If you want to fix the congestion crisis, you have to get at the root of the problem: Too many cars on the road

Originally published: June 9, 2014

I’m driving a car with “green” plates this week, a Ford C-Max Energi. It’s one of the few cars with enough headroom for my 6’4” son, and while the battery takes up most of the trunk space (a fact Iremembered as I stuffed 200 bucks worth of groceries onto the back seat yesterday), it also allows me to use the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes with only one – me. And that’s where the guilt begins.

I know full well as I zip along I’m using just as much fuel as many of the poor bastards stuck in the slow-moving Tetris game to my right. My hybrid switched from the electric engine to the gas one long before I left the on ramp.

As HOV lanes have been introduced in the Greater Toronto Area over the past few years, prickly arguments are made when the rules get stretched. Initially, it was fun to hear of people using blow-up dolls as passengers; some try to argue that a pregnant woman counts as two people, which of course is an entirely different debate. Let’s just say if you’re pregnant and get caught using the lane, you’d better be prepared to give birth right there and then to avoid a ticket.

In Ontario, those green plates allow you access until June, 2015. Incentive, of course, to buy that hybrid. To go along with all those other government rebate incentives you get because so few people can stomach paying an overwhelming amount of money for an underwhelming amount of car. But while I can trundle along in my borrowed righteousness, I’m passing a lot of vehicles that get excellent fuel economy, too. Why can’t that motorcycle use these lanes? Why not that Smart car?

HOV lanes are a congestion win while being a psychological loss. If you’re not in that lane, you hate the people who are. On a crowded highway, try to make your way over to that lane. Try to get out of it to get to your exit. There are drivers who are better at blocking than whoever won the last Super Bowl. Those clearly marked entry and exit points make good sense on paper, but I think you should be able to exit commuter lanes when it’s safest to do so, not when the paint says you can.

An older gentleman, a little rattled by a previous incident, asked me about commuter lane etiquette. “Am I required to speed excessively just because the person behind me wants to?” he asked. Good question. Ask a cop, you’ll get the standard mumble about speed limits. Truth is, we’ve been conditioned to pass on the left. If the passing lane now has another lane to the left, that must be a passing passing lane. I told him the truth: if traffic is moving decently, just cruise in the right-hand lane. I am a firm believer in extracting yourself from any driving situation that makes you tense or angry. If that means the highway terrorists win, I can live with it. I’m not going to play Stand Your Ground with an idiot piloting a death machine as he takes a break from an eight-hour shift of playing Grand Theft Auto.

A recent traffic study released by TomTom put Vancouver in fifth place for the worst traffic congestion in North America, while Toronto landed ninth. It’s nice to be included with the heavy hitters, like New York and San Francisco, but it’s a problem that costs billions in lost productivity every year, and it’s getting worse instead of better. There is talk now of using the lanes as toll generators – you can pay to be special. It would be a novel idea here in the GTA for a toll road to generate money for use in the region it resides in; the 407 Express Toll Route was trumpeted as an answer to endless commutes, but instead is just a cash cow for the Spanish company that owns most of it.

The problem? If present HOV lanes are converted to High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, some present users will probably get turfed out because of space. In several American jurisdictions, they work because cars have to have three or more occupants to use them free, while singletons can pay the toll. This might mean if you and your spouse are currently carpooling, you’ll be back with the great unwashed.

Traffic gurus can push around all the numbers they like, but the bottom line is that if I have to suffer, so do you. It doesn’t have to make sense; this is not reasonable people pushing shopping carts around a grocery store. We’re talking about overcrowded roadways full of people spending too much time bottled up in their vehicles while everybody thinks public transit is for someone else, and without a cohesive plan in place, it really is.

Those green-plated tree-hugger buggies? Still just more cars on the road.

Posted in Drive She Said | 8 Comments

There’s nothing more embarrassing than admitting you can’t drive something because it’s a manual

Originally published: June 2, 2014

A reader once called me elitist because I said I preferred to drive cars with standard transmissions. I hadn’t said my preference made me smarter or kinder or more charming; I’d simply said it was more fun to drive a stick, and that having the skill was a useful one.

The car I own is an automatic, just like 90% of the rest of the vehicles on the road. But like my sisters, I learned both methods as a teenager because my father said there was no way one of his girls would get stuck with some drunk idiot on a date and not be able to get home. At least I’m marginally more charming than my father was.

Whether the cars I’ve owned were standards or not, I’ve always been grateful that I learned young. You never know when you’re going to meet up with a clutch – on a motorcycle, a tractor or a sports car – and I’ve told my sons the same thing: there’s nothing more embarrassing than admitting you can’t drive something because it’s got a manual transmission. Well, maybe there is, but not much.

Every time I’ve had a standard as my car that week, I’ve taught my sons to drive them. They’re not always thrilled, and they grumble, until that magic moment when it all clicks. My youngest son Ari, 19, was still lining up a summer job when I received a manual a few weeks back. Perfect timing. I hauled him out to practice; it had been a couple of months since the last time. Over his sighing objections, I reminded him he could end up with a landscaping company or a car dealership, and he’d better be prepared for anything.

Some of the old arguments in favour of standards are disappearing. Fuel economy can be better depending on driving styles, but current automatic engines have come a long way. If you can order a car with a manual transmission you might save some money, but they’re often the stripped down version in other ways. Anything you save at the time of purchase has to be factored into your more limited market when you go to sell it, if you do.

If you have a regular daily commute in the any of Canada’s major congestion centres, you’ll probably stress your knee out in record time. While clutches are nowhere as stiff as they once were, it’s still more work and I understand why people trying to get around Vancouver or Montreal or Toronto would opt out of three pedals.

I think every driver, especially young ones, should learn on a standard for a more compelling reason: it’s quite literally more engaging. You have to understand more about your car. You have to appreciate your input is actually determining how the engine is responding, and you have to pay attention long past dropping it into D and taking off, essentially the movement of a point-and-shoot automatic.

It’s a lot harder to text and drive in a standard; it’s harder to eat and drink and talk on a phone. It doesn’t take long to realize the farther you’re looking ahead, the easier it will be to pick a gear that allows the smoothest trajectory. Distractions coupled with short-sighted vision behind the wheel are major factors in collisions, especially among less experienced drivers.

It’s not going to happen, and I understand that. If I had the money to put where my mouth is, I’d have a stick as our daily driver. But with three young drivers using it, I had to go with more immediate needs. Next time, I tell them, as I try to get them proficient.

Teaching someone requires patience. I like that the Internet now lets you show someone exactly what a clutch is doing with graphics; I find understanding the mystery is a big part of the learning curve. A few years ago, I watched BMW’s head instructor teach a teen to drive a manual, and he showed him how to work through the gears, never engaging the throttle. The engine accelerated to the next gear, and the kid could concentrate on the action of the clutch without worrying about the gas pedal. It’s more than a cool party trick – it’s a stripped down good first step to getting familiar with something new.

If knowing the overwhelming majority of cars are automatics on our roads allows you to opt out of considering the skill, think about this: in most European countries, the ratio is reversed. Try to rent a car with an automatic transmission, and you’ll find it not only difficult, but sometimes impossible. If you do, you’ll have to reserve far in advance, pay a hefty premium, and there are no guarantees it will be waiting, even then. Your European vacation could be more disastrous than the Griswolds’.

My son ended up working at a car dealership this summer. He came home his first day, grinning at me. Tasked with gassing up demos, it seems the second car he’d gotten in was a stick.

Sometimes Mom knows best.

Posted in Drive She Said | 10 Comments

Having a friend who owns a pickup truck can be a real blessing. Just make sure you don’t become the dreaded “pickup moocher”

Originally published: May 26, 2014

Andy Warhol promised everybody they would get their 15 minutes of fame. For those unaccustomed to the spotlight, it might get a little uncomfortable. But for one group of people, who don’t even have to have any discernible talent, that fame and popularity never wanes. These are the people who own pickup trucks. They are eternally popular.

If you ask your insurance agent if it’s OK to lend your vehicle to someone else, she will say “no.” Well, first she might pause and then sigh, but she will proceed to tell you all the reasons it’s a stupid idea. “You have to make sure they’re a licensed driver,” she will begin. “Your insurance coverage goes with the car, regardless of driver. That means in the event of a crash, your insurance company – and you – will be on the hook. Say goodbye to your perfect rating.”

“But it’s my brother! I trust him. He just needs to move some stuff to his cottage; it’s a one-time deal,” you might protest.

There is so much wrong with that sentence, my pretend insurance agent just left the room. Lending to family seems like a no-brainer, and sometimes it’s fine. But people do funny things when pickups enter the equation. Nobody stands in IKEA eyeing six cartons of Billy bookcases and says, “Say, didn’t Aunt Lois just get a new Prius?”

People who own pickups are aware of things like towing capacity. They know important details about full loads and clearance. People who borrow pickups think capacity means the skipping rope they’re tying it all down with won’t stretch any farther. These are not evil or stupid people, but they have bought into the dream they see in all the ads about pickup trucks. If Sam Elliott has assured them how rugged it is, it must be. And if that truck in the magazine is climbing up the side of a mountain, then my brother’s pickup will surely be fine hauling a 14-foot fishing boat up Highway 400, along with a tinny holding a barbecue, four lawn chairs, a coffee table and a rug.

While it’s the driver who will be responsible for traffic violations like speeding, it’s the owner who is going to discover unpaid parking tickets come licence renewal time. In Ontario, there is now an even more pressing topic to add to the vehicle-loaning discussion: stunt driving. An acquaintance found out the hard way the far-reaching implications of roadside judge and jury. Helping friends move, they’d asked him to drive one of several trucks they’d loaded up. No problem. Until this young driver was pulled over in a speed trap and tagged at 50 km/h over the posted limit. The vehicle was impounded for a week, fully laden. They couldn’t get anything out of it. The charge took months to wend its way through the courts, but the friendship died right there by the side of the road.

So how should the pickup dance work? Both sides have duties and obligations.

Pickup Owner:

  • If you have no problem lending your pickup but prefer that nobody else drives it, offer up your services as well as your truck’s. It will make you a mover as well, but you already knew that.
  • If you have a problem with it, say so. “Sorry, I can’t help you out this time” is fine. It only takes lending something once and getting it back broken to sour even a saint.
  • Ask to see a valid licence.
  • Anticipate the worst in advance. This is the toughest provision: if a tire goes, who pays? How many kilometres are we agreeing to? Is there roadside assistance? Is it transferable? Is it okay if their wife/son/cousin drives it too?
  • As you toss over the keys, tell them how you’d like any problems solved. “Call me, or have it towed to here, or leave it right where it is.” Compounding is good for interest, bad for problems.

Pickup Moocher:

  • If you need to borrow a truck, plan to rent one. Don’t put a friend on the spot by making everything hinge on them accommodating you at the last minute.
  • Wait until I offer. When I had a minivan, I begged my sister to use it on her holiday. I trusted her. It made sense. We just swapped vehicles for a week.
  • Bring it back full. I don’t care how much gas was in it when you got it, top it up. Run it through a wash, and clear out the garbage. It shows gratitude and respect. If someone has just lent you their truck, they deserve both.
  • Make sure the vehicle has valid insurance and proper registration. If it has a trailer, double check all the wiring harnesses.
  • Own up. If you scratched something, heard a weird clunk or dragged an oil pan across a rocky cottage road, admit it.

Oh, and remember to keep in touch with your friends-with-pickups at times other than when you need a truck. That’s how conspiracy theories get started …

Posted in Drive She Said | 6 Comments

10 Reasons I Want Willie Nelson’s Tour Bus

Originally published May 19, 2014

The vintage touring bus, which sold for $80,000, is like a time machine back to an era of headbands and wood panelling

If my mom were still alive, she’d no doubt tell me to stay away from places like Craigslist. She would intuitively know that hanging out there would be the equivalent of hanging out at smoker’s corner at my old high school. You might pick up bad habits, you might see something scarring, or somebody else might see you there and decide you were bad.

But if it weren’t for Craigslist, how else would I know that Willie Nelson’s tour bus was for sale?

I can think of 10 reasons why I must have this bus. The fact I don’t need a bus doesn’t matter. This bus was part of Willie Nelson’s very own entourage of buses. The fact it still exists, and wasn’t written off being rolled through a prairie ditch as it rambled between gigs, or jammed under an underpass when the driver lost the “think-we-can-make-it?” bet, is reason enough to want this vehicle. But here are 10 more:

  1. It gets 7 mpg (33 L/100 km). There is nothing that says “shove it” to the world of rules and regulations than 7 miles to the gallon. It’s so bad it’s good.
  2. It is a 1983 Eagle, and is a far worthier thing to be remembering about 1983 than A Flock of Seagulls. Think about it, Willie looked the same then as he does now. Hell, he probably looked the same when he was 10. If you passed Willie Nelson on the street, you’d yell, “Hey, there’s Willie Nelson!” If you passed the guy from A Flock of Seagulls on the street, you’d yell, well, nothing, because it’d just be some random guy walking down the street.
  3. Button-tufted leather can be enjoyed at the front of the bus. Supplied, Craigslist

    Button-tufted leather can be enjoyed at the front of the bus.
    Supplied, Craigslist

  4. It has a button-tufted leather dashboard. This is the same thing your dad has on the bar in his basement, when your mom finally let him take over the space with a pool table and a dart board and a bar fridge. The bar where you swiped booze from when he wasn’t looking, and got sick because you grabbed the first bottle you could reach and it was dark rum and you’ve never drunk dark rum again since. Every time you see button-tufted leather, you wonder why you start feeling faintly nauseated. Now is the time to put that memory to rest, by putting your feet up on Willie’s dash next to the CB and the 8-track.
  5. It has a rural mural painted on each side, and a giant bald eagle on the back. Everything about this bus will announce to people you are a real deal cowboy-type person. Whether you’re from Toledo or Toronto, you will board this bus and develop a southern drawl, and no doubt a sudden affinity for pot.
  6. The interior features enough red velvet and dark woodwork to send out a subtle message of beer drinking saloon with a hint of brothel. If this was in any other vehicle, you might think it would seem tacky, but I defy you to lounge back against that bolstered velvet, listen to Willie sing Crazy and tell me it doesn’t all work. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see swinging saloon doors on it, and would have considered paying more if I’d found them.
  7. The bus can seat up to eight people “depending.” Depending on what exactly? We don’t know. Supplied, Craigslist

    The bus can seat up to eight people “depending.” Depending on what exactly? We don’t know.
    Supplied, Craigslist

  8. That ad says it sleeps eight “depending.” Usually when you see “depending” in reference to sleeping arrangements, it means “depending” if grandma comes or not. I’m going to say “depending” means something very different in this scenario.
  9. They only want $29,000 for it. Bids spiraled quickly, but they priced it according to what similar buses were worth. I don’t think the owner thought as highly of Willie Nelson as I do.
  10. This ad is steeped in code. The next time you hear Willie sing If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time, that means he knows you purchased this ride and will be joining you shortly.
  11. See all that red velvet? No way could someone have thoroughly checked out all the nooks and crannies. I guarantee you there are headbands jammed in there, somewhere.
  12. Willie is known to be a laid back kind of guy. Mostly, he’s known to be stoned more often than not. My master plan would be to drive this bus to wherever he’s playing and park it. When Willie emerges, he’s highly likely to recognize it and come ambling over. I think he ambles. With a little luck, it will be a concert where Kris Kristofferson shows up. We will toast Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, and talk about the good old days.
  13. In true Willie Nelson form, a majestic eagle mural adorns the back of the bus. Supplied, Craigslist

    In true Willie Nelson form, a majestic eagle mural adorns the back of the bus.
    Supplied, Craigslist

Original Ad Due to the extremely high demand and the amount of offers being thrown at us for this bus. We have decided to take offers all the way to 12:00 AM Central 5/3/2014 for this bus. We are planning to sell this bus this weekend. The current offer is $36,000 at this moment. As of 10:07am Central this morning. Feel free to contact via Call, Text, or Email. If no one answers we will try to get back to you ASAP

1983 Eagle Bus

Engine 92 Detroit Diesel
Transmission Automatic
Generator 15kW Diesel Generator
The bus gets 7 mpg with the generator running. The bus sleeps about 8+ just depending the situation. It has 4 A/C Units on the roof with heat as well. This bus was built for Willie Nelson in the 80s. The bus is in great working condition without any issues. If you have any questions call or text show contact info. Cash is the preferred method of payment. No trades or financing.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

With insurance fraud rampant and bad driving becoming an epidemic, it’s no wonder so many are turning to dashboard cameras for protection

Originally published: May 12, 2014

What if we operated under the assumption that all of our actions were being recorded? No, not just when we find ourselves in the midst of yet another drunken stupor, but when we are doing something as mundane as dropping the kids off at school, or searching for a parking spot in a crowded lot, or pulling out to pass on a busy highway.

Chances are good you should assume somebody really is recording your every move. It may be illegal to use handheld devices to take photos or video in many places, but dashboard cameras are now being mounted in more and more cars. Like most technology, what was once reserved for the special and wealthy is now cheap to obtain and easy to install.

“The things you see when you don’t have a camera or a gun,” you’ve probably muttered to yourself on more than one occasion. While I don’t want to think the car behind me is packing heat, I’m at the point where I assume it is packing a GoPro.

How fast is Big Brother moving in? In February 2013, the Chelyabinsk meteor hit in the southern Ural Mountain range in Russia. Within minutes, thanks to the magic that is the Internet, the whole world had incredible video of the event. The blinding flash, loud boom, the shockwave that blew out windows and injured 1,500 people in six cities, all recorded instantly. How? Dash cams, of course.

Initially there were questions about the authenticity of such footage. How could so many people have recorded such a sudden event? How could they have it so soon? Do people in parts of the world actually just drive around filming things? Well, yes, they do. In places where insurance fraud is endemic and policing is open to interpretation, drivers arm themselves with dash cams for protection. In 2009, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev called his country’s drivers “undisciplined, [and] criminally careless.” Thirty-two per cent of the population responded by calling the police, “the most corrupt institution in the country.” That the meteor hit in a place rife with so much highway hatred meant we all got to see something pretty spectacular with our own eyes.

This past March, two pickups collided in Kenora, Ont., after one ran a stop sign and entered a highway. A dash cam recorded the emerging truck, but it did even more than that: it recorded the driver using his cell phone, and on the strength of that video, charges were upgraded. A picture is worth a thousand sworn statements.

In New Jersey, a police dash cam caught officers beating an innocent man, after they’d stated otherwise. A colleague of mine driving in Florida had a semi throw a tire just ahead of him. The result was $2,800 damage caused by the errant tire, and the footage he got on a dash cam meant insurance not only settled instantly, they waived his deductible. He said/she said testimony seems almost quaint in comparison to footage that nudges out weak memories and overrides persuasive arguments.

Is there a downside? Of course there’s a downside. When the keeper of the footage becomes judge, jury and executioner (which means, “I’m gonna put that on YouTube”), you can publicly be called out for behaviour that may or may not be worthy of the attention. If you think someone has slandered you, do you launch a defamation suit saying your reputation was damaged because they made you look like an idiot? Most things I see of this nature on the ‘net don’t blur out licence plates, and in this age of information, that makes identifying cars (if not the driver) possible. Keep in mind that licence plates are public information, and it’s not like somebody stuck a camera in between the blinds of your bathroom window.

A further problem, one that journalists and the courts increasingly find themselves dealing with, is a public that expects – demands – irrevocable proof outside of reasonable constraints. Like legal shows that led to real life juries wanting DNA evidence for shoplifters, the public will believe a report only if you can show them the video. If the accepted standard becomes “go video or go home,” look for the corruption to infiltrate that medium, and soon.

Many cars have had the equivalent of airplane black boxes for years now, and some insurance companies are offering to give you a trip nanny, with the explanation that if your driving is as safe and predictable as rice pudding, they’ll lower your rates. I’d actually take a camera over a box that only records sudden stops and penalizes me for them. Not hitting a kid who leaps out from the sidewalk should surely be a plus.

The U.S. has mandated that by 2018, all new cars will be equipped with back-up cameras. Don’t be surprised to see more coming equipped with cameras on the front end, as well. If every picture tells a story, you’ll want to make sure it’s telling yours.

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Forget resumes and dating profiles. The way we act behind the wheel reveals far more about our true character

Originally published May 5th, 2014

For all the words that are spilled in journals and social media, in conversations we participate in and those carried on behind our backs, we end up being essentially – and succinctly – defined by just three things: a resume, a dating profile, and an obituary. You might escape one of the first two, but you won’t escape the last.

It’s tough to write those things. I don’t know anyone who enjoys it, nor do I know anyone who gets them just right. What if I told you that for a large percentage of the population, all the remembering and guessing could be dispensed with? That there is a sure-fire way to know everything that is important while revealing just enough? Can’t be done? Sure it can.

Just show me a video of how you drive.

Consider that person sitting across from you, the one you’re interviewing for a job. Everybody knows that the perfect fit on paper rarely seems to work out in practice. Why? Because graduating from all the right schools, having all the right recommendations and displaying just the right amount of quirk (“I consider my best-selling book, Soufflés in the Time of Cholesterol, a perfect counterbalance to my MBA”) doesn’t tell me a thing about what matters the most: how you will respond in a crisis. But there is a way I can find out. Start the video.

It’s good to be organized. I expect a reasonable person to tackle a project with intellect and enthusiasm. But just show me how you managed that last road trip. Show me the carefully packed snacks, the detailed itinerary, and pre-booked hotels and the proper currency. Now, show me what happens when the dog has peed on the sandwiches, somebody left the itinerary on the counter back home, the phone charger goes AWOL, your wallet has been nicked and the hotel has never heard of you. Oh, and it’s raining, it’s 3 a.m. instead of 9 p.m. because you didn’t know about the detour and you had to change the tire yourself because your phone was dead. Show me that person. If you were calm and creative, taking control and responsibility without being a bully, and if you realize how little allocating blame really helps, I want to work with you.

So you found your perfect job and now it’s time to find true love? Who doesn’t like long walks on the beach? I just want to know if you’re going to pull out a small vacuum to get the sand from your cuffs before you get back in your car. I want to know if you’re actually wincing when I put my (sandy) feet up on the dash as we watch the sun go down.

Are you the person nobody is allowed to pass? That’ll never show up in a written profile, but it’s like a kill switch on a date. Male or female, the aggressive stuff stopped being thrilling in grade 12. Conversely, if you’re the stubborn turtle in the middle of a passing lane, I need this information more than I need to know you like Kafka.

Does that fancypants restaurant you love have valet parking? Valet parking is convenient. If my magic video reveals you announcing, “NOBODY gets to drive my car, can’t you see it’s a classic?” I’d probably be more inclined to finish the date with that valet instead, who nodded politely and didn’t roll his eyes.

Show me a video of your morning commute. Do you merge nicely, and then let someone else in to repay the favour? You’re probably a good tipper, too. We can declare who we are all we like, but the way we drive reveals far more. Who wants to date the person who cuts in past the end of a disappearing lane? Who wants to team up with the person who clogs intersections, firm in the belief that his or her time is more important than anyone else’s? I don’t care if we both like fast Layla and Lonesome Dove if you run red lights.

What would my video reveal? I yell at other drivers, but I don’t text. I sing badly with the radio and my car has been known to double as my closet. I get peeved at nanny systems but I can parallel park without pushing a button. Are any of those things deal breakers? They would be for some, so let’s start the video and do some weeding now.

Instead of the final word, what if your obituary was a final montage? I’d take the Thelma and Louise template, knowing this time I could leave in the cliff. I’d like to think I could splice in random cuts of me giving up a parking spot, of slowing down near a puddle to save a soaking, of getting lost and being happy about it instead of angry. I’d like it to show me agreeing to any road trip, anywhere, anytime, because driving isn’t always about the destination.

Let’s skip all these carefully cultivated words, because I’m pretty sure everything I need to know about you I can find out by watching you drive – and vice versa.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Lying to a police officer to cover up for your red-light-running son is all kinds of wrong

Originally published April 28, 2014

As a rule, I like reading stories of parents working through the pains as their offspring learn to drive. It’s one of those challenges that seems far more entertaining in hindsight, when memories of white knuckles and new cuss words have long faded. It’s a rite of passage for more than the teenager.

But one account I read recently from a mom in Ohio clanged all the wrong notes. Seems when the family was returning home one evening that Junior, 16, driving with mom up front, dad in the back, ran a red light. In Ohio, any moving violation for the under-18 set means an automatic six-month licence suspension. Because the kid had only just gotten back his licence after a first violation, everyone in the car clenched when they saw the cop conveniently sitting right there.

In the spirit of transparency, I offer up that our household has a similar rule. My kids know as long as they’re on my insurance, they can’t have any moving violations, regardless of age or licence status. I can’t afford the bump in premiums, and they’ll be on their own. I don’t think Ohio’s law is particularly onerous. I like it.

Whether these Ohio parents like it or not doesn’t matter. What they did next does. Admitting to “not missing a beat,” Mom leaned over and told the officer it was her fault. Before she could continue, Dad chimed in from the back seat saying the same thing, that because of ice, he’d told his son it was safer to run the light than risk sliding.

Of course that’s not what actually transpired inside that car. The kid ran a red light, all by himself.

The mom felt guilty for lying in front of her son. She was worried it sent the wrong message. This was her moral conundrum? These parents made excuses for behaviour that could get their kid or someone else killed, and the hand-wringing is reserved for being caught in a lie?

I get it. We all want to protect our kids. We want to suck up the pain, buffer the bad stuff and point them towards success. It’s a natural instinct, but if you find yourself at odds with a law meant to protect that same kid, you’re wrong.

Her son’s first violation had been for an illegal left turn. Driving instructors and police will tell you left turns are one of the most dangerous. Running a red light is also a big deal. What flashed through her mind as the officer approached their car that night? “He’d have to take a remedial driving class and the driver’s test again. And he’d have to pay a fine and a reinstatement fee and buy a new licence.” Call me crazy, but I think that is exactly what he should have to do.

The writer lightly glazes over the fact her son “wouldn’t be the only one inconvenienced” by another suspension. I called the Ohio Insurance Institute, where Senior VP of Public Information Mary Bonelli confirmed that policy rates are absolutely impacted by suspension. “A suspension would be a major risk factor,” she acknowledged. How about two suspensions?

Studies are piling up about the increasing risks of distracted driving. We’re right to tackle the growing abuse of cell phones and texting, but we can’t do so at the risk of overlooking an old, dangerous standby: aggressive driving. A 2012 study by the Centre for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia states that teen boys are four times more likely to perform an aggressive act leading to a crash than females when driving alone; that number jumps to 20 times more likely when there is a peer female in the car with them. Is it fair to lump all kids in together, or decide your child is going to do something risky? Maybe not, but if your son is doing risky or aggressive things when you’re sitting right there, what do you think he’s doing when you’re not?

I’ve seen parents fight speeding tickets on behalf of their teens, usually because of how it will affect their insurance. Less experienced drivers may be more likely to be caught in speed traps or fishing holes, those notorious sudden drops in posted speeds entering towns on smaller highways. It’s getting stung while young that usually teaches you three things: that speed limits are arbitrary and often ridiculous; that you have to enter politics to change said speed limits; and that once you’re in politics you’ll want to keep the money flowing from those same speed traps.

Any driver who wants to fight a ticket should. But it’s the driver who should do it, not the driver’s mommy. You have to learn the rules before you get to break them, and until you’ve put in considerably more wheel time than the average 16-year-old, you need to keep a lid on the aggressive manoeuvres.

Oh, and that money you saved on your insurance premium? Get your kid some driving lessons.

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Vandals aren’t targeting Smart cars to convey a political message. They’re targeting them because they’re easy to tip

Originally published April 21 2014

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a car is just a car. Recent reports from San Francisco are making much ado about vandals tipping Smart ForTwos on their heads. Or arses. The talking heads are once again knotted together, determined to link the events to some higher statement: it must be a protest against tree huggers — a rebellion against those foisting their lefty environmental views on, well, everyone else.

How can anyone look so intently at a problem and miss what is so obvious? Smart cars are getting tipped because Smart cars are easy to tip. If the idea were to symbolically smite those reducing their carbon footprint, wouldn’t they be tipping Priuses? Wouldn’t the only risk in getting caught tipping a Prius be a bash about the head from an owner wielding a hemp bag full of organic pears and artisanal bread?

Smart cars aren’t being singled out for any special message. They’re being bullied for the same reason the smallest kid in gym class gets a wedgie: it’s cruel and it’s pointless and it’s easy. A Smart, weighing in at about 830 kilograms (1,830 pounds), is the memorable runt. A group of drunken revelers don’t have to give it much thought; drunken revelers rarely think.

Not that a lazy vandal searching for easy prey is always the way. Every generation has its target. Volkswagen Beetles have remained for decades as the vehicle of choice for engineering students, especially at the University of British Columbia. This year, they hoisted a classic bug to the top of the university’s Clock Tower. Beetles in the 1960s and ‘70s were weighing in around 800 kg. Mark that against something like a Ford Maverick that hit the scales at over 400 kg more and it might be easy to say weight made the choice. It didn’t.

Consider the extraordinary feat of some UBC’s engineering students in 2001. They suspended a VW Bug from the Golden Gate Bridge. San Franciscans awoke to the car dangling above the water, a Canadian flag painted on one side, a large E on the other. Nobody knew who or how, until an anonymous fax owned up. The prank was commemorating a duplicate stunt 20 years before, when students from the same faculty suspended a Bug from Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge. In both cases, the cars had been stripped to their shells; any car could have been lightweighted for the purpose of a prank, but the iconic silhouette of the VW Beetle beckons and endures.

Even in fiction, it is the Bug that gets singled out. In John Irving’s classic A Prayer for Owen Meany, it takes the entire basketball team to put the headmaster’s car centre stage – literally. Are Smart cars the new VW bug? I doubt it. Engineering students at Ryerson University in Toronto use a vintage Beetle to raise funds for Sick Kid’s Hospital each year by pushing it around the quad for 24 hours. There’s that Bug again.

Smart tipping like that in San Francisco is hardly new. Officials in the Netherlands tried hard in 2009 to keep under wraps reports of Smarts being pitched into canals, worried about copycats. Despite their best efforts, media outlets were calling it a new sport. A new, drunken sport. View any picture of small cars lining the canals in Amsterdam, unprotected by any real barriers and it seems it was always a question of when, not why.

As with most vandalism, the true cost is in dollars. It’s been too easy to make punch lines of Smart cars teetering on their noses. When vandals desecrate cemeteries or monuments, we feel a collective weakening rather than just a monetary one. A car can be replaced and many of those cars will be write-offs, damaged beyond repair like those in Dutch canals. I’ve seen more than one small car turned in a parking spot, more prank than vandalism. I’ve heard further tales where it was all fun and games until a bumper came off in someone’s hand.

The problem, of course, is there is a very big difference between vandalism and engineer(ed) pranks. It’s not just the fact the university students aim to do no damage; they don’t steal cars. Rampaging morons on either continent are as inspired as any other bullies. Smart owners are generally the inhabitants of urban areas, and in this age of endless surveillance and unstoppable social media boasting, I doubt the San Francisco trend will carry far. In the meantime, wait for the first rat to surface, and instead of being remembered for their brains, they’ll be charged for their brawn.

That Beetle suspended from the Golden Gate Bridge? Authorities ended the fun by clipping the cable. The car sank to the bottom of San Francisco Bay. Maybe those students could do something creative next year and fish it back out.

Posted in Drive She Said | 8 Comments

Want to keep teen insurance costs in check? Start them young, start them early

Originally published: April 14, 2014

How old were you when you got your licence? Most of us were champing at the bit within days of our 16th birthdays. Your kids might be handling the issue much differently. Technology lets them stay connected with friends from the next city – and across the world – in ways we never could have imagined. Government-sanctioned driver’s education programs can get pricey.

But if a car is available for practice and they/you can scratch up the money, there’s a reason I think you should push them to get licensed.

Forget the call of the open road: the truth is as long as we live in a country that mandates all drivers have insurance, this is a numbers game. If you’ve been a car owner for decades, driving costs are usually based on purchase price and upkeep; if you’re among the newly licensed, these costs are likely eclipsed by the big one: insurance.

I have one car. I have three young drivers in my household. From the moment each got their G2 – their full licence – their driving record has been ticking. Though each is listed as an occasional driver on my policy, they are accumulating valuable driving histories for the time they will have their own. My insurance cost is based on the least experienced driver in the household, my 19-year-old son. I am effectively depositing my pristine rating into the hands of a member of the group insurance companies consider road demons.

Insurance companies use statistics to set their rates. In Ontario, anyone under 25 owning their own vehicle – especially males – pays an exorbitant amount for insurance. After that, it’s the high rollers who get hit hardest, and if you’ve been a demonstrably bad driver, you’ll pay. But new drivers, regardless of age, show up next. The best way not to be a new driver? Get your licence as soon as you can and stop being a freshman. An upside even if you’re not driving is you’re not accumulating any blemishes on your record.

Some Canadian provinces – Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and partially in Quebec – have government-owned auto insurance; the rest have standardized wordings and government oversight. While there are arguments for and against, Ontario continues to pay the highest premiums. Recent provincial government efforts to bring rates down is helping in some instances, but “lower” is relative when the rates were insanely high to begin with.

Are there any breaks? If your kid is in school residence, some companies give a discount: my company says my son has to be 100 kilometres away from home to qualify, but he’s only 50 km. He could probably avoid residence fees and just drive, if he could afford the insurance. See how that works?

Pete Karageorgos of the Insurance Bureau of Canada helped me explore the other ways people try to end-run the system. Why not just put Junior’s car in Grandma’s name as principal driver, and Junior can keep his reduced rates as an occasional driver?

“Two problems with that,” says Karageorgos. “You are materially misrepresenting the facts, and the obvious dodges are easy to pick up. Also, we often hear from ex spouses, family members and neighbours. Even if you think you’ve got around it, in the event of a crash, your coverage could be denied.”

I asked Karageorgos what would happen if my son, while away at school, drove a friend’s car. Would he be covered? “If he had permission and was properly licensed, that car’s insurance would be in effect. As long as that car was covered properly.”

What if you swear up and down that your darling girl will never touch your new convertible? “Well, you can sign an endorsement and have coverage removed for that one driver. But think that through; if she takes the car, damages it, or causes bodily injury, there is no coverage on it. You would have to report it stolen – by your own child – to have the company cover it. And don’t forget the times you say, ‘I’m running late, go pick up your brother, just this once.’”

When your son or daughter gets their G1 or beginner’s licence, notify your insurance company. You won’t pay more. When they get their full licence, notify your company again and they can be added as an occasional driver. If your kid starts delivering pizzas with your car (or his own), damages won’t be covered unless you’ve notified your company of this business use of the vehicle. If two people own three vehicles and one licensed child, you will likely be considered as having three principal drivers, regardless of who owns the cars.

If you live in a province with crippling auto insurance rates, there are few workarounds. But a driving record develops very much like a credit rating, and even if a driver isn’t currently named on a policy, their driving record is still forming. I’ve seen people suddenly need a licence as a job requirement or to get to a job. It’s costing me a little extra now, but it might save my kids a lot of money down the road.

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GM’s post-bailout honeymoon is over and this dramatic recall is just making it worse

Originally published: April 7, 2014

I like watching Judge Judy while I make dinner. The yelling (hers) and outbursts (the litigants) on the show shut out the yelling (mine) and outbursts (the kids) in my kitchen. Judy sits up high and gets to rain down the heavy gavel, making her word the last one. She wears her omnipotence with the same flourish she wears her judicial robes.

When there was a mention of General Motors on the show recently, I turned up the volume and turned down the dinner.

It was a throw-away line, and the case playing out was pretty standard fare, but she had my full attention. A mother had co-signed a car loan for her daughter. You might have done something like this yourself for your offspring. I know my Dad did, and I would have sold off a body part before I’d have missed a payment. The girl before the judge looked intact to me, which is probably why her own mother was suing her.

A partially missed payment meant Mom turned into a repo man, and she’d taken the car back. A little harsh, I thought, but maybe a good lesson. Judge Judy peered over her glasses at Mom, recapping the story.

“You went to her work, took out the child seat, and took the car,” she said. Wow. That’s some cold parenting going on, Grandma.

Mom nodded.

Judy said the car would never have been repossessed by a real bank. Mom stressed they had an agreement, and she was well within her rights. She not only took the car, she put it where her daughter couldn’t even find it.

Then it got interesting. At the part where they all start yelling over each other, the daughter said the car had been having some problems. It was a 2009 Chevy Cobalt. The engine was cutting out, and the power steering kept quitting.

GM’s ignition switch recall affects 1.6 million vehicles, including the Chevrolet Cobalt. Approximately 235,000 of the affected vehicles are in Canada.
Handout, GM

I picked up the spoon I’d dropped. Had her miserable mother maybe saved her life?

General Motors is embroiled in one of the largest public relations messes in the industry. Ignition switches on some models and for some years can be pulled out of position by heavy key chains or jarring road conditions. While essentially becoming a case of who knew what, and when, the fallout will surely be hugely expensive for GM, but more important, the switches have led to the deaths of some unwitting drivers.

Faulty ignition switches – a problem diagnosed and quietly changed years ago – could slip into the accessory position while the car was being driven. A New York Times article last week illustrated devastating stories of drivers suddenly dealing with no power steering and no power brakes when the engine turned off, rendering airbag systems useless. It doesn’t help that we’re talking about inexpensive smaller cars, typically purchased by a younger demographic. In a deposition, GM engineer, Ray DiGiorgio said he tested the problem by driving his son’s 2007 Cobalt around the neighbourhood. He said when he got the switch to fail, he had no problem safely stopping the car. Maybe he should be 18 and on a freeway before insulting buyers who’ve never felt armstrong steering before.

GM has settled some cases, but as more surge forward, the optics get worse. The company knew internally 13 years ago it probably had a problem, and it made fixes as needed with no fanfare. For nearly five years, its engineers certainly knew they had a problem. We’re now at 13 confirmed deaths, a number that will surely climb. Toyota, which used a similar head-in-the-sand approach in 2009 when reports began of their cars suddenly accelerating, has paid out nearly $5 billion in fines and repairs. The U.S. National Highway Safety Administration has reported a possible 89 deaths due to unintended acceleration.

Nissan recently instigated its own recall of more than a million vehicles in North America regarding a passenger seat airbag problem. Three accidents, no deaths. Porsche has recalled its 2014 911 GT3s for a fire hazard. Two reports, no injuries. Recalls may be a painful admission, but this is how you do it.

GM had been on an upswing, but the post-bailout honeymoon is most assuredly over.

The car Judge Judy was debating was not on the initial recall list from GM, but has since been added as the list expands – it currently stands at 2.6 million vehicles. A lawsuit in California aims to prove that GM’s “own engineering documents reflect that the defects transcend just the ignition switch and also include the placement of the ignition switch.”

Manufacturers of all stripes owe consumers better. This is about to get ugly. There will be years of excuses and legal manoeuvring as people are reduced to numbers and points on a graph. I’m eager to hear more than “we’re sorry.”

But I can’t help but hear an oft-repeated refrain from the no-nonsense judge on my television: “If it doesn’t make any sense, it’s a lie.”

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