Tempting fate with a low fuel gauge? It isn’t worth it

The fuel range readout says 47 km, but the next gas station is 60 km away – do you forge ahead or turn around?

Originally published: September 7, 2015

If you use a navigational system when you’re driving, you’ll know that it tells you the time of your arrival. It factors in the speed you’re travelling as well as the distance, and sometimes even traffic conditions. A joke making the rounds recently on social media indicates most of the people I know consider that time not a goal, but a challenge.

Every time you manage to shave a minute off your ETA, you get a cyber high-five from the GPS Fairy.

Something similar happens with another gauge many cars have. It tells you how many kilometres you can travel with the fuel remaining in the tank. This is a terrific safety feature, once only the province of higher-end cars. I wish I’d had this when I was younger, because if anyone needs a how-far-can-you-go-without-sputtering-out gauge, it’s people who consider filling up a tank a luxury. There were many years I’d 20-buck it and hope for the best.

I pulled out of my cottage early one morning last week and glanced at that gauge: only 47 kilometres. I hadn’t driven the car last, so I hadn’t noticed. I tend to keep it topped up when I’m out of town because gas stations can be a little random once you leave the major routes.

Cottage country entrepreneurs here in Ontario have become quite prescient at opening establishments that city people flock to as they pretend they’re getting away from it all. Where we stayed when I was a kid, it was nearly an hour to a town of any size, and the village that was closer had a typical general store. We couldn’t even rely on getting our Archie comics from the nearby shop; it opened whenever the owner felt like it, which wasn’t often.

Now, you can get designer coffee and endless antiques within a 15-minute trek. You can also get booze as restrictions relax and allow the tiny local stores to carefully check I.D. as grateful cottagers choose between Coors Lite and the only red left on the shelf. I’m happy I don’t have to wander far except by choice, but I do wish someone would put in some gas pumps.

I stared at the 47 on the fuel gauge, and did some math. There are a few stations within that distance and I knew it, but they were the wrong way. I’m not sure how to best explain this, but I was raised with a near-pathological dread of wasting gas by travelling the wrong way; backtracking to get gas on the way home is like petting a cat backwards.

My father – the same one who was strangely OK with Sunday drives to nowhere that lasted hours and formed much of the narrative of my childhood – refused to waste gas on frivolous things. If he’d had his way, we’d have driven to the cottage, never left it for weeks and then coasted home on fumes. Instead, my Mom would take us driving all over the place – something she called fart-arsing around – then gas up and just not tell him.

I know for an actual fact that the next station directly on my route home is nearly 60 kilometres away. I remember watching a movie over 30 years ago called Blue Thunder; it starred the cop from Jaws playing another cop because he does it so well. All I remember is a segment where they’re taking a police rescue helicopter out on a practice run, and to make it interesting they fly out across the ocean until they have just under half a tank of fuel left – less fuel than it took them to get out over the water. To this day I can feel that dread even though it’s just a movie, and of course they’ll make it back because you can’t kill the guy who killed the shark. My gut does a funny little clutch that anyone would think this could be fun.

I stared at my fuel gauge and wondered if I could Blue Thunder it.

I know that number is based on averaging how the car has been driven thus far; I know there are variables you can muck with, like how fast or slow you drive. I know you can actually “earn” some kilometres back in a game related to shaving time off your estimated arrival on the GPS. I also knew it was 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning and if I miscalculated, I’d be stranded in the most isolated part of my drive for the stupidest reason.

“Have you ever seen the movie Blue Thunder, officer?”

I backtracked up the highway to the nearest gas station. Sorry Dad, I’ll have a chat with the person who left me on 47.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Eating in the car can be a real handful

You can tell a lot about a person by the junk they’ve left behind in their vehicle

Originally published: August 31, 2015

I drove a minivan a few years back that must have had 16 cup holders. Seriously: everywhere you looked, cup holder. Flip the seats forward, more cup holders built into the backs of those seats. In the doors, in the armrests, in the sides of the cargo areas. This vehicle was practically screaming for people to eat, drink and be merry within its confines.

And yet I know some people who will make a face if you reach for a Lifesaver when you’re in their car. Different strokes, it would appear. If you’ve raised kids, you’ve picked Cheerios and fishy crackers out of some very strange places in your vehicle. The first time I removed a car seat, it was like going on an archaeological expedition to recover all the crud beneath it. I admit to not being especially fastidious, mostly because there is little I wouldn’t do to shut up a tiny yelling machine being held hostage in a four-point harness.

Some vehicles, like that minivan, use up so much valuable real estate to accommodate the travelling food network, you have to wonder how it was ever conceivable we could drive more than 15 minutes without eating or drinking. Others, like Porsche, supply the most feeble cup holders ever built, creepy little E.T.-like appendages that, if you can actually locate them, will make you wonder if Porsche is actually German for “you will never drink coffee in this car.”

There’s actually a good argument for not drinking coffee in a car. I worked for a carpet cleaning place once upon a time, and it’s one of the Deadly Stains. Coffee, like herpes, is forever. I also hate any pop or juice because the sticky goo it leaves behind embeds change and crumbs. Water bottles that seal tight, I tell the kids — and so I find those rolling around in the back like unnecessary ballast.

You leave food in your car at your peril during a Canadian summer. Temperatures rocket (as I learned the very hard way), and if you didn’t have the good sense to eat that winter emergency chocolate bar by March, you could find an unpleasant surprise. Actually, I do put a little chocolate in the car each fall like the experts tell me to; I usually eat it by the second day.

I travel for hours in a car sometimes, and I’ll one-hand a burger on occasion, though I prefer not to. There is driver-friendly food, and there’s the rest; if it slips, drips, oozes or requires two hands, it isn’t going to end well. I eat a lot of apples. And almonds.

You can spread a bed sheet across two kids in the back seat and they’ll manage to spill just outside it. Whoever invented a juice box with squishy sides probably should be arrested by the parenting police. But forget the kids for a second; on more than one occasion, I’ve seen someone eating a bowl of cereal as they drove. A bowl of cereal.

A friend dated a guy once (and only once) who showed up in a car so full of garbage, he had to sweep free an area for her to sit down. It was like the man’s entire culinary history was in that car; it’s bad enough to see a dozen burrito wrappers amidst pizza cardboard, but by the time you’re looking at cigarettes stubbed into a Coke can, I’d say the date’s not going well.

My Dad didn’t like us eating in the car, though looking back I think it had more to do with: if they drink something, they’ll have to pee, and if they have to pee, we’ll have to stop. We’d go to our local A&W drive-in once in a blue moon (the last one closed in 2000 in Langley, B.C.) and think it was the height of coolness to eat our burgers off our laps. Of course, there were no cup holders in a ’66 Rambler, so we’d balance what we could, usually unsuccessfully. Funny to think there was a time that eating in your car was considered special.

How does it work when you share your vehicle? Your spouse considers the car an extension of his or her kitchen/wardrobe/living room, but you detest clutter. Or maybe you have your own cars but occasionally trade, and you sit behind the wheel in dismay.

A couple of years ago I had a team of first responders cut me from a demolished car. It was planned; the car had been donated after a bad crash. I remember looking around at the detritus of whoever had owned that car – the lip balms, the spare change, the Timmie’s cup, one sneaker, pens, CDs, candy and gloves – all left behind as a mute reminder that the junk I haul around might, horribly, relay who I am.

Clutterbug? Slob? Particular? Just a little OCD? You can tell a lot about someone from what they haul around in their car.

What does your car interior say about you?

Posted in Drive She Said | 5 Comments

Want to talk to your kids? Stick them in the car

The car can be a sanctuary for a busy family – a place to just sit, talk and learn about life as the world passes by

Originally published: August 24, 2015

We spend a lot of time offering tips and tricks for travelling with kids, but we should really spend time talking about something that matters far more: driving with kids.

I’m not a fan of yellow triangles and baby-on-board bumper stickers, but we really are carrying precious cargo even as we do the school run or try to get to practices. The family vehicle might be the single best place to talk to your kids, when you’re all held captive.

Oh, I know – the advent of cellphones, earbuds and infotainment systems bends my argument, you’re thinking. But those are really nothing new; my two had Game Boys 20 years ago, and I used to bury my nose in a book 20 years before that. Distractions aside, the fact remains that until they’re off driving on their own, this is probably the closest you will be to your kids when they can’t run away. Use it. Use it wisely.

It’s been suggested the loss – or lessening – of an entrenched family dinner time has weakened the bonds, or snapped the anchor, of the modern family. While I agree that how we work and interact may have shifted, I also believe families don’t have to follow some strict archetype to be successful. My dad worked shifts for 24 years; that was hardly an anomaly. Was it easier because my mom had dinner on the table every night? Sure it was. But while raising my own two boys, I realized the time we spent in the car provided just as many connections.

I used to let them listen to whatever radio station they chose, mostly because I wanted to know what they were listening to. I’ll never forget Ari, about four at the time, singing away to Bon Jovi in the back seat. At the chorus, I glanced into the rearview in time to see him pointing his two pudgy fingers right at me, singing, “Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame. You give loooooooooooove a bad name.” His dad and I had recently divorced; I tried not to take it personally.

A lot of good conversations happen in cars. Teens especially are easier to talk to when they don’t have to look you in the eye. Sometimes they don’t even have to be taking part to be avidly listening; sometimes those earbuds aren’t blasting away as loudly as you think.

Children learn as you ferry them about. They learn how to drive by watching you drive, and they learn how much patience you have – or how much you don’t have. You can teach them basic courtesy from an early age, from something as simple as allowing pedestrians to cross, not honking at everything that doesn’t go your way, or leaving a note if you clip a car in a parking lot. If the radio is on, a lot of topics come up. Some of those topics are embarrassing, but I’ve always had a house rule: if my kids are brave enough to ask me something, I have to be brave enough to answer.

That captive part is a two-way street. My then 7-year-old decided the car was an excellent place to discuss sex. He and his younger brother were horrified to realize I’d not only done that with their father, but that I’d done it twice. And this was after I’d given love a bad name.

Having a Bluetooth connection might let you get a jump on your work day, but I suggest you don’t take calls while your kids are in the car. When you’re on a phone or laptop, at home or on the road – talking, texting, Twittering, Facebooking, socializing or working – you do not get to count that as time spent with your kids. They know exactly where your attention is, and it isn’t with them.

Engage them; don’t start your to-do list while they’re still in the car. I don’t say that as some bossyboots who doesn’t remember toddlers freeing themselves from car seats or sullen teens insisting they could be staying home alone. I say that as someone who finally recognized, with a little patience on my part, that the car could be a crucible every bit as important as sitting down for half an hour every night at the dinner table.

Youngsters need you to filter the world for them. They want to ask why that man is dressed that way or why that girl is yelling. If you’re on a call, they see these things and then they’re gone, and so is the opportunity to find out how they’re interpreting the world you’re propelling them through. Teens want to know you were a teen once, when Grandma first let you drive or why Uncle Alex isn’t allowed to.

Your connectivity shouldn’t start with the technology in your car. It should start with the people in it.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

How to get cheaper insurance for your teen driver

There’s a cost benefit to enrolling a child in a Beginner Driver Education school, but make sure it’s government-approved first

Originally published: August 17, 2015

Is there any way to get your kid’s car insurance rate down? Do you really have to pay someone else to teach him or her to drive?

If you have a new driver in the household, you’re aware their insurance rates, unless tethered to a family policy, will be costly in many parts of Canada, especially Ontario. There’s good reason for that: insurance companies use statistics, and statistics show new drivers cost the most in injuries and damage. Inexperience bundled with overconfidence (or timidity — both are bad) means insurance companies have to prejudge.

Beginner Driver Education (BDE) schools tout that their training will qualify a new driver for a break on rates. Some insurance companies will issue a flat percentage savings; others will credit your newbie’s time behind the training wheel at an accelerated rate, thereby jumping the experience line. It’s usually worth having the training, even if Junior can already drive and pass the test. Check with your company for the incentive; the government does not guarantee that securing driver training through even their accredited schools will guarantee a discount on your insurance. That is entirely dependent on the insurance company, so check in advance. If your child is away in residence, find out if you qualify for a reduction on your policy for that time. Some companies require the school to be 60 kilometres from home, others it’s 100.

It’s important to know your Ministry of Transportation accredits the BDE you’re considering before you hand over your $600 to $1,000 bucks. Taking a few in-car lessons from Uncle Jack’s Teach ‘Em to Drive won’t save you a nickel. Ontario also keeps a list of enterprises specifically not endorsed, featuring some names that are rather benign (Ontario Driver Education) and some that might raise an eyebrow (Amigo Driving School and Mr. Learn to Drive). Do not assume the signs in their windows or advertised endorsements are for real. Check the updated government websites. Also be leery of individual instructors who, though sometimes affiliated with larger facilities, work independently (a nice way of saying under the table) for in-car instruction.

In Ontario, “a ministry-approved BDE course must have a minimum of 40 instruction hours, consisting of 20 hours of classroom instruction, 10 hours of in-vehicle instruction and 10 flexible instruction hours.” Schools must apply to be recognized, and according to Bob Nichols of the MTO, the Ministry reviews their application, inspects their premises and facilities and makes a final decision. Course providers are inspected every three to five years, and the ministry can audit at any time, usually based on complaint.

In a time of graduated licences, most insurance companies do not charge for adding your beginner driver (G1 in Ontario) to your policy. They’re in the phase of their driving career where a fully licensed driver must be beside them. But make sure you contact your insurance company to have them named on the policy. Know that infractions they incur even as beginners will count against them. Graduated programs specify the wait times moving from one level to the next; accredited training can shorten those times.

You might notice advertisements or people who write in these sections recommending Advanced Driver Training, Car Control Schools or Collision Avoidance Sessions. They are often put on by some of the major manufacturers or independent instruction companies. Usually comprised of a one- or two-day session, the good ones feature a combination of in-class and in-car instruction that provides intense one-on-one work on closed courses, with much time spent learning to handle dangerous occurrences in controlled settings. They provide skid pads to test braking on wet pavement, they can mimic road hazards like black ice, and they teach a driver to maintain control — such as, what to do in the event something flies off the truck ahead of you. It’s called advanced training, but if you ask me, it should be required for all drivers.

These courses aren’t represented on the Ministry-approved instructors list. I understand the 40-hour formula, but I also know my sons have learned more in those intense days of training than they ever could in a standard setting.

Tim Danter, an instructor who owns an Oakville Drivewise and works on the television show Canada’s Worst Driver, agrees they have a place. “I am of the firm belief that courses such as these and driver improvement programs should be considered for some compensation on insurance, if done right. Meaning, to keep your qualifying discount, drivers take some type of course (pass it legitimately and not just show up) and then to keep qualification of discount it must be successfully passed every three years. It would promote safer roads and have an impact on insurance claims and crashes.”

Danter’s school is ministry approved and adheres to the 40-hour formula; he also recognizes the value of advanced training, and not just for new drivers.

It’s tough to ask people to fork out the amount for a BDE course for their kid and then to pay a similar amount for advanced training. I recommend they do it anyway, and I recommend they do it when their young driver has had their full licence for a year or so. By that point, they’ve encountered a variety of real-life situations and are beginning to adopt some bad or dangerous habits. I also recommend Mom and Dad periodically take these courses as well. They’re actually a lot of fun, and you can always make it a birthday or holiday gift. Yes, it’s still a lot of money, but it’s probably less than the deductible you would pay out for a collision you’ll be taught to avoid.

We’re quick to add up the savings benefit of taking beginner driver education, but what about the safety value? MTO data related to the BDE program indicates a positive effect on young driver safety. According to the ministry, young drivers (aged 16 to 19) who completed BDE were 60 per cent less likely to be suspended under the Highway Traffic Act or Criminal Code of Canada for traffic violations than those who did not take BDE.

What about crashes? “In terms of collision involvement rates, given crashes are rare events, there is little difference between crash involvement rates for those who took BDE and those who did not.” So get them into BDE to learn sound basics and rules of the road and to save on insurance.

And then consider advanced training. It won’t get you a break on your insurance costs, but it might end up saving something far more valuable than money.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Hit a car and thinking of running? Shame on you

A message to parking lot hit and runners: you are contributing to everything that is wrong with the current state of the world

Originally published: August 10, 2015

Every time you scrape, scratch, dent or bash another car and take off, you are contributing to everything that is wrong with the current state of the world. Think I’m exaggerating? To knowingly damage something and then ignore and deny it is the basest of human failings. You inflict costly damage, shrug and drive off, leaving behind the mess for someone else to repair. It’s like a federal government abandoning protections of national parks and waterways and pretending nobody will notice. But I digress.

There are some who admittedly wouldn’t notice another ding on their car, another scratch in a paintjob already littered with insult. But for many of us, a car remains a rather large representation of not just significant outlay but a point of pride. You probably didn’t drive home in your new (or new to you) ride thinking, “I can’t wait for my first smash!”

Repairing is an expensive business these days. Remember when you could bang or buff out many low speed transgressions? Body techs will tell you most times that paint meets paint, you’re looking at a grand – on both sides. Do some bumper damage and possibly factor in costly sensors now located just beneath. The Highway Traffic Act stipulates that if damage exceeds $1,000 police must be notified; I find this confusing because few of us are qualified to glance at wounded metal (or composites) and know how much it’s going to cost. You are obligated to report the incident to your insurance company within seven days if you intend to make a claim.

If you’ve been the victim of a ding and dash, you can call your insurance company and report it. Without the details of the guilty party, you’ll pay your deductible on the repair and it might impact your rates. If those involved have a huddle and agree not to contact their insurance companies, keep in mind that doesn’t mean they won’t go and do it anyway. That seven-day window can produce a lot of conflicted emotions, especially by the innocent party. It’s a gamble agreeing not to report: someone’s guarantee to get your car fixed is based on two strangers not knowing the extent of the damage. You might be imagining the dealer you always use fixing the damage; they might be imagining their cousin Bob.

You hear the sickening grind and in that instant, you find out what you’re made of. I think instead of personality tests that corporations and dating sites use, they should just ask what you do when you’ve caused damage to another. Maybe I’m a little too Pollyanna, but there are currencies other than coin and my integrity is worth more than what it costs to rectify a mistake I make.

Maybe you look around first to see if you’ve been seen. Go ahead, but trust me: in this day and age of cameras everywhere, you’ve been seen. Everybody has a camera in their hand; every building has a camera perched outside of it. Maybe you keep going pretending it didn’t happen. I met a guy once who took pics of cars parked around him before he walked away. Overkill? Sure. But you never know who you’re dealing with.

Maybe you blame the hitee’s parking job. Perhaps, but you are supposedly in possession of all your faculties and are under legal obligation to control your vehicle, period. If it’s not safe to pull the move you just did, too bad. You chose the action, you deal with the outcome. If you seriously did not see the car there, you are not in possession of all your faculties. Please hang up your keys.

Maybe you’ll hop out and proceed to leave a clever note that reads, “Anyone watching thinks I’m leaving my information but I’m not, sucka,” but that just makes you an ass, and not a particularly witty one. And in the time it took you to do that, three people snapped a picture.
Or maybe you do what I did a few decades ago as a new driver. I snickered the fender of an adjacent car with our huge station wagon in a busy parking lot. Terrified, I crawled away and circled the block before coming back. Hands shaking, I saw the victim fuming and a police car show up. I hung back for a minute, listening to the irate driver. I couldn’t stand it. I ventured forward and told them I’d done it. There was a stunned silence before the cop said, “Would you like to press charges?” and all I could think was, “Press charges? What? I’m doing the right thing, how could you charge me?” But of course I’d only sort of done the right thing. There were no charges, though there were some tears. I called my Dad, who I was far more scared of than any charges. The man got his car fixed and Dad made me pay half. Two lessons were learned that day: I never hit another car and my parents realized they had passed a very big parenting test, albeit in a roundabout way.

And that is what this is ultimately about. It’s about doing what’s right because it’s right; it’s about realizing you will remember that scrape three decades on, and it will be a litmus test of who you really are. I don’t have a spare $800 and getting involved with insurance companies is rarely a great experience. Flip the scenario around and recognize how grateful you are when someone else does the right thing, and every sense of decency it reinforces. Being responsible starts somewhere.

I don’t embrace any religious context here, but if this is the moment in your life you choose to use your karmic Get Out of Jail Free Card, I sincerely hope you have smooth sailing from here on.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Emotional intelligence makes more harmonious roads

We’re on the road together, so it pays to make the community work

Originally published: August 3, 2015

A dialogue between drivers takes place on our roads, and it’s often caustic and fraught with anger. We can wield our cars like weapons — or shields — the latent bully in too many of us grabbing the wheel. Maybe it’s all the congestion we face, the heat, or maybe it’s the expectation of negative outcomes from bad responses. Anyone driving faster than me is reckless; anyone driving slower is a fool. Driving is too interactive not to make quick judgments because my safety depends on your predictability.

Like most people, I think my responses and decisions are the correct ones though I always suspect that every car contains a story. Each fall in late October, I drive down to Keene, New Hampshire. They have a Pumpkin Festival that I use as an excuse to visit a friend, carve a jack-o-lantern and drive across New England during its prettiest time of year. There is also something great about driving alone for eight hours at a time with little traffic and less obligation.

A few years back, I headed down in a blazing yellow Ford Mustang Boss 302. For this trek, I usually try to get something that best combines a quiet ride with great fuel economy. This Mustang was neither, a fact it took me two seconds to get over. It would cut a noisy streak across the blank freeway, the glorious autumn backdrop sparing a repetitive chain of coffee and gas stops from becoming an asphalt grind. I never hooked up a phone; conversation over that exhaust would be exhausting. Instead, I ruminated and thought how I had nobody to appreciate that Dwight Yoakam’s drummer kept exactly the same tempo as that Mustang’s wiper blades. When you drive alone you get to discover things like that.

On the return trip, the roadway was bare. Wide open spaces that swirled through New Hampshire and Vermont, encouraging a heavy right foot because who could resist? In time, I noticed two other cars experiencing what I convinced myself must be the same seductive force — a new BMW Z4 and a slightly older Porsche 911. And for two memorable hours, we choreographed an unspoken dance. Keeping each other within sight, we took turns spending 10 or 15 minutes out front, setting a pace that allowed all of us to tick up the speed within bounds of the conditions but above those rigidly posted. Sparsely populated freeways tend to see fewer police and a ticket would be justified. We shared the risk until we parted ways, a nod to competent drivers in capable cars.

I’ve remembered that afternoon because it was a rarity. In the muddled mess of construction and congestion I encounter heading north in Ontario, it’s the opposite. When you spend several hours on the same stretch of road as other cars, you get to know each other no matter how hard you pretend not to. You can speed up to cut in front of me as a lane reduction looms, but if we’ve been side by side for an hour, we will be beside each other again. I know this and I’m going to let you in; we don’t have to make eye contact to be courteous, and we don’t have to make eye contact to see each other, either.

Clusters of cars on long trips are temporary neighbourhoods. Maybe your stick figure family tells me a lot about you; maybe it’s the bikes and kayaks you’ve tied on board. What you’re hauling — or not — separates the cottagers from the campers and the commuters from the tourists. I can tell if you’re lost; you can tell if I’m late. You might wonder why there are bags of garbage in the rear window of my SUV; it’s laundry, though after that time Dad threw out the wrong bag, you’d think I’d have learned my lesson.

I know if you’re angry, like one Honda Odyssey driver I shared a couple of hours with recently. You didn’t want anyone ahead of you, but speeding up to only slow down just tops up your anger. While the rest of us had settled into the heavy, though steady, summer traffic, you couldn’t seem to pull away nor drop back. The rest of the neighbours were getting along, but not you. You had kids in the back, and I wondered if you thought about what you’re teaching them. This is one lesson I learned from my Dad that I haven’t forgotten.

I pulled over for a coffee, Mr. Odyssey. Stressing over your stress would be like setting my next-door neighbour’s fence on fire; for better or worse, as go the drivers, so goes the neighbourhood.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Are road tolls the solution for our traffic woes?

Applying tolls to highways or bridges can be tricky — and they don’t always work

Originally published: July 27, 2015

Ask not for whom the road tolls … it might be tolling for thee.

Annual polls often rate Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal as the worst congested cities in North America. It’s the usual combination of too many cars, overwhelmed or non-existent transit, and a failure at all levels of government to make hard political calls. You can get from here to there, but it’s gonna take you forever.

A Trent University professor started thumping a familiar drum recently, declaring it time for Ontario to jack gas taxes and start tolling some major highways. But is this the answer? Vancouver instituted tolls on its Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges to offset the cost of building them; instead, both bridges face annual losses totaling nearly $120 million. Vancouverites already face the most highly taxed gas in the country; not sure I blame them for crowding onto a “free” bridge to get to work. Or try to.

London, England instituted congestion tolls over a decade ago to much hue and cry, though ultimately, most consider it a success. Paris, France, facing horrendous air pollution levels from congestion, banned even numbered plates for a day. A single day. Officials yelled, “mission accomplished!” though it’s doubtful. For 10 years now, they’ve debated banning older vehicles and banning diesel vehicles, and while the city provided free transit on its experimental no-car day, it recognized the staggering costs of keeping that carrot in place.

Mostly, Paris has a mayor who is embattled with various environmental ministers and nobody seems to be reading from the same play book. In fact, to even get that single day, the French President had to step in and rule against his former girlfriend — the environment minister. And to think all Toronto has to deal with is a former mayor who openly admits he misuses HOV lanes by keeping an eye out for the cops.

I live about 50 kilometres outside Toronto; I used to say a “half hour” drive, but that’s just crazy talk now. On the odd occasion I venture downtown, I need anywhere from one to two hours, factoring in rush hours that build and crunch for three hours and frequently merge in the middle. Are tolls going to add another layer of hurt?

The latest figures from Stats Canada (2011) reveal that 74 per cent of us drive a vehicle to work; 83 per cent of that number drive alone, and the remaining 17 percent carpool. In heavily built up urban centres, it’s the commuters who are creating all the traffic tangles and all that pollution. The desire (or necessity) to work in urban cores but not (or be unable to afford to) live in them means an endless daily trudge for millions of Canadians.
A Golden Gate Bridge toll-taker collects a toll from a customer in this file photo. Canadian jurisdictions are considering a wider application of toll roads.

Governments are struggling with aging infrastructure that too often receives costly emergency repair instead of more affordable on-going maintenance. City coffers are struggling with a recession that looks like it’s moved into the guest room and has no intention of going anywhere. Governments spend a lot of money on city planners and staff who tell them what they don’t want to hear – that sewers will cave and roads will rot and more people will be using them – and politicians shelve the reports because they haven’t figured out how to deliver bad news and still keep their jobs. It’s cheaper to order another study and kick the can a little further down the road.

I’ve interviewed groups who make carpooling work, but it relies very much on people who live in close proximity to each other who also work in close proximity to each other who don’t mind being trapped in close proximity to each other for their daily drives. We treat our cars as an extension of our homes, and for many, that cocoon of silence or talk radio is sacred. For others, shift work or family concerns make it nearly impossible to factor yet another moving part into the equation.

Car manufacturers are tasked with making vehicles that get increasingly better fuel economy and do less damage to the environment. They’re holding up their end of the deal so well we’re buying more cars than ever; gas prices may rise, but ever optimistic, we grumble and absorb the bump in our budgets and carry on. It’s an argument that chases its own tail. If I were still driving the vehicle I was driving ten years ago, I’d be monitoring my fuel usage far more closely. Instead, my current ride gets about thirty per cent better fuel efficiency. It’s not that people don’t want to do the right thing, but we change when it becomes more painful not to change.

Politicians and anyone who cares about the environment want drivers off the roads, but most of us are just trying to earn a living. Instituting gas taxes and tolls generates more money from an angry electorate, but predicting that income is tricky; if it works and people drive less, less money comes in. See: Vancouver bridges.

Tolling major routes pushes traffic onto secondary arteries. Never underestimate the ability of some portion of the driving public to see a toll booth as a challenge. With housing costs soaring in several of our major centres, we’re inevitably punishing those who have to commute, not only those who choose to.

When I travel through the U.S., I pay tolls all over the place. I also see a population that has factored those tolls into their daily drive as surely as you factor in your daily coffee or Sirius Radio. If you toll it, most of them will still come. We only change when the alternative is more painful.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Who do you call if your new car is a lemon?

Sometimes, car purchases don’t always go as promised. Here’s how to set things straight when that happens

Originally published: July 20, 2015

The number of “lemons” on the road is often still batted around at 10 per cent; that’s unfair and dated information. George Iny of the Automobile Protection Association (APA) stresses the number is actually closer to one per cent. That doesn’t mean only one per cent of cars will experience some issues, but that more like one per cent are actually lemons in the way most of us define the word: a car that is beyond saving.

Last week I discussed a persistent myth surrounding new car purchases, that there is some kind of legal cooling-off period where we get to change our minds. There isn’t, and we don’t. You sign that contract, you’ve purchased that car. You can’t change your mind on any of the extras you agreed to in most cases, either.

Canada doesn’t have so-called lemon laws. The U.S. does, though they vary from state to state. In Canada, there are layers of consumer protection that you can access if you have problems with your vehicle or the dealership itself. The Federal Office of Consumer Affairs (OCA) lays out the law surrounding the Consumer Protection and Business Practices Act; Ontario and Alberta have more specialized organizations in Motor Vehicle Industry Councils: OMVIC and AMVIC, while British Columbia has the Motor Vehicle Sales Authority (MVSABC). These are funded by consumers – you’ll see a line on your sales contract that says “OMVIC, $5.00” in Ontario. Five bucks from each purchase stakes the Council which investigates dealer practices, issues warnings and hands out fines, or even suspends dealers.

In Ontario, Alberta, or B.C. you call OMVIC, AMVIC or MVSABC if you find dealers misrepresenting themselves, running fraudulent ads, or lying to consumers. These organizations run independent investigations – monitoring ads and practices – as well as respond to individual complaints. They even determine if the cars actually exist in those too-good-to-be-true ads. Consumers have a reasonable expectation of the featured vehicle actually being available to purchase at the advertised price; it often isn’t, but getting you into the showroom was always the intention. It’s a common tactic. A recent AMVIC investigation turned up some terrible numbers; 22 of 35 new dealers shopped in Calgary were not in compliance.

Advertising is a perennial sore spot in the industry. To cut through some of the noise, four provinces (Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta) now require dealer advertising to post all-in pricing; only Quebec requires manufacturers to also post all-in pricing. This means the advertised price has to include everything except tax and licensing. No admin fees, no certification fees, no protection fees. Most dealers adhere to the law, but others don’t. In those provinces, if the price advertised in the window, in the paper or online doesn’t match what you’re quoted for the corresponding vehicle, call your provincial consumer advocate.

So, you’ve had a good relationship with the dealer and you’ve got your new car. What do you do if trouble sets in? First, go talk to the service manager at your dealership. Be as specific as you can about your complaint. Does the noise occur only when the engine is cold? During a turn? At what speed? The more information you can provide the better. I recommend using your dealer for scheduled maintenance at least during the warranty period. You build a relationship here, and you’ll have someone to go to bat for you with the manufacturer should problems arise. You are required to have held up your side of the equation – maintenance – when it comes to warranty issues.

It is important to contact them sooner rather than later; with warranties ticking away, you want a paper trail of when you started addressing it. Go online and see if any other owners are experiencing similar problems (I just Google make + model + year + problems). With the U.S. sharing many of the same vehicles, it can help to access 10 times the population of Canada.

Don’t be alarmed by recall notices. Recent devastating losses have made the industry a little jumpy, and some manufacturers are very much playing “better safe than sorry”. Getting ahead of the curve on a potential issue is preferable to pretending it doesn’t exist. If your car is older and you had a problem fixed on your dime that is now facing a recall, contact the manufacturer for recourse. An APA membership ($77 first year, $39 renewal) provides counselling and directions on many issues like this one.

If you have ongoing issues with your new (or newish) vehicle, and reasonable attempts at a resolution have fallen short, you can call the Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan. A national body, CAMVAP is funded by manufacturers, and the service is free to consumers. You can call and speak to a real person. It can give you a voice at the table without hiring lawyers when your efforts to resolve a manufacturer’s defect or have a warranty honoured have been exhausted.

CAMVAP requires your car be from the current or previous four model years and under 160,000 kilometres; you can own or lease, it can be new or used but initially purchased from an authorized dealer; it has to be for personal use; you must have provided the dealer and the manufacturer a reasonable opportunity to address and correct the problem.

One thing to consider: in order to bring a manufacturer to the arbitrator’s table, they have to be part of the CAMVAP program. Currently, some manufacturers – notably, BMW (Mini) and Mitsubishi – are not in the fold. CAMVAP can’t help you.

The program says it resolves most disputes within 70 days, far more quickly than a court case would play out. The decisions can range from ordering repairs at the manufacturers’ expense, buying back your car, reimbursing you for repairs you’ve already had done, and possibly helping you recoup out-of-pocket expenses. They could also decide the manufacturer has no responsibility in your case. When you enter into CAMVAP’s program, you sign off going beyond their decision. It is binding.

Most car transactions go smoothly. Car sales are increasing every quarter, consumers have access to more information than ever before, and there are several excellent car-buying services out there if you prefer to let someone else do the negotiating. Cars themselves are more reliable than ever, but know your rights and resources; you can never be too prepared.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Regret the extended warranty? It’s hard to fix costly mistakes

Remember, when you sign on the dotted line of a new car contract, there is no cooling off period

Originally published: July 13, 2015

“When I got home I started going over my new car contract, and I realized that I’m getting an extended warranty I’m not even sure I need. Can I get out of it?”

I get a version of this question every week. It could be questioning a service charge, fabric protection, undercoating, paint protection or many of the other lines of minutiae that make up the densely packed wording of most contracts. I have to refrain from simply saying, “No,” because it borders on being snarky and insensitive, which doesn’t help anyone including a new car buyer who just made an expensive mistake.

That contract is a legally binding agreement. You don’t get to change your mind. You don’t get a cooling off period. If you said yes to that trade-in amount, yes to the upgraded floor mats and the etchings, yes to an electronic rust proofing device that doesn’t work, you have chosen what’s behind curtain number three.

Michael Turk is a lawyer with the Automobile Protection Association (APA), a non-profit consumer association I work with on my TV show. “It remains the question I can count on getting every week, even after years and years of doing this,” he tells me.

I’ve spoken with advocates like the APA, and I’ve spoken with car dealers, psychologists, and market experts. Some emotional switch gets flicked at some part of the process when the pen hits the paper. A salesman will call it “closing a deal”. I liken it to that moment a calf falls over and gets its legs all tied together.
Buying a new car is not a process to be taken lightly. Research and test drive the heck out of any car before signing on the dotted line.

Buying a new car is not a process to be taken lightly. Research and test drive the heck out of any car before signing on the dotted line.
Stock image, Fotolia

Buying a new car can be like standing at the gates of a midway. So much going on, so much noise, so many distractions. Educated consumers have already done their homework – and statistics show buyers are more prepared than ever before – but when the heavy artillery gets hauled out (that would be the airless little room you get stuck in with the financial person) it takes some strong knees not to buckle. Here’s the thing: if you want some of these products and services that are offered, that’s fine. But if you don’t, you shouldn’t be beaten or guilted into submission.

A reader recently contacted me after realizing she’d been sold a third-party warranty on a brand new SUV she’d purchased. She’d misunderstood what it really was, she told me. After she outlined what had happened, I saw why. While the warranty on her new car was excellent, she’d been informed it wasn’t “bumper to bumper”. It was. The salesperson began outlining scenarios that would prove to be precarious: if the backup camera was damaged, it would cost her $6,000 to fix it. I told her if something was faulty, it would be covered. If she sustained damage, that would be an insurance issue. The camera was one example in a long list of fear-based nonsense she was assaulted with. None of it in writing, all enough to make her not only second guess all the research she’d done, but to also suck the joy out of the entire purchase.

Fortunately, the same salesperson had screwed up a number on the contract which delayed the final approval. In the interim, we found a 30-day escape clause buried in the fine (or, finer) print. Turk, the APA lawyer, steered her through the process. I warned her it wasn’t enough to send an email cancelling the clause; she needed proof they’d received it. Turk told her they wouldn’t rework the numbers on the final contact, they would probably refund that portion via a cheque. What took seconds to do will take a few months to undo, and she’s one of the lucky ones.

A new car purchase is essentially two halves of a transaction. The car itself, which seems pretty obvious. It takes a lot of work to make sure you’re buying the best car for your needs both now and a few years from now. It is reasonable to assume that the bulk of your homework should take place here.

The other side of the equation happens after you’ve sorted out the buy. “Let’s just go draw this up!” you are told. You can see the exclamation point. It’s a relief, actually. You’ve finally navigated the reviews, the advertising, the incentives and your brother-in-law’s advice and found the perfect car. Now, all of a sudden that warranty your salesperson was telling you was one of the best in the industry – you know, to make you buy the car – has become one only a fool would trust.

There are times that extended warranties make sense, and you should already know if this particular car or your particular driving lifestyle requires it. Period. Decide ahead of time what path you’ll choose for rust proofing or undercoating (if you’re not sure of the difference, get back to Google): is the factory warranty long enough for you? Could you be having it done yourself for a fraction of the cost? (Yes). Fabric protection might be good if you’re a slob, but know that you can apply any of those products yourself. If you don’t want to, sure, let them. Know that if you have the upholstery cleaned, it removes that protection.

I’m not against salespeople and dealers receiving a fair price for fair work. Anyone who bludgeons a dealer and expects to have an ongoing relationship with them is an idiot. But likewise, any dealer who upsells a customer to the point they’re questioning the entire brand is deserving of every negative stereotype the auto industry pretends they’ve evolved away from. When you sign that contract, you don’t have a cooling off period.

The final word goes to Michael Turk: “I just wish they’d call us before they buy instead of after.”

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Using your car as a taxi? Don’t lie about your insurance

When it comes to working with hire-a-drive services like Uber, you can’t afford to ignore the insurance implications

Originally published: July 6, 2015

Uber drivers can use the HOV lanes,” read the headline. Upon closer observation, the sentence continued: providing they have three or more occupants, just like everyone else. So close, Uber, so close. The trendy hire-a-drive app that puts a car at your fingertips in many parts of the world just can’t seem to catch a break. Does it deserve to?

The Pan Am Games are set to descend upon the Toronto region in the coming days, promising to swirl the already catatonic gridlock further down into the depths of hell. I’m sure more than a few Uber drivers were parsing the fine print that allows taxis and airport limos to use the coveted HOV lanes, now temporarily drawn on an additional 185 kilometres of major highways around the Greater Toronto Area. That’s in addition to the existing 50 permanent kilometres. In the eyes of the law, Uber still hangs in a no man’s land.

This article started out six months ago as a stunt piece: I was going to simply become an Uber driver for a day and report back. A call to my insurance broker simply seeking background information ground that idea to a halt, and fast. Even hinting what I was considering would cost me my private car insurance policy, a risk I can’t afford to take. A quick pivot sent me to Twitter looking for an existing Uber driver who would let me ride along; after an initial encouraging phone call and a few email exchanges, he went to ground, never to be heard from. Guess having his name in the paper was too much of a risk.

News organizations aren’t fans of pseudonyms, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t even get someone to play along with a black bar across their eyes and a voice scrambler. Uber advertises itself as an excellent way to make easy money if you own a car. You must be 21 with a full licence, own a four-door car less than 10 years old, pass a background check they pay for, and have valid car insurance.

Therein lies the rub for prospective Uber drivers here in Canada. “Will any of the described automobiles be rented or leased to others, or used to carry passengers for compensation or hire, or haul a trailer, or carry explosives or radioactive material?” Every insurance company in Canada uses forms that carry some version of this sentence, and if you check “no” and then sign off on the application and then start accepting fees for ferrying people (or pizzas) around, you could be committing fraud.

It’s not that you can’t be an Uber driver and also have insurance; it’s that you can’t lie about it. A recent Forbes survey published in the U.S. found “…while the vast majority of respondents – almost 70% – say they plan to purchase a policy in the future, a disturbing 84% say they do not tell their insurer or their agent/broker about their ridesharing activities.”

Uber outlines how their end of the deal functions: your responsibility is riding on your personal insurance, and if damages reach past your limits, their own insurance will kick in. Uber knows you’re driving for Uber; there’s a good chance your insurance company does not, unless you notified them. And notifying your insurance company of your Uber intentions can work out one of two ways:

  • You call your company and ask innocently if considering being an Uber driver could affect personal insurance. They could cancel your insurance or at the very least start investigating it because now they know what you’re doing or;
  • They can offer to sell you the proper product for what you’re considering, which is commercial coverage. This will be – and I’m ballparking here – maybe three times your current rate.

So, there’s a chance some individuals won’t call their insurance company, and if that Forbes survey is even close to accurate, the chance is most won’t. Who can remember ticking that box so many years ago? Besides, if I start delivering pizzas, I’m hardly going to have to call my insurance company, right? Actually, you are. Your insurer does need to know that you’re delivering pizzas. They want to know if anyone in your household with access to your car is delivering pizzas. Or flowers. Or Uber clients.

It’s not that they’re going to jack your rates similarly for pizzas and passengers. As Pete Karageorgos of the Insurance Bureau of Canada is quick to point out, “Insurers know pizzas aren’t passengers. Our job is to match policy to risk; it’s critical that you inform your provider of any material change to that risk, and be transparent about it.”

If you’re not, you’re swimming in a fraud pond. In the event of a crash, insurers can opt to deny the claim, leaving you at the mercy of someone like Uber’s Internet promises. They could also decide to cover the claim, but then back charge you the premium you should have been paying had you notified them in the first place. I like to complain about usurious insurance rates, especially here in Ontario, but I would be angrier if payouts to drivers using their vehicles commercially are pooled with my non-commercial activities.

A call to police services reveals that cops consider this a matter of licensing unless a driver is breaking the Highway Traffic Act. Constable Clint Stibbe raises an interesting thought, however, as we wind up the call.

“Right now, police cars, rentals cars and taxis that are decommissioned have to be registered with the Ministry so as to be readily and honestly identified to buyers. Where’s the protection for buyers buying a car that hasn’t been flagged but has been used commercially?”

Uber may indeed end up being too big to fail as riders vote with their wallets, and their phones. But until licensing commissions and politicians sort out the fine print, your biggest concern if you plan on driving for Uber in Canada isn’t whether you can use the HOV lanes – it’s whether your insurance will kick you to the curb.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments