Bright dashboards and daytime lights continue to fool us

Originally published: September 29, 2014

As cars get more complicated, we turn to car reviewers to help sort out things like if a car that’s been “refreshed” is really much of an improvement. Car enthusiasts read Driving because they love cars, but others will dive in when they need specific information surrounding a car purchase.

The problem is sometimes we need to reach the people who don’t read Driving. People who drive, but are more likely to just turn the key and go. Keeping this in mind, I’m hoping the regular readers will take something I think is important outside of these parameters; we have an ongoing safety issue across most brands and many models that manufacturers refuse to address, so as drivers, we must.

Headlight systems. Too many cars have an illuminated dash even when the headlights are not fully turned on or when the headlight stalk is not set in automatic mode. You’ve all seen a car ahead with no rear lights. It’s deadly, and the driver has no idea they have only their daytime running lights on the front and are invisible from the back. It’s an ongoing issue we all can identify but seem unable to stop.

Daytime running lights have been mandatory in Canada for nearly 25 years. I’m not going to argue about studies that prove they save lives preventing crashes and studies that question that fact; I’ve always believed in full headlight operation anytime I’m driving the car.

Some cars have an “auto” setting. You can engage it and forget it, and a sensor determines when your car should automatically go from daytime running lights to a fully illuminated system, including the rear running lights. Some cars don’t have an auto setting, but you can leave the headlights fully on and they will shut off when you pull the key. And some cars will bong and chime and make you crazy reminding you that you have to shut your lights off.

The problem? In the old days – before mandatory daytime running lights – if you didn’t have your headlights on, your dashboard was also dark. You’d notice you couldn’t read your gauges; you’d pull on your headlights. Problem solved. In too many of today’s cars, that dash is illuminated, you have headlights – albeit diminished – and you think you’re good to go. In cities and highways with lights everywhere, you may not notice your headlights are weak or compromised. These are the culprits.

Here is where I need the car people. Your first response will be to tell me you know the difference between daytime running lights and full headlights. Fair enough. Your car is already in the auto setting, or you already pull on your full lighting harness as a matter or course. But those people you see out there who don’t are people we know. Maybe it’s your kid or your co-worker. Maybe you’ve rented a car with different settings from your own. Maybe it’s your folks who don’t drive at night often. So, do me a favour: ask. Make this one of “The Talks” you have with your sons and daughters and all the drivers in your life. Use your car knowledge and your car interest to extend the message that too many manufacturers don’t think is important enough to fix with a simple harness adjustment that would leave the dash dark if the headlights aren’t fully engaged. Check what the people around you drive, and make sure their cars are on the auto setting if they have it, or remind them to fully engage their lighting system if they don’t.

I would love to give you a list of cars that don’t illuminate their rear ends, but I can’t formulate a comprehensive one because there are too many. Honda and Toyota are prime candidates, but very few brands – Saab and Mercedes spring to mind – are consistent across their model lineups in not being guilty of this. Some Fords do, some don’t. Same with GMs and Chryslers.

We’re heading into winter, and everyone has found themselves up the butt of a car that is unlit. You will be blamed for running into them, but surely we could all do a little better on making ourselves as visible as possible. It’s the responsibility of a driver to know his or her own car and operate it accordingly.

But I also like to think those of us who know better can use their knowledge to keep everyone around them a little safer.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Just call them unmoving violations. These 10 parking gaffes are enough to get the blood boiling

Originally published: September 22, 2014

What’s the opposite of moving violations? Unmoving violations, of course. Call it parking rage, but it’s every bit as real as road rage and, in this age of camera, cameras everywhere, don’t be surprised to see your worst transgressions show up anytime there is an urge for someone to make their passive aggressive point.

Sometimes, while sitting there doing nothing at all, your car can be the source of many people strapping on a blood pressure cuff. If you think you’re immune, consider the following top 10 offenders. Maybe you endure some of these, maybe you perpetuate some. We’re all human, but a little consideration goes a long way on the mean streets.

  • Reading between the lines. It’s one of two things: either you really can’t tell that you’ve parked across the painted line making me suspect your driving ability, or you straddled two spots very purposely which makes me question your arrogance. If you insist on doing a dramatic drape with your car, at least do it at the far end of the lot.
  • Take that, “War on Cars”. When you bought the house, you knew it had parking for two cars. But look at that! You can jam in three, even though you’re hanging over the sidewalk a metre or two! Pavement is made for cars, people. My house, my sidewalk.
  • Just visiting. City planners use words like “density”, but what they really mean is “not enough parking”. No problem; nobody will notice you’ve been using visitor’s parking since you moved in. It’s not your fault you have two cars. Or you can’t carry your stuff far, right? Ask your neighbours who a) pay for their parking spots and b) have to tell their visitors to keep circling.
  • There goes the neighbourhood. Maybe you have lots of space. You know you’re going to get around to doing something with that old Chevy in the driveway. The fact it’s sagging a little more every year and become a local landmark (“take a right at the rusted out pickup”) may not bother you at all, but by the time it’s up on blocks and several generations of squirrels have called it home, it might be time to move it on out.
  • Daycare Drama. Do I care that you run a daycare from your home? Not at all. Do I care that your clients park across my driveway every night for half an hour? Nah, it’s great to have to ask them repeatedly not to do it, and have them take offence when I take offence. Your neighbours aren’t cranky because of a bunch of 3-year-olds; they’re cranky because you don’t tell your clients to quit doing that.
  • Sometimes it’s the act of unparking. You’ve had a fabulous evening with close friends. You’ve probably said your goodbyes at the door, and you’ve even spent another half hour in the driveway trying to tear yourself away. But just for good measure, as the partygoers head out, they’ll tap the horn in a cheery salute. What good friends you have! Who doesn’t love a horn blowing for no reason at 2 a.m.!
  • The Flasher. I’m only going to be a minute. One tiny minute. I’ll just pull into this No Stopping or No Parking zone and pop on my hazards, because everybody knows that hazards inoculate you against tickets or towing, right, officer? Right? Oh.
  • Safe and … sound? I am thrilled that you remember to lock your car at all times. Most crimes are crimes of opportunity, and you’re wise to secure your car even in your own driveway. But you know how every time you hit the lock button your horn beeps? Check out your owner’s manual. You can silence that horn.
  • Bringing home the work truck. Everybody expects some noise on garbage day. Everybody expects noise on construction sites. But when you bring home that work truck, do us all a favour and back it in the night before. That reverse alarm going off at 5:30 in the morning is just rude.
  • Bike lane bandits. The city painted in those bike lanes to make us share the road. You may not like it, but embrace it: it might be someone you love they’re keeping safe. Oh, until you keep parking in them because bike lanes are exempt because you’ll just be a minute. It’s bad enough cyclists have to get around shredder trucks and endure doorings; don’t make it worse by blocking the one small safety feature they’ve been able to wrestle from the “War on Cars” folks.
Posted in Drive She Said | 6 Comments

Targa crash signals end of race, but team still determined

Originally posted: September 18, 2014

The car is a write-off.

It’s not going to take crawling underneath to officially make the call, though of course they will. Mitsubishi Canada has taken a chance on this project, a huge, noisy, ballsy chance, and now the car sits crumpled, it’s carefully chosen stripes and decals torn, its metal obscenely lifted back from the front tires that bore the brunt of the sudden deceleration and jarring impact.

A project over a year in the making has come to a crashing halt – quite literally – before it felt like it even got started. The Targa Newfoundland has a day of prologue, a practice day, before it starts its week long run taking over the roads of Newfoundland in this annual September classic. It’s a novelty in the world of car racing; competitors can run anything they can get running and you see everything from a rather sedate Ford Taurus to the glamorous lines of a couple of Lotuses. What lies beneath might be a custom transmission and suspension that runs tens of thousands of dollars, or what came stock from the factory and sits in any domestic driveway.

The Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart plunged into the culvert beside the road was a new car, but it had no top shop modifications other than the pretty wrapped design sporting the logos of people and companies who believed in this venture. They’d all taken a leap of faith – for most people, the rally is challenge enough, let alone doing it with hand controls installed so Roll With it Racing’s paraplegic driver could operate it.

For over a year, Brian Donato had been honing his advanced driving skills. His instructor, Rick Bye, is a Canadian legend in the world of car racing. For decades, he piloted Porsches through every incarnation of racing available, and he won. A lot. With the track behind him, he has turned his love of driving to working as an instructor, a not uncommon decision for those out of competition.

Until four years ago, Donato had been a top level ski instructor. A bad move felling a tree in his yard left him in a wheelchair for life, those legs that had powered his career and his passion now forever at rest. Struggling to move forward and knowing his love of cars could be the key, it was a physical therapist who has also worked with Rick who introduced the two men. It seemed like a natural fit.

What sets Bye apart from other instructors is his adamant belief in bringing his true love – car racing – to those who won’t otherwise get a chance. He shrugs it off, but what started as a split second decision several years ago has become a calling. At that time, he was asked if he’d take a young man out for some hot laps at a race track. Blind since birth, Aaron Prevost was working as a mechanic and his enthusiasm for the cars he couldn’t see, let alone drive, was infectious. Bye tore up the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park track with the 20-year-old beside him, both grinning, both unaware they were at the start of a special friendship that would only grow stronger.

With the track cleared for lunch, Bye let Aaron take the wheel. That day, a new driver was born, but so was a new calling. Coaching from the right hand seat, Bye fed Aaron instruction, his hand lightly on the wheel. Up and up went the speed, until it was impossible to tell this Porsche that went screaming by from any other. A dream took root, and Bye wanted to open up this world to more.

It’s a delicate balance, fraught with things like warm and fuzzy feelings next to images of totalled cars. Our language has changed; people are no longer disabled, they are other abled, or perhaps physically challenged. We don’t say handicapped; we don’t say blind; we don’t say crippled. But changing the labels – and we are a culture enamored of labels – doesn’t change immediate assumptions and long standing biases. Call it whatever you want, but watching a blind kid drive or a man transfer from a wheelchair to the driver’s seat of a rally car gives you pause.

A rally race isn’t like a race track. A place like Newfoundland isn’t like the rest of Canada, for that matter. A course that scrambles around the ocean’s edge, sections are closed for the race but fringed by spectators eager to catch a glimpse of the frantic action.

The two men had put in considerable track time back home in Toronto, and in hindsight, that might have been the genesis of some of the team’s eventual troubles. A rally course is loaded with distractions; a race track is build for just one purpose. A rally race is a different beast.

There was apprehension in the air in the days ahead of the race. Rick wanted Brian, with his family in tow, to have fun and experience Newfoundland. To share in the comradery between drivers and the small town love for a big-time event. Brian was set on being taken seriously, on being considered a “real” racer. Rick tried to settle him, to remind him that rally racing is about precision and being smooth, about having fun, not finding blind corners with top speeds. There were back and forths, but there had been the same conversation on many occasions all year. Rick wanted Brian to conquer and enjoy the Targa on his own terms; Brian wanted to be a racer. Was Bye overestimating his student’s ability, or overestimating his own abilities as a teacher?

Maybe a little of both. The problem wasn’t the car. The car was perfect for the event, and indeed, gave its own life protecting its occupants. Mitsubishi had been generous not just in tangible support for the program, but in emotional support for both men. The company had become an integral part of the heart of the team and the rolling circus that made its way to the east coast. Challenges were met and overcome; Brian looks like any other competitor behind the wheel, but there’s no getting around the fact the team had many more things to overcome than most teams would even have to consider. Both men share a tenacious spirit, a trait that could be as exasperating as it is rewarding.

“I told him to quit worrying about anything but driving. I told him he had all week to crash the car,” says Bye with a sheepish grin. He’s telling me this from his hospital bed in a St. John’s ER. Brian has been checked out and released, but Bye has a fractured vertebrae, two broken ribs and some troubling fluid around his heart. He’ll end up spending two nights in hospital before being released in a brace. “Let me tell you, when you’ve crashed and your back is killing you and the guy beside you is in a wheelchair, you get a little paranoid.” He’s expected to make a full recovery. In 1998, en route to a Daytona race, he was left in a coma after a highway crash and given a 2% chance of surviving. “Full recovery” is music to his ears.

The concerns now are both specific and far ranging. Bye won’t be pushed from his goal of continuing his work. A recent event he set up with the team’s other main sponsor, Gluckstein Personal Injury Attorneys, saw many of their clients experience a track day driving a modified car or as a passenger. Another young blind man, Robert Hampson, experienced what Aaron Prevost had previously, the chance to get behind the wheel. Magic isn’t the only word to describe that day, but it’s definitely one of them.

Can he keep people on board? The Targa represents a major setback, but one that has to be considered in the context of racing: the car did what it was supposed to, Brian’s error had nothing to do with his wheelchair, and Rick unflinchingly indicates his own need to differentiate between navigating and coaching. It’s tempting to dismiss a year in a few minutes, but Rick Bye will simply keep doing what he is determined to do: bring his love of driving to those who never thought they’d have the chance, to know it, too.

That crumpled car shows the end of a race, but nothing close to the end of the goal.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Seniors surprised by own bad habits after driving retest

Originally published: September 8, 2014

Jan Thompson, 69, has been driving well over 50 years; instead of taking it for granted, he had a different thought. “I worry I’m getting too set in my ways. I’ve always driven as if everyone else on the road is an idiot. Now I want to make sure I’m not the idiot.”

If Jan was being proactive at 69, Laura Anderson* (*a pseudonym used for medical confidentiality), at 80, was facing more immediate concerns. Though she’d recently passed the new Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) test and was clear to drive, some lingering health issues had her questioning her confidence.

Enter Shaun de Jager. He’s an advanced driving instructor specializing in remedial training with the elderly and drivers suffering from PTSD after a crash. He’s thorough and authoritative, but he’s respectful and kind. He asked in advance about collision history, bumps and scrapes, tickets, warnings, current medications and recent surgeries or health issues.

Jan has a clear driving record and no existing health concerns. Recently retired as a psychology professor, he was relaxed and forthcoming with Shaun. Shaun did a walk around on the car, noted Jan’s seating, mirror and hand positions and asked about his typical driving day. No more commute, but more leisure trips and driving with grandchildren periodically.

Shaun installs a GoPro camera inside the windshield before each session he does. It only takes a moment, and the unit is not intrusive. It will prove to be one of the most valuable parts of both sessions – seeing yourself through your own eyes.
The statistics support driving tests for seniors over a certain age.

Jan obeys all traffic laws and keeps up a light stream of chatter. Shaun takes notes throughout, before asking Jan why he isn’t turning his neck much. “OK, I took a Tylenol before we came out. Sometimes my neck gets stiff…” We laugh, but it’s a sign that even this laid back man who requested this session has some hesitations.

We merge onto the highway and a Range Rover suddenly brakes. Jan’s theory of idiots seems to be holding, except it’s not: it’s the Pontiac ahead of the Rover that made the error. Jan needs to leave larger gaps ahead of his car, and he needs to be looking farther down the road.

“Standard instructions are decades old,” explains Shaun. “When we were told to leave a certain hood length, for instance, car hoods were enormous. You need that safety cushion of three or four seconds. The higher your speed, the farther you need to be looking.”

For Laura, a bout with vertigo following a transient ischemic attack – a ministroke – three years ago meant she avoided driving for a year, the only time since receiving her licence in 1952. The driving was fairly evenly split with her husband, until his own recent health issues put the onus back on her. Hence the call for help: though she’d passed her test, has an unblemished record and recovery from her health concerns has been excellent, she wanted an independent assessment.

Laura looks younger than her 80 years. Active and outgoing, she admitted to being nervous about the exercise. She’d been forthcoming with Shaun about her medical history as well as changes she’d made independently, including no highway driving, no night driving and avoiding high peak hours. Shaun put his camera into place and told her to take a typical drive around her city.

With an instructor in the car (not to mention a reporter in the back seat) everybody does their best behaviour driving. But hardwired habits are tough to break, and it would be three things that would turn out to be the most revealing: steering control, footwork, and vision.

Incorrect hand position and too much input means you lose track of where your car is headed; hands at 9 and 3 (most new cars now position their indents here) give you the best control without having to let go of the wheel, especially on left turns, one of the most dangerous manoeuvres you make every day. A few small changes to Jan’s hands meant more control with less input; Shaun was pleased with Laura’s smooth wheel movements, but suggested lowering the steering wheel a notch so her arms were level with her heart. Arms too high lead to fatigue as your heart has to force the blood upwards. She looked at him, smiling. “My arms do get tired. How did you know that?”

Both students made good use of the dead pedal for their left foot, important for squaring your body in the seat. While throttle control was consistent for both, it was vision concerns that would comprise the bulk of the day.

If you’re told you seldom check your mirrors or never scan the ever-changing landscape before you, you’d probably be doubtful, as both our drivers were. Then Shaun propped up the laptop before them and plugged in the GoPro card.

Bingo. For Jan, a tendency to fixate on one object to the exclusion of what else was going on. In a city full of pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders and other cars, it is vital to constantly scan what is going on all around your car. Shoulder checks were an issue for both drivers, and for similar reasons: Laura admitted her neck can get stiff, and Jan had already copped to occasional neck pain. Shaun suggested pushing out the side mirrors, and told Laura adding small convex mirrors would provide a broader picture.

Shaun was most concerned that too frequently, Laura had no idea what was behind or beside her. “There are lane changes you’re making that are just luck,” he explained. Careful speed and familiar routes – often noted as the biggest plus for older drivers – get thrown out the window with compromised vision techniques.

Vision problems are what plague many drivers of any age. Fixating on the car ahead instead of taking in what’s coming up behind you. Constantly scanning – providing your brain with fresh information – so you can make instant decisions to respond to an ever-changing streetscape is vital. Slowed reaction times are a product of age and we can’t afford to combine that with failure to be aware of what’s happening, and what’s going to happen.

Jan and Laura were smart to ask for help. Both left the sessions with new information and, more importantly, a new awareness. A woman I know, aged 85, refuses to admit that the many dings and dents on her car are because of her deteriorating skill; even when faced with a concrete example of the need for some remedial help, she refuses to acknowledge there is cause for concern. Jan and Laura are proof that you can prepare yourself, educate yourself and be safer.

It’s a touchy subject for families. Families say they’ll no longer let the grandkids drive with grandma or grandpa. I’m pretty blunt: what about everybody else’s kids out there?

Be proactive. Book a session or two with a qualified instructor ($200 is a fair charge for an assessment like those related here) and re-educate yourself. Cars change, our laws change, our cities change, and our bodies change. Why not meet the changes independently?

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Is it discriminatory to obligate someone who has been driving for 60 years to undergo retesting? Not one bit

Originally published: September 1, 2014

In April of this year, the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) introduced changes to testing for drivers who reach age 80.

It’s a touchy subject. As our population ages, our idea of what constitutes “old” shifts accordingly. “Old” is always someone who is … older than me. Is it discriminatory to obligate someone who has been driving for 60 years to undergo retesting? No. Just like it’s not discriminatory to not allow 15-year-olds to drive, or 18-year-olds to drink, or 54-year-olds to get a deal at Shoppers Drug Mart on senior’s day (please see your local store for details). We put barriers in place all the time for many reasons.

Driving barriers are usually there for safety reasons. When you’re piloting two tonnes of killing machine, there should be barriers. If you’re a lousy driver and rack up demerit points, you can lose your licence at any age. But the same way most places have adopted a graduated licence for people learning to drive, it makes sense to acknowledge the very act of aging can have an impact on those same skills.

Currently, if you’re 70 and over and have an at-fault collision, you could be required to take the G2 exit road test at a Drive Test facility. This is a strict component of our law; I probably couldn’t pass the G2 test today, and I’d reckon many of you couldn’t, either. Years of driving ingrain some bad habits, and the test forces you all the way back to basics. You’d be amazed at how many laws are changed over the years.

When you hit 80 in Ontario, you will be required to take part in retesting. Melissa Brabant, a Driver Improvement Counsellor at the Central Region of the MTO, walked me through the test. In a conference room setting, you’ll be with about 15 other people (it varies). Your driving record will have already been reviewed. You will do a vision test, in a machine like the one you’ve seen at government licensing offices. You view a video that’s about 45 minutes long that presents some scenarios to start discussion. It talks about new laws and road signs along with tips for older drivers. You’ll explore strengths that senior drivers have, from experience and judgement and their sense of responsibility, and limitations including changes in vision, loss of flexibility and compromised reaction times.

Finally, the new test addresses cognitive impairment. You will be shown a clock face with a time indicated, which is then taken down. You have five minutes to draw a circle, put in the clock numbers, and have the hands indicate the time. This tests visuospatial ability, how you recognize and organize information.

Next, you’ll be given a sheet containing a block of letters. You have five minutes to cross out all the Hs. This tests psychomotor speed – how fast you can interpret and co-ordinate information. You can view both tests online ahead of time; you can practice. The only difference I found was that the block of letters was much larger than the sample shown online.

Cognitive skills aren’t tested by memorizing information, which is why these tests are so important. Deceptively simple to those with no cognitive impairment, they are instantly revealing of those who are cognitively impaired.

After age 65, 10% of the population will have mild dementia, which can increase the chance of a crash by 4.7%. Adjusted for miles driven, Statistics Canada reveals that drivers over 70 are the second highest group to be involved in a collision, behind only teen males. An even bigger danger? It’s those older drivers who are less likely to have good outcomes. With age comes fragility, and fatality rates are higher than for those males. You may not be involved in a high-speed crash, but your ability to recover even from the small ones is compromised.

Years of research went into the new test, helmed by CANDRIVE, an international association that combines the work of many researchers in many disciplines. Their aim is to keep older drivers driving, safely. The cognitive tests have been used for years in other settings and they present no language barrier. Brabant smiles, telling me when an older gentleman told her he couldn’t do the clock because he was Greek, she told him to “draw me a Greek clock”. She’s also had participants so meticulous that when asked to cross out the Hs on that exercise, they even crossed out the H in “date of birth” at the top of the sheet.

She’s the first to acknowledge that people are nervous and wary when they show up. Some are angry. Some are fearful. Both the ministry and researchers stress this exercise is not about yanking licences, but about keeping seniors driving safely for as long as they can. You could be required to take a road test based on the outcome of this classroom session, or be required to follow-up with your doctor for further medical information. The road test will be the G1 exit test, without highways. There is no charge for these tests.

If you’re 80 and over and facing this retesting every two years, how can you prepare? Brabant suggests being proactive. Get your eyes tested; talk to your physician and pharmacist; ask yourself if you still enjoy driving; consider possible drug interactions, even with herbal supplements; talk to your family members; do a walkaround on your car and honestly address any dings, scrapes and dents you don’t recall getting. Consider this quote from AAA in the U.S.: ”Seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of 7 to 10 years.”

What do I suggest? Book a lesson or two with a qualified instructor, and find out how you can be a better driver. That’s what I had two senior readers do. Their stories, next week.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Think twice about laughing off a ticket you get from across the border

Originally published: August 25, 2014

If you get a moving violation in a province not your own, do you have to pay? How about if you’re in Texas or New Hampshire? If a car breaks the speed limit in another jurisdiction, can an insurance company hear it?

Oh, yes.

There is a web of details about which provinces and states share reciprocal agreements for punishing errant drivers, but assume anywhere you go in Canada will be sharing the details of that ticket with your home province’s licencing body as well as your insurance company. At last count, 41 states will also tattle and collect, though only two – Michigan and New York – will also apply demerit points to your home licence.

In a time before the internet, you could channel your inner Jack Kerouac and laugh off the geographically challenged speeding tickets they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, bother to track down. Now, be prepared for a three-pronged sting as borders dissolve between provinces, territories, states, countries and even continents. There is the dollar amount of the ticket and the chance of demerit points, the kick to your insurance, and the chance of restricted entry next time you travel. Your Canadian licence will be honoured in many places, but the same agreements that allow you to be legal also require you to pay up when you screw up.

The fact that all Canadian provinces and territories have reciprocal agreements in place isn’t surprising, and your moving violations will count just like they do at home. You should make yourself aware of differences in traffic codes in each province. Most are pretty straight forward and easy to find. Quebec gave up their “no right on red” law over a decade ago, except for the Island of Montreal, the last place in Canada to hold out. In Nunavut, feel free to use your handheld device; they probably know your reception might be cranky and you’ll give up.

Speeding tickets in some states can sting, especially when you factor in taxes and surcharges that can dwarf the original amount. It’d be nice if it only came down to money, however. Instead, double-check how far those agreements extend. They allow your insurance company to watch over your behaviour from afar, and jack your rates accordingly.

No reciprocal agreement with the place you’re headed – notably, Florida and California? Not worried about losing points? Willing to risk that you’re not going back to that little town or county any time soon? While you may not be familiar which level of government you’re dealing with, which can run from local sheriffs to state police, our information age means you might be opening yourself up to increased scrutiny at the border. You’ve been at the border; they don’t need any reason to pull you aside as it is. A quick check revealing you’ve skated out on a speeding fine isn’t going to make your crossing smoother.

If you have an outstanding ticket your licence could be suspended in that state. Ignore the ticket and the warnings and get pulled over again in that state, you’re now driving with a suspended licence, which will land you in criminal court. Worse news if you’re a Nexus card holder: if you can’t get the ticket dismissed, you might forfeit your Nexus card because that original unpaid ticket will show as an outstanding warrant.

You’re probably familiar with what you can get away with on your own stomping grounds. If the 401 in Ontario isn’t bottlenecked to its usual bumper-to-bumper creep, the flow of traffic can be counted on to be in the 120 km/h range. Yes, that’s speeding. But, if everyone else is doing it, apparently so can you. Once away from home, different thresholds kick in. Do some research on what the norms are for where you’re headed; forums are populated with people eager to tell their tales of woe.

If you’re blasting past the locals with your out-of-state plate, give your head a shake. This is their stomping grounds, and they likely know something you don’t.

What about parking tickets? Many people throw away those received out of province, reasoning they aren’t worth the trouble to hunt down across borders. It’s true: most jurisdictions don’t chase them down. One caution, however — if you’re in a rental car, the rental agency will tack a hefty fee onto your bill when they get notification. That $20 parking ticket will probably morph into $80 when it’s been through the rental agency magic math machine.

So treat the rest of Canada like your own backyard for moving violations, remember that New York and Michigan will cost you the same demerits as you’d get back home, and that 41 states will be relaying that speeding ticket information back to your insurance company.

Pay up. You’ll sleep better.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Why there’s no such thing as a car ‘accident’

When it comes to describing the behaviour of the drivers on our roads, we have a language problem. When you are speeding and hit something, you didn’t have an accident, you caused a collision. When you blow off a stop sign and T-bone someone else, you didn’t have an accident, you caused a crash. When you get behind the wheel drunk and drive into a tree, you did not have an accident; you got drunk and drove into a tree.

A lot of people believe that lack of intent means more than it does. Think about it: if I intended to jump the curb and kill you and your dog while I was sending a text, that would make me a sociopath, but the fact I didn’t mean to do it does not make it an accident.

Driving instructor Candace Calder agrees. “Instead of setting the scenario for awareness and what-ifs, to prevent the whole lead up to the event, drivers tend to think of themselves as the unfortunate victim of circumstances.” When do we stop wanting to let people be victims? When we are the wronged party. Watch how vociferously someone will blame another in the event of a crash, and listen to phrasing. “I got rear-ended by some moron,” is common; “I caused a crash when I ran a red light,” less so. More likely? “I was in an accident.”

And the media helps them feel absolved. We often read that a “tragic accident” has claimed someone’s life. That description is half right. Some outlets use the words crash and accident interchangeably; others weigh the words. Some will say a truck lost control. Trucks don’t lose control; drivers lose control. I think it’s odd you never read about a plane accident.

A recent horrific event in London, Ont., resulted in the death of a young girl and her sister, delivered via emergency C-section as her pregnant mother and another sister lay in hospital. As they exited a store, a car in reverse bashed through two pillars into the front doors. Charges of criminal negligence causing death and criminal negligence causing injury were laid. I didn’t find a single headline that called this an accident even before those charges were laid. They got it right, in the face of tragedy.

Words matter, and it’s time to scrub the word accident from our reporting when it comes to car crashes. Or collisions. There is driver error and there is mechanical failure and there are sudden health issues. Outside of those, or a meteor landing on your hood, that’s about it. It might seem like that snowstorm caused your accident, but ask any first responder or cop the number one problem in a winter “accident” and they’ll tell you speed. The snow isn’t obligated not to land on the road but you are obligated to adjust your driving according to the conditions, up to and including not driving at all.

Says Calder, “I remember some classic excuses: the tree appeared out of nowhere, the other car wasn’t there when I looked, the car suddenly went out of control, or there was ice so it wasn’t my fault. As long as people can absent themselves from the equation, or believe that there was nothing they could do to avoid the event, they are going to think of it as an accident. That way they don’t have to accept the awful responsibility or fault for the sometimes tragic event.”

No-fault insurance exists in every Canadian province. There are subtle differences in how it’s applied, but the reasoning behind it is pretty basic: if you’re involved in a reportable situation each participant is paid out by their own company. The confusing part? Fault is absolutely attributed and applied, but the very terminology – no-fault – lends itself to a dereliction of responsibility. Even if a deer hits you – surely a random accident by nature and definition – it’s a comprehensive claim, like vandalism or theft or fire.

A few months ago, I scratched the lower valence on a car I was driving when I misjudged a curb. In 33 years of driving, I’ve never done that, but it still wasn’t an accident; I was an idiot. When I’m behind the wheel my decisions dictate the outcome of the ride. If I make the right choices and cross paths with someone who doesn’t, the resulting fallout is not an accident; 99 times out of a 100, it could have been prevented.

The only exception I might have to my own rule? Sudden whiteouts. Unexpected weather patterns that send chaos onto a roadway with zero warning. I’ve never experienced one, and like all other armchair commentators I like to think I’d be able to get off the road, but after watching a video like this one, from a traffic cam in the U.S., I’d have to wonder whether being able to do the right thing would make much of a difference.

Calder makes a good point. “I wonder if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The media report the event in a passive fashion to avoid casting blame on legal grounds (reporting of the event happens early in the evidence gathering and blame apportioning process), so maybe the general public has learned to think this way, too.”

We have to stop letting ourselves off the hook.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

There was a time when “going for a drive” meant hitting the road, getting lost, and just enjoying the sights

Originally published: August 11, 2014

Sweet Corn, $4.50 a dozen.

I flew past the sign even though I wanted corn. I reasoned I’d see another sign a little farther down the road, because I was in the heart of corn country, if there is such a thing. I saw several signs. Each time I barely eased off the gas because I had to be somewhere. Didn’t I?

I was taking the scenic route, and I finally realized, though I’d budgeted the time for such a thing, I hadn’t adjusted for the reset my equilibrium would require. To get from A to B, you’re supposed to take the shortest route, the fastest route. Mapquest, navigation systems, Google Maps – everything offers you up the fastest ways to get from here to there.

That’s what’s wrong with us, if you ask me. I’m aware you didn’t, but come along for a drive, anyway. In our rush to do so many things and be first, best, fastest and shiniest, we forgot to do nothing at all. We forgot to go nowhere, to leave open the door for a surprise ending, to be happy with the route instead of searching for the reward.

When I was a kid, we were told to get in the car because we were going for a drive. Nobody asked to where, or why, or even thought to. “Going for a drive” was the whole thing. My Dad worked shifts, so a Saturday or Sunday off was a bonus, and Dad could bear a lot of things if he could drive while bearing them. Oh, he loved us, but he was a solitary man in a world of girls and while he may have had no childhood himself, he knew he had to make sure we had one. Sometimes you can see the outlines of the struggle as someone does the right thing; my Mom did it naturally, but I admit I appreciated my father’s effort more, because I know it was an effort.

Gas was cheap back then, even for a guy with four kids, working shifts in a steel plant who tried to save as much as he could because he thought he would live forever. Gas was cheap and a drive required only time, that thing you should have so much of when your kids are young and your job leaves you cherishing the moments you do get to enjoy.

We would scrap in the backseat, fighting over who got stuck in the middle, and my Dad would let our chatter fly out of the car on the current of wind that blasted from his open window. If we could keep our bellyaching (my Mom’s word) to a dull roar, we knew we’d pull over near a bridge so we could peer down into some river and fight over who saw the first fish or at least get ice cream.

We would close our eyes to guess what kind of farm we were passing, and giggle when we got it right and my Dad would say any kids of his better know the difference between cow s*** (his word) and fresh mown hay. I would wonder who had to paint the miles and miles of white fences, because I hadn’t yet learned to lift my eyes, to imagine bigger things than just the work involved.

Those drives, those drives to nowhere, taught me to imagine bigger things. I would imagine people who lived not in a bustling suburb like we did, but out here with no neighbours. I would imagine work that needed horses and tractors; kids who got on school buses in the dark; snowstorms that would isolate you even further. I would imagine my father’s protracted childhood.

When my own kids needed this the most, I couldn’t do it. Newly divorced when they were tiny, gas cost too much. Like some modern day Prufrock, I was measuring out my gas money in coffee spoons. I understood it then, but I resent it now. It was easy to feel frustrated that I couldn’t buy them the games and bikes their friends had, but what I really couldn’t give them were the rides to nowhere.

We take drives now, but it’s usually one of them behind the wheel. We talk, but it’s the talk of adults. Nobody asks what that yellow crop is because they know it’s canola. I don’t know how they know this, but they do. I marvel at a field of sunflowers and one will say, “Hey Mom, it’s just sunflowers,” and laugh. And I laugh too, but I know at five or six or seven, they would have marvelled as well.

I took the scenic route the other day, an allowance I gave myself, reasoning I was sandwiching work in on both ends. I turned off the navigation system and got lost more than once; I turned around in people’s driveways and wondered how their lives differed from mine; and I still wondered who painted miles and miles of those white fences.

Posted in Drive She Said | 4 Comments

What do we say we want? Efficient, eco-friendly small cars. What do we buy? Gas-guzzling pickups. Please do make sense of that

Originally published: August 4, 2014

Oops, I bought a new car.

Not me, but apparently, a bunch of people are doing just that. GM has found as people have started bringing in their vehicles for repair for one of the millions of recalls they’ve sent out (I hear they’re wording recall notices for cars they haven’t even built yet), a funny thing is happening on the way to the showroom: those people are realizing their old crappy car doesn’t look so hot, so they’re buying a new one.

GM is helping the effort along. In most cases, if you have a certain recalled car, they’ll give you a 500 buck chit towards a new GM vehicle. So, clutching a coupon they don’t dare let go to waste, people are hopping back into a new car by a brand they hope has learned its lesson.

The car buying public is a tricky thing. Fickle in many respects, predictable in few, we say we want one thing and then we buy another. What do we want? We want environmentally friendly smaller cars. When do we want it? We want it now. What do we buy? Pickup trucks.

Year in, year out on both sides of the border, pickup trucks – specifically the Ford F-150 – drives away with top-seller honours. Not just in trucks; in vehicles, period. Get an hour outside any of the major cities and it makes more sense, with people needing a vehicle that will do triple duty for work, recreation and less-civilized terrain. But increasingly, these pickup trucks are just as luxurious as any leather-wombed BMW or Cadillac.

I remember the oil crisis in 1973/74. More specifically, I remember my Dad freaking out he wouldn’t be able to pilot our eight-cylinder gas-sucking Rambler to the cottage. I also remember people pondering that maybe we’d have to stop driving eight-cylinder gas-sucking vehicles altogether. I’m sure the talks were earnest, until the oil started flowing again and everybody went back to buying whatever they wanted. Amnesia is awesome.

Remember when gas prices broke the signs? When station owners were scrambling to let us know that gas was now more than 99.9 cents a litre? I remember a psychologist who had nothing to do with the auto industry telling me once they’d broken that triple digit barrier, we would get accustomed to it and never look back.

Every time gas prices spike, I ask George Iny of the Automobile Protection Association if this is the time that will make everybody take a long hard look at the fuel efficiency of their purchases. Up until last year he would tell me the same thing: no. “People head to a showroom very prepared to buy that fuel-efficient subcompact, but one of two things happens. Either they look a few metres away and see a larger car for only a few thousand more, or they buy the subcompact and a year later realize they didn’t buy enough car.”

The latest figures from DesRosiers Automotive Consultants show interesting movement: while we’ve finally started buying more subcompacts, the other big gainers? Large SUVs.

Manufacturers have crammed more luxury into even their tater tot cars, and squeezed more fuel efficiency out of the big boys. If you’re wondering what happened to all the electric cars that dominated the news and the ads for so long, you’re not alone. Sales stagnated in spite of huge government incentives, as if nobody wanted to dive off the board first and test the water. The technology in these vehicles is genius, the research and development has cost billions, we said we wanted clean cars and it will be where we end up eventually. So why don’t we buy them? “Because the public can be an ass,” says Mr. Iny.

Manufacturers are going through hoops to give us a demand list that once was a wish list, and if that electric or hybrid is sitting next to a cheaper version that gets excellent fuel efficiency, we hesitate. It’s like taking your pretty sister along on a first date and wondering why your guy feels conflicted.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s this resistance to change that is aiding GM’s bottom line now, especially in the U.S. The uptick in year-over-year sales for GM’s vehicles with the biggest profit margins is eye popping. Chevy Suburban is up 73% over 2013; Cadillac Escalade up 84%; Chevy Tahoe up 93%; and the GMC Yukon up a mind-boggling 120%.

These were supposed to be dinosaurs by now. Instead, we’re seeing heels being dug in, in an economy that keeps punishing so many. Another disturbing trend? Aftermarket smokestacks on diesel trucks that produce a blast of black smoke and use more fuel – on purpose. “Rolling coal” is a YouTube hit, a direct flip of the bird to anyone who feels any agency at all in the future of our fossil fuel consumption. Keep on frackin’, boys.

What do we want? We want it all. What will we buy? We’re still not sure. When will we buy it? We’ll let you know.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Avocado green? What car colours say about us

Do you care what colour your car is?

The most popular car colour in the world is white, according to PPG Industries, the biggest automotive paint supplier. For 2013, a whopping 25% of vehicles they supplied paint for were white. There’s the usual reason: in hotter climates, white absorbs less heat. There is also a new reason being proposed: we’re matching our cars to our Apple products. I was about to dismiss that last one as silly, until I remembered a time when I actually bought a red cellphone to match my red Ford Explorer. Of course, I no longer have either, and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I did that.

Paint suppliers know we’re predicable, apparently. When stainless steel and silver signaled high tech, we loaded our kitchens and driveways in those hues. It could be worse; anyone who survived the ’60s will recall harvest gold and avocado green as cutting-edge colours. The cars followed suit, and the only colour worse on a station wagon than avocado green was Brady Bunch brown.

Manufacturers are selecting colour options up to three years in advance, according to PPG’s Jane Harrington, who is in charge of automotive colour styling. For 2016 and 2017, manufacturers are already aware we are going to be happy the recession is over and will want to buy cars in actual colours once more. In a recent interview with Maclean’s, she says “we’ll see more deep jewel tones like teal and more earthy metallics, like reddish orange, in the coming years.” On an everything-old-is-new-again note, PPG is also bringing six yellows and seven greens to the table; fear not, they’re using words like seafoam and olive with nary an avocado in sight.

In North America, black is the other top seller, along with silver and grey. I can understand hesitating between black or white, but silver or grey? I also know several times I’ve gone to buy a car, I’ve mistakenly believed I really had a choice. Staring at the colour chart after I’d chosen a vehicle, I’d let my eyes wander over the offerings. I’d no sooner linger on a fire engine red or a vibrant blue before I’d be told my choice, if I wanted the car right now, was silver. Or black. Or grey. I’d snap awake long enough to choose one, because no way was I going to draw this process out. Manufacturers don’t offer you a colour selection; they offer you a selection of the colours they want to unload.

As a kid, we’d wait weeks for a new car, and I distinctly remember 1976. My AMC-devotee father had ordered our new station wagon, and we were dying to see our burnt sienna fashion statement. My mom had helped him choose, and we’d all stared lovingly at the paint chip. No more black Rambler; we were getting a burnt sienna Matador.

It was orange. It was flaming, pumpkin orange. My mother cried, my sisters fled, and my father stood there shrugging. Paint colours have come a long way, yet even today, my father would have been considered an outlier. They say if you’re shopping with an eye to resale you should keep to those perennial best sellers. Good thing my father never sold a car in his life, and we could keep that orange car for a decade so I could drive it to university. It was a chastity belt on wheels.

Car colours, like fashion, follow trends. Sort of. We’re trendy enough to swerve from beige to less beige, but the truth is that historically, it takes a long time for colour shifts to occur. In the U.S., white has edged out grey in the past few years, which itself edged out … white. You have to go back to the mid-’90s to find all those green cars that made us all feel environmental, or something. The trend towards smaller cars has seen more fun colours emerging, perhaps because they cost less and it’s seen as less risky to follow your heart into a bag of Skittles.

I remember being impressed with a first shift toward earthier tones in the 2000s – colours seemingly based on metals like steel blue and slate grey. I remember settling on a minivan in a rich bronze, and getting it out in the sunlight upon delivery and discovering it was more like parched dirt. I kept telling the kids it was bronze, but I could hear echoes of someone wailing “burnt sienna” and I stopped talking.

A Rolls-Royce rep once explained to me that that luxury brand will make a car in any colour a client wants. If you have enough money, like the Saudi princess we were talking about, you can even get a Rolls-Royce custom painted to match your favourite moisturizer. Don’t worry about the interior – they’ll dye the leather to match, too.

I don’t even know what colour my moisturizer is, but I wonder if the princess would be interested in a classic AMC Matador in burnt sienna.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments