glance over smiling with Snuffybits his Butterdoodle – or whatever it’s called – sitting on his lap, you know there are no regulations regarding how to travel with your pets. And Buddy is endangering the life of Snuffybits as surely as if he were to throw her out into a live lane of traffic. Ever seen an airbag go off, Buddy? Thinking your Minipoo is safe inside your handbag is equally dangerous.

While pet owners may or may not care about transporting their fur babies, The Center for Pet Safety in Washington, D.C. cares very much. In fact, it’s a non-profit research and advocacy group that takes zero money from the pet product industry; instead, it rigorously tests the claims of all those cute tethers, harnesses and carriers that promise to protect your pets in your car. Its crash test videos should scare the hell out of you if you own a dog or cat; you can see its test results at www.centerforpetsafety.org.

Another company that cares is Subaru. While car manufacturers are rightfully held to stringent safety standards for every single part of the cars they make to protect human occupants, dogs are cats are on their own. But Subaru has partnered with The Center to find recommended solutions for their customers (with its findings also found on The Center’s website), and it was good enough to supply me with a recommended harness and kennel for testing in a new Forester; your own vehicle should have similar anchor spots, but check first.

When it comes to any vehicle, Dr. Tara Sermer, a veterinarian and owner of Green Lane Animal Hospital in Thornhill, Ontario, acknowledges pets are a hugely overlooked safety issue for both the animals themselves and the car’s occupants. “Dogs are a major distraction,” she says. “They can easily become frightened or unhappy, and a loose dog inside a car is just dangerous.” Forget worrying about a crash for a moment; Dr. Sermer sees far too many eye injuries from dogs hanging out open windows. “Foreign bodies causing injuries, dried out eyes, corneal ulcers – all of these things are common and preventable.”

If your vehicle is going 100 km/h and comes to a sudden stop – a crash – everything inside your vehicle that is not secured will continue to travel at 100 km/h. Your cellphone, that Kleenex box, your dog. An unsecured dog can severely injure the occupants of that car; an unsecured, terrified dog can bolt across lanes of traffic; an unsecured dog could threaten first responders who are obligated to tend to the hurt humans first, and if Animal Control has to be called, your frightened dog will be subdued any way it takes to get you the help you need.

Dr. Sermer tells of a collision on a major highway involving a client and his Labrador. With the driver injured, the dog took off and was missing for 24 hours. When it was finally found, it had a severely fractured front leg. She had another client who had to have the dashboard of their car removed to get out a frightened cat. Uncontained cats will usually race right for the pedals and lodge themselves there. As kids, my sister and I let our family cat out of his cage on the way to the cottage “just for a minute” and he did just that; I can still hear my father hollering as he fought the car to the side of Highway 400 in crazy vacation traffic.

Lindsey Wolko is the founder of The Center for Pet Safety in Washington, D.C. “Pets are as big a distraction as cellphones,” she tells me. Dogs under seven kilograms should be in a carrier; dogs over that weight should be in a safety harness. And there is only one company that makes harnesses that are recommended by The Center after its extensive crash testing: Sleepypod makes both the Clickit Utility and Clickit Sport. Forget the aisle full of tethers with claims they will keep your dog safe. There is no standard, no legal requirements to back up their claims, and testing proves many of the products will not only do little to protect your dog, they will actually cause worse injuries in some circumstances.

You can get kennels of all sizes, and the Gunner Kennel we tested that was big enough for our 20 kilogram dog took up all of the cargo hold of the Subaru Forester we were using. The Gunner supplies superior safety, but obviously would be an option restricted by space and lifestyle; examine all the recommendations.

The Clickit harness I tested for this piece was the Utility, with two tether straps that attached into the child seat anchor points. The company, Sleepypod, now has a newer version to market that is easier to use and has passed The Center’s stringent crash test standards. Sleepypod remains the only company that voluntarily complies with The Center’s standards to attain certification. The biggest problem with many of the mainstream harnesses available to consumers, according to The Center, is the use of an extension mechanism.

“The Center for Pet Safety has scientifically proven that extension tethers and zipline-style products increase the risk of injury to not only the pet, but also the people in the vehicle if a crash occurs,” says Wolko. “Long extension tethers negate the crashworthiness of a harness and should be considered a design flaw.” Extension tethers and ziplines are any devices that allow the animal to “travel” distances beyond a safe zone, and then snap back while tied to a single point.

The Center continually updates its best practices for testing consumer products, and it even has a former IIHS bioengineer with years of passenger safety expertise on board to help replicate dog dummies for most effective results. Wolko begins to tell me with a shudder that decades ago, someone used real dogs in similar tests. She doesn’t finish the sentence.

According to Wolko, American statistics indicate 60 per cent of dog owners travelled with their dog in the car at least once per month in the past year. I will venture that Canadian numbers will no doubt be somewhere in this neighbourhood.

Animals who have never been secured will take some training. Wolko suggests short trips – just a few minutes – initially to get them acclimated, and like children, the younger you start them the easier it will be. The harness we used seemed comfortable for Shelby, our dog model; after a bit of testing with the straps, it didn’t take long for Shelby to relax while wearing it.

And after hearing about the injured Lab missing for a day, Shelby no longer has a vote in whether she gets bolted in. We love her too much not to. And, Alfie, the little yapper in the video, is getting a new crate. We love him, too.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Here’s what women really want when they buy a car

Surprise, surprise: Female buyers still encounter sexism in the dealership

Originally published: February 29, 2016

So a man and a woman walk into a car dealership … nah, there’s no punchline. But it’s likely they will have a different experience.

A discussion I had recently at the Canadian International Auto Show about the role of women in the auto industry shifted around, as it always does, to a version of “What Do Women Really Want?” No matter how you examine it, this is still a heavily male-dominated industry that simultaneously courts women and turns them off. That pushmi-pullyu creature is real; they want our money but still overthink the ways to get it.

You’ve heard that magic statistic, that over 80 percent of car purchases are influenced by women. I’ve used it myself because I believe it. I also believe car purchases are influenced by men, by children, by pets and by cottages. While it’s nice to see the double X so heavily represented, I also hesitate to think that it has really made much of a difference in how cars are made, marketed and maintained for women.

Buying a car sucks. J.P. Ositguy, senior manager at the Alta Group in Toronto, agrees. “Buying a car can be an adversarial transaction,” he admits. Consumers are prepared for the worst, and sellers are prepared for consumers who are prepared for the worst. Everybody comes in loaded for bear and negotiations begin there.

I’ve watched car manufacturers believe they could design a car “for women.” I’ve seen pink cars and cars with flattering lighted mirrors and cars with weird door handles that I was supposed to prefer. Designing a car for women is a terrible idea; women want reliability, safety and good value more than they want something pink. But let’s talk about that colour thing for a minute.

I’ve had more than one salesperson tell me, with a laugh, that they’ve had a woman walk into their dealership knowing little beyond that she wants a red car. It’s the laugh that pisses me off, not the fact that someone knows little about a prospective purchase, especially a large one. If you are a professional, it is your job to make sure you sell the right vehicle to that person. If the colour is their starting point, then it is now yours. I could ask someone I’d never met 10 questions and get a pretty good handle on what kind of car they need; it’s not that difficult, and if I’m selling cars, my job is to find the right 10 questions, not to belittle someone for not understanding a complicated industry. Buying and selling cars is a confidence game in the best and worst sense of the phrase.

The internet has changed much of this however, as Ostiguy notes. “Women spend more time researching before they set foot in a dealership; men spend more time after.” Women know the internet is a genderless way to ask questions and seek opinions, and Ostiguy also says women are better communicators. “They take advantage of more information, whether it’s through social networks or reviews, but they also research the sellers, not just the cars. Women are building a relationship, and people who successfully sell to women know it.”

The car industry knows a lot about you. They know women are more rational, and more likely to stick to a budget. They know men are more emotional and spend more. Older women are more skeptical because wisdom comes with age; I worded that last sentence myself.

What about thinking I’d prefer to buy from a woman? About 20 years ago, there was a push to get more women onto the sales floor. Because apparently, I’ll walk into a dealership and automatically trust another woman, as if our ovaries send out some kind of bat signal. Nope. I want a sales associate who will be honest, transparent and address the person asking the question.

At that same car show, a woman told me she walked out of a dealership because a sales rep consistently pointed out interior finishes to her while discussing chassis components with the man who was with her. She said she was the one buying the car, for herself. She asked about tire sizes; the rep opened the glovebox. She asked about the four-cylinder versus the six-cylinder; the rep showed her the stereo.

Where gender can make a difference is at the back of the house. Service managers have to be great communicators; they are the gateway between the customer and the person fixing the car. The sales transaction is actually such a small fraction of owning a car, I barely notice if I’ve been sold a car by a man or a woman. The ongoing relationship with that dealership, however, needs to be something I can count on. I’ve dealt with several female service managers – the people who explain what’s going on with your car when you bring it in – in the past, and I’d be happy to see more women in this important role. The automotive industry provides a lot of excellent career opportunities for women in every area.

As the way we buy and maintain cars changes, it is the very same soft skills that have historically put women at a disadvantage that will soon be what makes or breaks a dealership.

What do women want when they buy a car? I want to be respected for what I do know and be educated on the things I don’t. I won’t be swayed by a pink car unless I actually want a pink car. If you advertise the car, I want you to have it. If I say I don’t want expensive up-sells, I don’t want to be orphaned in some windowless sales office until I change my mind.

Honesty. Transparency. A good experience. The same thing men want.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Is photo radar a lifesaver, or yet another cash grab?

The jury’s still out on whether photo radar is an effective speed deterrent, but one thing is clear: It rakes in a lot of money

Originally published: February 23, 2016

“The use of the first known method of speed enforcement dates back to 1902 in Westchester County, New York. This system was composed of three dummy tree trunks set up on the roadside at 1-mile intervals. A police officer with a stopwatch and a telephone was concealed in each trunk. As a speeding vehicle passed the first trunk, the hidden police officer telephoned the time to the second police officer, who recorded the time at which the vehicle passed him and then computed its speed for the mile. If the vehicle was exceeding the speed limit, the officer telephoned the third police officer, who proceeded to stop the vehicle by lowering a pole across the road.” (U.S. Department of Transportation report, 1992)

This is so awesome I can barely stand it. For as long as there have been cars on the road, there have been drivers breaking the laws and cops trying to stop them. An unsubstantiated tale is that in 1895 (or 1902, depending on your source), the only two vehicles on the road in Ohio collided, which would lend credence to the fact that, left to their own devices, drivers are an absolute menace. But what about when we introduce other devices?

When Toronto Police Services recently asked for a budget increase, city council said, effectively, “something is gonna have to give,” and within a week Toronto Mayor John Tory was pondering reintroducing photo radar. In its previous incarnation, it was a total bust, politically. The Ontario New Democrats introduced it to howls of consternation in 1994, and it was promptly snuffed out in the next election cycle by the incoming Conservatives. That was much about politics and the misuse of power (same thing?), and the conversation about any upside to photo radar got stuffed in a bag because this was also around the time that governance with vision seemed to become as illegal as speeding.

Like most touchy topics, it’s important to ask the right question: Does photo radar save lives? Does it reduce collisions and increase safety? And, does photo radar provide a steady stream of income for the municipalities who use it?

Let’s line up some unassailable facts. If cars don’t connect with pedestrians, pedestrians live. If cars connect with pedestrians at a lower rate of speed rather than a higher one, the pedestrians’ chances of survival are much better. Drivers and passengers in those cars are now protected by stellar safety systems, so comparing their before and after injuries, especially on lower-speed roads, is difficult. Let’s make this about pedestrians.

If all cars are travelling at a uniform speed, there are fewer collisions. Photo radar usually produces those results, unless you take into account those drivers who often get away with speeding (out-of-towners in some places like Winnipeg, cops themselves in Calgary, or people who just don’t care). Initially, photo radar was always going to be used for school and construction zones. Most of us don’t want to open up the mail to a ticket a few weeks down the road, so the stick (a fine of a few hundred bucks) works far better than the carrot (think of the children!).

Is photo radar effective? Well, it’s expensive to implement, it works best with citizen support and it appears to change driver behaviour in the moment. Jurisdictions using it report fewer collisions, but if driver behaviour is only changed in one particular place at one particular time, it isn’t hard to see why opponents feel it is strictly a cash grab. I can see it for some residential areas; I would hate to see it on highways, which need proper policing.

The one question that is without question? It makes money – lots and lots of money. In 2014, Winnipeg issued the equivalent of a $22 ticket to every man, woman and child in the city. I’d go visit Winnipeg but I’d be scared to even run down the street. Winnipeg loves photo radar. But while the city budget is slopping over the edges with these well-gotten gains, a vocal segment of the citizenry is now questioning where a reasonable idea went off the tracks. Like an open bar at a stranger’s wedding, it’s simply too easy for municipalities to get drunk with easy money.

Edmonton brought back photo radar to some of its streets in 2012. Calgary has six mobile photo radar cars it can position around the city. Smaller venues like St. Albert, Alberta, hide their cameras for optimum gotchas. Edmonton actually likes this idea and is probably thinking up places to hide their cameras right now. Quebec has 37 radars and red light cameras. British Columbia experiences the same political yo-yo as Ontario.

Like tickets issued at red light cameras, the punishment is a fine but no demerit points; it is the car’s registrant who gets mailed the ticket. This is the actual crux of the problem. Some (people with money) will consider mere fines a cost of driving the way they please. Photo radar tickets do not impact anyone’s insurance rates. You simply pay to play, and the house wins, every time. Well, unless it doesn’t, like that time in 2011 that Alberta had to refund $14 million in fines on 140,000 tickets because a single ticket was found to be faulty. Damned machines.

As I write this, it appears Toronto’s mayor is also exploring the option of civilians directing traffic at some pedestrian-concentrated zones. For as much as I might be on board with photo radar in some residential core areas (far, far wiser than dropping speed limits to a blanket 30 km/h), even I know circumventing the Highway Traffic Act to let the Citizen’s Arrest Brigade direct traffic is a mistake. Those heart-warming tales of people springing into action during massive blackouts to diffuse hectic intersections as people hand them water bottles and high-fives is a one-off; don’t think the romance of that rare event will translate into a power mad PTAer telling you to move your car, or else.

Or maybe you’re just sick of the constant interference of stealth technology in your life. “On highways and back roads across the U.S., Canada and Bermuda last week, motorists who took chances with the speed limits were encountering a new operational hazard. It swooped down on them with the swiftness of a hawk and was, oftentimes, as invisible as the Thought Police in Orwell’s chiller. The unwitting speed demon saw no police car in his rearview mirror.” That was in Time Magazine. In 1953.

I say we consider going back to dropping poles across roads.

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This is the only car buying tip you’ll ever need

Sticking to your guns – and your budget – is key to making a new car purchase you can live with

Originally published: February 16, 2016

There is really only one thing you need to know when you go to buy a car.

Nobody wants advice they didn’t ask for, and people who do ask don’t want as much as they’re usually given. Having said that, if I’m falling off the side of a cliff and someone asks for the only piece of advice on buying a car that I’ll have time to give as I hurtle toward a certain death, it would be this: Don’t buy a car a month at a time.

You’ve probably started noticing stray headlines that are showing up on sites you visit. Reputable sites, mainstream sites, sites you’ve visited on purpose. Yet there it is, in the margin or at the bottom, crazy second-rate headlines that remind you of knockoff merchandise called Kalvin Kline or Goochi. They’re like the ShamWow commercials of the Internet: “More Canadians with bad credit are eligible for car loans,” said one that popped up on my screen the other day. Oh, awesome, I thought. The absolute best thing to do for people with shattered credit is to buy a car they can’t afford.

Cars are big purchases; tens of thousands of dollars. And yet, they seem to overwhelmingly be called $300 a month purchases in every ad I see. When I look through real estate sections, the big number is always the big number. Rentals are usually advertised by the monthly price because you’re only signing up for a year, and you can usually find a way to squirrel out of it sooner if you really have to. You can’t squirrel out of a car purchase.

Because few of us can walk into a car dealership and plop down tens of thousands of dollars like Oprah or a pirate, we have to wisely decide what our budget can bear. The problem is not in establishing how much we can afford a month towards this purchase; the problem is forgetting you have to multiply that number by all those months to realize how much you are actually paying.

Ontario has something called all-in pricing, which means a dealer is required by law to post the total price of a car excluding only HST and licensing. There can be no fine print under the fine print. That price written on the windshield, stuck in the window, printed in the paper or posted on the website must be the true price. Confusion can set in if consumers have read an ad placed by the manufacturer; they do not have to abide by the all-in rule. Which is crazy and confusing, if you ask me.

This law is a good one, and can help buyers determine how much a car costs. The problems set in when you get inside a showroom and wander, physically or emotionally. Perhaps they don’t have that exact model as advertised (they are supposed to be able to get it); maybe it’s only on certain colours, and you really want orange; maybe your heart skips a beat when you see a higher level of trim or the next model up, and your original decision now looks like a wallflower. I blame consumers as much as I blame sellers.

But, this is your money. Don’t be pushed off your position. The first question out of a salesperson’s mouth is going to be, “How much do you have a month to spend?” This is where you fight back, at the very first question. If you know you have $25,000 because you’ve budgeted 400 bucks a month for five years, don’t let them magically get you into a $35,000 car that costs the same $400 a month – for an extra 24 months. It’s not magic, it’s math.

The up-sell happens in increments. GPS would be nice; the leather looks lovely; I can totally hear the difference in that stereo. The first time a salesperson says, “For an extra $35 a month we can get you into this model,” hesitate. Then get out your calculator and multiply that 35 by 60, your original payback plan. You might want it for $35, but do you really want it for more than $2,000? When they suggest you can keep to your original payment by extending your payment period, just leave.

There are several ways to finance a car purchase. Talk to your bank. Maybe that incentive financing is right for you, if that zero or one per cent is on a car you want. If you have no intention of leasing but find yourself considering it to “make” your monthly target, go home and think some more. Be wary of any place that will give you money when nobody else will, unless it’s your parents. Actually, be wary of that, too.

Reputable dealers want you happy with your car purchase for years to come. They need your future business and your referrals. There is no cooling-off period, no contract hangover clause that will undo your signature. The weight of that sum – those tens of thousands of dollars – should feel big. Don’t let anyone do some sleight of hand to let you think otherwise.

And don’t do that sleight of hand to yourself.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Henry Ford’s dream of tough, plant-based cars now a reality

Among his many innovations, Henry Ford pioneered the use of organics in vehicles. Ford is now advancing its founder’s back-to-the-land thesis

Originally published: February 8, 2016

If you’re going to be stranded in the middle of nowhere after some disaster, natural or otherwise, you might want to be stuck there with a Ford product. Although I can’t promise you’ll magically turn into a mechanic or a MacGyver, you’ll at least have something to eat.

For over a decade, Ford has been experimenting with swapping out components of its cars to use plant-based products instead of petroleum-based ones. In setting up strategic partnerships with agricultural interests on both sides of the border, they’ve paved the way for the car industry to incorporate, and find ways to incorporate, things like soy, corn, tomatoes, wheat, coconut, bamboo, algae, dandelion and sugar cane. Sound like a feast? Ford thought so, too.

They invited some journos and foodies recently to Actinolite, a top-flight Toronto restaurant where they put the chef and his staff to perhaps the ultimate test: make a car taste good. The automobile industry comes under fire from environmentalists, and the fact is, no car makes the environment better. You can read elaborate explanations that creating batteries for hybrids and electrics saps more of the earth’s elements and creates more pollution during its birth than it will ever negate, and there are several studies debating the impact of using various fuel sources.

According to the automaker, the average Ford vehicle uses between 20 and 40 pounds of renewable materials – with almost 300 parts, across various platforms, derived from sources such as soybeans, cotton, wood, flax, jute and natural rubber.

But actually sourcing components in a farmer’s field isn’t the whole story. It’s about finding ways to use the throwaways – parts of the plant that are currently burned or discarded – and finding ways to use this former refuse to replace expensive oil-based parts. There are stumbling blocks; initial tests, displayed in the test labs in Dearborn, Michigan, show soy-based foam looking like everything from bad movie popcorn to crazy cloud-shaped explosions. These natural products are broken down to their molecular level, and then the work begins; they have to meet strict safety standards, be predictable in both performance and lifespan, and be able to be produced at volume. This often requires innovating new tools and production scenarios, because food frequently doesn’t act like the things it is replacing. It’s a long-term project and venture that Ford has been committed to for nearly 15 years now.

Every Ford sold today contains naturally derived components. They’re usually things you don’t think much about, like soy foam head rests or wheat hull-reinforced plastic storage boxes. Carpet fibres might be from recycled clothing; castor oil-based fuel lines and soybean oil-based gaskets and seals; cellulose-reinforced plastic increasingly takes the place of glass-reinforced plastic.

The goal is twofold: Make use of renewable products while achieving the goal of lowering weight to improve fuel economy.

This idea of looking to nature is hardly new for Ford. Fordlândia, an entire town carved out of the Brazilian rainforest in 1929 by Henry Ford, was a fascinating precursor to his company’s back-to-the-land thesis. The impetus then was to break a stranglehold held by rubber barons (sorry, I couldn’t help it) who had a monopoly on rubber production, which Ford needed for tires. His idea? Grow his own. To that end, he transplanted what he had – production capability, workers and a support community – to a place that had what he didn’t: rubber.

The idea was pretty awesome, on paper. Believing his engineers could surely create a rubber forest, he let them have at it. In the meantime, a total slice of Americana bloomed in the jungle. “It included a power plant, a modern hospital, a library, a golf course, a hotel and rows of white clapboard houses with wicker patio furniture. As the town’s population grew, all manner of businesses followed, including tailors, shops, bakeries, butcher shops, restaurants and shoemakers. It grew into a thriving community with Model T Fords frequenting the neatly paved streets,” writes Alan Bellows in his article “The Ruins of Fordlândia.”

In addition to workers brought from home, Ford hired locals to work on the project, but decided they would have to behave the way he wanted. No booze, no local food, no gambling, no dancing girls. The locals eventually revolted, the rubber trees failed to thrive, the Brazilian military was forced to wade in and the remnants of the town are now a curiosity you can visit if you happen to be down that way.

Ford was roundly lambasted for not doing his botanical homework for starters, for failing to recognize the very human factors that would be involved in understanding people are, well, people, and that sometimes you simply can’t bend things to your will no matter how much money you throw at it.

The true loss? His failure with both Fordlândia and a later attempt farther down the river called Belterra contributed to the widespread use of synthetic rubber. Synthetic rubber, which is made from petroleum. The very thing this company is now pushing back against.

So while hearing that Ford is looking for ways to turn tomato skins into bio-plastics or rice hulls into wire harnesses, the truth is that the idea was germinating in the mind of its inventor a century ago. The recent dinner, with a menu featuring soybean custard, bamboo with kelp, and tomato with algae (not gonna lie – some of these things were not as good as the others), was an elegant as well as elevated reminder that we have to find a way to work with the planet, even if you’re a car company.

Oh, and if you’re stranded with that Ford? Eat anything made from corn first. Yum.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Road rage is getting worse – and more dangerous

Statistics indicate road rage incidents are increasing every year, but why are we so angry?

Originally published: February 1, 2016

We’re a snippy, short-tempered lot. Road rage statistics continue to rise, though it isn’t really a new thing. A State Farm survey last year found one in three drivers self-reported engaging in road rage-ish behaviour, most commonly triggered by tailgaters and distracted drivers.

A lovely young woman I know spent a few minutes explaining her drive into work during a recent snow storm. She said the highway was in terrible shape, but by sticking to the inside lane, she felt most comfortable. She also said she had a big rig sitting on her bumper the entire 40-kilometre drive.

“I thought, I don’t care how angry you are, I’m not moving. I decided I’d just show him that he couldn’t make me move,” she finished. My mouth fell open. I very calmly asked her to never, ever do that again. Regardless of conditions, you are never going to teach another driver a lesson. You just aren’t. If they’re angry or stupid or reckless, just get out of their way and let them go. A standoff on a busy highway is just as dangerous as one at the O.K. Corral.

As more and more people pop dashcams into their cars, we can expect to see more clips like the one from Langley, B.C., in which a work van is chasing after a small car; reportedly at speeds up to 160 km/h, it appears to try to ditch the car off the road. Other motorists scrambled out of the way.

Parking lot rage: also real. I found a headline that said people “suffer” from road rage. Oh, please. People choose the behaviour as surely as they choose another beer or another doughnut. You suffer from cancer, you don’t suffer from road rage.

When did we get so hateful on our roads? Experts blame everything from road conditions to sheer volume of cars. Non-stop construction on aging infrastructures has added time to commutes; an economy that shifts faster than a game of three-card Monte makes it even tougher for people to know for any length of time what that commute might be.

I think the shift goes deeper, however, than people just being stressed or angry. We’re seeing not just an extension of the tension in our lives, but the anonymity in them. We’re becoming more accustomed to moving through the world with a false face, or at least a hidden one. Many news organizations are finally suspending comments on their sites because they can’t keep up with the vitriol: the anonymous, cowardly darts from those who feel safe acting in ways they would never put their name to. When a driver gives in to some deep-seated rage and acts on it, it’s surely because he or she believes there will never be a reckoning. Like a computer, a car supplies a barrier, a shield from decent behaviour and repercussions.

Psychiatry has a name for those road rage events that make headlines, where people get out and stab each other or follow each other home to carry on the fight – Intermittent Explosive Disorder, it’s called. Is it lost on no one that IED also stands for an Improvised Explosive Device in the theatre of war? IED (the road rage kind) is dangerous because it can apparently happen in people who character witnesses will repeatedly call – later – the Nicest Guy/Girl in the World. Statistics indicate that road rage incidents are increasing every year, everywhere. They’re also getting more threatening and more violent.

Who whips bricks at windows and pepper sprays two-year-olds? Canadian road ragers, that’s who. Studies conducted in the U.S. often mirror many parts of Canadian life, and their road rage analyses should give you pause: The most recent numbers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attribute 66 per cent of traffic fatalities to aggressive driving, and 37 percent of aggressive driving reports involve a firearm. Canadians throw bricks and pepper spray apparently only because we don’t have guns.

Dr. Cheval Chez-Roy Birchwood is a clinical psychologist in Burlington, Ontario, with some important advice to anyone who finds themselves in a courtroom because of those extreme road rage events. “The courts will refer you to forensic psychologists; they take this very seriously, and assessment and treatment is not just some counselling sessions.”

The good news? In his practice, those who are self-referred – those who recognize they have an anger issue and want to change it – generally experience excellent outcomes. “We can locate cognitive distortions – why an action on the road is triggering the rage.”

He makes an important point that there is a very fine line between anger and fear, and frequently, your rage that someone has just cut you off is actually a reaction to the fear or vulnerability that came with being close to being harmed. “Adrenaline works the same in both situations,” he notes.

If you come across someone who does something stupid or dangerous in error, you don’t get to kill them or beat them up. If they could apologize, you might stop wanting to. And if you come across someone challenging you to a game of road idiot, just stay away. You win by not engaging. This is, ultimately, the only answer to road rage: Don’t play. If you want to remove an idiot from the road, don’t be an idiot.

If you’re a bit of a rager, you should keep something else in mind. There is nothing more terrifying than being trapped in a car with a driver who decides to teach someone a lesson. And there is no one that terrifies more than children. If your spouse goes ballistic behind the wheel, you have a problem. They’re not only endangering themselves and everyone on the road, they’re teaching your children that this is an acceptable way to be.

My father was, for the most part, a great driver. But when he got angry, we were all held captive in the car that Nobody Was Allowed to Pass. My mother would beg him to stop, then she’d start silent prayers in case she made him even angrier. This was over 40 years ago and to this day, I think of it every time someone makes me angry on the highway.

Chez-Roy Birchwood admits that being the passenger with someone driving enraged is tricky. “You need to deescalate that person, tough to do if you yourself are scared. Stay calm, and try to change the thought process; admit to them they are scaring you. Sometimes admitting vulnerability can flip a switch in someone who cares about you.” He admits you become a hostage negotiator of sorts, and you’re the hostage.

Not a great memory to leave your kid with, no matter how much they love you.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Is your used car actually safe? Soon, it’ll be easier to tell

Mechanics and used car dealers may be up in arms, but Ontario’s overhaul of its safety certificate program is long overdue

Originally published: January 25, 2016

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, goes the saying. But what if it is well and truly broken, and there are still voices not keen on fixing it?

That’s the upshot of the Ontario government’s recent introduction of changes to the automobile safety certificate program. You know safeties: those things a used car seller could hand to a buyer pretending it meant the car had passed some rigorous checklist, when in actuality, the list itself is dated and vague; it contains omissions big enough to drive a truck through. For curbsiders and other less-than-stellar types, you could usually find someone to supply a safety sight unseen for a hundred bucks if you knew which shade to look under. A “safety” that basically ensured something that looked like a car was resting on four things that resembled tires.

The newly introduced changes, to take effect July 1st of this year, have some mechanics and sellers fluttering about declaring that it will now cost way too much for a car to be sold, be onerous on someone who just needs basic transportation – that it is simply a money grab.

This is not a cash grab; this is a safety grab, and consumers should be grateful, if not a little irate that it has taken so long.

The last set of safety requirements was written 42 years ago. There are some who would like you to believe that things haven’t changed significantly in the automobile world in 42 years, and certainly not enough for laws surrounding the safety of those vehicles on our roads to have a revisit. Personally, I can’t believe it’s taken this long.

I’m hearing hard rumblings from mechanics insisting this will add exorbitant costs to used vehicles, and pull some perfectly reasonable cars off the road. Except riddle me this: If I’m about to purchase a used vehicle, the first thing I’m going to do is take it to a mechanic I trust for a once-over. And the first thing that decent mechanic is going to do is tell me all the things I should be aware of before I go forward with the purchase. He or she is going to tell me the tires need replacing, the brakes are at the end of their life and whether the frame has been straightened after some enigmatic crash. He or she is going to look for signs that the displayed odometer reading matches the wear and tear on the car, that corrosion is setting in in spots not visible from the outside, and that the car needs an alignment.

For the past 42 years, too many consumers have clutched that Ontario Safety Standard Certificate (SSC) believing it protects them from all of those kinds of things – that it is some kind of golden ticket to a great deal, until a month down the road they realize in a very dangerous way the car needs brakes.

Driving’s own Brian Turner last year summed it up nicely: “[A]…. large majority of consumers believe this document is a guarantee of the ‘roadworthiness’ of the auto it’s issued to. Nothing could be further from the truth, and relying on these standards to value the purchase of a pre-owned vehicle can be a costly mistake.”

When the original standards were written, they didn’t take into account ABS because there was no ABS. Airbags – what are airbags? No mention of powertrains, though a lot of the document is spent discussing glass, and over 200 words are devoted to hitches. Dismissing powertrain inspections means the car doesn’t even have to be able to run. Mechanics know there is simply too much grey soup to swim in for an SSC to be an adequate representation of “safe.” Things have changed; the SSC is finally doing a better job of reflecting those things.

Social media sites are full of the grumbling from some quarters. I heard it was a conspiracy of auto manufacturers to force people to buy new. Someone said it would now take him four hours to safety a vehicle. There was much urging to buy used vehicles before the law takes effect on July 1. And there were several sane voices that recognized the old standard was, well, substandard.

I get some of the crankiness. The new one is 96 pages, which represents a lot more paperwork. A lot more – the original SSC was just 1,600 words. But it also spells out, in detail, many of those things that were lumped under phrasing like, “works as intended.” Mechanic and Centennial College instructor Chris Muir admits that at first glance, he was put off by a lot of the dense language.

“Like a lot of government docs, it was heavy on jargon. But after reading it, it really is just removing many of the dangerous areas that kind of fell to a mechanic’s discretion. What’s the point of a suspension system that only has to be attached at the top and bottom? It didn’t even need to compress to get a pass.” Got a good mechanic? Then he or she uses good discretion. But the original SSC made it really easy to leave dangerous vehicles on the road.

The bigger issue for industry watchdog George Iny of the Automobile Protection Association is what the SSC isn’t: it isn’t a warranty. “Consumers will continue to confuse the inspection with a warranty,” he says. He would have liked to see several things that this long-awaited update didn’t deliver: real-time centralized record keeping, more transparency in the process and an inspection that goes beyond a visual one. He notes the original plans included an electronic barcoded record, which got lost along the way. He hopes the upgrade will continue to be evolutionary to be more effective to consumers.

And it’s consumers who should be embracing this more rigorous testing. It will add time to the inspection process; my four-hour guy is a bit of an anomaly – mechanics I know and trust have agreed an extra half an hour is a more realistic estimate. Manufacturers have to adhere to an ever evolving Manufacturer’s Vehicle Safety Standard (MVSS); it only makes sense that the used safety standards evolve alongside it.

Sellers who want to toss a resale on the road as soon and as cheaply as possible will always find a way to do it. Ultimately, it’s the consumer – you – who pays the price. The new standards don’t remove all the problems, but after 42 years, it’s hard to argue that we don’t deserve something that more fairly reflects the cars we’re actually driving. Iny’s concern is a very real one: a safety certificate is not a warranty, and things can fail even a day after you drive away holding it, and you will have no recourse in many instances.

You may be willing to buy a pig in a poke; it’s just time that poke was at least a little more transparent.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Behind the wheel, you’re risking your life for a selfie

Thinking about posting a road-trip selfie? At the very least, wait until you pull over and stop the car

Originally published: January 18, 2016

The Oxford English Dictionary made “selfie” its word of the year in 2013. My heart quietly wept.

Just when it seems we will never be able to stop drivers from texting while they drive, things are getting even worse. Now they are taking pictures of themselves with their phones, and then they are posting the results. On the fly. As they drive. Some are even using selfie sticks, the latest invention in social media pictures.

I shouldn’t call it “social,” actually. There is no dialogue involved in (most) selfies. There is no exchange, no back-and-forth, no interaction. It is simply a picture of a pretty sunset, a national monument or a sporting event with someone’s fat head in the way. Or, just the head.

In April of 2014, a 32-year-old woman in North Carolina took and posted a selfie of (what else) herself singing along to the song “Happy” on the interstate. She crossed into an oncoming recycling truck and died. This past August in Maine, a man, with passengers, crashed into a tree trying to take a selfie.

I’m sorry a young woman died. I’m especially sorry she died doing something so idiotic. There are numerous stories of people who have taken a selfie and then plunged to their death, usually losing their balance at the edge of a cliff or waterfall. That too, is tragic, and stupid. But to attempt to take meaningless pictures of yourself as you drive your car is like Wile E. Coyote pushing Darwin in a wheelbarrow as he holds a copy of Murphy’s Law.

There’s the Jeep-driving gator hunter in Florida who thought filming himself just driving along would be cool, until he drove his windshield into a canoe hanging off the back of a truck ahead of him; there’s the two Iranian girls doing a karaoke number which required one of them – the driver – to take her hands off the wheel the whole time, because what’s a song without the gestures? They crashed. In Dubai recently, a driver revving for a picture in his Lamborghini Aventador sent the thing up in flames. Guess nobody reminded him nobody can hear your engine in a picture, anyway.

It seems like just yesterday we were debating the ubiquity of dashcams, those all-seeing lenses mounted on an increasing number of cars. In some parts of the world like Russia, they’ve been the norm for years due to insurance and police fraud; in a more genteel North America, they’ve been more the purview of the same kinds of people who like to do citizen’s arrests. A dashcam is passive; it sits there mounted, recording hours and hours of nothing in the hopes of catching that one YouTube-able moment. If you’re really that much of a reality star, you could always mount it facing the interior of your car — though that really makes me wonder, when the hell did we need to have to start living on camera, anyway?

Studies are piling in, but the simplest explanation – we’re all just a bunch of narcissists – is apparently not bearing much fruit. Sure, there’s a subset of people who are exhibitionists, but there are also those with a desperate need for constant attention, others who document exciting times with good friends, some who plot their world travels and those who can’t choose which pic of them with Pooch is best, so post them all. Sometimes a picture is just a picture and pictures are fun, but a picture you take of yourself while you’re driving is not just a picture. It gives a whole new meaning to “moving violation.”

There are studies revealing a sliding sense of self-esteem among, particularly, young women who compare themselves incessantly to peers to the exclusion of much else. For some, it’s a selfie world. That sentence was painful to write. At the risk of tipping my fogey card, I can’t help but wonder if the whole point of technology and the Internet – to turn the lens on this huge world we live in – has produced the opposite: a bunch of people tethered to their devices turning the lens on themselves. Actually, I’m being presumptuous in talking about the point of the Internet. As a friend of mine noted, after the first guy invented the World Wide Web, the second one said, “How do we use this to look at boobs?”

While piling up danger statistics, authorities are loathe to rank bad and illegal behaviours on a scale of best to worst. It’s tough to admit driving drunk(ish) is somehow safer than texting while driving, but a big part of it is how long your eyes are physically off the road. Sending a text means essentially driving with a blindfold on for, depending on your speed, the length of a football field or two. Drunks might be drunk but they might also be trying very hard to stare at the road. The advent of texting has thrown impaired and distracted driving down an entirely new rabbit hole.

The same technology that is distracting too many of us at least gives us some clues. Booze and drugs can be determined through blood work, but drivers who fall asleep and die in a crash – an incredibly deadly problem – can only leave investigators surmising what happened after ruling out mechanical problems. The new tech? For several years now the news has been flush with “his last text” or “her final message” stories, just as we are now beginning to see someone’s last selfie.

I’ve begged people not to text or call someone they know is behind the wheel. A conversation is a two-way thing, and you can do your part by waiting until they’ve told you they’re parked. Nobody is going to turn their friends in for posting selfies behind the wheel, because, hey, it’s fun! Nearly every jurisdiction in Canada and many in the U.S. have laws against handheld devices, but it hasn’t made a dent. We are literally prying their phones out of their cold, dead hands.

The best thing about car selfies? At least they can solve that police investigation mystery about what led up to the crash.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

There are actually a few good reasons to hate Uber

It’s easy to make money when you don’t have to worry about things like insurance and workers’ compensation, isn’t it?

Originally published: January 11, 2016

There are a lot of reasons I hate Uber, no matter how many headlines you read that they’re transforming the car-for-hire industry – that they’re the inevitable wave of the future, and that they provide opportunity to anyone willing to work hard. Buloney.

Uber is the biggest, noisiest example of the race to create a totally unstable and dangerous workplace. Virtually anyone driving for Uber right now – estimates are 20,000 drivers in Toronto alone – is doing so uninsured. It is against the law to operate a motor vehicle without appropriate insurance; if you’re driving for Uber and your insurance company is unaware that you are doing so, you have invalid insurance. If you think because you still have that little pink slip you’re covered, you’re not.

“If you tell your personal insurer you are using the vehicle to carry passengers for compensation, they will cancel the policy because it is no longer a personal-use vehicle. The coverage will have to be changed to a commercial policy,” says Debbie Arnold, Group Business Development Manager with Sound Insurance Services, Inc. in Toronto. “If you have not had any experience as a taxi operator, then typically the only recourse is Facility Association and it will cost upwards of $17,000 per year. If you don’t tell your insurer and you are involved in an accident while carrying a passenger, the carrier can and will most likely deny the claim.”

Insurance rates quoted in the media frequently quote the $10,000 per year mark; Arnold’s $17,000 was an actual quote for a customer who decided against becoming an Uber driver.

Maybe you figure the driver’s situation is the driver’s problem. You just want a cheap, fast ride. But one other detail that seems to get glided over is passenger protection. If you’re injured as a passenger, “your medical payments will be first paid by any healthcare coverage (i.e. through their employer); if there aren’t any or if those are exhausted, it moves to their own automobile insurance,” Arnold says.

If they don’t have group benefits or their own vehicle insurance, payments will have to be paid by either the Uber driver’s insurance policy (if policy was invalid, that insurer may sue the driver for these payments) or by the third party (other vehicle in crash) insurer, Arnold explains. Accident Benefits in Ontario are set up so that claims will be paid; the passenger will be taken care of regardless, however, it can be a long and confusing process since, effectively, the Uber driver wasn’t insured.

If the injury meets the “catastrophic” guideline and the Uber driver was at fault for the accident, then the Uber driver will be liable for any lawsuit and will be held personally responsible. Because there would not be any coverage under the Uber driver’s personal policy, he/she is responsible for whatever the award is once that goes to court (about five years) – during which time, the Uber driver will be incurring legal fees for which he/she is personally responsible.

Clear as mud, right?

Uber is far from the only company trouncing on regulations and skirting laws to set up shop, but it is one of the biggest and doing it right up the nose of every city it shows up in.

I did a totally non-scientific poll among some young Uber users: my son and his friends. Their overwhelming appreciation was about how easy and fast it was. A generation accustomed to hitting a button and having magic happen is made for Uber. “Drivers are competing to come pick me up!” laughed one. If you’ve ever waited for a cab that never came, it’s easy to understand the sentiment. “And, dude had, like, water bottles and everything,” he finished. They like that no money changes hands, as the app handles the billing through Uber. I asked what would happen if that driver, dude with the water bottles and everything, got hurt either on or off the job and couldn’t work for a period of time. “Well, another Uber driver would answer,” they concluded.

Why should a passenger care if a driver – a worker – is hurt on the job and not protected? I reminded the kids, their own protection in the event of a crash is not so clear-cut, either.

I don’t blame them for not wanting to see how the sausage gets made. There was one holdout in the room, a young man who simply stated, “This is about a corporation – Uber – getting rich but not having to be responsible for anything. Others – the drivers – assume all of the risk, and Uber just gets the money.” Uber says it makes clear their drivers must secure their own insurance coverage and that they are independent contractors. Seattle drivers recently won a ruling stating they are indeed employees of Uber and entitled to the protections that implies.

Uber rules in Canada differ from those in the U.S. Everybody wants to be an independent contractor until something goes wrong. Uber makes much of their $5,000,000 insurance coverage, but that’s to cover their own butt, not their individual “independent contractor” drivers.

It’s easier to earn a profit when you don’t have to factor in things like insurance and workers’ compensation. In Canada, drivers are expected to file HST returns, which means they’re supposed to be collecting that tax. If you earn less than $30,000 a year, you don’t have to charge or remit HST, but the Devil’s Advocate in me says that people who are shrugging off their insurance requirements are hardly going to worry much about remitting taxes, even when they meet that threshold.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments