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.

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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.

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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.

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10 achievable New Year’s resolutions — for your car

Here are a few things you can commit to achieving with your car in 2016

Originally published: January 4, 2016

Go on a diet; get in better shape; stop smoking. Typical New Year’s resolutions destined, of course, to the rubbish pile by the second week of January. You can hold a NYE resolution exactly as long as you can hold your breath.

I have a better idea. Adopt a set of resolutions for your car, instead — far more achievable, and great for your wallet as well as your car.

Lose weight. There’s a reason auto manufacturers are fighting to make every component on a car lightweight; every additional kilogram reduces fuel economy. Don’t defeat their very deliberate purpose by loading down your trunk with out-of-season sports equipment or those big Tupperware holders strapped to the roof racks. If you don’t need them, get them off. Roof racks themselves cut wind resistance. I did a countrywide hypermiling experiment a few years ago with a guy who would have removed the door handles if he could have. Okay, he was a little extreme. But we got across the country on four and a half tanks of gas. It was rather hellish, but very revealing.

Quit smoking. Well, at least pollute as little as possible. Resolve to get your car checked out twice a year. Go by your owner’s manual (Canada is an extreme climate), but remember that oil changes are about time as well as mileage. Changing your oil and rotating tires is the best, cheapest preventative maintenance you can do. A mechanic will be getting a look at your car, and having a set of eyes biannually on everything can save you thousands on an unexpected breakdown.

Eat better. You know your own body runs better when you’re feeding it well. Do the same for your car. If your car requires high-octane fuel, don’t cheap out; beware of second-rate parts that appear to save you a few bucks; keep your windshield washer fluid topped up all year ’round, and don’t let your fuel tank get below half in winter.

Spend more time with family. For your car, this means developing a good relationship with a mechanic you trust — someone who will get to know your car, and you. Ask friends and neighbours for referrals, and hold up your end of the deal: take your car there for all the routine maintenance, so if something big goes wrong, they know who you are and will probably go out of their way to help you. Screaming into the phone from your driveway to someone you’ve never met never ends well.

Join a gym. For your car, this means some kind of roadside assistance program. If you use your car for holidays or have an older car no longer under the manufacturer’s roadside coverage, make sure you have a lifeline.

Get out of debt. If your older car is getting more and more costly to maintain, do the magic math: Is the proposed fix more than the value of the car? Is it cheaper for you to do the fix and get another year out of the car instead of that many payments on a new one? Nobody has a crystal ball, but don’t make decisions based on emotion, about how much you love your car. Putting $3,000 into a car that’s only worth $1,800 is creating more problems than it’s fixing.

Or maybe this is the year you buy a new car. Buy the whole car, not just a month at a time. Keep an eye on how much your total payout will be over the entire term; more debt is incurred here than almost anywhere else. Dealers are happy to meet that monthly amount you’ve budgeted, just don’t let them extend the term by a year or three to do it.

Learn a new language. Your car is probably capable of a lot of things you don’t know about. New technology is changing so quickly, even a car a couple of model years newer than your last one will have a whole new cache of fun features. Spend some quality time with the manual and start experimenting. If you’re not tech inclined, recruit someone who is. Once you’ve dialed in your presets and finally understand all the GPS pathways, physically learn about your car somewhere you can play with the stability control and different engine settings.

Read the classics. If you commute, change the dial. Let your car help you enjoy all those books you can’t get around to. It may take a month to finish some Tolstoy, but the dude’s worth it, especially with someone else pronouncing all the hard names. If the classics aren’t your thing, dig out some Monty Python or Chris Rock. Learning or laughing, it’s all great.

Get more involved. This is where you can use your car to better yourself. If you have some free time and spend too much of it in front of the computer, offer to volunteer in your community. The Canadian Cancer Society in your area could use drivers to get patients to treatment; ask around about similar programs that could benefit from your driving – and people – skills.

No more stress. Easier said than done on the mean streets of 2016. Also equally important for your car and for you. Decide to chill out. Leave the house each day deciding to forgive a dozen transgressions, to let in six late mergers and to decide the dawdler ahead of you is no doubt a new driver. Maybe the frantic person who cut you off just got terrible news; it’s possible. For your car, less stress will mean better brake life, better fuel economy and less spilled coffee. And for your passengers? They’ll be admiring someone who managed to keep a whole slew of New Year’s resolutions.

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Highlights, lowlights and a few laughs from 2015

This year, the automotive world delivered more than its fair share of punchlines and embarrassment

Originally published: December 28, 2015

Oh, what a year it was. Think you’ve had some unfair speeding tickets? Don’t bother moving to Finland unless you’re a pauper. Fines there are mainly determined by your income. In February, businessman Reima Kuisla was stopped doing 64 mph in a 50 mph zone; because his fine was based on his income tax return and Mr. Kuisla is apparently a one-percenter, he was hit with the whopping equivalent of $60,000 (US). He of course complained that he was moving because it’s just not fair. He may or may not have stamped his feet. I’m sure things like this would never happen under President Trump.

Worst parking (or unparking) job of the year has to go to the 92-year-old man in Mayville, Wisconsin, back in February who rammed into a total of nine cars trying to exit a parking lot. We’re not talking dings and scratches; four of the cars had to be towed. The damage roster is impressive: as he backed out, he struck a ’98 Saturn and a ’98 Buick LeSabre; the Buick dominoed into a ’04 Pontiac. He proceeded to back into an ’04 Jeep and a ’11 Equinox. Back in drive, he plowed into a ’14 C-Max. Next in the wrong place at the wrong time was an ’05 F-150, at which point Dude finally made it out by trashing a ’97 Park Avenue and an ’03 Sierra. It was deemed an “accident,” believe it or not, as he claimed the pedals got mixed up and he panicked. Sorry folks, if there was anything that was more not an accident than this, I don’t know what it is. Do watch the video.

In March, a tour bus driver in Belgium trusted his GPS instead of his passengers, who were desperately clutching paper maps, and took them 1,200 kilometres off route trying to get to a ski vacation in France; they ended up near Spain. I’ve followed bad GPS information more times and more kilometres than I care to admit, but I’ve never done it with a bus full of hostages before.

June saw this year’s dubious carjacking award: A 19-year-old in Utah attempted to steal a car, but couldn’t drive it because it was a stick. We get a few of these every year, highlighting the fact that sometimes the best theft protection is to just go old-school. To add insult to Utah Boy’s injury, his female sidekick could drive a stick and decided this would be the best time to teach him. During a car theft. Of course he stalled it, and she gave up and called a cab. Kids today….

From the annals of Death Accounting, I give you the final GM ignition switch payouts. As of this December writing, the final payout for crashes involving switches GM knew were faulty stands at $594.5 million, with 399 cases including 124 deaths. The problem was first discovered way back in 2001, but replacing the part would have cost less than a dollar per car, according to Reuters. And that was deemed too much. A dollar per car. Had to see that again.

Speaking of liar, liar pants on fire, Volkswagen stood tall this year. They stole away GM’s don’t ask, don’t tell thunder by revealing they’d been employing a cheat mechanism in their diesel engines to beat pollution controls. Not a company to do anything in small measure (they’ve been fiercely chasing the tag of Biggest Carmaker in the World for some time now), the modification affected around 11 million cars globally. While angry, baffled consumers in Canada still await some kind of answer, the rest of the industry continues to scratch their collective heads wondering how such a huge company thought it could pull off such a long-term cheat. And somebody wasn’t up on that high wire alone.

In October, a Mustang took parking on the upper deck to a whole new level. Literally. After the driver lost control on the Interstate in Michigan, the car ended up on the roof of an 83-year-old homeowner. “I was just watching TV inside. I had it up pretty loud — but this was much louder,” she understated. Next time it’s raining cats and dogs, count yourself lucky. It could be raining pony cars.

This year we also finally reached the conclusion of an insurance fraud – with jail time – that started in 2009, when Andy House of Texas purchased a Bugatti Veyron for a cool $1 million, yet for some reason insured it for $2.2 million. Next day he filed a claim after driving the car into a lagoon, using the ever popular excuse that a low-flying pelican scared him. Ol’ Andy is headed to jail because too many witnesses remembered the car (duh), but no doubt what stung the most was the recorded statement from a nearby passenger making a video: “Pretty sure it’s a Lambo, dude.”

The car world never lets you down, and the advent of a camera in every pocket means proof at the touch of a button. Most of us manage to keep our cars off rooftops and out of lagoons, but bless those who provide the punchlines.

Best line of the year for me? From Driving’s own Lesley Wimbush, on her review of the Lexus LX 570: “There’s no getting around the fact that this is one gigantic chunk of steel, with the face of a trash compactor. If you’re a basketball star, aging gang banger or Vegas high-roller, here’s your truck.” There’s usually an Easter egg line like this in her reviews. I love it.

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Time running out? Here are some easy gifts for gearheads

Forget “I ran out of ideas/money/time” – these are easy last-minute gifts most drivers will appreciate

Originally published: December 21, 2015

Not to stereotype, but there will be an awful lot of men-type people roaming the aisles of Shopper’s Drug Mart and other convenience stores in a few days, wondering how Christmas snuck up so fast. I’m not judging; I leave a lot until the last minute as well. But if the person you’re about to disappoint has a car, here are some easy stocking stuffers and gift ideas:

Sirius Radio has some great deals. I just got my kid a six-month subscription for about 35 bucks – he commutes, so he’s thrilled. Like most subscription services (OnStar, etc.), call them and battle it out; they have prices at every level, and the longer you stay on the phone, the better you can do. (But don’t tell them I told you so.)

CAA memberships are gold. Annual memberships start at $70 and they offer a ton of services. If you need a tow even once in your driving career, you’ll recognize what a great value these memberships really are. Think of it this way: If you’re the one who’s going to get a call when something goes sideways, get a CAA card into that person’s wallet.

A new set of winter wiper blades instantly improves vision, yet these are often forgotten, sometimes for years. I like Bosch Icons, but there are lots to choose from. Canadian Tire has a handy iPad to search your sizes right in the aisle, but most manufacturers have their own charts you can check at home. Yes, it’s one blade to a pack, and yes, you need two (or three, if there’s a rear blade required). But they’re easy to install and supply instant gratification.
For $20 or so, you can get one of the new extended snow removers that has a blade instead of a brush; they’re a huge improvement over the previous incarnations.

A surprise car detailing is an excellent gift, and can cost as little as $40 or so.
Invest in good floor mats. Winter mats can hold a surprising amount of water and crud, preventing it from soaking the carpet; once that moisture gets trapped against the metal and wiring, corrosion can set in and cause long-lasting problems. Don’t place them over existing mats and make sure they fit well; mats interfering with pedals is a deadly combination.

If your budget allows, surprise someone with new winter tires or a set of all seasons for spring. Many people still overlook just how important those four points of contact with the road really are; a driver’s skill and every costly safety feature in a car is compromised if you’re riding on bad rubber.

Sometimes the best way for driving enthusiasts to spread holiday joy is to offer their expertise. Maybe you have a student returning home with his or her car for the holidays, or maybe you have a parent or neighbour you’d like to do something nice for.

It doesn’t have to cost much; just run it through a car wash, top up the washer fluid and stow an extra jug in the trunk with a bungee cord, check the tire pressure or show someone how to program a GPS or a radio. Do a walk-around and check bulbs and headlight casings, especially on older cars; they can dim over time and drivers often don’t notice. Make sure the lighting stalk is set in automatic mode; it’s a small thing, but again, collectively, many of these things can be critical.

Cars are changing so rapidly that the technology can be intimidating. If that’s your thing, offer to show someone the way around their new car, electronically speaking. Get the kids involved, too: they can give out coupons for snow clearing or cleaning out the family car. Plus, when they have to haul out the garbage and mess they helped make, they might consider being a little more careful. Okay, probably not, but it’s a start.

Lastly, gas cards are the most exciting gift in our house. Whenever I borrow one of the kid’s cars, I always top it up when I bring it back. Considering I use about three bucks worth of gas, they’re always happy to loan me the keys. A tank of gas for anyone on a budget is a very big deal – and always welcome.

And if you want to be a real Santa? Toss a bunch of loonies and toonies into the coin holder – fast smiles and coffees for days. Merry Christmas … and here’s to a safer New Year on our roads.

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Volunteer drivers give mobility to those in need

Drivers for Canada’s Wheels of Hope give people in their community a lift – in more ways than one

Originally published: December 14, 2015

For over 60 years, people like Crystal Clark and Steve Stober have been helping cancer patients make it to treatment appointments. Wheels of Hope has more than 2,500 volunteer drivers in Ontario, while a similar program in Alberta and the Northwest Territories counts 190 drivers. How big is the need? Last year in Ontario alone, 12 million kilometres were racked up by volunteer drivers. With one in five patients requiring assistance, the need has never been greater.

Sunbeam Canada came on board as a sponsor in 2014 through its Supports With Warmth program, and is helping to underwrite costs and spread the word; the company’s involvement grew from a single idea, learning that a cancer patient had treasured one of their heated throws during treatment. Sunbeam started supplying heated blankets, and then kilometres.

“We are proud to support local communities with our Supports With Warmth campaign. At Sunbeam, we are proud of our over-100-year heritage, and any chance we have to give back to the community is one of our core values,” says Jamie Libregts, of Sunbeam. Clark and Stober both insist it doesn’t require any special skill set to be a volunteer driver – but speaking with both of them reveals something a little different.

“I’d been on the board of directors for Second Harvest food bank for five years,” says Stober, “but I knew I wanted something more hands-on.” For a man who loves to drive, Wheels of Hope was a perfect fit. At 64, he still runs his own company in the hospitality industry, but sets aside Wednesdays each week to ferry patients around Toronto to the Princess Margaret Hospital. He picks up three people in the morning and delivers them back home in the afternoon.

“I have a Ford C-Max hybrid, which means I’m not using gas for the whole exchange – no pollution!” It’s one of the upsides to the tangle of Toronto traffic; it’s difficult to get over the speed required for the gasoline engine to kick in. Besides loving to drive, patience for that kind of traffic is a benefit.

Crystal Clark from Oakville is a bit of an anomaly; at 48 (she looks even younger), she’s one of only seven female drivers in the Halton network. She admits patients are often surprised when she shows up, as they’re accustomed to an older male behind the wheel. She stresses that volunteering isn’t just for the retired. In her case, her shiftwork as a 911 operator allows her to schedule in an afternoon a week to transport patients to the many hospitals throughout the region.

“You have to be authentically interested in people, and also take your cue from them. Some want to chat; others prefer not to. Often the ride can be a chance to talk about something other than their illness.” She points out there aren’t really physical demands of the job, just sometimes getting a walker into a trunk. “I love driving,” she says, echoing Stober, “and you should be a safe but confident driver.” Her new Toyota RAV4 is perfect for her clients. The Cancer Society uses a NOVUS system, ensuring that your vehicle will be able to meet the demands of those you will be driving. If someone has difficulty getting into a higher vehicle, they’ll match an appropriate ride to their needs. All volunteers are required to have a criminal background check done.The CCS will make determinations about weather issues and suspend the program if it the roads are deemed too dangerous. Drivers themselves may also make the call, meaning you’re never operating outside of your comfort zone.

A mileage fee is paid to drivers, and parking passes are supplied for the hospitals. At drop-off points, your riders are met by hospital personnel. For both Stober and Clark, recognizing the importance of a program like Wheels of Hope started on a personal level. Steve had previously been helping a family member during treatment and came to realize how vital that connection was, and that something he could give – a ride – removed a great deal of stress at a very fragile time. For Clark, it was being unable to help a loved one in Quebec because of geography. “I realized I could do here what I couldn’t do there. Things happening in the world can be overwhelming, but you have the power to do even a little right here in your own community. When people have nobody else, they need you.”

Connecting with your neighbours in a time of crisis reveals as much about you as it does them. “People in Toronto come here to live from all over the world. I hear how appreciative they are of the level of care we receive, how lucky we are,” says Stober. “Doing this makes me feel great about Canada.”

For the Canadian Cancer Society’s Tanya Nixon, “Wheels of Hope transportation program would not be possible without the support of our dedicated volunteers. Their commitment to getting patients to and from lifesaving treatment is helping make a real difference in the fight against cancer.”

We talk a lot about the importance of community, yet as people spend more and more of their time connecting online we have never been more isolated. What about those who need more than your thoughts and prayers, more than your best wishes and thinking-of-yous? What if they need a ride?

If you’re thinking about becoming a volunteer and need a little more encouragement, go to Sunbeam’s Support with Warmth website and watch Jackson’s story. Bring a tissue.

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