Trying to fool the RIDE police? Don’t bother

Ontario’s holiday RIDE program was rolled out last week, marking perhaps the only time most of us don’t dread seeing flashing red lights and being signalled to stop. As much.

With the RIDE program kicking off its 36th year, you’ll know exactly why you’re being pulled over. Officers from forces across southern Ontario teamed up with Police Services students at Humber College’s north campus to kick off the event. The lineup of police rigs was impressive, from huge vans to undercovers to a motorcycle. More than one student did a double take at a hearse casually parked among the emergency vehicles. Subtle? Not a bit.

Some people think the program is an infringement on their rights and there are lawyers who readily agree. Some people flock to Twitter each year to reveal RIDE locations. Are there issues of free speech and due process that could be entertained here? Sure. But most of us, unfortunately, have some kind of personal experience with impaired drivers. My first boyfriend was killed by a drunk driver. I’m extremely biased.

You might be a RIDE check veteran, in which case the types of locations chosen will come as no surprise. Police want a sweeping cross section of drivers on a committed course – cresting a hill, the point of no return on a highway ramp, just past that curve. Evasive actions are not recommended.

Constable Clint Stibbe with Toronto Police Services laughs when asked about drivers determined to avoid the stop.”We see U-turns, but the officers are on it instantly. We see people attempt to back up, but they have to understand they’re outmanned.” You might as well snap on a spotlight over your head.

What if your evasive action isn’t because of impairment, but because you realize your licence is on the counter at home, or you haven’t gotten around to replacing that burned out headlight? “An officer can’t use one Act to get to another one,” explains Stibbe. “The spirit of the RIDE check is to ensure sobriety. That first officer isn’t looking for licence, registration and insurance when you pull up. Can another officer move to the traffic act? Yes. But our priority is impairment.”

This is a careful way of saying that the first officer can’t move into Traffic Act violations. But there are others who can be running plates or doing vehicle checks, and you could be handed off like a baton in a relay race. “The courts are very clear on how we can proceed. Each checkpoint will have a sergeant and maybe 5 officers and the breath tech,” he explains. “You may have me doing the sobriety check, but a different officer may be doing a vehicle check. It’s a separate Act. We also have the units to chase down anyone who tries to dodge the stop.”

The province currently spends $2.4 million annually on RIDE, an amount maintained since it was doubled from $1.2 million in 2007/08. Stops have risen accordingly, from 505,733 in 2007/08 to 1,016,786 in 2011/12. The increase in stops, however, still can’t account for a disturbing trend: last year’s charges were the highest in 8 years. Police laid 693 impaired charges, up from 652 in 2010/11 and 294 in 2009/2010.

Drivers aged 21 and under must have a zero alcohol level regardless of licence grade, and officers may ask for proof of age. Stibbe reminds drivers if they’re the accompanying driver to someone with a G1, their own blood alcohol concentration can’t exceed 0.05%. This is not your designated driver.

A stop may only take 10-15 seconds, but in that time the officer is hitting a mental checklist. According to Stibbe, the tabulation starts immediately. “Blood shot eyes, dilated pupils, odour of alcohol coming from the vicinity of the driver or on the breath, slurred speech, uncoordinated movement, sleepiness, lack of ability to follow simple instructions, admission of consumption (“I only had one”) or another admission of consumption (“it’s been hours”), and yes, passing out.” He notes these may be classic signs of impairment, but he also says that often, “people think they’re covering well. They’re not. We can almost always tell when you’re trying to hide something. “

If your choice of drug won’t trigger the breathalizer, forget it: they won’t hesitate to call in the heavy hitters, officers extensively trained to detect all types of impairment, not just alcohol.

Actions can go from warnings to suspensions based on that breathalizer result and the record of previous offences. Anyone can be asked to take a breathalizer, and registering 0 – 0.049 is considered a pass. Blow between 0.05 and 0.099 roadside, and you will be given a warning. Don’t get excited: you’re still going to have your car impounded for 3 days and your licence suspended for 5. Over 0.099 and you’re looking at criminal charges. They go with 0.099 to allow a margin of error (0.08 is the legal definition of impaired), but more comprehensive testing will take place.

If a passenger is cleared to drive your car in your place you can avoid the impoundment, but they will also be subject to the same checks. It’ll save you money, if nothing else.

But as Stibbe puts it, “why weren’t they driving in the first place?”

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Geoff Penney : We’ve lost an original

There was an era when most neighbourhoods had a Geoff Penney. The guy who could fix anything. The guy with the garage that looked like a wizard’s cave of bits and pieces. The guy with the yard that held everything the garage could not, and the guy who would stare for a moment at whatever sad, broken mystery you were holding and say “leave it with me.”

A drive by the home he shared with wife, Sandy, would always reveal a rotating cast of cars and characters. That house, situated on one of Burlington’s most beautiful streets, was a magnet for those of us who knew the man who waved an oily rag like a silk handkerchief. Cars and motorcycles would come and go, and I asked him once how he got away with it. How he managed to keep his back east slice of scrap yard amidst the gentile sensibilities of this part of town.

“Oh, well, everybody has something break at some point,” he told me with a smile and a sparkle. And he was right. Everybody eventually made it to the Penney house, because in a world of throw it out and buy a new one, Geoff was an oasis in the madness of planned obsolescence. Bicycles, washers, driers, taps, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, cuckoo clocks. You’d see the garage light on long into the night, but he’d also make house calls. His invoices would be signed with words of wisdom, usually telling me never buy a boat and always use sunscreen.

Cleaning out my garage after my father died I uncovered a trove of You Never Know When You Might Need It, and some of it went to Geoff. Geoff’s garage was a madhouse of bins and buckets, racks and piles of You Never Know. He would dump a tin of assorted washers and nuts and bolts onto a cookie sheet to sort for what he needed; he had folded the sheet to create a funnel at one end to expertly put everything back in the tin. You sometimes couldn’t see the man himself in that garage, yet he could find a single screw in record time.

I once left a wounded lawnmower with him, telling him I had no clue what my son had hit. I asked if he could figure it out. He smiled, and called me two weeks later. The thing ran better than it had new, and he told me my kid owed him a beer. My son was 12.

Geoff had more friends in more diverse places than anyone I’ve ever known. I’d see Porsches in his driveway as well as scooters and an ancient MG. His friend Rolly Astrom said it was that MG that had caused the only neighbourhood consternation I’d heard of. A woman took offence to the blight, so Geoff had historical plates put on it. Not every problem had to be solved with a wrench.

Astrom’s pride, a 1975 Ferrari Dino, was maintained by Geoff. “We just couldn’t let him get close to paint. He only had one rag, I’m sure, and he’d go to rub something on the body and we’d yell,” he muses. Another friend summed it up, singing “Penney cracks chrome, and he don’t care…”

When a 1972 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow showed up in the Penney driveway, I was intrigued, but not surprised. I would find out later it belonged to long-time Penney friend, Jamie Edwards, who had made the purchase 15 years ago. “It was for fun. When the wiper motor went I was quoted $1,000. Geoff turned a cable around and machined a new piece. Then the hydraulics in the car were pretty bad, and the wiring was the Lucas Prince of Darkness variety. He fixed it all. He was a genius,” Edwards finishes.

There are endless stories of his abilities, and his self-proclaimed Goofy Newfy spirit, but I will forever remember this one: when he finished working on that Rolls, he would get his elderly neighbour and put him in the back seat. Geoff would then put on a chauffer’s hat, and drive him around downtown.

We recently lost Geoff suddenly at age 74.

Wherever he is, I hope there’s a garage.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Rental tires with winter tires? Good luck with that

Winter is just around the corner in Canada – in many parts it has already arrived – but consumers looking to rent a car equipped with winter tires to handle the cold, slush and snow are largely out of luck. The supply is limited, and the additional costs can be hefty.

Until I asked about renting a car in Winnipeg in January, I hadn’t given it much thought beyond landing at the airport and picking up the keys.

Anyone who has experienced winter in Saskatchewan or Manitoba would probably be surprised to learn that cars equipped with winter tires in these provinces are not available from the big chains.

These two provinces have a lot of snow as well as the frigid temperatures that affect handling. That cold turns all-season tires into hockey pucks, and for anyone unfamiliar with weather in the Prairies – someone who might step off a plane and rent a car – it could pose problems. Yet, statements from Discount President Jay Singer, Enterprise (National) spokesperson Meghan Maguire and the Avis/Budget group acknowledge that winter tires are not on offer in these two provinces.

Rental car companies explain that the cost of replacing and storing all-season radials for the winter is prohibitive. To compensate, it is an industry-wide practice to tack a surcharge onto winter tires in the $8-15/day range, if you can get them at all. Price and availability depend on the location and several companies say to check upon arrival.

While I found helpful reps in every location, I also found few winter tires – except in Quebec, the only province that mandates winter tires for all vehicles from Dec. 15 to March 15. A tire fee is imposed year-round to spread out the costs of meeting legal requirements, usually $2-3.

The rental companies use cars with standard all-season tires, as you and I probably do. The difference is I put winter tires on my ride every year. I believe in them. Your mileage may [or may not] vary, but I guarantee your stopping distance will – for the better.

A spokeswoman for Avis/Budget, said that major centres in Halifax, Fort McMurray, Alta., Ottawa and Vancouver can make arrangements for customers who want winter tires. However, you need to call ahead and they can’t always be guaranteed – again, an industry-wide statement that is tempered with “we’ll do our best”.

An Enterprise rep in Halifax agreed Maritime weather is often harrowing and said that his location would do its best to set aside a car outfitted with winter tires if I reserved ahead. Again, no guarantees. I asked what percentage of the fleet is equipped with winter tires. He wasn’t sure, and repeated what most corporations told me: they monitor need, and have no final numbers yet.

A helpful Avis rep in Gander, Nfld. tried hard to obtain specific days in January from me so she could start calling around immediately to get me the car I’d requested. I was almost certain she would offer me her own car if I stayed on the line much longer.

In Vancouver, the rainy real estate near some of the best skiing in the country, I started with the airport rental desks. Enterprise assured me it had some properly equipped full-size cars and minivans. I asked how many they would have, and once again, no one had a hard number on how many cars in the fleet are equipped with winter tires.

The Avis in Fort McMurray has 80 Impalas ready to roll with winter tires. I asked about other vehicles, and was assured that all-wheel-drive vehicles don’t require winter tires. This was repeated across the country by all the companies, making me wonder if it wasn’t highlighted in a memo somewhere.

An Avis rep in Whistler, B.C. was the least surprised by my request, but admitted that they’d need a head’s up to get some of the fleet moved around to make sure they could accommodate the request.

Nobody’s breaking the law, but if you think far enough ahead to realize you’d prefer winter tires on your rented rig, be prepared to pay a hefty premium – and possibly end up on all-seasons anyway.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Diesel: the best of both worlds

I’m driving a 2014 Ford Fiesta at the moment. Like most of the cars it shares this segment with – the subcompacts – the thing I like most of all is that the needle on the gas gauge never seems to move. I call them the Nimble Thimbles, cars like the Nissan Versa, the Mazda 3, the Hyundai Accent, and the Fiat 500. The newly released Mitsubishi Mirage is aiming for top contender in the gas miser stakes, and many of these, like the Versa, are actually sporting back seats for full sized people. Thimbles from outside only, maybe.

According to George Iny, President of the Automobile Protection Association, consumers say they are driven by fuel efficiency, but once in the showroom frequently bump up a category – or two. As buyers have more and more choices to make in their hunt for economy, manufacturers are bringing more and more players to the park.

“They get into the showroom thinking they want the best posted numbers, but they end up being drawn to a larger car. We see it all the time. Prices are competitive, and it’s hard not to see more car for only a little more money,” says Iny.

Fuel efficiency is driven by two major components: what you drive and how you drive. With electrics making inroads at a subtler pace than anticipated, buyers are predictably sticking to what they know. Drivers are often interested in ways they can maximize their fuel economy, but all the suggestions in the world pale in comparison to letting the engineers find a way to make the compromises.

I participated in a cross Canada drive last year with Shell to prove a point about the “how you drive” part of the equation. Told not to call it a hypermiling experiment, it was a hypermiling experiment. You’re probably familiar with the concept, and no doubt some of the more infamous trademarks of it, like drafting behind rigs and crawling along at dangerously low speeds. While we didn’t partake of the drafting, we did have drivers who kept to what I still believe were dangerous speeds.

We drove a new Volkswagen Passat, gasoline and automatic. We got from Halifax to Vancouver averaging 5.6L/100km – four and a half tanks of gas. It was an extreme experiment, and I wouldn’t repeat parts of it. The best takeaways were the tips that any driver could employ: smooth use of brake and throttle, ditching extra weight, reducing drag from things like roof racks and monitoring tire pressure. Paying attention to only the fuel number – that 5.6 – was exhausting. Driving shouldn’t be exhausting, and while I’m all for driving efficiently, I’m also for driving being an enjoyable experience.

What’s the best compromise? I found that out a few weeks ago. A similar jaunt was undertaken by Volkswagen, and teams of journalists crossed the route in the maker’s diesel lineup: the Touareg SUV, the Beetle, the Golf Wagon, the Passat and the Jetta. My two day leg was through the mountains into Vancouver, a challenging place to wrestle with fuel economy. Even so, consumption rates for the vehicles were nearly all within the 5-6L/100km range, except the SUV which rang in at 8.9.

The best part? Outside of the best tips mentioned above which I do anyway, no special or extreme driving techniques. Speeds that met conditions and traffic flow, passing when passing was required, and no dropping like a weight at the end of a drive day that took 12 hours instead of 8. While not every drive requires it, highway driving and hauling up long grades needs power; diesels have the torque, often outperforming gasoline engines with a burst of power when you most want it.

While Mercedes and Volkswagen have long been invested in the diesel business in Canada, consumers are now finding more and more options in all segments, from the Mazda 6 to the Chevy Cruz. Stripping down the numbers and factoring in a premium for a diesel engine (though the new Mercedes GLK is selling both options for the same price on one model), the question usually comes down to estimated repair costs and fuel. In Canada, diesel prices are still about the same as gas prices, with a little variance in some regions. In the U.S., where diesel engines don’t enjoy the same increasing popularity, diesel prices continue to be higher than gas making it less attractive.

While I love this Fiesta for scooting around town, I doubt I’d want to cross the country with it or take it on extended hauls. I could reach up to the comfort levels offered by larger cars and accept the compromise of fuel efficiency for size, or employ some of the driving tips that make me nutty last year.

Or, I could go diesel, and have the best of both worlds.

Posted in Drive She Said | 6 Comments

Oil changes, leftovers and parents who love you

“So. When did you last get your oil changed?”

A friend’s father drives him crazy with that question. It’s repeated as many times as he visits, and is predictably followed by a discussion of the merits of more frequent (or less frequent) changes, the costs of new synthetics, and whether dealers rip you off or ten minute places are inadequate. There will be debate about changing it himself, and the effect of the coming weather – summer or winter – on the oil choice.

His mother will ask how work is, she’ll put way too many leftovers by the front door, and tell him he doesn’t come by often enough. She’ll tell him what his siblings and their children are doing, remind him of upcoming birthdays, and tell him he should call his brothers more often.

His father will ask what year his car is, again, and what the owner’s manual recommends for oil changes. A conversation will ensue around those recommendations, his dad spending considerable time on the mileage versus time interval. His dad will note the dealer tells him one thing, and the manual tells him another. My friend will nod.

His mother will pull out some pictures of the grandkids, and admonish him for not realizing how fast they’re growing up. He will assure her he sees them, and continues to give cash gifts because he indeed can’t believe how fast they’re growing up and cash is always the right size.

His father will ask how much an oil change is on the new car, and remind him to get the oil changed regularly, because that is the lifeblood of a car. They will both think silently yet at the same time about when another sibling, in the folly of youth, destroyed another car ignoring just this wisdom. Dad will shake his head sadly, wondering why his kids don’t listen to him more often.

Mom will ask him if he likes his job, the job he’s had for nearly 15 years. He will reply that he does, and she will ask again exactly what it is he does. He will start to explain, then ask to see more pictures of the kids.

His father will tell him about the idiot he met who thought you needn’t change the filter when you changed the oil. They will agree this is not smart. This will start a discussion on filters that will closely follow the lines of the discussion on oil.

His mother will remind him of upcoming holidays, and poke at him until he promises to be there for everything. She will add in some extra ones, he is sure of it, but agrees anyway. She asks what he’s been eating, and then gets up to put yet more leftovers by the front door. He says thank you, wondering what he will do with half a dozen Tupperware containers of food, enough to feed 5 people.

The conversation will shift to his last car, and his father will note that it lasted as long as it did because his son got the oil changed properly. He will ask if it was still running when he let it go, and then nod appreciatively when he hears it was. There is nothing worse than a generation of kids who don’t know how to take care of anything. His son is not like this, and it’s good to know the frequent talks about oil changes are not falling on deaf ears.

He will stand up to go, and his mother will tell him he hasn’t stayed long enough. He will remind her he has an early start the next day, and that he will be back in a couple of weeks. She will tell him he is too stubborn, and then she will put more food by the door.

He will pull on his shoes, and survey the stockpile of food piled surrounding them. Juggling the containers, he will smile as his mother embraces both him and the packages, and call out a goodbye to his father. Back outside, he will start the car that receives the most regular oil changes in history, and smile to himself about the fact he and his father never really talk about much.

He will tell me about the visit, usually as he is dropping off half of the leftovers for my sons. I will laugh and remind him that food is love, and then ask if his father also told him he loved him. He will look at me quizzically, and say, no, he just asked when I’d gotten my oil changed.

And then I will smile, knowing that is exactly what his father was telling him.

Posted in Drive She Said | 8 Comments

We all mistakes… but how do you recover from them?

Many people who have been in a car crash – either one they’ve caused or one they’ve had visited upon their innocent selves – will tell you that it changes the way they drive. Many become more cautious, more aware of their actions on the roads, and the actions of others. Some stop driving for a period of time; some stop driving forever. None will drive through the scene of the crash and not remember it.

For this reason, we need a way to let drivers who create near-misses do their penance.

I was driving westbound on Dundas Street in Mississauga at rush-hour recently. A young man was clipping along beside me in a black Mitsubishi Outlander. He was very young; it was very new. As he approached a green light, a car was preparing to make a right turn from a side street into his lane. He should have seen the car and the car shouldn’t have made the turn. Maybe he didn’t see it, and but it apparently did make the turn.

I’d been a couple of car lengths behind him in the inside lane. The light wasn’t stale, but he’d goosed it at the last second anyway, just as I’d let up. As the car, probably anticipating his slower speed just a moment before, moved to cut him off, he panicked and swerved into my lane. I’d picked up a press car fifteen minutes earlier, a high-end sports car with monster brakes. The Jaguar F-Type is beautiful; at that moment, all I cared about was that it let me just about stand it on its nose. There are many cars I drive that wouldn’t have allowed me to do that. The one I own wouldn’t have. More swerving would have resulted in auto carnage.

The lad was shaken up. He deserved to be. If you’re going to drive, you have to focus on the whole road and all that’s going on. You need to be aware of that car inching forward; you need to be aware of cars behind you and beside you. The turning car was wrong, but speeding up only made things worse. The only reason I got to my brake was because I’d been covering it as we came to the intersection. I didn’t trust the turning car, but the whole thing played out in a fraction of a second behind the bulk of the Outlander.

The thing is, everybody messes up at some point. Whether you’re a novice, or tired, or stressed or angry, we’ve all had moments when someone else has saved our butt.

The problem now was that his focus shifted to trying to get away from me, as if I was going to hop out of the car and lay a Mommy rant on him at the next red light. His nerves, his humiliation, his fear or his indignation were just leading him to drive more erratically. I didn’t want to jockey for position at a red light to glare at him, or chew him out. I sincerely believe nobody sets out in their car to cause crashes, or inflict damage or injury.

The only thing I wish I could have told him? You screwed up, but we all do. You didn’t pay for it this time, so please tell me you’ll remember it and drive more cautiously. Remember it when you walk in the house and don’t have to tell your Mom or Dad that you smucked up their new car.

If I let someone in and they wave, I’m happy. If I let someone in and they don’t wave, it can make me momentarily cranky. It’s such a simple thing, and I’m wondering how much rage could be diffused if we drove the same way we walk through a mall or pilot a grocery cart. In a car, how do you apologise for an honest mistake, and how do you signal the apology is accepted? Just like in the other parts of our lives, there is great deal of value in grace and empathy.

Would I have been as concerned about the driver of that Outlander if he’d been fifty? Would I have reacted the same way if it was a parent with child seats in the back? I like to think so, but I don’t know. I remind myself that the age of a driver isn’t always an indicator of how long they’ve been driving. A newly licenced 40-year-old can have just as little experience as a newly licenced 17-year-old. The thing is, everybody screws up. Do it often enough and your record will reflect it. But it only takes once.

I’m glad the kid is okay, but he might want to flip a thank you note to Jaguar.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Think you’ll ever pay less for car insurance?

While insurance in general is a hot topic these days, car insurance has come into the crosshairs of our politicians. It may be about time, but what do “lowered rates” really mean? While our provincial leaders toss around a magic 15% drop in rates, who is going to bridge that gap? The provincial government believes attacking insurance fraud, stricter benefit guidelines and investigating the towing industry will provide the savings. The insurance industry is predictably defending its turf – and its profits – by advising it can’t be done on those revisions alone.

Insurance experts met in Toronto last week, and I spoke with Ryan Michel, Chief Risk Office at Allstate Canada about the changes taking place within the automotive industry, the way we are insured, and the resultant impact developing technologies will have on consumers.

The insurance industry itself is finding the standard tropes – teenage boys drive like idiots, that’s why their rates are the highest – require more explanation, and more transparency. With technology transforming what we drive – and even how we drive – at increasingly faster intervals, how will the insurance industry keep pace? I want what I pay to reflect the actual risk I present, not one based on data that is outdated.

“New technologies take time to adopt,” admits Michel. “We don’t prorate the latest developments, like lane departure warnings and brake assist, but as trends are noted and the data comes in, we move to have the right price and the right risk.” He notes that insurance companies want to reflect price and risk correctly, both to properly provide for the consumer and to remain competitive.

With fatality rates continuing to fall, he agreed that many of the safety features now found in even entry level cars (airbags, crumple zones, ABS) have played a huge role in saving lives. “While the goal is always saving lives, fewer accidents don’t necessarily mean lower costs,” he notes, when asked why safety features that lower injury aren’t reflected in savings to the consumer. “Cars have become more complex. That technology is expensive to repair, and there has been an increase in the cost to replace cars.”

Sound like a watertight way to protect higher rates? Michel offered some interesting math regarding the future of car technology. I asked about the advent of increasingly autonomous cars, and that dreamed-of day when cars will drive themselves. That should leave drivers virtually blameless in the event of a crash, right?

“That would be a Utopia,” he laughs. “But it will also require a partnership of government, infrastructure, manufacturers and insurers. And yes, rates would go down.” The kicker? The cost of all those other things – government to lead the way and build that infrastructure that will be required so those manufacturers can build vehicles that work within it – means the consumer is still paying, somewhere, all the time.

Michel points out that for insurance, if drivers are removed from the risk equation, the risk shifts to a commercial one. He likens it to a pie, with the auto portion shrinking. If you tally up the annual cost to your household of insurance, including auto, property, life and medical, finding a break on personal liability while driving will no doubt disappear into property increases. Those rates are being sent through the roof through a combination of the increasingly expensive recovery from seasonal and natural disasters, and people doing things like setting up house in places they shouldn’t. I can’t blame the auto insurance providers for my property rates going up, but it’s also hard to find much solace in Michel’s statement that he thinks auto rates will stabilize, and instead of the annual 5% increases that some of us have been seeing, will be closer to 1 or 2%.

The future of car technology, reduced risk, rising repair costs, insurance savings: it all comes back to costs to the consumer, and promises here in Ontario of bringing those costs back to earth.

But what about that 15%? That’s a political hot potato, and one the auto insurance industry apparently believes will have to be handled outside of their court. They doubt it can be done and the cynic in me, once again, agrees. The insurance companies are brushing up their reasons to maintain (and follow those ‘slight’ increases) while the government hunts for savings elsewhere. Insurance fraud and misconduct in the towing industry have been ongoing issues for years; does it only matter now as an election looms?

It’s still a pie. And we have to pay for the whole thing, regardless of how it’s sliced.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Cyclists, pedestrians, sometimes it’s your fault

I would be a better driver if only you were a better pedestrian.

If only you would obey those same traffic lights you accuse me of never obeying. I respect you as a walker; heck, I’m a walker a lot of the time, too. But if you hop off the curb against a (usually short) advanced green signal for turns or jaywalk in heavy traffic, you disrupt the flow of traffic long after you’ve trundled on your way. I obey walk signals, please obey don’t walk signals. We may be doing different dances, but we’re all in the same dance hall.

You’d be a better pedestrian if you paid attention. I know, I know going for a walk or rushing to work on foot is a different experience for you, battling the elements, than it is for me cocooned in comfort. I should help you navigate safely by not running red lights or coming so close to you that you get soaked by that puddle, and by understanding that you’re perched on a snow bank because there is nowhere else for you to go. But if the only thing you’re staring at is your phone, it’s as bad as if that’s the only thing I’m staring at. You need to be conscious of your surroundings. And if drivers texting and driving is deadly (and it is) so are people walking in traffic and texting.

Please take responsibility for your safety, and please follow the traffic laws that I’m following.

I would be a better driver if only you were a better cyclist.

If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a cyclist blows off a stop sign and there is nobody around to see it, does it really matter? The correct answer to both questions, for me, is who cares? Motorists break way too many laws, in big and small ways, to ever get to stand there and harp on how many cyclists make. The rub? It’s that whole ‘nobody around’ part. If a cyclist comes up to an empty four way stop- empty: no pedestrians, no cars – a careful yield makes sense to me.

But if you’re running red lights, if you’re not visible at night, if you’re riding on the sidewalk (and you’re not 5) or passing on the right, I have a problem. I want to know where you are and what you’re about to do. You should want me to know that, too. I have airbags; you have spandex.

We’re more likely to obey laws that make sense, but of course, that would make the whole concept of law just too bendy to be viable. I’ve had a yield sign at a three way intersection by my house forever. It makes sense; it’s fairly quiet, and everybody yields. We do it because we’re happy we don’t have to stop. I can think of many places a yield sign – if obeyed – would be perfect.

Combining motorists with pedestrians and cyclists makes eye contact is a huge component of safety. All the laws, all the technology, all the training; none of it is as important as simply remembering that there is a person behind every one of those decisions being made. People are fallible; a little understanding goes a long way.

I would be a better driver if you were a better driver.

When you consider the volume of traffic on our roads, the hugely disparate levels of training that drivers have, and the number of balls of rage driving many of those vehicles, it’s surprising any of us get anywhere.

Everybody makes mistakes. Now with the traffic dashcam rage catching on here, we’re going o be surrounded by images of people making fatal errors, egregious errors, tiny errors, and imagined errors. I spoke with a colleague the other night who had a camera running as a tire blew on a transport just ahead of him on a U.S. highway. The resulting peel of compromised rubber, the alligator, took out most of the front of his grill and lights. Catching it on camera meant no dispute with his insurance company. I think this is a useful reason to have a dashcam.

I also see postings of people entering the wrong lane after a turn, someone doing a rolling stop, or someone merging clumsily. I see this as using the dashcam to become a self-elected traffic marshal, and you should stop driving around looking for nonsense. If cops filling quotas makes you angry, these vigilante citizen’s arresters are nearly as bad. Any drivers determined to school other drivers are dangerous, and believe me: nobody likes you, and perhaps more importantly, nobody listens to you.

I can’t tell you how to walk or bike or drive. But I can tell you the thought of any of us not getting home tonight because of inattention or arrogance just isn’t worth it. I just want you – in a car, on a bike or afoot – to be boring and predicable.

Posted in Drive She Said | 4 Comments

How many years can you get out of a car?

The first thing that caught my eye was the car. Chrysler Aries K car, early 80s. Hard to pin down exactly; when they came on the market they sold like the cheap hotcakes they were, decent little reliable buckets that changed little, if at all, from year to year. They aimed low with the wow factor but that platform played a huge role in saving Chrysler’s butt at the time.

The next thing I noticed was the older guy wrapped around the steering wheel. Intent on watching the light, he’d pushed the plaid arms of his work shirt up; he was chewing gum, the deep recesses in the folds of his weathered face changing as he did. He pushed up bushy eyebrows several times to gaze at the light – it’s a side street and it takes awhile sometimes.

The car was a burgundy red, the topcoat long since worn away. Outwardly, that was the only sign of age on the car. I could be wrong, but I knew he had bought that car and hung on to it all these years. Maybe that car had been his 50th birthday present to himself. He reminded me of my Dad, and if my Dad had been able to get 30 years out of a single car, he would have thought he’d won the lottery.

I love seeing original owners with their cars. I like stories of people wondering why you wouldn’t take care of something so expensive- they do – and why you would get rid of something a little dated – they don’t.

A friend recently had to give up a ’94 Intrepid. He didn’t want to. Nearly everything on it had failed or was threatening to, but he believed, every time he got into it, that with a little coaxing and a little patience every trip would be the penultimate one. What if you surrendered it one trip too soon?

These people are the polar opposite of the must-haves. Must have the latest, the fastest, the most expensive. Those people are good for the car industry; those people are in fact, the lifeblood of the car industry. If you can only sell a car to someone once every three decades it means your ad campaigns are falling on deaf ears.

My old guy suited his K car perfectly. They looked like they’d been together forever. I wondered what would happen to that car when he passed, and thought about friends who have inherited cars from late parents at various stages of their lives.

I’ve seen some driving cars they hate but it was too expensive to get out of the lease. Mom may have wanted that Saturn, and she may have loved it, but now you’re driving it. I’ve said before if you see someone under 40 driving a Buick, just tell them you’re sorry for their recent loss.

I’ve had people question why their father’s perfectly maintained 15 year old car isn’t a collector’s item, and worth a fortune. The fact is, it’s special to you because Mom chose the colour and it may have been the first car they bought with air conditioning. But on a buyer’s stat sheet, in most cases it’s just a dated car.

We didn’t have a second car until I was in high school. Then we had the good car and the old car. My father would drive the old car no matter what. If I needed a ride after school somewhere, I’d pray it was Mom coming to get me or else Dad would be out front of the school in the ’66 black Rambler. He frequently had the hood up, trying to get it started again. I’d pretend I didn’t see him; he’d holler over. He’d bark at me that I was lucky I was getting a ride at all, and it was better than walking. We’d lurch along, my friends walking faster than we were driving. But he was getting one more trip out of old Betsy, dammit. And that’s the way you keep a car.

He’d go to the cottage on his own, and say he was taking the old car. Mom would beg him to take the new one for safety, and we’d beg him to take the old one so we wouldn’t have to drive in it. We were selfish children, but Mom didn’t understand that for my Dad, taking that Rambler there and back was a victory. Some people run marathons; some people climb mountains; my father had an emotional connection to a metal box and believed he could will it into action.

My friend watched his Intrepid head off to its new home, with a mechanic who wanted a winter project. Regardless of the fact he’s excited to have a new ride, I know he’ll kick himself if he actually sees his old car driving around again.

My father took no such chances. When Betsy was officially retired, he cannibalized it down to the seat springs for his “workshop”.

If he couldn’t drive her, nobody could.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Self-driving cars? You still have to learn to parallel park

“We want to believe that every time we start our car we are embarking on an enchanted expedition filled with the wonderful treasure that is automotive transit. We know this is a lie, yet we believe it anyways.’ – Jalopnik

“…self-driving cars, long a staple of science fiction movies, are step by step becoming science fact…” – Financial Times

“Mercedes-Benz announced Monday that it had successfully driven an autonomous S-Class sedan 62 miles on German city streets.” – L.A. Times

About 25 years ago, I used to rent R.V.s on occasion for a race team I ran. There was an urban myth – presumably –circulating that a rental driver in Quebec had set his rig on cruise control, and then headed to the back galley to make a sandwich. The error and the resulting ditch roll might have been fiction, but the image was enough to remind you every time you set the cruise.

Are we there yet? It appears we’re close. Most manufacturers have been developing and perfecting the technology for years. Most of it debuts in the advanced safety systems we see – stability control, lane departure warning, brake assist, navigation systems – and is sold as such. Safety. Traffic fatality rates are going down steadily as cars save careless or distracted (or, be honest, just plain bad) drivers from themselves or others.

Safety has been trumpeted as the main selling feature, but now fuel efficiency and traffic congestion have entered the discussion. If we removed the human factor from behind the wheel, vehicles could perform without that fly in the ointment: human nature.

There is a boatload of wrinkles, as Mercedes-Benz noted in their German trial. Everybody has to be invited to the same party for it to work; cars that are self-driving would be most effective if they’re sharing the road with other self-driving vehicles. Computers communicating with computers are one thing, and the test car didn’t know how to interpret a person waving it ahead. Engineers noted that the car couldn’t adapt for humans being human; a pedestrian signalling the car left it flustered (well, computer-flustered), as it hadn’t been programmed for “politeness”.

A few years back, we started to see cooperation between traffic laws and cars. Many vehicles now know what the speed limit is on any given road, and remind you – constantly – if you edge over it. We’re also seeing more models with preventative braking that slow the car if the driver fails to. It’s usually called Brake Assist, though in some cases, it’s more like Brake Annoy. There’s the rub: if you’re an attentive driver who is fully engaged, you feel nanny-ed to death. But if you’re sharing the road with those who are more distracted or less experienced, those same systems can save both of you. Tough to argue.

Picturing being able to go out and have a few pints and then letting your car drive you home? Don’t count on it. Currently, articles and discussions end with the fact that a driver will still have to be able to ultimately be in control of their self-driving car; an override system that will always default to the driver. A lot of us enjoy driving and take it seriously. The upshot is those who need the protection the most will be the least able to cope if something goes amiss.

I’ve been overhearing recent teenage conversations about the fact that cars can now parallel park, so that dreaded part of the current licencing test will soon evaporate. It’s not unlike the when-will-I-ever-use-algebra ploy I used to use in high school. The biggest problem? It’s bad enough when we have drivers on the road whose abilities have rusted or devolved into bad habited versions of the original skills; will we now face having drivers who never knew them to begin with?

Tim Danter, owner of DriveWise Oakville and a current instructor on Canada’s Worst Driver, is already facing degrees of this question in the classroom. “We’ve seen it with math skills. Previous generations learned mental math by rote, but we learned it. Now? It’s all a calculator or a computer, and the basics are gone.” He’s right. Have you ever had a store clerk try to make change without a computer readout?

Danter continues: “The biggest issue is that too much technology promotes distraction, it doesn’t combat it. We’re seeing lax driving skills.” The inherent problem with a less engaged – or less skilled – driver is in the fallibility of the machine. Canadian winters are already kicking snow and ice over cameras and sensors. All these systems are electronics; ever had your computer crash? Your cell phone freeze up? If your car does a version of this, it can be a lot more deadly, not to mention expensive. If the car next to you does it, maybe more so.

For now? Forget heading back to make that sandwich.

Posted in Drive She Said | 4 Comments