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.

Posted in Drive She Said | 4 Comments

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.”

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Can we make drivers to be more considerate? Should we?

Winter storms have left snow piled over the curbs, and swinging temperatures are producing more runoff than the infrastructure can cope with. That nasty swill of water, salt and, in some cases, beet juice, means drivers and pedestrians alike are battling puddles.

The pedestrians are losing.

Cars splash through the puddles, pedestrians get soaked by the waves, their boots, leggings, pants and coats getting coated with muck. The situation this winter leave a question of driving etiquette: heading into a puddle with vulnerable pedestrians on the sidewalk,do they brake on slippery streets, in traffic, to spare the pedestrian, or plow through the puddles at full speed?

Asking around, I was told of passive-aggressive drivers, of distracted drivers texting away and oblivious to the plight of the sodden walker, but also of drivers causing chaos by slowing down too much and too unpredictably. For drivers, swerving and causing a crash is a no-go — it’s like squirrel math: nobody wants to hit a squirrel, but you don’t hit another car to avoid a squirrel.

Some jurisdictions have laws in place to persuade drivers that courtesy is the way to go. In Saskatchewan, Regina and Saskatoon both have a bylaw to ticket the splasher. Saskatoon isn’t messing around with the intentional soakers, either. In a news report, a staff sergeant there pondered if the charge might move it up to assault. Japan calls it ‘mudding’ and you’ll be hit with a fine around $65. Essex police in England charged a man with soaking two school kids, and the case is going to court. The charge was careless driving, but the entire phrase of the law spells it out better: careless or inconsiderate driving.

In Toronto, though, it’s all about etiquette.

How cities contend with winter tends to create or enhance slushy conditions. While in Alberta many streets are sand-coated during the winter, in Southern Ontario the streets become slushy messes soon after a storm.

“Before a storm, we put down brine, a combination of salt and water,” says Peter Noehammer, Toronto’s director of transportation services. “As the snow starts, we hit the roads with salt. It’s about combatting ice. When we get accumulation, then we send out the plows.”

Intersections are especially prone to ponding, as the melting snow accumulates on the lower parts of the pavement. Crews try to clear sewer grates, but it’s been a challenge this winter due to the relentless snow.

The worst part of the splash isn’t the water; it’s the salt that is used to melt it. Noehammer says it would not be financially prudent to have plows running without significant accumulation, and that salt is the most economical way to melt ice.

The risk of car crashes needs to be lessened, and that comes at a cost. Beet juice, actually a byproduct of the sugar beet, is used by the city when temperatures dip to -15, the point at which salt stops working. It’s friendlier to the environment, but costs about four times as much as salt.

Either way, the resulting slush turns into puddles.

Someone suggested that some young guys are purposely nailing pedestrians in a competition, but three teenage boys I talked to denied any kind of points game exists. “You feel bad if [splashing a pedestrian] happens,” says Seneca College student Chris White, “but sometimes it happens.”

In my unscientific survey of 20 drivers, everyone said they try to slow down when a pedestrian is likely to get soaked. Nearly all also recalled being doused as a pedestrian and those memories influence their driving behaviour.

Several noted another motivating factor for braking — there is often a wicked pothole hiding in those puddles.

The miserable result of a winter that never seems to end is a minefield of drenchings for pedestrians. The city isn’t going to stop using salt, and between ponding and the threat of potholes, drivers have few options. That’s bad new for those on foot. Perhaps there should be room in our traffic code for a little more ‘consideration’ of pedestrians.

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Is the auto show the place to buy a car?

Marc Riehm and his wife Anna, looking to replace their 2003 Acura, headed to the Canadian International Auto Show on Monday with a pretty good idea of what they would be looking for, in a new vehicle.

Anna is the commuter, and she wants power. Marc is the weekend driver, and the stereo matters to him. They have a budget of $45,000. Unlike most buyers, they want a manual transmission. When we met at the Toronto Convention Centre, Anna declared: “No North American cars,” but Marc said he would at least be looking at the Cadillac.

George Iny, president, Automobile Protection Association, says a show is a “terrible” place to buy a car, because you can’t get your current vehicle appraised properly, nor comparison-shop between dealers selling the same brand, nor have access to financing options. As I followed the Riehms from one exhibit to the next, it became apparent that a major hurdle in their shopping exercise would be the inability to take a test-drive. With the enormous strides made by the industry in recent years in cars, some pre-conceived ideas can be changed by actually getting behind the wheel.

However, an auto show is a very good place to see a wide range of vehicles. It’s been ten years since Marc and Anna shopped for a car. They paused for only a moment, taking in the shine and energy, before literally diving right in. Anna had doors open before Marc even got to exhibits.

First stop was Subaru, with lots of sticks but not enough horsepower for Anna.

At VW, Anna eyed a Passat. “This is nice,” she said, scrolling down a list of available transmissions. “You’ve got choices.” Marc was checking out stereo systems. .

He got into the driver’s seat each time, she got in the back. With two kids still at home, rear leg room matters.

Anna was ready to skim the Infiniti exhibit, but ended up spending some time with the QX50, happy with the lines as well as the room.

A trek past a Porsche 911 Cabriolet made both pause. “A little investment in your wife’s happiness?” she asked with a smile.

Both like the Acura TLS they were replacing, but locating a standard transmission was presenting a recurring issue: find a car you like the look of, find out it’s not available with a stick. The only car in the Acura space that really drew both was the TLX prototype. With no pricing and a release date in 2015, they moved on.

The Audis beckoned. Both paused in front of the A4 allroad. Both circled it. Both sat in it. Both loved it. “Does it come in a standard?” asked Marc, reading the information sheet. “I’ve given up on that,” sighed Anna. She needn’t have. Audi was offering up cars with manual transmissions everywhere they turned.

Marc had been skirting the BMWs until he heard a stereo thumping out of a M6 Gran Coupe. “Check out the stereo,” he laughed. “Check out the price,” replied Anna. Just over $155,000.

Ready to revisit some domestic product, Marc led the way to Cadillac. As he settled into the driver’s seat of an ATS, Anna hopped in the back. She caught my eye as her legs barely folded in. “I’m only 5’3”,” she said. “No way.”

So where did these two meet up? “An Audi A4 manual test drive is in our future,” said Marc with a smile.

Turns out the auto show is a terrific place to start your search, if not end it.

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The cars and the courtship

The love affair began with a 1939 Buick convertible. The only hitch for Marion Nicholson? Her father bought it for her brother, not for her. For the “car-mad” young woman, it would be the start of a decades long passion for many cars.

When she was 24, she bought her own, a new 1950 Mercury Coupe. “My friend said she wanted a baby, a house and a husband. I wanted an apartment, a fur coat and a car.” She was told she drove like a man, she says with a hint of mischief.

Marion Nicholson is tiny and elegant. She plucks from piles of photos on the coffee table as we speak, 51 years of a marriage with husband Tom before her. Notes in hand, he watches from across the room, immaculately dressed in vest and tie. His attention to detail reveals the engineer he was before retirement, arriving here from England in 1953 with Avro.

Before they met, Tom and Marion were crisscrossing the country in their jobs. Marion was teaching grades one and two before moving into administration, steadily trading in cars every few years, loving both the luxury and the freedom. She ticks through the cars that came before Tom – the Mercury, a 1954 Ford, and the 1956 Buick hardtop she had when she met him.

In 1958 at a dance, Marion says Tom made a beeline for her across the dance floor. Tom mulls over the word beeline. She confirms it was a beeline, and he acquiesces. Love at first sight? “I’d been in love 3 times. From age 20 to 30, I had many romances. But Tom was the last,” she says factually. “I wouldn’t give him my number that night. I thought he was responsible, a great dancer and quite good looking, but he wasn’t sure what his prospects were. He let me talk while we danced. I like to talk while I dance.”

From bits of information that night and a directory, Tom found her number. Mutual love bloomed, their temperaments finding a rhythm that would last a lifetime. “I told her if she wanted to get kissed, she had to quit smoking,” says Tom. Marion quit smoking. “I realized I could always get another cigarette. He saved my life.”

On a trip to Muskoka Sands from Toronto one summer, Tom’s 1955 Ford Fairlane rolled to a stop. “I always had my tools with me, and that car had a straight 6. Very easy to work on. Marion sunned herself on the rocks, and I fixed the car. An hour later, we were on our way. I think she liked that I could take care of things.”

Marion hands me a picture from that trip, the two of them smiling inside a cottage. “He thought something else was going to happen on that trip. It didn’t.”

Any favourite car? “We had a 1974 Ford Maverick. Marion quite liked that one.” Marion gives him a direct look. “A Maverick? My favourite was the first Cadillac we had.”

“But we took that Maverick twice to the east coast!”

“Well, I enjoyed the east coast,” comes the dry retort.

There’s a big difference between a Ford Maverick and a Cadillac. Now long retired with just one car, I ask how they reach agreement.

“I learned long ago it is easier for me to drive an expensive car than for Marion to drive a cheaper one,” he laughs. Unsurprisingly, it is Marion who haggles and buys the cars. She’s itching to replace their current 1999 Cadillac Seville; she’ll likely get her way.

They speak in tandem, yet never over each other. Their words braid around the stories they tell, gentle corrections, tiny asides, patience and passion in equal amounts. “I’m dramatic,” says Marion “and Tom is not. He’s a few years younger than I am. Always go for a younger one,” she tells me quietly. I leaf through a stack of cards. Each one, more than 51 years worth, filled with original poetry from Marion to Tom.

For all the talk of cars and courtship, it’s these words of poet John Newlove that Marion slips to me as I leave:

“…the greatest beauty is to be alive, forgetting nothing.”

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New driver’s test for older drivers. Is it fair? Yes.

On April 21 in Ontario, new changes to the over- 80 licence testing take effect. The new evaluation has a vision assessment, in- class group education, review of the driver’s record and two short exercises, determining if further assessment is required. At 90 minutes, it’s half the time of the old one, and the cognitive tests, with no computer component, are available in advance. No surprises. This new procedure is a far better measure than the previous one.

The two short exercises are the highlight of the new test. Dr. Louisa Gembora, an independent clinical psychologist specializing in rehabilitation is also a driving instructor. “The clock drawing exercise seems simplistic, but it’s…reliable and viable – we’ve used it for many years, providing the evidence to implement it.”

It tests auditory language skills – following instructions. It tests memory, as the individual must exercise visual spatial function. Motor ability is needed for drawing and linguistic skills to draw the numbers. It highlights executive functioning, the need to plan and organize the drawing. Gembora notes it supersedes any language barriers.

“It’s rank discrimination,”

Kitchener’s Tom Trent, 84, wrote to me after the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) announced changes to reassess drivers when they hit 80. Is the government coming after Tom and his friends? Is there a mass movement to strip older driver of their freedom and independence?

There is if you think people whose vision is so impaired they shouldn’t be driving. There is if you believe dementia or failing cognitive skills affect how one drives. There is if you base that movement on cold hard facts according to Statistics Canada: drivers over 70, when you adjust for miles driven, are second in crashes only to those the wild teenage boys we hear so much about. And it’s the seniors who are more likely to die. Choosing to evaluate drivers as they age is evidence based.

My mother passed a crash scene 40 years ago. An elderly driver had hopped a curb and pinned a boy walking by to a fence. The lad lost his leg. The old man was in shock, declaring he’d never seen him, never seen the curb. It was the route I took home from school; my mother kept remembering the boy’s backpack.

Ontario currently requires doctors to report patients they believe impaired by medical conditions or prescriptions that may caused diminished ability behind the wheel. Alberta requires medical exams beginning at aged 65, and anyone can report a driver they believe dangerous. B.C. starts medical exams at 80; Saskatchewan has a gradual delicencing for compromised drivers, based on times driven, distance and time of day.

The AAA in the U.S. says ”seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of 7 to 10 years.” Family interventions are fraught – and fought – with anger. Nobody driving on our roads today would argue we don’t need a better system in place.

The new guidelines come from years of work with CANDRIVE, an interdisciplinary group of researchers seeking ways to keep the elderly driving safely. Brenda Vrkljan, Assistant Professor in the school of Rehab Sciences at McMaster University and a member of the CANDRIVE team, says the ministry is embracing the work the organization does. “We put our best self forward in a test, but cognitive tests like the ones now included will reveal gaps that can be missed. We are constantly looking for evidence based, fair testing that protects individual as well as public safety.” The test determines how your brain is actually working, not how you appear.

There is predictable anger among seniors who mistake a driver’s licence with a membership for life card, or who understandably believe clean driving records speak on their behalf. But studies like CANDRIVE hope to soon have in doctor’s hands a comprehensive, definitive way to take only those who are truly compromised off the road – before a fatal lapse.

I called Tom back, explained the changes, and said the test was a better, fairer judge of cognitive ability, rather than a case of blanket discrimination based on age. He was interested in the explanation.

Discrimination based on age? Yes. But it’s predicated on evidence.

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Ditch the distractions, or end up in the ditch

It’s easy to follow studies, some decades old, which report a disproportionate number of teenagers and young adults who die or are injured behind the wheel. This age group, especially the males, pay exorbitant insurance costs because insurance companies use those studies to set their rates.

Why? Why aren’t we, parents and teachers and regulators, able to get the message across? Maybe because the only way they’d see it is if we texted it, and even then, would they care?

Teens are rarely long range planners. At all. They live for the weekend. It’s the same reason most of them spend their paycheques and run up credit cards when they get the chance. Tomorrow is so far away. At 17, I wasn’t wondering what my insurance rates would be when I was 28. I was wondering if that guy would ask me out, or if I could get an extension on that essay.

Most of them have little firsthand experience with death, close up. Grandparents, maybe, but that’s why it always rocks them hard when one of their own gets killed. It seems every spring you read of a carful of kids getting killed. The air starts getting warmer, the school year is winding down, they’re playing music, and the speed kicks in. These are not bad kids. Searching for a reason why it couldn’t have been your son or daughter is pointless, because it could have been. Teens in cars aren’t holding each other hostage; any one of them could have been driving, and they don’t drive with the intent to kill themselves.

I’ve watched my own two learn to drive. Teens who are driving their parents’ cars often don’t realize how expensive it is to fix even dings and dents. Ontario’s introduction in May 2010 of zero blood alcohol level until age 21 has had the most profound impact on teen drivers that I have ever seen – zero is zero, so they never even risk it. Handheld device laws don’t have the same teeth, and don’t get the same respect.

As crashes caused by driver distraction continue to escalate, you have to wonder: if you wouldn’t let your teen get behind the wheel holding a beer, why would you let them get in holding a phone? And what are they seeing you do?

It would be nice if parents used consequences that were as dire as licence suspensions and high fines. Instead, I’ve seen parents pay to fight their kids’ speeding tickets for them. They do it keep their insurance rates in line, but the message is totally wrong. It’s almost as if the only lesson that will get through to their undeveloped brains is injury or death. All that technology in the car that is saving them is battling the technology that is distracting them more with each model year.

I think driving is the first real power many kids have. Unencumbered by a parent, that freedom alone is power. If the worst thing that has ever happened to you is that some teacher failed you, how can they imagine the enormity of dying in a crash? Insurance companies know that young males are not just more likely to be involved in a crash, they’re the most likely to be killed. It’s very all or nothing. My sons tell me after the fact the places they’ve long-boarded and I just close my eyes. But boats, jet skis, motorcycles – all of it. Risk strapped to a motor is deadly.

We’ve historically pointed the blame at young males, but we’re now seeing a tragic situation of the girls catching up. Girls are more likely to be on their phones – the social component of interconnectivity outpaces the boys.

I think it’s important for people to understand that it’s not just bad kids who drive over their heads. Even the most entry level vehicles are powerful under an inexperienced driver’s foot, and making the thousands of instant decisions that driving requires full and total devotion to the task at hand: driving.

Previous generations learned to do up seatbelts; the next ones accepted strict drinking and driving laws. This one has to ditch the distractions, or risk ending up in the ditch.

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