How can we stop impaired, distracted drivers once and for all?

Perhaps the best way to fight impairment and curtail distractions is through a completely zero-tolerance policy

Proponents of an all-autonomous driving world usually cite safety, with a corresponding plunge in death and injury, as a leading reason drivers need to be done away with. I may hate the idea in principle, but they have a point: Drivers are idiots. So how do we stop the worst – the impaired and the distracted – once and for all?

Easy: Zero tolerance for booze and drugs, automatic surrender of any handheld device if you’re involved in a collision, and manufacturers must make infotainment systems that require severely limited physical interaction unless the vehicle is in park. Easy.

For decades, police and the courts, both the bricks-and-mortar kind and the public opinion kind, have struggled to punish, warn, scare, beg, plead and coerce people into not drinking if they intend to get behind the wheel. You’re allowed to have this many drinks, but not that many. You can blow this but not that. One set of rules if you’re 19, another if you’re 21. The resources that go into campaigns to serve as carrots and laws to serve as sticks continue to meet hard resistance.

According to Statistics Canada, one in six drivers charged with impaired driving has already been charged in the past decade. You’d think having a DUI on your record make you just a little ashamed; guess you’d be wrong. So, make it zero. Every jurisdiction has their point-oh-somethings for car seizure, for this charge, for that felony. Everybody argues how many beers it’s okay to have in your belly before you head for home; Ride Check officers debate your “just a glass of wine with dinner six hours ago” as they shine a light in your eyes. Remove the debate. Zero.

We call it impaired driving now, instead of drunk driving, because of the proliferation of both illegal (though, soon not) and legal drugs. We actually establish law on not whether you can drive while impaired, but how impaired you’re legally allowed to be. Scrap that. If you’re behind the wheel, you have to be clean.

The lawyers will have a field day, of course. They will argue that the cough syrup your mother gave you when you were seven-years-old has caused you to blow .02 when you’re 35; lawyers are good at that stuff if you pay them enough. So, the courts will get clogged and entrepreneurs will be mass-marketing boozefest morning-after pills that will mask the evidence better than the Russian Athletic Federation. But just like seatbelt usage, we will eventually move into a time when zero is the acceptable norm.

Distracted driving is actually a far bigger threat on our roads these days, and it’s only getting worse. The initial attack was on handheld devices, and rightly so. When having a phone in your car started becoming a thing in the early 1990s, nobody – well, at least not I – could have foreseen the total immersion of entire populations into a screen they held in their hand.

It doesn’t matter how large the fine, how high the demerits or how extreme the toll. People won’t put their phones down. So, cut to the chase: If you’re involved in a collision, wouldn’t you want to know that the other idiot was texting when it happened? Make everyone hand over their devices. We do this when there is a fatality; why wait?

Vehicle manufacturers have crammed so much technology into new cars, drivers now have more decisions than the Apollo astronauts – and they got to the moon. Many of those decisions can be activated by voice command, which should be perfected and all drivers should learn to use. But the only way to actually stop the fiddlers is to remove the ability: Navigation and similar systems should only be able to be set or changed when the car is in park. Not stopped at a red light. Parked.

I’ll go one step further. Heating, including seat and steering wheel, and volume controls should be tactile – a button or knob accessible without taking your eyes from the road. If you crash your car while reading your Twitter feed or trying to figure out if that’s Journey or REO Speedwagon playing, you’re merely being human and playing with all the cards the carmaker gave you. They should give you fewer cards.

None of these things will be implemented, of course. But just because we can’t make people do the right thing, including saving their own lives, using reason and law, doesn’t mean we should acknowledge the pinhead dancing taking place. We could do more to fight impairment, and we can do more to curtail the distractions.

If we want to.

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Christmas surprises aren’t always under the tree

Found in a rummage sale lot, a used Fisher Price garage was more appealing than the new toys

I grew up with many sisters.

It’s not that we were immersed in a world of Barbie dolls and ballet slippers – we weren’t – but nor did our Christmas stockings come stuffed with Hot Wheels and Tonka trucks. If I’d asked for a holster and a couple of cap guns, I’m sure my parents would have acquiesced, but I never did so they never had to face down the idea of their wee daughter rampaging through the neighbourhood, guns ablazin’.

When the fireworks of a present frenzy have finally settled, no matter how careful your planning or predictable your child, there will always be surprises. The much-begged for gift sitting idly by as some dollar store widget captures everyone’s attention, the leather jacket making the newly vegan cry, and the perplexed parent who mixed up Star Wars and Star Trek. I recall my own mother’s endless lists and plans, all ready to receive a spanner to the gears when one of us randomly changed our minds.

When I was a kid, my mom used to organize an annual local church rummage sale. For three months leading up to early December, people would drop off their unwanted, gently used and sometimes bewildering castoffs. The church ladies would sort and organize, but not before I got there first. In the chill of that unheated garage, I’d go treasure hunting.

I was probably 7 or 8 when I found the perfect Christmas gift amidst the boxes of dead people’s clothes and musty books. The Fisher Price Action Garage might have been on the market only a couple of years, but the one I found looked like it had been through the wars. None of the pieces – small bobble-headed people, tiny perfect cars – were intact. The “three-storey” toy had a crank elevator, a kid-controlled gate at the bottom and an obnoxious bell that signalled a car had arrived. Or left. I can’t remember, only that that bell got on my mother’s nerves; didn’t I know she had a headache?

fisherprice

The stickers were peeling off, and somebody had spilled something on the outside ramp. I didn’t care. I had a fake Hot Wheels car that had come in a cereal box, a Batmobile and a 1960s era red convertible I’d stolen from Mark, the boy next door. This was my fleet. Up they’d go in the elevator, bing went the bell, then they’d have a pileup waiting for the arm to lift so they could go on their way. I released marbles down the ramp and put plastic army men on guard on the roof. I pumped fake gas into pretend gas tanks. My mother told me to put the toy garage back in the real garage. I told her I wanted to keep it.

If we wanted to keep something, my mom would put money for it into the kitty. This usually meant books, or sometimes my Dad would find some weird tool that somebody else had deemed too useless to hang on to. Mom looked at the Fisher Price garage, battered and looking like a dog had peed on it, and sighed. I knew she wanted it out of her house. I clanged the bell with the Batmobile to help change her mind.

My mother shopped very carefully for Christmas gifts. Money was always tight and she would spend a year getting ready for a day, yet as I learned early and often from that rummage sale, another kid’s castoff toys were infinitely more exciting than new ones of my own. My father worked for Dofasco, and every year at their massive family Christmas party, employee’s children were taken to a huge warehouse and allowed to choose a gift. You had tickets that said, “Girl, 7” and that was the booth you went to. My mom asked one year if I could choose from the Boy booth. This was a reaction they were unprepared for so I dutifully went home with another Spirograph or a life sized teddy bear or an Easy Bake Oven or whatever else wasn’t a Hot Wheels track or a slingshot.

The Fisher Price Garage became part of our playtime streetscape alongside a Barbie dream house and anything else we carved from shoeboxes. It sat in the cupboard in the rec room long after I’d grown up and moved out, until my own sons discovered it. They, of course, had a box of toy cars at Grandma’s house, and plastic dinosaurs joined the army men guarding the roof. They looped sections of track around the garage, up over counters and across stacked piles of books. The garage was joined by supersonic boosters and fancier cars, all play involving the chasing down of batteries at some point – except for the garage itself.

The last I can recall of that grubby garage my sons were encouraging a hamster named Cookie to go in the elevator; Cookie was buried in the garden nearly two decades ago. I see people on eBay selling toys new in boxes, to protect their value. I consider how much play I, and then my sons, got from that toy and wonder if people know what toys are for.

A toy’s value is in the imagination of the child holding it.

And parking a red Corvair next to the Batmobile.

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Mercedes says goodbye to diesel in North America

Rather than the result of a scandal, it could be due to improper fuel south of the border

While it was hardly surprising to watch Volkswagen flee the scene of its diesel crimes, a just-released listing from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is offering another interesting morsel: it appears Mercedes-Benz is also throwing in the towel on their diesel entries in North America.

Vehicle manufacturers must submit product information to the appropriate governing regulatory body – in the U.S., it’s the NHTSA, in Canada, it’s Transport Canada – ahead of those vehicles hitting showrooms. They must provide documentation that all vehicles are in compliance with safety and emissions rulings. They must also note any changes from previous model years, and include supporting data.

The current submission to NHTSA from Mercedes-Benz is devoid of any of their diesel models, which signals they won’t be selling those editions of their vehicles in that country.

Why?

Mercedes-Benz ducked most of the fallout from the Volkswagen debacle, though the stain was deep enough to tarnish anyone still dealing in diesel. But the answer might be more basic than that: American buyers simply can’t get the proper fuel to use in their BlueTec vehicles.

Most fuel stations in the marketplace sport a blend of diesel fuel and biodiesel, the ‘bio’ being derived from a plant base or recycled oil. Mercedes-Benz requires owners to use diesel with less than 5 per cent biodiesel, called B5. The problem is that many outlets throughout the U.S. offer diesel with up to 20 per cent biodiesel – B20. This higher level wreaks havoc on the engine, leading to expensive issues not covered by warranties because people have used the wrong fuel.

“Continuous use of B20 fuel can lead to fuel filter clogging and injector deposits, and can cause the engine oil level to rise due to unburned fuel washing into the oil pan. A clogged fuel filter as well as injector deposits can cause engine performance degradation while increased engine oil levels due to dilution by unburned fuel can cause engine mechanical damage.” That’s right from a Mercedes pamphlet.

“My guess is that if Mercedes is dropping its diesels in the U.S., it’s because of the fuel problem,” says John Raymond, a consultant with the Automobile Protection Association (APA). “The manufacturer’s requirements are at odds with what many states are implementing. They want to make use of products and technology they see the most benefit in – and there are a lot of corn fields across large parts of that country. Raising the ethanol content – which comes from that corn – is good for them, but not good for customers who are driving vehicles they can’t reliably fuel and still maintain their warranty.”

Consistent use of the higher B20 biodiesel blend gums up the works. Online forums are full of exasperated owners whose vehicles are underperforming, experiencing brutally high repair bills, or finding out they’ve voided warranties. Some states made changes at the pumps after affected motorists purchased their vehicles, but most would agree it’s become a case of challenging the government versus just not buying that car. Raymond thinks the cessation of diesel by Mercedes-Benz in the U.S. is in response to buyers not needing the headache. B5 is readily available across Canada, though Mercedes-Benz in Canada pulled diesels from their 2017 lineup when they couldn’t get certification under newly-devised standards, a fallout of the Volkswagen mess.

A spokesperson for Mercedes-Benz Canada says that there is no immediate update on diesel options for Canada. But Silvina Pica, a brand specialist with Mercedes-Benz Durham, says her dealership just doesn’t offer a diesel option.

“We’ve been told due to restrictions from the EPA, North America will not be receiving any diesel models,” she says. “They’ve been wiped from the system, and all the configuration programs.”

Manufacturers pack a lot of information into their owner’s manuals. Using the wrong grade fuel – or the wrong fuel, period – will void your warranty. The changing formula for diesel fuel and the changing emissions standards appear to be forming the tipping point for diesel’s demise.

Mercedes-Benz in the U.S. is indeed ditching their diesels, and Canada appears to be as well. We’ve long been the runty little brother when it comes to what vehicles we get to choose from, after the U.S. picks. We’re rarely significant enough to warrant receiving any editions of vehicles that our southern neighbours didn’t order first; the difference in that equation, however, has always been the diesels. We have a substantially higher take rate on them, in every brand, than our American counterparts ever have. Could the latest American decision be permanently reflected in Canadian showrooms?

It certainly is at Mercedes-Benz. Whether the other manufacturers with diesels in their lineup, including GMC, Jaguar, Land Rover, Chevrolet, BMW and Nissan, follow suit remains to be seen.

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Can we not wait for autonomous technology to have in-car advertising?

Ads in self-driving cars will be annoying, but GM’s Marketplace app for its current vehicles is downright dangerous

Just when I though the herald of self-driving cars couldn’t get any worse, companies like Intel are here to remind me I couldn’t be more wrong. What’s worse than a future festooned with four-wheeled crucibles moving in row after row of perfect robotic tedium? Why, being trapped in that cushy cage and being deluged with advertising projected right on the windshield. That’s what’s worse.

“Advancing what’s possible in autonomous driving… Intel announced a collaboration with entertainment company Warner Bros. to develop in-cabin, immersive experiences in autonomous vehicle (AV) settings,” says Intel CEO Brian Krzanich.

To be fair, the company – many companies – are viewing the promised future of cars that need no drivers as a bonanza to capture more eyeballs. They’re plotting how you’re going to spend the time in your car long before that car will actually be in your driveway.

Some aren’t even waiting for the safety – and promised distraction-proof driving – of autonomous cars. General Motors is currently rolling out its Marketplace app, which “… allows drivers to browse deals and place orders through an in-dash touchscreen with several major brands such as Starbucks Corp., TGI Friday’s, Priceline.com and Dunkin’ Donuts Inc,” according to GM. But the territory we’re encroaching on here is a bungle of two highly different concepts: features that are built for safety, and those that are built for advertising or entertainment. You can’t tell me somebody browsing deals and placing orders while they drive isn’t a menace, and GM expressly says Marketplace is intended for use while driving.

But it’s no wonder these companies are looking to in-car advertising, for both now and in the future. Peter Campbell in the Financial Times reports, “while GM’s current vehicles … have average earnings of $30,000 for the company over their lifetime, the company expects ride-sharing vehicles to earn several hundred thousand dollars, as consumers pay for usage.” This is an important point: automakers want – and need – to find other ways to make money.

Estimates say we spend about 300 hours a year in our cars, and advertisers and content providers are wringing their hands with glee about how to best to capitalize on those held captive in a car with nothing else to do. Ride share and in-car advertising are the next two biggest, richest, waves, but GM is trying to capitalize on this now, while we’re still trying to drive the car. To be fair, apps like the GM one are hardly novel in other applications, but pushing yet more information on a driver who, last time I checked, is still in control of driving, is too much, too soon.

The Intel vision of the future will take place in a car that doesn’t even have a driver’s seat. GM’s Marketplace could be in your car next week. I might find being overrun with entertainment and programmed ads annoying when I don’t have to do anything except be ferried about in my automated car, but layers of ads and shopping options in GM’s software are downright dangerous. Anything that takes a driver’s eyes and attention from the road is, including convoluted GPS systems and layers of screens to be tabbed through to change heat or radio settings. We only have laws about handheld devices, but many of these infotainment systems are just as dangerous – and adding advertising and sales makes them much more so.

It’s no surprise the auto industry is pushing a lot of chips onto the autonomous betting square. After decades of R&D into areas that haven’t proven to be much of a return on investment – electric, anyone? – autonomous vehicles, with the potential to make billions, of dollars more with advertising, are enormously attractive to automakers desperate for The Next Big Thing.

I’ve no doubt we can make personal vehicles both fully autonomous and also a fully loaded luxury saloon. Just let’s make sure we do the first before we do the second.

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Sticky road salt solutions make cleaning your car more important

De-icing fluids contain ingredients that can stick to your car and damage mechanicals and parts over time

Meet the new gunk; different from the old gunk.

Come winter, your municipality used to keep you from slip sliding away by using a combination of rock salt and sand. It would be applied after the snow had started, to penetrate through the ice and provide traction. It was a less than ideal solution, for several reasons. Rock salt can literally blow off the road surface in wintry conditions, lessening its effectiveness. Waiting for accumulation meant road crews could be on the road at 2am and 4am and more, chasing conditions and requiring expensive multiple overtime shifts on shrinking budgets. The environmental impact of that salt being washed into drainage systems and roadside vegetation also took its toll.

Today, the solution is in the solution. Creative minds discovered the best remedy was to make something sticky; things like beet juice or corn oil or starch or sugar, often in combination with magnesium chloride. You can lay down a layer of something that is effectively glue, meaning you can do it ahead of a storm. It is more likely to stay put, meaning less man-hours required, and less likely to blow away, meaning more effective at increasing tractions for cars. It’s also easier on the grass and more environmentally friendly, though it is harder on asphalt and infrastructure like bridges.

The new solutions are more cost effective and safer, but are taking a toll somewhere else: your vehicle.

“All of that glue coats the underside of your car,” says Freeman Young, president of Krown Rust Control. “It coats your gas and brake lines, ABS and exhaust sensors, spot welds, unit ties and the space over the gas tank.” All places where corrosion goes to live.

“It pits windshields and destroys wiper blades,” Young continues. “It clouds headlight covers and has a negative impact on tires, as it can dry the rubber.”

We usually associate rust control with body panels, but Young is highlighting another reason to pay close attention to your car’s other components at this time of year. Krown treatments will provide protection to the underside of your car at the same time they’re dispersing their product throughout the body of your car. Rust protection is crucial in this country; do your homework and address the issue in some way to extend the lifetime of your vehicle.

So while our roads are being made safer, how do you counter the cost to your ride? Keep it clean.

“Wash it as often as you can, to remove the residue that is clinging to it,” suggest Young. By all means run it though a car wash, but make sure it’s a fresh water one. Any using recycled water will just be pumping salt solutions back up into and onto your car.

If you’re worried about your doors icing shut, use this tip: buy a silicone spray and bomb the weather-stripping with it. It won’t dry out the rubber and will prevent freezing.

Good, fitted rubber mats are another must. Clean them regularly and vacuum any salt solutions out of the carpet. Moisture can be trapped beneath mats, down into the car’s carpeting and against metal. Another hotspot for corrosion that you can’t see. Use a shop vac if things get soggy, or have a detailer do it for you. It’s a tough time of year to dry out carpets, best done with the windows down which is tough to do outside. If you notice a musty smell in your car or a lot of condensation, consider wet carpeting as a possible culprit.

Never place winter mats on top of existing mats. This can lead to dangerous repositioning under the pedals, causing unintended acceleration or interrupted braking. If you’re in doubt, research what mats best fit your car, or invest in custom ones that are designed for your make and model. These can be pricey, but will last the life of your car.

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The numbers are in: Canadians really like our SUVs and trucks

Sport utes and pickups have made up around 70 per cent of total sales in Canada in 2017

Canada has a population of just over 36 million people; by the close of this year, current annual sales of new cars will be about 2 million. Estimates put used car sales at about three million for the same time period.

We buy a lot of cars.

Light trucks, actually. For all the jabber after the last economic crash a decade ago, the one that took the leasing industry with it, we’ve left behind the promise of subcompact vehicles, become bored with sedans and continue to shun the hybrid and electrics that dominate headlines but little else.

“Sixty-eight to sixty-nine per cent of the market this year is light trucks,” says Dennis DesRosiers, of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants. “In fact, for four of the past 12 months, it’s been over 70 per cent, and this will stay positive for another year, at least.” DesRosiers crunches numbers and breaks down stats; he cares little about what ad campaigns and headlines say we should be buying, and instead reports on what we actually are.

“The used car numbers are actually the most revealing,” says DesRosiers. “In 1990, there were 600,000 vehicles on the road that were over ten years old. Today, there are 11 million, and over the next two years that will grow to 12 million.” Used car sales were two million in 1990; over the next couple of years, DesRosiers predicts that will leap to 3.5 million. It’s the fastest growing part of the market, and all for one reason.

“Quality, quality, quality,” he remarks. Even with the resurgence of the leasing game, which reached a high of about 40 per cent of sales before the 2008 meltdown, and now has rebounded back to about 30 per cent, about half of current lessees are choosing to buy out their vehicles at the end of the lease. So why is a group that traditionally leased to make sure they could have a continuing loop of that new car smell now keeping the old one?

“A lot of people lease to lower an initial monthly payment,” says DesRosiers. “At the end of that three- or four-year term, they like their cars, they trust their cars, and the refinance amount is still very manageable.”

When I offer that I think extended term vehicle loans, for seven, eight or even nine years are dangerous, DesRosiers shoots me down. “Consumers were just doing that anyway, when they leased while intending to buy. Keeping their monthly payment where they wanted it, then refinancing down the road. It makes no difference for people keeping their cars,” he argues. It’s true we’re keeping our cars longer, and our cars have longer lives even after we release them into the wild; DesRosiers suggests the life cycle of a new car today is close to thirty years before it will finally leave the road.

John Raymond, a consultant with the Automobile Protection Association (APA) hesitates over that figure. “Twenty years plus with regular maintenance and some level of corrosion treatment. The cost of repair generally drives the scrap-age rate,” he explains.

There is also the lure of a rapidly changing technological landscape that pushes a significant number of buyers to chase after the newest, shiniest thing.

“I call it the new-car erection,” DesRosiers laughs. There will always be a segment of the car buying public who have to have the latest upgrades, much like the phone you’re reading this on, or that is at least not far away. The extended lifespans of today’s cars is also complicated by another factor: fuel economy.

“Vehicles are getting at least 2 per cent more efficient each year; that means today’s model will be 20 or 25 per cent more fuel efficient than the same one from a decade ago,” says DesRosiers. My ten-year-old paid-for car is running like a top, but a new one would provide much greater fuel economy and better environmental factors. Which naturally leads the discussion in an electrifying direction, or doesn’t.

“Electrics are up, but they comprise a blip in the sales numbers. Hybrid sales are down for the fifth year in a row,” he says. “When sales of electrics comprise just 5,000 vehicles out of that two million, the OEMs have a headache.”

He’s right. And that 5,000 was almost entirely triggered by rich rebates in three provinces – Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia – and if those enticements disappeared (as some say they should), even those gains would disappear in a blink. Raymond lists three barriers to electric sales taking off. “The cost of entry, despite heavy subsidization, is still high. Range anxiety is still very relevant, and thirdly, the ability to consistently charge the vehicle remains an obstacle. Not everybody lives in a house,” he says.

So if the statistical reality is that hybrids and electrics are more like the last mosquito in the room at night instead of the elephant, why is that all we hear about? “I blame you guys,” laughs DesRosiers. “The media play it hard and the OEMs are taking a huge risk on technology that, look at the numbers, nobody wants.” Those internal combustion engines are doing more with less, doing it better, and doing it for longer. Electrics seem to be the answer to a question nobody asked, at least in the passenger and light truck vehicle segment.

As another record sales year closes, the industry is happy to shovel SUVs after CUVs after pickups to a public who can’t seem to get enough. I ask DesRosiers if we’re starting to mimic American buyers, with the numbers and the flash. He laughs again.

“Canada is pretty boring,” he says. “We buy the least amount of vehicle we need; Americans buy the most.”

And everybody wonders why Canada loves hatchbacks so much.

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Missing those bonding times with dad and the car

Vehicles were a way for a quiet, stoic father to open up with his family

I check into a website once in a while that allows people to send postcards – anonymously – with their secrets. Some are dark, some are deep, some are weird, some are silly. But one I saw recently just made me smile: “Secretly, I don’t mind when my car breaks down, because I get to spend time with my Dad fixing it!”

As I write this, my Dad will have been gone 21 years. That’s 21 years of not being asked when I last had my oil changed. My Dad was no mechanic, but that didn’t stop him from fencing off this part of our lives and offering assistance, forming opinions, and shaking his head at how much money we wasted every time we bought a car. He left the home economics areas to our Mom: the food, the child rearing, the decorating and the sticky relationship questions. Nope. Dad didn’t care if you bought a new couch, he wanted to know why you hadn’t got your goddamned snow tires on yet.

My affinity for my late father has never been a secret. He was rough and gruff and almost incapable of affection; you often parent the way you were parented, and he had a pretty appalling childhood. That we knew how much he loved us was a triumph, but if we’d waited around for the words we would have been waiting forever. The apex of his demonstrativeness was simply, “you done good, kid.” I lived for those words.

Instead, like many of his era, and no doubt many others, his actions spoke louder than his words. I read that secret and smiled because I could picture that father. Give him something tangible to repair and he could happily spend hours demonstrating his love. Whoever sent in that secret had found the key to letting Dad speak in the language he was most fluent in.

I couldn’t tell my father if a boy had broken my heart, because he would have wanted to kill that boy. Instead I’d tell him my brakes felt funny, and we’d drive around while he sped up and slowed down, trying to decide if they did or not. He might take a tire off to take a look, though we both knew he wasn’t going to actually fix the brakes. He knew his limits, but the longer it took to decide what I was going to do next, the more time we could hang out without actually talking about the boy.

I actually dated a mechanic for a while, but that meant I became on onlooker in territory that was supposed to be mine. I watched them bond over carburetor adjustments and just felt left out. Eventually the mechanic moved on, and as much as my father hated losing a free mechanic, I think he was secretly happy to have our time back.

When I was little, I’d follow him around like his tiny blonde shadow. I never cared how dirty I got, much to mother’s chagrin, and I never flinched from anything he asked me to do. I’d spear worms onto hooks and I’d pick through bins of greasy nuts and bolts hunting for the size he needed, because only crazy people went and bought things like nuts and bolts from the store. Like most with helpful shadows, he knew to give me enough make-work projects so he could carry on with the actual work, knowing that to discourage a child is to lose them forever.

He’d grunt and grumble from under whichever station wagon we had as he changed the oil. I’d squat beside his legs, the only thing visible, waiting to be asked to hand him a tool or fetch him a beer. He had a problem with beer, my Dad, but when I was still squatting beside him as he changed the oil on our station wagon I didn’t know that yet. That would be something I would absorb later, when he’d ask me about my oil changes one day, and then ask me again the next. All that tiny girl knew then, was that this was where her Daddy talked to her with all the patience in the world.

There would come a time when I knew more than my Dad about the cars I was driving, and even about the ones he owned. As his health faltered, he cared less about the cars anyway, but I missed the easy connection, the default, to talking about something where he could take the lead.

I miss secretly liking when my car broke down so my Dad could help me fix it.

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Think you’re paying too much for insurance? Blame your neighbours

If you’re a good driver but not happy with your insurance rates, blame your neighbours and shop around

If you live in Ontario and think you pay too much for auto insurance, what if I told you your biggest problem might be your neighbours?

Kanetix is an online insurance comparison marketplace, and a recently released study shows who is getting dinged the most for car insurance. We all know the factors that go into determining how much you’re going to have to pay: The make and model of car you drive, your driving record, and your prior insurance history. What you may not realize is how much another factor comes into play: Geography.

While Ontario drivers pay an average annual premium of $1,316 (that’s the highest in Canada), for some residents that would be a bargain. Brampton tops out as the most expensive city in Ontario, and therefore Canada, at $2,268. Rounding out the top ten are Vaughan ($1,825), Mississauga ($1,788), Markham ($1,785), Toronto ($1,743), Richmond Hill ($1,709), Ajax ($1,519), Hamilton ($1,497), Pickering ($1,450) and Whitby ($1,399).

Insurance companies use statistics; pure numbers. You can whine and complain all you like, but if you’re driving a car that is involved in a significant number of claims, even if they’re not yours, you’ll pay more. Sometimes it’s due to something like the lack of a good security system – older pickups are notoriously overly represented in the Insurance Bureau of Canada’s top ten most stolen lists because they’re easier to steal. That weighs against you when you go to insure one. Sometimes, it’s that same numbers game just working against you, like with the Chevrolet Cruze: There are so many of them on the road, they’re involved in more payouts.

If you live in a city, or a neighbourhood, that takes more from the system than another one, you will pay. If you live in an area that sports more collisions than average, or is more heavily ticketed, you will pay. Janine White is the vice president of Kanetix, and cautions against making sweeping generalizations against entire cities, however.

“The industry breaks it down even more, by postal code. Parts of Toronto are actually even more expensive than Brampton,” she notes. Some are paying more than Brampton. If your postal code begins with M1S (Agincourt North), you’re paying an average of $2,384 per year. M1V (Milliken), $2,384; M1W (L’Amoreaux), $2384; M1B (Malvern), $2,313; M1X (Rouge), $2,313. You can look at postal code census readings and see how many households (M1B, about 20,000) or how few (M1X, about 3,000) can impact your rates.

To the consternation and frustration of many of those who live in these high zones, it can seem like big savings are only minutes away. The cheapest rates in Toronto? At an estimated $1,437 per year, look to postal codes beginning with M4K (Playter Estates – Danforth), M4P (Mount Pleasant East), M4T, M4W (Rosedale – Moore Park), M4Y, M5B (Church – Yonge Corridor), M5G, M5H, M5K (Bay Street Corridor), and M4G (Leaside – Bennington).

White makes an interesting point about emerging data. Many jurisdictions have been adopting the Vision Zero Safety Plan across Canada and the U.S. The goal is to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and involves more closely monitoring the interaction between all road users. In many cases, it means dropping speed limits. If a corresponding drop in injuries follows suit, there should be some statistical correlation down the road – and subsequent savings.

She further notes that large discrepancy in annual estimated costs between those Toronto neighbourhoods is often reflected in the amount of time that drivers spend in their cars. Areas that have good access to transit and feature more walkable environments translates into reduced insurance costs.

“In higher cost areas, we have drivers using their vehicle 65 – 75 per cent of the time. In these transit corridors, it’s more like 30-35 per cent.”

So less driving equalling lower rates is great if you can up stakes and move to a cheaper zone, in theory. But what can you do if that isn’t an option?

“People tend to not spend too much time comparison shopping their rates,” explains White. “If you contact 15 different insurance companies, you’ll get 15 different prices.” Rates have to be regulated by the Financial Services Commission of Ontario, but each company will tweak your information by their own set of standards. You might find hundreds of dollars in savings simply by asking around.

White suggests you start with your existing company come renewal, and make sure you’re asking all the right questions before you make a move. If you’re happy with the service but not the price, find out if you have every discount available. Consider installing a black box (telematics, or as I call it, a squeal box) to track your actual usage, make sure you have on winter tires for an additional discount, consider if you can stomach higher deductibles, and see if any organizations you’re part of (work, alma maters) have a group discount.

One word of caution: If you have recent tickets on your abstract, don’t call a new company. Your existing one can pull your driving record at any time (and they do random checks at the very least) but a new company will definitely pull your file – and see what you’ve been up to. Sometimes, silence is more golden than squawking.

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Knowledge is power when it comes to car child seats

Recent study shows most parents are confused and uninformed when it comes to buying and installing child seats

A couple of years ago, I did a story on child seat installation and was told by the specialist that eighty to ninety per cent of the seats they see are installed incorrectly. When my son was in preschool, I attended a child seat installation clinic put on by our local fire station. I was told about ninety per cent of the seats they saw had been installed incorrectly, including mine. That son is now 25.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That seat I was trying to install a quarter century ago barely resembles the NASA-inspired cradles currently on the market to protect the next generation. The equipment has changed; parents, it seems, have not.

I feel for those parents. Installing a child is time consuming and detail-heavy. You need to read both your car owner’s manual and the seat manufacturer’s manual. Every seat-to-car equation is different. Canada has some of the most stringent safety standards in the world when it comes to protecting the littlest Canadians, and the Transport Canada website is a trove of up-to-date information – including product recalls – that is as labyrinthian as it is necessary.

A recent study by Graco, which manufactures car and booster seats, reveals parents across Canada experience doubt about the subject, and confusion about the equation of which kid/which seat/which position. Quebecers felt least informed, with only 45 per cent feeling knowledgeable, compared with 88 per cent of British Columbians. Parents in Manitoba and Saskatchewan have a good grasp (89 per cent) on the fact a growing child requires seats to be replaced.

One of the more interesting things unearthed in the Graco survey, however, pertains to our perception of safety regarding child seats. “Almost half of those surveyed (49 per cent) think there are safer car seats on the market than the one they currently use.” Perhaps it’s the fact the vehicles we drive are now laden with exceptional safety features that we now turning a keener eye to the vessels we park our youngsters in. Those surveyed are correct, however, and right to even be confused.

Car seats have an expiry date, and those made for the Canadian market have a Canadian stamp on them. You shouldn’t use a seat purchased in the U.S. or online; Canadian laws are more stringent. Make sure you register your purchase so you’ll be informed of safety notices or recalls. If you’re unsure, go to Transport Canada’s website and check. No seat manufactured before January 2012 can be given, sold or advertised in Canada. That means you probably shouldn’t be using it, either.

If you’ve ever faced the wall of child seats available for sale, you’ve probably defaulted to the “confused” side of those surveyed. Rear facing, forward facing, weight limits, dimensions, colours, styles, padding … the list goes on. It is now recommended that children be in some form of car seat or booster until the car’s seatbelt in the car properly fits them. For preteens itching to be grown up, this can mean battles ensue. Stick to your guns.

Car seats can be pricey, and you should factor in this cost as a major one when you’re having a child. There are a few models now on the market that can take your child all the way from newborn to leaving the booster; Graco has one and, while they’re pricier than others, they could defer purchasing more than one seat. My only concern? The same one those parents expressed about whether the seat they’re currently using is the safest one possible. Technology changes so rapidly, five years from now you might be eyeing that latest and greatest and changing it out anyway.

There can be hidden damage in car seats, especially ones when you don’t know their provenance. Ultraviolet rays break down plastic. Any seat in a vehicle that’s been involved in a collision needs to be replaced, even if no child was in the seat at the time. Your insurance company should honour the claim for a new seat; if they don’t, fight. Don’t use a seat with an unknown history. Any seat you use should have Transport Canada’s seal on it, all the instructions and tags, tethers, straps and buckles, and not be expired.

Canadians are still leery; “41 per cent of those surveyed feel like current car seats do not provide enough side impact protection for their child. Respondents in Atlantic Canada and Alberta were most likely to think current car seats do not provide enough protection (78 and 74 per cent respectively).”

Current car seats are safer than ever before. Just don’t forget as a parent, you have two main jobs. The first is properly installing the seat into the car, and the second is properly installing your child into the seat. Do your research in advance, set aside a few hours for the actual installation, visit a clinic in your community for tips and assistance and check in with Transport Canada for up-to-date information.

The Graco survey reveals a lot of confusion around a complicated subject, but one that is vital to protecting the most vulnerable passengers in your car.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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