Gas prices bring plenty of complaints but little change from consumers

Drivers still opting for larger trucks and SUVs despite climbing fuel prices

Originally posted January 9, 2017

If I’m asked for advice about buying a car, I offer up one suggestion first and foremost: buy the car based on the whole price, not just the monthly payment. Now, I’m adding a second caveat to that: consider how much a tank of fuel might cost in that car within the range that fuel costs can fluctuate.

Of course this is about recent jumps at the pump. But there have always been increases in taxes, gas-jackings at long weekends and tragedy pricing whenever there is an oil spill or fire that oil companies seem uniquely good at pimping for a silver lining. Drivers are junkies, and they know it.

I have a lot of young people in my life, many commuting in transit-challenged areas for school to keep housing costs down and to jobs that get shifted on a whim. They know exactly how long a tank of fuel will last in the real world, and plan their do-not-overinflate budgets accordingly.

Speaking of the real world, I don’t know anyone who trusts the stickers in the car windows with fuel economy numbers; I know I don’t. We’ve been promised they’re getting better, and some are, but until they provide closer to actual, on-road usages, I continue to use them as a relative measure rather than an accurate one. You can compare them against each other, but not against actual performance. Much of that depends on how and where you drive, as well as the time of year. It only takes one harsh Canadian winter to have people crying fuel foul.

But consumers are a complicated lot, according the Automobile Protection Association (APA). “They respond one way in surveys and act another when they get in the showroom,” APA president George Iny explains. Over and over, they say they want fuel economy but ever increasing fuel prices do little to dampen their enthusiasm for buying bigger and bigger vehicles.

The same way consumers psychologically adjusted when the price per litre for gasoline broke the three-digit barrier, they have now apparently adapted to ever-increasing terms on loans. Taking five years to pay off a car was once the outer limits for average buyers; the introduction of 84- and 96-month terms should be a warning signal, not an invitation to buy more car than you can afford.

Will the latest round of fuel jumps change anything? John Raymond, a long-time industry consultant now with the APA, doesn’t think so.

“SUV sales will not change, except for some buyers converting to CUVs. Pickup sales will not change unless incentives dry up. People are tired of traditional three-box vehicles [sedans], that game is over. Hatchbacks are making a comeback, especially if they are two inches higher off the ground and have plastic appendages. Sports cars will continue to be making little more than a blip on the sales charts, because you get crazy performance from sport SUVs and premium cars today.”

If Raymond is right – and I think he is – ask yourself something as you go to purchase that SUV tomorrow. If a tank of fuel costs $75 and gets 600 kilometres, are you prepared for it to cost you $80? $90? More? Or will you simply believe that Canadians are somehow being punished more than other countries for exercising their right to drive comparatively huge vehicles?

As I write this, the average cost of gasoline around the world is $0.99 U.S./litre. On the chart, Canada sits at $0.95 U.S./litre, well down from Hong Kong’s $1.93 and places like Iceland, Norway, Israel, New Zealand, Italy and Greece – all commanding eye-popping prices. Historically, the higher the prices, the smaller the average cars on the road.

Maybe Canadians haven’t gotten the message because it’s never really been sent.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Car safety systems still can’t replace a competent driver

Electronic safeguards such as automatic emergency braking do help, but they can’t be relied on in every situation

Originally published January 2, 2017

I reported recently on Aviva Canada’s decision to lop fifteen per cent from the car insurance rates of car owners who purchased a vehicle with automatic emergency braking (AEB). More car makers are offering this system, along with its sister, front collision warning (FCW). Their names explain the difference: one is a warning, while one actually applies the brakes in the event a driver is facing impact and not reacting. The warnings are abrupt and jolting, as they should be; the challenge facing manufacturers is to keep the false positives down so that drivers don’t tune out the warnings. It’s a work in progress.

I was driving the 2017 Infiniti QX30 AWD a couple of weeks ago. It was equipped with a technology package, which includes forward emergency braking. It would qualify under Aviva’s advertised rate reduction. I drove home near midnight as a winter storm started kicking up its heels, sleet and snow blowing on the highway and making it slick. It wasn’t newsreel worthy footage, just enough to be flying out of the dark to sticking to the car and coat the road.

Within ten minutes of hitting the highway, I got a notice on the dash that the system was currently unavailable. It remained unavailable for the duration of my ride. What’s important is that I was notified; what’s also important is that as more and more technologies like this come into play, drivers are going to have to be more engaged in the act of driving, not less so.

I consider lane departure warning (LDW) and blind spot warning (BSW) systems both a blessing and a bane. I call them text assist, because I’ve seen too many people texting away, their car happily keeping them between the lines like bumper guards at a 5-year-old’s bowling party. We also have inadvertently created two generations of drivers who seem to think shoulder checking is for the other guy: new drivers who trust the technology too much, and those drivers – frequently older – whose physical limitations mean many can’t turn their neck. Yes, placing your mirrors correctly can greatly improve your visibility of your surroundings but shoulder checking should never go away.

Uber has admitted in its self-driving car testing that bike lanes are a problem for the cars. They make a “right-hook” turn without checking for cyclists; if they admit a problem, I’d propose that other systems are experiencing the same issue. Cyclists are agile and quicker than pedestrians, often less predictable, and anything operating autonomously has to be safe for all road users, not just drivers. The functions we currently are seeing on the market – FCW, AEB, LDW, BSW – are all steps in the march toward automation. The fact they can be imperfect or compromised is a given, but the fact drivers may believe they are not is a problem.

An industry legal insider told me “basically, all of the existing technology (camera or radar based) have limitations due to contamination, mainly snow or ice. While not documented, I’d think heavy salt accumulation or excessive dust would similarly affect these systems, with camera based systems more prone to degraded operation. Also, camera based systems can be blinded by sunrise/sunset conditions.”

If you have a backup camera on your car here in Canada, you know it is rendered useless throughout much of the winter. Even though makers are working on recessing the cameras or covering them, our extreme weather can compromise even these protective mechanisms. The salt and brine and beet juice they use on the roads here in Ontario sticks like glue to the underside of our vehicles. It doesn’t take long for a camera lens to look like it’s been smeared with Vaseline, if you can see anything at all.

So how can something like an insurance company trust in the tech enough to offer up such a large deduction? A combination of two major things. Those warning signs I received put the onus back on the driver (though it technically never left), and even imperfect technology is better than what most drivers are doing on the road today. We should see all OEMs with systems that will warn a driver if a system is blocked or degraded below some threshold, even if only for liability reasons. We’ll no doubt see a court tested scenario sooner rather than later if a safety system is documented not operating without warning.

For all the discussions we had in 2016 about autonomous cars – and it felt like every discussion was about autonomous cars – the fact remains we’re still going to need competent, trained drivers for years to come. Don’t let the advertising on your new ride convince you otherwise.

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Ten achievable New Year’s resolutions — for your car

Here are a few things you can commit to achieving with your car in 2017

Originally posted January 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

Doing your own oil change can be an easy task – if you prepare before hand and take the proper precautions.
Doing your own oil change can be an easy task – if you prepare beforehand and take the proper precautions
Eat better. You know your own body runs better when you’re feeding it well. Do the same for your car. If your car requires high-octane fuel, don’t cheap out; beware of second-rate parts that appear to save you a few bucks; keep your windshield washer fluid topped up all year ’round, and don’t let your fuel tank get below half in winter.

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

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

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

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

Before you put pen to paper on your new car purchase, think long and hard about everything you’ve agreed to. There is no cooling off period after the ink’s dried.
Before you put pen to paper on your new car purchase, think long and hard about everything you’ve agreed to. There is no cooling off period after the ink’s dried.
Learn a new language. Your car is probably capable of a lot of things you don’t know about. New technology is changing so quickly, even a car a couple of model years newer than your last one will have a whole new cache of fun features. Spend some quality time with the manual and start experimenting. If you’re not tech inclined, recruit someone who is. Once you’ve dialed in your presets and finally understand all the GPS pathways, physically learn about your car somewhere you can play with the stability control and different engine settings.

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

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

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

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Emissions regulation slips through the cracks when it comes to recalls

Luckily, Bill S-2 proposes some changes that can fix a few of the holes – some, but not all

Originally published December 19, 2016

If there are outstanding recalls on your car that pertain to its emissions systems, you won’t find them on the Transport Canada site where you find the other outstanding recall information after punching in your VIN. So when you buy a car, you won’t know if it needs hundreds of dollars of repairs to its exhaust or engine until you visit the obligatory emissions test – repairs that could have conceivably been dealt with by a manufacturer-covered recall.

Under our last federal government, it was decided that emissions-related issues should be ferried over to a different department: environment. Even though those systems are, you know, attached to your car. The proposed legislation before the Senate that I wrote about last week would correct this. It’s another reason this Bill S-2 is important. We need one central real-time look-up for vehicle recall information.

The good news? The government has finally announced a date to drop the Drive Clean test fee in Ontario. As of April, consumers won’t have to fork over the 30 bucks it now costs (+HST) to get the mandatory emissions testing done every other year on cars over seven years old. The decision to cut the fee was announced nearly a year ago, and many drivers have been grudgingly paying for the required testing, wondering when the government was going to make good on its promise.

The bad news? The bad news is something you probably have no inkling about. You know when you are dutifully checking out the Transport Canada website for outstanding recalls on a vehicle? You’re doing your due diligence, chasing down all the loose ends but guess what? If there are outstanding recalls on your car that pertain to its emissions systems, you won’t find them on the Transport Canada site where you find the other outstanding recall information after punching in your VIN.

Everyone dreads having a failed emissions test, mostly because, “but the car runs just fine.” It’s a grudge match between consumers and the government. But what if, in some cases, a manufacturer was offering a fix and you just didn’t know about it?

Emissions testing is a prickly issue. If your engine light is on, you will not pass an emission test. Period. But sorting out why the light is on can be difficult or easy, expensive or cheap. There. That clear anything up?

That engine light on can refer to any part of your emissions system, and also many parts of it. Once it’s on, it can be layering in codes and faults. Everybody likes to find out it’s just because the gas cap wasn’t screwed on tight enough; nobody wants to hear they need a new exhaust system, though that can be the range of problems indicated by that little amber light.

At this time in Ontario, if you want to register a vehicle that has not just been purchased new, you need an emissions test done. Even if that car is less than seven years old. Even if that car is a demo on the dealer’s lot. You can see why it’s a hated test, though it was brought in by a conservative government and maintained by a liberal one, so unsurprisingly, politicians of all stripes have come to appreciate the money it tosses into the pot.

There are definitely reasons to question the usefulness of a system introduced in 1999, before vehicle manufacturers were producing the cars they currently are, with vastly improved emissions. Most vehicles pass the test (about 95 per cent by latest figures), and the real polluters – those vehicles pre-1987 – are exempt. More notable is the conditional pass: If the charges to repair your vehicle will exceed $450, you can get a conditional pass and theoretically kick the can down the line another two years. So, your polluting beast, the reason the program was ostensibly set up in the first place, gets to keep chugging along spewing out emissions for another two years. It’s like knowingly putting the wrong person in jail.

But back to how that recall legislation could help. Bill S-2 would provide a real-time, all-make website that would allow you to check for open recalls on your own vehicle or one you were considering purchasing. At this point, there’s a podge of information available to consumers, with Canadian law requiring manufacturers to contact by snail mail the original owner at their original address, and there ending their responsibility. That works well for those who buy a new car, keep it forever and never move, but it hardly suits the needs of many, many car owners.

Making emissions-related recalls part of that central system is important, and highlights why the patchwork system we have on all recalls isn’t good enough, especially surrounding the selling of used vehicles.

When Ontario Environment and Climate Change Minister Glen Murray announced the end of the Drive Clean fees for April of 2017, he also announced the government would be able to take advantage of new technology on as many as one in four cars that could send the required information directly to the government via telematics. For anyone who just knitted their eyebrows a little, get over it. Your car is already squealing on you to so many people you might as well get used to it. Tracking its emissions is almost quaint.

I took exception to one part of the Minister’s statement, however. Through the fabulousness of this snoopy tech, “we’re hoping within a year or two that people will not have to go to a garage at all,” he said. I understand his sentiment, but I’m not thrilled with the delivery. No matter how smart your car gets, it still needs a set of real eyes on it twice a year.

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Proposed bill aims to give Canada teeth when it comes to recalls

Country currently relies on the U.S. for recall governance, but Bill S-2 would let Canada force automakers to comply

Originally published on December 12, 2016

There are millions of cars on the road with open recalls on them, work unperformed because nobody is taking responsibility for ensuring the work gets done. Ontario missed a good chance to mend that hole in the fence – to search for open recalls – but failed to do so, when it overhauled its safety standards in July of 2016. Now, we have a chance at a federal solution for actually using our laws to stop everyone evading responsibility for such a fixable, yet dangerous, problem.

The Automobile Protection Association (APA) and the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) have joined forces recently to propose some important changes to the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, now before the Canadian Senate Transport and Communications Committee. Going directly to the Senate, rather than the usual House of Commons route, is an encouraging sign. Changes are long overdue, and consumers need to be aware of what these bodies are hoping to achieve. The Act is much like a house built in the 1960s, according to APA president George Iny, and sorely in needed of renovation.

The official words are, “Bill S-2, An Act to amend the Motor Vehicle Safety Act and to make a consequential amendment to another Act,” but there are important things here for Canadian consumers. Our existing safety standards regarding vehicles are more outdated and flimsy than you might think. Manufacturers are obligated through American legislation when it comes to things like recalls and service bulletins, but Canadian law has no such teeth. Bill S-2 looks to provide that legal bite.

We ride on the American coattails. We benefit from this immensely, but there are important gaps in the system. Presently, a car manufacturer is only legally obligated to send you a letter, by regular mail, to tell you your vehicle is dangerous. The Bill S-2 will toughen up not only a framework that simply doesn’t work anymore, but ask for sanctions that can be used against manufacturers who duck and weave or simply evade supplying needed parts and repairs.

According to Iny of the APA, the highlights for consumers are thus:

Manufacturers to offer real-time recall look-ups (a pre-condition to eventually getting the provinces and dealer regulators to ask dealers to perform recall checks).
Ability to fine automakers using administrative penalties instead of taking them to court (which Transport Canada never does); this would allow penalties against companies that routinely screw up their recalls, delay their recall repairs or send notices to the wrong addresses.
Ability to name a monitor to go inside the automaker and implement a better safety culture; this happened at GM in the U.S. after the ignition failures.
Canada finally gets real recall powers, rather than the current Notice of Defect, which is a letter telling you your vehicle is dangerous; this would help in the small number of situations where the NHTSA in the U.S. won’t act but Transport Canada wants to.
You should be able to look up your vehicle identification number (VIN) in a central place and find out in real time what outstanding recalls it may have. Manufacturers should be transparent with this information, they should be required to make repairs in a timely fashion, and Transport Canada should have the legislation in place that it needs to make this happen.

The meeting before the Senate Committee saw representatives from the Canadian Vehicles Manufacturers’ Association (CVMA), Global Automakers of Canada (GAC), Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association of Canada (APMAC) and the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association (CADA), along with the APA and CAA. Getting all the main players there is vital to getting movement on issues that directly impact consumer safety; it needs buy-in at all levels.

There were some stutters; the CVMA somehow thinks dealers should be footing the bill for some outstanding recalls, which makes no sense. You don’t buy a new car from a flea market; the manufacturer bears responsibility for providing a safe, warrantied product. The CADA wanted some kind of offer of compensation if cars in dealer inventory are tied up waiting for warranty parts, which is unlikely.

Canada has long benefited from the fact that car manufacturers have usually used a continental approach to recalls and repairs. Because we buy the same vehicles that are sold in the U.S., their larger and better-funded safety structures keep Canadian consumers safe, too. But relying on another country’s structures for something this important can make complacency dangerous. If there are shifts in regulation or oversight, it makes sense for Canada to, essentially, grow up and create its own template for consumer safety.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Mastering the not-so-festive dance of Christmas mall parking

No one likes to be there, but these tips can make finding a spot a bit more tolerable for everyone

Originally published December 5, 2016

Decorations are up and Christmas music is playing in almost every store you visit; yup, it’s that festive time when when you’d give your kingdom for a parking spot and people consider causing bodily harm to others to celebrate the season. When you do have to make the inevitable trips to the mall for gifts (or even just deodorant and toothpaste), just make sure you don’t give away your self-respect, your health and your ethical centre while you’re at it. Here are a few tips to navigate parking lots in the festive season.

Never take a handicapped parking spot unless the person the tag belongs to is shopping. Never, ever, ever. You will go to hell if you do this. Do not leave a person with mobility challenges in the car like a placeholder while you take advantage of that sticker. When you get to hell, the waiting room will be full of people who have done this. Their number will never be called, so they will essentially spend their eternity in a waiting room in hell.

Stay out of the electric car charging spots if you’re not charging your EV. I don’t care if you think EVs are some communist plot against the eternal combustion engine; there will come a time when those charging stations will be a little further out from the main doors and not seem like such a perq. Flipside, if you’re charging your Leaf and you’re shopping for a long time, go take it off its umbilical cord and give someone a shot at those limited spaces.

The pregnant/little kids spots are up for grabs. I don’t take them, but I don’t care much if the unpregnant/child unencumbered do. Your level of festiveness may vary with how many times you’ve circled the lot.

If you are retired or have a flexible schedule (like say, a freelance writer) stay out of the malls after 6 pm and on weekends, if you can. This is the only time those with rigidly structured days can get there, so take pity and clear the runway. And, to be honest, if you don’t have to be there at those times, who would want to be?

Enter that parking lot with an open mind. Be relaxed. Assume you will be here for a long time, not a good time. Head to the back of the lot, no, farther, nope, a little more, there. It’s a nice night for a brisk walk.

Every time you shrug off that someone stole “your” spot, an angel gets its wings. Every time you honk your horn, an angel has its wings plucked off.

Back into your spots. I don’t do this at grocery stores because I need to access my trunk with a shopping cart. But it’s a safer option and you can probably get your bags in your car, and minimize the risk of hitting someone or something as you pull out. People are stupid in parking lots, in the dark, in a hurry, at Christmas. You still don’t get to hit them, and you’d feel really bad if you did.

Use your signals.

Appreciate that others actually don’t have any idea how long you’ve been waiting for a spot, and aren’t zipping into one that opens up to spite you. At a deli we all have a number; in a parking lot, it’s law of the jungle.

If you’re heading to your car and you notice you have a parking stalker, creeping along in their car and waiting for your soon-to-be vacant spot, let them know you’re about to weave through six lanes of parked cars and they’re free to follow you. Also let them know if you’re just dropping things off and are going back in for Round Two.

Some places have concierge parking services. Use it if you can afford it and consider it the gift you give yourself. Because they used dedicated lots, it also takes one more car from the general bedlam of the main lots.

If you have to make a call or a text, please, please do it in the mall before you leave. The passive aggressive parking spot squatters are worse than parking spot thieves. Getting in your car and having a twenty minute conversation at this time of year is, of course, your right. It is also rude. There are actual studies that show people take longer to exit a spot if they know someone is waiting for it. The studies were done before cell phones, so I wish someone would update them because I guarantee it’s gotten worse. We’re better than this. Aren’t we?

If your blood pressure is climbing, pull away. Seriously. Extricate yourself, even if you’re “right” from anything contentious. Another loop of the lot is better than confrontation. Several people were shot over parking spots in the U.S. during Black Friday sales. I never thought I would live long enough to write that sentence. Then again, there are many sentences I thought I’d never write regarding the U.S.

Or, do what I do. Stay home and order online.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Planning for your retirement – from driving

With our skills diminishing as we get older, being proactive will put the decision in your hands, not those of someone else

Originally published November 28, 2016

Have you planned for your retirement from driving?

Not as crazy as it sounds, and yet, something few of us consider as we age. “We think about RRSPs and pensions and living arrangements, yet few people plan for their retirement from driving,” explains Tim Danter, a driving expert from Oakville, Ontario. As owner of a Drivewise school and head instructor on TV’s Canada’s Worst Driver, he’s seen it all.

The result of that lack of planning can be devastating to individuals, stressful on families and have catastrophic results on our roads. The law can stipulate ages or incidents that will trigger a retesting. In Ontario, if you have an at-fault collision after age 70, you could be required to take the G2 exit test – the one with highways. If you’ve never done a road test since the one you did at perhaps 16, this is hugely stressful.

At 80, you will be required to do a written test that looks for cognitive lapses. In addition to a vision test and watching a 45-minute video to update general information and new traffic laws, you draw a clock face and you cross out all the “H”s in a block of print. You can see these tests in advance online. They are not testing your ability to cram for an exam; these are scientifically vetted ways to test cognitive function. It’s like measuring your height: You are what you are, and you can’t fudge it.

Draw the clock face, cross out all the “H”s, and you’re good. Fail to do so, and the Ministry could be requiring further medical information from your doctor and could require a G1 exit road test – the one that doesn’t have highways.

An Ottawa reader, Des Gurnett, contacted me in the summer, understandably upset. He was 90 years of age, had a perfect driving record, was active and involved in his community and family, and had somehow, on the required written test, missed an entire row of “H”s. He was upset with himself but angry at the system. Now he had to go through all the hassle of a road test.

I asked him to consider it an opportunity rather than a punishment. I told him we all have lapses as we age, and our bad driving habits become ingrained long before 80, or 90. An independent assessment can do a number of things:

  • Tell you in an unbiased way those things you need to improve.
  • Remind you that driving is a privilege, not a right.
  • Show you many tiny changes you can make to be a better driver, such as seating positions and mirror settings.
  • Remove the burden from your family, where this discussion often becomes adversarial and emotional.
  • Let you know if it’s time to hang up the keys.

We’re not going to see regularly mandated retesting of drivers in any province anytime soon. It takes political will, and seniors vote. Virtually everybody considers it insulting being told they need to be retested for that which they consider themselves to be competent (or excellent). No politician is going to put him- or herself in that particular line of fire. The fact that the medical community notes 10 per cent of the population experience mild dementia by age 65 means a 15-year gap until any testing is done here in Ontario, with similar timelines in other provinces. That’s a huge gap.

The American Automobile Association is even more pointed: “Seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of seven to 10 years.”

Which brings us back to Danter’s central point: How are you planning for your driving retirement? Many of those seniors continue to drive into that seven- to 10-year gap because they have made no plans to not be driving. This is a family and community issue, not simply a personal one. We need support in place to keep seniors driving safely for as long as possible. What does he recommend?

  • Plan ahead. Don’t wait for a government-mandated age to assess your skills.
    Make an appointment with an approved instructor (check your provincial website, such as the MTO).
  • The cost for an hour should be around $75. A written report will cost a little more, and you might need a few lessons. They’re worth it.
  • Keep in mind if this sort of evaluation is ordered by the Ministry, the costs to you could be considerably more, in the $500-600 range.
  • If you do fail the written test as my reader did, you can take the road test as many times as you want, and there is no cost. But to do this without some outside assistance would be a bad idea.

Des from Ottawa is a convert now. I recommended professional assistance to him, he sought it out and ultimately passed his test with no problems: “I would do the same thing again. Seniors should always get professional help as it points out many areas that you imagined you knew. As we grow older our skills diminish without us really being aware.” Keep your mind open, like Des did.

Plan your driving future so you can control it.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Teaching (and learning) the art of the manual gearbox

Patience is the key, no matter what seat you’re in

Originally published November 21, 2016 (with video)

There has been a steady, notable decline in young people bothering to get driver’s licences. That’s a fact bolstered by insurance surveys as well as manufacturer’s own studies. And while there has also been a large drop in the availability of manual transmissions for several decades now, I have anecdotally noticed one thing: many of the kids who do have and want their licences also want to learn to drive a stick shift.

Like most things in life, being able to do it doesn’t necessarily make you able to teach it, and this is very much a two part equation: learning to drive a manual, and teaching to drive a manual. I believe anyone can learn the skill, with enough practice, but I’ve heard too many horror stories to believe that just anyone can teach it.

For the student

There are some great graphics you can find on line that show exactly how a clutch works. It’s not about making sure someone could pass a mechanic’s exam, it’s about envisioning what is actually taking place as you depress a clutch and select a gear.

Seating position is always important, but it now becomes critical. Your left foot has to be able to fully engage the clutch without reaching. You also can’t be sitting so close you’re tempted to ride the clutch. Spend a few minutes getting into the right seating position.

The type of vehicle you learn on matters. Stiff clutches are difficult for those mastering the skill, and slushy shift patterns lead to panic when you can’t find a gear. The 2017 Honda Civic Hatchback we were using for this piece is great for teaching, with its light clutch and precise shifter; a rumbling muscle car can simply be overwhelming. A note on that Honda: the company reckons about 10 per cent of its sales go to manual transmissions, which is more than double the industry average. And for anyone who thinks learning is of little use, figure that if you rent a car in most European countries, it will nearly always have a stick.

No radio, and throw out the phone. Even if you’ve been driving for years, learning a manual requires concentration and focus. I like a window open so you can hear as well as feel the engine. After a while, that tactile connection with the car is second nature.

You need a closed course, or as close to one as you can get. I learned going round and round a cul de sac, but a near empty parking lot will do.

Be cool. Seriously. Take a deep breath, acknowledge that this is going to take some time, and accept that everybody – everybody – stalls. Everybody. The fact you want to know how to do this means you have an interest in being a better driver, a more engaged driver. You can get the basics down in a couple of hours one afternoon, but the magic beans point of engagement is driving a car with a stick shift for one week, every day, before it starts to feel like a logical extension of yourself. That, you can’t do in a few hours, and mastering any new skill takes time. Give yourself time to improve, and get back on the horse every time you stall.

For the teacher

Remember what you’re asking learners to do: start using their left foot in synchronicity with their right hand, while still maintaining the throttle and brake, steering and being in command of all that is going on around them. You’re adding a lot of things to the existing act of driving that so many of us do reflexively.

Isolate those movements at the start. Have the student first work through the gear pattern on the stick shift. Start the engine. Keep their right foot off the throttle. Tell them to engage the clutch and put the car in first. Slowly release the clutch so they can feel the car start to move forward. At a few kilometres per hour, have them put the clutch back in and shift to second. Again, no throttle. As the transmission reaches for its base RPM, the speed will pick up. You can work through all the gears this way, at low speeds what don’t require the fuel pedal but won’t stall. Let your student get a feel for the clutch and shift movement without worrying about the throttle.

As you add in the throttle, admit that getting it into first is the toughest. Have them stall on purpose so they get used to that shuddering halt. Face their fears with them.

Never raise your voice. Seriously. If you’re a yeller, don’t try to teach someone stick. You will rattle them for a long time, and may even keep them away from the skill forever. And it is a skill, and it does take practice. Nervous drivers are dangerous drivers, so you are teaching confidence along with the mechanics. Admit if this isn’t you, and find someone to teach in your stead who is.

When a student is ready to venture out onto a (quiet) roadway, remind them where their hazard lights are. In the event of a freakout, better they warn the cars around them. Explain repeatedly: when in doubt, clutch down, or in. Everybody is terrified of stalling. Tell them with the clutch in, this likely won’t happen.

When you’ve successfully taught someone to drive a stick, remind them to tap the brakes even if they’re gearing down to warn those behind them that they are braking.

The first thing my most recent student said to me was, “I’m so busy, I could never be eating or have my phone on.” She’s right. We may be chasing the manuals to extinction but it’s at the same time that texting drivers are killing actual people off. Too bad, that.

For anyone who has been scared away from learning because of an impatient teacher or an onslaught of nerves, just remember: your failure to learn is my failure to teach.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Don’t persecute the tinkerers, celebrate them

Do they make your neighbourhood ugly? Maybe, but they also make everything work again

Originally published November 14, 2016

Sometimes people work from home. Maybe you have no idea this is so, if it’s someone like me who quietly types in my kitchen and is only handy for receiving must-be-signed-for packages when you’re out. But maybe it’s something a little more visual, more in-your-face. Maybe someone has a few cars scattered around the yard, and maybe this is against local bylaws. Or maybe they just have one old car that hasn’t moved since Winston Churchill was in power, and you would like it gone.

I’ve been following the legal unfolding of such a case in Harbeson, Delaware (population: 973), where a local man has built an admittedly large (over 1,900 square feet, or 178 square metres) four-car garage, complete with lifts. The owner is a gearhead who now uses a wheelchair, and he lets his friends wrench in the space and he also does work for others – and doesn’t charge them. So of course his neighbours are suing him, and a judge just batted that out of the sky like an anti-aircraft missile.

This little story from a little town is actually much bigger than some bickering neighbours putting their snouts into another’s business, and it’s bigger than whether your idea of neighbour beautification involves more tulips than steel. This is about the contributions we make to our communities, and the respect we hold for those who aren’t just like us.

If you’re lucky, you have someone in your loop, either socially or geographically, who can fix things. I had Geoff Penney, one street over, who no doubt would have ended up facing down the lawyers of those Harbeson, Delaware, crankyfaces if they’d been his neighbours. The Penney house is on a beautiful street, a real estate hot spot, and his drive usually sported several vehicles in various states of repair. His garage was a catacomb of many eras, a maze of the unknown to the untrained eye but a bonanza of riches to Geoff.

Geoff Penney

As housing prices started to climb, we’d often wondered who would start the ball rolling to get all lawyered up to strip Geoff down. But time and again, nothing happened. I’d heard there had been rumbling years before my time, but nothing came of them. Because it wasn’t just that Geoff could fix old cars, it was that Geoff could make a house call and fix your fridge, that he could get you going on that snowy morning when no way was CAA gonna get you to work on time, and Geoff could unbreak the lawnmower your kid broke by running over something that to this day he won’t admit what – the kid, not Geoff.

Geoff was never without a rag in one hand and a wrench in the other, and conversations moved with the grace of an expert juggler. He could add in one, then two, then three people, all while fiddling with a chainsaw or peering into the back of a clock that had mysteriously stopped ticking off the moments.

He was fascinated by machinery, and it spoke to him. With Geoff, you didn’t have to “just go buy a new one,” anathema to anyone who has respect for quality craftsmanship, a hard-earned dollar or endless landfills. We need the tinkerers, the fixers, the engineers, the craftsmen and the mechanics. And we need these people so we can learn, or at least respect that which is growing scarcer every year.

We diagnose our cars with computers now, or perhaps more aptly, we diagnose our computers with computers. We’ve lost at least a generation of handing down the tools and the knowledge that did far more than change oil filters and swap out winter tires. We’ve lost the time and the stories and the bonding, between parents and children and between neighbours, which went with the territory of that guy who could fix everything and took as much delight as the doubting owner when something dead sprang back to life.

There is a middle ground between rusted out hulks littering the landscape and a landscape for learning and fixing those things that are broken. Just like all that glitters is not gold, all that waits patiently for repair is not rot.

Geoff Penney died suddenly just over three years ago. I knew then it would be a tremendous blow for his family and friends, but the loss to our little community continues. So here’s to the fixers and the engine whisperers who live among us and support their communities in ways we sometimes forget to value in our rush to scrub this up and wash that down.

As for that judge in Harbeson, Delaware, somewhere Geoff Penney just pulled the cap off a beer for you, sir. Thank you.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Saving lives is more important than blaming “petextrians”

Instead of buying into the blame game, we all need to take responsibility for each other’s safety – and, of course, our own

Originally published November 4, 2016

This week, Lorraine Sommerfeld and David Booth found themselves at odds concerning the announcement about a new system by Ford, which can detect and warn a driver of pedestrians distracted by their phones – or, “petextrians.” Lorraine gives her argument “for” here, and you can follow the link at the end for David’s alternate viewpoint.

“I believe he was actually on that damn phone, because that’s all he had in his face was that damn phone,” he said. “I believe he was looking at it and tragically walked in front of a vehicle.”

This sentence is breaking my heart. Not because I knew the family of a young man killed as he crossed a busy undivided highway near my city, but because his father painfully, but immediately, sought to lay blame not on a motorist, but on his own obviously beloved son. Sometimes people we love do dumb things. And sometimes it ends tragically.

Many collisions between cars and pedestrians or cyclists go unreported, including those that happen on private property, such as parking lots; that skews statistics. Most of us see dozens of people texting and walking every day, which makes our anecdotal knowledge feel stronger than the fact that the majority of pedestrians in Toronto (Pedestrian and Cycle Safety Report) – in fact, 67 per cent – had the right of way at the time they were hit; the vehicle had the right of way only 19 per cent of the time.

When cars meet pedestrians, regardless of who is at fault, it is the pedestrian who pays the biggest price. Always. Same with cyclists. Yet it remains a loaded conversation to have, as if ascertaining blame could somehow change physics. With drivers being increasingly distracted, pedestrians have to remain more vigilant; instead, campaigns to increase pedestrian and cyclist safety end up with one side blaming the other, and injury and fatality rates that remain stubbornly unacceptable.

Available statistics about car/pedestrian collisions can be twisted and folded a thousand ways, but most fail to recognize the fact that we do not have roadways, nor a car culture: We have a transportation system, and that transportation system encompasses those who walk, cycle, use mobility devices, drive, ride motorcycles or jog. That’s a lot of demands to place on a system, but no one life in that system is worth more nor less than another.

Inattentive pedestrians are a problem; jaywalking pedestrians are also a problem. But if 67 per cent had the right of way when hit, it’s wrong to keep solely blaming pedestrians. The weather is a huge factor, too, as witnessed by a recent dark, rainy October day when 18 pedestrians were hit on Toronto streets – one fatally. I shudder when I realize someone completely shrouded in black is crossing a street in front of me at night, and I have no indication they are even there. Sure, reflective vests look dorky, but looking dead isn’t a good look for many, either.

We know the slower cars are going, the far greater the safety of pedestrians. Last year a Toronto Board of Health study announced a person hit by a car going 50 km/h has an 85 per cent chance of dying; a car going 30 km/h cuts the risk to five per cent – so many jurisdictions are dropping speed limits to 30 km/h. That Toronto report also shows that the majority of collisions (54 per cent) take place on major arterial roads, those with 60 km/h posted limits. The next largest group is the minor arterials, at 34 per cent, with posted limits of 50 km/h. I am not a fan of artificially slow speed limits, including the recent rush to drop most inner speed limits to 30 km/h. Pedestrians are at their highest risk (69 per cent) in an intersection; we need to address crossing behaviour on both sides of the equation. And while the highest incident of collision occurs in intersections, the highest rate of fatality occurs mid-artery: jaywalking. Cars have gathered some speed, and these are not the streets that are already at 40 km/h (now 30 km/h).

It’s easy to blame young people for texting and walking, though studies now show that drivers who text and drive cut across many age groups. And pedestrians over 65 are over-represented in fatality rates, comprising just 14 per cent of the population yet showing up as half the deaths. Seniors are more likely to have cognitive issues, to move more slowly and to have a harder time recovering from injuries. Our population is aging, and pedestrian injury and death has to focus not just on school zones, but all our residents.

Toronto Police Traffic Services recently did an education blitz warning pedestrians that they aren’t to enter a crosswalk when the countdown indicator has begun. I read a lot of yipping about that, but I’ve been totally unable to turn at a light countless times because the crosswalk is always full of pedestrians regardless of the light cycle. Some cities are removing turns – both right and left – from their major downtown arteries to prevent the constipated results of cars unable to make safe turns.

Ford recently announced its newest people saving technology, Pre-Collision Assist with Pedestrian Detection, which will no doubt bring the Darwinists in swinging. It will detect people walking with their nose in a phone and warn the drivers with literal bells and whistles, and if that driver doesn’t respond, the car will brake itself to avoid the collision. Frankly, after Ford announced its intent to move to fully automated vehicles by 2021, announcements like these will be coming forward faster and faster; they’re simply part of the mechanisms that will be in place when there is no driver at all, not necessarily as a must-have feature to help you kill fewer people. This kind of tech is about not needing a driver rather than needing to warn one.

People on foot and on bicycles or any other device are part of our transportation system, as surely as any motorist. We have to do a better job at preventing metal from meeting flesh, but it’s going to take solutions and respect from all players. Drivers can’t rely on their car to warn them, people on foot need to be visible and aware and everyone has to know the rules aren’t just for everyone else.

See David’s opposing viewpoint at “Petextrians” proving Darwin right

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments