Recalls slipping through the cracks can be deadly

Lax regulations mean there is no easy way to tell if a car has had its recall dealt with

Originally published: April 11, 2016

A jury has awarded $15 million to the parents who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Enterprise Rent-A-Car of San Francisco after their daughters, Raechel and Jacqueline Houck of Santa Cruz, died in a fiery crash in 2004Alert Driving, North America News, August 2010

The recent changes to Ontario’s vehicle safety certification program were long overdue, after being untouched for more than 40 years; you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue that cars haven’t changed significantly in that time.

But did the government miss out on one of the biggest safety issues of all? Absolutely. That rental car noted above, a 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser, had been issued a recall warning of a fire hazard, yet had been rented out four more times, with the work never performed.

If you’ve purchased a new car, you’ve no doubt received notices of recalls – perhaps in your mailbox, certainly when you’ve taken your car in for maintenance at the dealer. Your information is retained by the manufacturer and you are notified whenever recalls are issued for work to be performed. This works well if you’re the original owner of your vehicle and you’ve never moved; factor in a vehicle changing hands or an owner moving about and not updating records, and you can see how the recall chain can be easily broken.

Sometimes recalls are massive – think GM ignition switches or Takata airbags – but often they’re smaller items on a small subset of one model year, or even cars coming off a line during a certain shift. In theory, manufacturers want to be seen getting ahead of a potential problem; as you know from explosive (literally) headlines, it is often the intense pressure from lawsuits and governing bodies that finally makes them step up. Prevention is cheaper than a cure.

When Ontario’s safety standards were recently changed, critics instantly asked why something as important, and basic, as a check for outstanding recalls wasn’t made a requirement of a used car being given a stamp of approval for resale. The vehicle is in the hands of a licenced seller or mechanic, over 70 pages of paperwork is being checked, and yet no pass is taken over the recall history of the vehicle?

At present, you can go on Transport Canada’s website and check the recall history of any vehicle using the vehicle identification number (VIN) that is clearly visible on the driver’s side of the dash through the windshield. The problem is in finding out if those recalls were, in fact, carried out. The new legislation failed to correct the long-standing problem of consumers buying potentially dangerous vehicles with open recalls, some dating years back; the longer a recall is open, the harder it can be to get it serviced. Picture trying to get parts to service a 10-year-old car versus a two-year-old one; sellers might be less inclined to chase down the work on a car they already stand to have a narrower profit margin on.

The Automobile Protection Association (APA) would have been happy just to see a mandated notice of the open recall, if not a fix. The newly introduced safety standards continue to place the onus on the consumer to work through myriad information platforms to determine if the car they’re purchasing could be dangerous. This is ultimately doable, but unreasonable; if a cheese slicer or a toaster has a recall issued on it, it’s yanked from sale until it’s made safe. Why, then, can you buy a car with a recall?

George Iny, president of the APA, is concerned that “car dealers have a similar culture around recall compliance as the U.S. daily rental companies used to have. In the view of dealers and their associations, it’s the customer’s problem, not theirs.

“A second-year law student answering an exam question would have no problem figuring out the dealer selling a used vehicle would be liable for injury or property losses stemming from an open recall existing prior to the sale as a used vehicle,” says Iny. “Curiously, that understanding appears to have eluded the best minds in the auto industry, including the lawyers representing dealer trade groups. APA’s secret shoppers have identified vehicles with open recalls at both new and used vehicle dealerships.”

His sentiment is echoed by Warren Barnard, executive director of the Used Car Dealers Association of Ontario. “There’s really no way changes to the Ontario vehicle inspection program could deal with recalls, which is an area of federal jurisdiction. Unfortunately, Transport Canada doesn’t seem to be taking the matter seriously. Unlike in the U.S., there is no single database in Canada where dealers or consumers can do a search on a vehicle’s 17-digit VIN to determine if there are any open recalls (recalls that haven’t been fixed) on that particular vehicle. If NHTSA in the U.S. can do it, Transport Canada should be able to do it here, too.”

There is no sure fix. GM recently issued its third recall for 1.4 million cars between 1997 and 2004 for oil leaks that had led to fires; 1,345 of the fires had happened after an initial recall and repair, meaning that even if a consumer had managed to source the problem, it still wasn’t solved. Iny shakes his head that government regulators continue to work in silos, with Transport Canada and provincial regulators passing up the most obvious opportunity to stem the flow of vehicles deemed in need of fixes by their manufacturers before they change hands to unsuspecting consumers.

Ford wrestled with nearly 15 million recalled vehicles for the years 1992 to 2004 across much of its lineup surrounding a faulty cruise control switch that caused many house and garage fires. Like the GM fires, many occurred long after the vehicle had been shut off. Would you know if your 2003 Ford Super Duty had the repair done if you’re the second or third owner? If you inherited it from Uncle Bob, did he get around to it? You could contact the brand-specific dealer to access that information, or call the manufacturer’s customer service line.

Resellers are unlikely to spend so much time chasing down open recalls, a fact Iny laments may ultimately end in the prohibition of sales on cars with open recalls. “Too bad,” he says, “as that will create a lot of inconvenience concerning the majority of recalls, where the potential for harm is remote.”

Should consumers be responsible for doing their own investigation on a potential purchase? Of course they should. You can run a VIN number on your phone as you stand in front of the car, and that should be one of the first things you do. But consumers should also expect a vehicle that has passed a government safety standard and is being sold by a regulated seller has also been cleared for open recalls. If those governing and sanctioning bodies can’t easily access whether the work has been performed, will you?

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Lending – or borrowing – a car can test a relationship

Asking questions and common courtesy can help avoid problems when the keys are handed back

Originally published: April 4, 2016

Baby, you can drive my car … or can you? Depending on what you drive and who your friends and family are, car lending can be no big deal – or, a minefield.

Let’s establish two sides of the scenario: There are those who offer to lend people their cars, and there are those who ask to borrow cars. What’s in between those two groups? That minefield.

You know that you have to protect your insurance rating to keep your premium where it is (or to access sometimes imaginary “decreases”). You get minor damage fixed on your own dime, you drive according to conditions, you’re careful in parking lots and you dread the behaviour of the idiots on the road around you.

When you hand your keys to someone, you are handing over your insurance rating like a small mewling infant. It requires the same constant care and consideration as that baby; people who offer their vehicles to a friend know this, and have already decided they trust the person they’re tossing the keys – and the baby – to. People who ask to borrow a car may not know this, or may not respect this, or may not care. I mean, it’s just a car for a couple of hours, right?

The hard facts:

Make sure anyone you loan your car to has a valid driver’s licence. Don’t make a face when your friend loaning you their car ascertains this. Weirder things have happened; just ask Judge Judy.

Someone else driving your car with your permission is covered under your insurance policy. If they have their own car insurance, their Accident Benefits Coverage will cover things like medical care, but actual damage to vehicles and property will be on you. If they don’t have their own insurance, their workplace or provincial benefits coverage will still be in place in addition to your policy.

If they’re involved in a collision, that claim will impact your insurance. If they get a speeding ticket, that will not impact your insurance rating. If they get a parking ticket and don’t pay it, that will come to roost when you go to renew your licence sticker.

Most insurance policies do not define the lending of a car. This is reasonable and allows people to have flexibility with their own property when handled in a prudent manner. Trouble will follow, however, if you do things that constitute a material change in risk; anything that is drastically different from what you signed up for will restrict or void your policy. Allowing your 18-year-old neighbour to use your car for the summer is a material change in risk; letting your brother use it to visit his girlfriend for the weekend is not.

While you don’t have to notify your insurance company of something like a one-off road trip your car is taking with a friend driving, do know that your insurance policy is only valid in continental North America. That lost weekend in Mexico will have to stay lost.

If you’re from out of province, know that there can be differences in policies on issues like injury claims, caps and right to sue. And for parents intent on making sure their teen doesn’t drive their expensive and/or collector car, you might be surprised at the lengths you have to go to; it’s not enough to tell them ‘no.’ Your insurance policy factors in your licenced householders on all vehicles; if you want to separate that expensive-to-insure new driver from your expensive-to-own car, you have to specifically remove them from that car in writing. The upside is your rate will be reflected on your driving record only; the downside is, if your kid takes that car, with or without your permission and crashes it (like the Vancouver teen who recently destroyed his mother’s Mercedes while doing 250 km/h), you’ll have to report it stolen – by your own kid.

The insurance questions are actually the easy part of the car lending equation. Things get sticky everywhere else. Speaking of sticky, don’t trash the interior of a car you’ve borrowed. If you know the owner doesn’t eat or drink in the car, respect that.

Here are a few other things to consider; have the uncomfortable conversations right up front, though from the perspective of the borrower, some things shouldn’t even warrant conversation:

  • If I borrow your car and blow a tire, who’s going to pay? If I slam a pothole and don’t tell you, who pays later?
  • If that borrowed car is sitting in a driveway overnight and a tree branch falls on it, who pays?
  • What is the deductible on the loanee’s policy? Be prepared to pay it if you’re involved in a claim.
  • Find out if the vehicle has collision insurance. If it doesn’t and you smuck up a fender, now is not the time to declare the car not worth fixing. Not your call.
  • Return it full of fuel. I don’t care where the needle was when you picked it up; owning a car costs a lot more than gas. And make sure you use the right grade of fuel.
  • Return it clean.
  • Return it when you say you will.
  • Use it for what you said you were going to use it for. A car returned with hundreds of mysterious kilometres on the speedometer is like your spouse having a blackout weekend and returning home with no memory of it.
  • If you can’t drive a manual transmission, don’t lie.

Contrary to popular belief, people with pickup trucks are not waiting around for calls at the end of the month. There’s also a reason many who are kind enough to help you out insist on doing the driving: If you know little about trailers or payloads, you can do a lot of damage. If that means you score the loan of a truck and a driver, thank him/her appropriately.

The best advice is from Pete Karageorgos, Director of Consumer & Industry Relations for the Insurance Bureau of Canada: “If in doubt, ask your insurance representative or call IBC’s free consumer information centre at 1-844-2ask-IBC (1-844-227-5422).”

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Don’t be a ‘hero’ – pull over if you’re tired

Driving while drowsy limits your abilities to avoid a collision almost as much as being drunk

Originally published: March 28, 2016

I woke up in the back of a vehicle at a truck stop along Highway 401 the other day. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

There had been no drastic kidnapping; I was in the back seat of my pickup, grateful for tinted windows and transient surroundings. I’d pulled off a little earlier because I’d had to admit I was simply too tired to drive safely.

I can’t remember the last time it happened. I’m a road trip warrior, and because of that, it’s easy to overestimate my abilities. We’re probably the worst offenders; the people who believe we can do something simply because we can do it all the time. Sometimes you can’t.

Drowsy driving is considered by law enforcement to be right up there in danger with drunk driving. The latest available stats from Transport Canada reflect that drunk drivers are involved in 40 percent of fatal collisions, while drowsy drivers comprise 20 percent. There has no doubt been a huge shift in more recent years towards distracted drivers and handheld devices as we see a language shift to reflect that anything that takes your concentration from the road is some form of impairment or distraction, and that both are as bad as each other. But 15 percent of Canadian drivers have admitted to falling asleep behind the wheel at some point; that’s a terrifying number. Part of the problem with sleeping causing fatalities is how it must be ascertained: if there is no mechanical issue and a toxicology screen is clear, the process of elimination points out the drowsy drivers.

I’d flown in the night before from a time zone three hours away, but I knew I had time to get a decent night’s sleep before driving two hours the next morning to a noon meeting. I was tired, but no more so than anyone else who has endured planes and airport lineups and a bunch of cats glad that you’re home. I do it all the time.

On the ride out, I was doing my own version of shake it off; a pending medical treatment meant no caffeine or alcohol for 48 hours, so my system was virgin territory. Unfortunately, a coffee is a very real pep talk my body could have used at that point. I cranked the radio and dropped the window a couple of inches, reasoning the cold air would do what the caffeine wouldn’t be allowed to.

Heading back out after my appointment, I truly thought I’d kicked the fatigue. I’d been on the highway 20 minutes when I realized I had to get off. My hands were on the wheel; my eyes were open; I was in my own lane and doing the flow of traffic. The problem was that I was simply phoning it in. If anything happened around me unexpectedly, my reaction time would have been horribly compromised. And it wasn’t my eyes, it was my brain.

As if on cue, two Ricky Racers in their souped-up rides with the laid-back seats decided to race. It was the fartcan strapped to one that caught my attention, and as they clipped in and out of traffic I put on my indicator to pull off. They were my signal that there is too much danger on our roads to risk being a driver with an impaired reaction time.

I parked at the edge of a busy parking lot and locked the doors, then climbed into the back seat of the pickup. I am not a napper, so I had no clue if a) I would sleep, or b) it would actually work. I crashed for about 40 minutes and it worked. Checking tips later on, it’s true: a 20- to 40-minute nap can do wonders.

I drove a middle-of-winter, middle-of-nowhere snow gig one time. I love snow and ice, and the brilliant sunshine made for a perfect drive – until it was my wheel time, and I went about 30 metres and pulled over. Snow blind. Regardless of sunglasses, alertness or the kind of car, I simply couldn’t see over the glare. My co-driver was fine and we switched later. Did I want to let down a team? Of course not. But I didn’t want my ego to kill them, either.

Many of us work shifts; many of us take medication (and more dangerously, a mixture of medications) and many of us are stressed out of getting adequate sleep. Behind the wheel, everything is heightened. If you trip a little when you’re walking, you hope nobody saw you and carry on. On the road, that slip could end in a collision. If you’re watching a show and realize you’ve missed a few minutes, you can rewind and catch up; do that while you’re driving and you’ve missed your exit, drifted lanes or plowed into the stopped traffic ahead of you. The risk not only magnified, there is little margin for error.

I’ve driven cars that now send out a chime or even flash a coffee cup light if it senses you are drifting or doing erratic speeds. Many highways have rumble strips which are excellent road braille. The thing is, all the warning signs in the world don’t mean anything if the image persists that by staying on the road you are toughing it out or “getting the job done.” There are many places that stigma needs to be removed, but drowsy driving is not one of them. It has to be considered every bit as deadly as texting or drinking behind the wheel.

Signs of drowsy driving to look for, from Transport Canada:

  • blinking or yawning frequently
  • closing eyes for a moment or going out of focus
  • having wandering or disconnected thoughts
  • realizing that you have slowed down unintentionally
  • braking too late
  • not being able to remember driving the last few kilometres
  • drifting over the centre line onto the other side of the road

Suggestions to help without coffee and junk food:

  • sleep well prior to long road trips
  • share the driving with other passengers
  • take regular rest stops every couple of hours and do some exercise
  • eat light meals or fruit throughout the journey and drink water
  • nap of 20 to 40 minutes is an effective way to reduce sleepiness

Most important of all? Simply admit when you’ve hit your limit. Dead drivers don’t get trophies.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

How to stop being such an easy target for car thieves

Immobilizer technology has helped curb car thefts, but we’re still making it far too easy for thieves to steal

Originally published: March 21, 2016

The top-selling vehicle in Canada is a Ford F-Series pickup. The most stolen vehicle in Canada is a Ford F-Series pickup. I’m sure there is one of those annoying causation versus correlation arguments buried in there, but those discussions chase their own tail and I can never figure them out so I won’t bother.

According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), in 2015 car thieves liked big pickups; overall, the 2005 Ford F350 SD 4WD took top spot; the only non-pickup in the top 10 is at number four, the 2006 Cadillac Escalade. What do they all have in common? Ranging in model years from 2001 to 2007, none have a manufacturer-installed electronic immobilizer; they’re easier to pluck. Auto theft is driven by many things, but it’s hard to argue “ease of use” wouldn’t be one of them.

There are patterns that emerge; the list for Ontario looks vastly different, with far more high-end later-model cars. It is those patterns that prompt investigators to ask how much of the change in theft is attributable to opportunity, and how much is now driven by organized crime.

“Since immobilizer technology was mandated in 2007, theft rates have fallen,” explains Garry Robertson, national director of investigative services for IBC. “Where we once saw perhaps 150,000 vehicles being stolen annually, that has dropped to the 74-75,000 range. What is causing alarm is that now many of those vehicles are never recovered.” It’s an issue the insurance industry takes very seriously. You may think your insurance rates should fall in accordance with a huge dip in the number of vehicles stolen, but with an increase in the value of many of those on the more recent lists and a lesser rate of recovery, don’t be looking for falling theft rates to impact your rates significantly.

A reformed car thief (who wishes to remain unidentified) attempts to steal a specially-equiped car using typical ‘tools of the trade’ in this file photo.
A reformed car thief (who wishes to remain unidentified) attempts to steal a specially-equipped car using typical “tools of the trade” in this file photo.
Nick Procaylo, PNG
The Insurance Bureau points out cars are stolen for four main reasons: high-demand cars to be sold overseas, cars to be turned around to consumers unwittingly buying a stolen car, someone “borrowing” your car to get from A to B one night, or to be used in committing another crime. Theft deterrent systems have made stealing a car tougher for thieves, and regulators have made it easier to find a vehicle’s history, but owners themselves do some pretty stupid things. The IBC estimates 60 per cent of vehicles are stolen with the keys in them. Thieves like vehicles with keys in them; it makes them worth more and nothing says “stolen” like “you have to use a screwdriver to start it.”

Robertson points out that, if I were a car thief, I could sit across from any gas station and within minutes have a car. “People go in to pay and leave the key in the car; they leave it running while they grab a coffee, or in their driveway in the morning. It only takes a few seconds and it’s gone.”

Car theft is a national issue, and there are no boundaries and no borders. “We have cars stolen in one part of Canada and resold in another, oftentimes with American interests taking advantage of a weak dollar to profit,” says Robertson. In other words, that car advertised on Kijiji might seem like it comes from just around the corner; it could actually have come from anywhere. “After the flooding in High River, Alberta, in 2013, we assembled a database on our website of cars deemed salvage. Those cars were showing up in British Columbia, sold through Kijiji. People were checking on that database, which was similar to one implemented by the U.S. after [Hurricane] Katrina, and finding their recently purchased cars.”

I do work with the Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council (OMVIC) and the Automobile Protection Association (APA). Both organizations protect consumers, and both stress the importance of using tools at your disposal before your purchase instead of after. Is the price too good to be true? Walk away. Look for certified used sellers. Have a licensed mechanic check the car before you buy it. Protect yourself.

Car insurance companies have their own protocols regarding theft. Investigators will be determining if your vehicle is a “world car”, one in high demand in places such as West Africa, where Toyotas are highly coveted. According to Pete Karageorgos, director of consumer relations for IBC, some companies will wait 30 days to pay out a stolen claim. “It’s possible the customer settles prior to 30 days; in that case, whenever and if the car is recovered it is the insurer’s property and they dispose of it,” he says.

Want to lessen the risk of having your ride stolen? Here are just a few common sense tips:

  • If you have a garage, use it. Seems basic, but many of us don’t do it.
  • Never leave your car running. Never leave a key fob in it when you go to pay for gas.
  • Don’t keep your keys by the front door. Vehicles are stolen from driveways – with the key – because it’s so easy to guess owner’s habits.
  • Don’t park in dark corners of lots. Thieves work quickly – under a minute in many cases – and being able to do it in privacy helps them, not you.
  • Don’t keep your original registration in the glove box. A true copy (both sides) is valid for police, and the original makes it far easier for thieves to turn your car over to a buyer.

In the end, your new(ish) car has sophisticated anti-theft protection, but your key is literally the key to overriding them all. Don’t make it easy for thieves.

2015 Top Stolen Vehicles in Canada

  1. 2005 Ford F-350
  2. 2006 Ford F-350
  3. 2007 Ford F-350
  4. 2006 Cadillac Escalade
  5. 2003 Ford F-350
  6. 2006 Ford F-250
  7. 2001 Ford F-350
  8. 2004 Ford F-250
  9. 2007 Ford F-250
  10. 2001 Ford F-250

2015 Top Stolen Vehicles in Ontario

  1. 2003 Cadillac Escalade
  2. 2010 Acura ZDX
  3. 2009 BMW X6
  4. 2013 Acura MDX
  5. 2003 Chevrolet Avalanche
  6. 2013 Toyota Highlander
  7. 2005 Hummer H2
  8. 2014 Toyota Venza
  9. 2011 BMW X6
  10. 2004 Chevrolet Avalanche

To see where your vehicle falls, go to the ICB site and plug in your province.

Posted in Drive She Said | 6 Comments

If you see (or cause) an accident, don’t ignore the victim

Last week’s hit and run – in which an 11-yr-old boy was left in the road and ignored – shows we need a reminder of what it means to be human, not just a good driver

Originally published: March 14, 2016

It takes a special kind of coward to hit something with your car and take off. “Hit and run” minimizes what can actually happen. Hit and damage, hit and injure, hit and kill. Those are more exact.

I’ve been told how human responses can kick in at a base biological level; that fight or flight response we’ve all felt triggered in that fraction of a second when we must decide, and we must decide right now. I don’t know if the person who hit and killed Maurice Richards of East St. Louis on March 9th was making an instantaneous decision to flee after slamming a car into the 11-year-old. It was raining; it was just 6:30 p.m. and the child wasn’t jaywalking; he was at a corner of two streets. Unless you are impaired or a fool, you know if you’ve hit an 11-year-old child hard enough to leave him crumpled and dying in the street. It takes a certain kind of person to run.

The headline this week wasn’t even about the coward who fled. Instead, it was about a series of drivers who drove around the supine boy and ignored him. He died in that street as cars – multiple cars – swerved around him without stopping. Without calling for help. He lay there long enough for the rain to drench his clothing. And people drove around him.

You and I have a contract. You might not think we do, but we do. We have a social contract that says if I see your kid in trouble or your elderly parent needing a hand, I help. You do the same for me. It doesn’t matter if today I am able-bodied or out of danger, one day I won’t be and every day someone important to me isn’t.

I don’t get to drive around your child lying hurt in the road. What those motorists in East St Louis did was abominable. If worried for their own safety, they could have made a fast call. A phone is at the end of virtually every arm these days. If they didn’t know what they were seeing, they had a responsibility to risk being wrong.

You want to know why you risk being wrong? Because it’s brave. My mother was walking down a major thoroughfare near our home one day nearly half a century ago. Ahead of her was a small girl, maybe 7, skipping as she proceeded on her own. As my mother watched, a car pulled up to the youngster and a man leaned across the front seat to speak to her. My mother quickened her steps to close the gap. When she saw the man push open the passenger door to let the girl in, my mother charged into action; she stood between the car and the girl, and told her not to get in a car with a stranger. The tiny girl looked up at my mother quizzically, and said, “but that’s my Daddy.” My mother felt terrible and that man thanked her profusely. This is why you need to be strong enough to risk being wrong. How could you live with yourself if you weren’t, and had done nothing? My mother told us that story later and felt foolish, but I realized what a hero she actually was.

The world is a different place when viewed through our individual eyes. I’m aware I’m a woman of a certain age who risks greater bodily harm inserting myself into a situation than say, my 6’4” son who has worked as a bouncer. I know that weapons and drugs are everywhere in this world, and situations aren’t always what they seem. It does not release me from that contract, because without it we stop being a community, we start being lesser people. The day I won’t risk being wrong to help you when you need help, is the day we have lost to the fear and hatred that threatens to consume us.

I can’t release the despair of that young boy lying in the rain. I don’t know if he was conscious but if he was, he realized nobody was stopping. Someone finally used their car to block traffic and get to him, but first responders couldn’t save him. You don’t have to be doctor or a police officer to assist someone who is hurt. You don’t have to perform CPR or risk further injury if you’re unsure of what to do.

You have to call for help, and you have to hold a child’s hand even as he dies. That is the contract. That is what we owe each other.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Secure your pet – but don’t take safety for granted

Most pet safety systems don’t offer the protection they promise, and some are even dangerous

Originally published: March 7, 2016 – With video

“The safety of children travelling in vehicles is very important to Transport Canada,” according to the Transport Canada website. So important, your kid will be bundled up or tied down according to strict government regulations, from birth until he or she is delivered into a regular seatbelt. And that is as it should be. But what about your pets?

If you’ve ever pulled up to a stoplight and had Buddy in the next lane glance over smiling with Snuffybits his Butterdoodle – or whatever it’s called – sitting on his lap, you know there are no regulations regarding how to travel with your pets. And Buddy is endangering the life of Snuffybits as surely as if he were to throw her out into a live lane of traffic. Ever seen an airbag go off, Buddy? Thinking your Minipoo is safe inside your handbag is equally dangerous.

While pet owners may or may not care about transporting their fur babies, The Center for Pet Safety in Washington, D.C. cares very much. In fact, it’s a non-profit research and advocacy group that takes zero money from the pet product industry; instead, it rigorously tests the claims of all those cute tethers, harnesses and carriers that promise to protect your pets in your car. Its crash test videos should scare the hell out of you if you own a dog or cat; you can see its test results at

Another company that cares is Subaru. While car manufacturers are rightfully held to stringent safety standards for every single part of the cars they make to protect human occupants, dogs are cats are on their own. But Subaru has partnered with The Center to find recommended solutions for their customers (with its findings also found on The Center’s website), and it was good enough to supply me with a recommended harness and kennel for testing in a new Forester; your own vehicle should have similar anchor spots, but check first.

When it comes to any vehicle, Dr. Tara Sermer, a veterinarian and owner of Green Lane Animal Hospital in Thornhill, Ontario, acknowledges pets are a hugely overlooked safety issue for both the animals themselves and the car’s occupants. “Dogs are a major distraction,” she says. “They can easily become frightened or unhappy, and a loose dog inside a car is just dangerous.” Forget worrying about a crash for a moment; Dr. Sermer sees far too many eye injuries from dogs hanging out open windows. “Foreign bodies causing injuries, dried out eyes, corneal ulcers – all of these things are common and preventable.”

If your vehicle is going 100 km/h and comes to a sudden stop – a crash – everything inside your vehicle that is not secured will continue to travel at 100 km/h. Your cellphone, that Kleenex box, your dog. An unsecured dog can severely injure the occupants of that car; an unsecured, terrified dog can bolt across lanes of traffic; an unsecured dog could threaten first responders who are obligated to tend to the hurt humans first, and if Animal Control has to be called, your frightened dog will be subdued any way it takes to get you the help you need.

Dr. Sermer tells of a collision on a major highway involving a client and his Labrador. With the driver injured, the dog took off and was missing for 24 hours. When it was finally found, it had a severely fractured front leg. She had another client who had to have the dashboard of their car removed to get out a frightened cat. Uncontained cats will usually race right for the pedals and lodge themselves there. As kids, my sister and I let our family cat out of his cage on the way to the cottage “just for a minute” and he did just that; I can still hear my father hollering as he fought the car to the side of Highway 400 in crazy vacation traffic.

Lindsey Wolko is the founder of The Center for Pet Safety in Washington, D.C. “Pets are as big a distraction as cellphones,” she tells me. Dogs under seven kilograms should be in a carrier; dogs over that weight should be in a safety harness. And there is only one company that makes harnesses that are recommended by The Center after its extensive crash testing: Sleepypod makes both the Clickit Utility and Clickit Sport. Forget the aisle full of tethers with claims they will keep your dog safe. There is no standard, no legal requirements to back up their claims, and testing proves many of the products will not only do little to protect your dog, they will actually cause worse injuries in some circumstances.

You can get kennels of all sizes, and the Gunner Kennel we tested that was big enough for our 20 kilogram dog took up all of the cargo hold of the Subaru Forester we were using. The Gunner supplies superior safety, but obviously would be an option restricted by space and lifestyle; examine all the recommendations.

The Clickit harness I tested for this piece was the Utility, with two tether straps that attached into the child seat anchor points. The company, Sleepypod, now has a newer version to market that is easier to use and has passed The Center’s stringent crash test standards. Sleepypod remains the only company that voluntarily complies with The Center’s standards to attain certification. The biggest problem with many of the mainstream harnesses available to consumers, according to The Center, is the use of an extension mechanism.

“The Center for Pet Safety has scientifically proven that extension tethers and zipline-style products increase the risk of injury to not only the pet, but also the people in the vehicle if a crash occurs,” says Wolko. “Long extension tethers negate the crashworthiness of a harness and should be considered a design flaw.” Extension tethers and ziplines are any devices that allow the animal to “travel” distances beyond a safe zone, and then snap back while tied to a single point.

The Center continually updates its best practices for testing consumer products, and it even has a former IIHS bioengineer with years of passenger safety expertise on board to help replicate dog dummies for most effective results. Wolko begins to tell me with a shudder that decades ago, someone used real dogs in similar tests. She doesn’t finish the sentence.

According to Wolko, American statistics indicate 60 per cent of dog owners travelled with their dog in the car at least once per month in the past year. I will venture that Canadian numbers will no doubt be somewhere in this neighbourhood.

Animals who have never been secured will take some training. Wolko suggests short trips – just a few minutes – initially to get them acclimated, and like children, the younger you start them the easier it will be. The harness we used seemed comfortable for Shelby, our dog model; after a bit of testing with the straps, it didn’t take long for Shelby to relax while wearing it.

And after hearing about the injured Lab missing for a day, Shelby no longer has a vote in whether she gets bolted in. We love her too much not to. And, Alfie, the little yapper in the video, is getting a new crate. We love him, too.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Here’s what women really want when they buy a car

Surprise, surprise: Female buyers still encounter sexism in the dealership

Originally published: February 29, 2016

So a man and a woman walk into a car dealership … nah, there’s no punchline. But it’s likely they will have a different experience.

A discussion I had recently at the Canadian International Auto Show about the role of women in the auto industry shifted around, as it always does, to a version of “What Do Women Really Want?” No matter how you examine it, this is still a heavily male-dominated industry that simultaneously courts women and turns them off. That pushmi-pullyu creature is real; they want our money but still overthink the ways to get it.

You’ve heard that magic statistic, that over 80 percent of car purchases are influenced by women. I’ve used it myself because I believe it. I also believe car purchases are influenced by men, by children, by pets and by cottages. While it’s nice to see the double X so heavily represented, I also hesitate to think that it has really made much of a difference in how cars are made, marketed and maintained for women.

Buying a car sucks. J.P. Ositguy, senior manager at the Alta Group in Toronto, agrees. “Buying a car can be an adversarial transaction,” he admits. Consumers are prepared for the worst, and sellers are prepared for consumers who are prepared for the worst. Everybody comes in loaded for bear and negotiations begin there.

I’ve watched car manufacturers believe they could design a car “for women.” I’ve seen pink cars and cars with flattering lighted mirrors and cars with weird door handles that I was supposed to prefer. Designing a car for women is a terrible idea; women want reliability, safety and good value more than they want something pink. But let’s talk about that colour thing for a minute.

I’ve had more than one salesperson tell me, with a laugh, that they’ve had a woman walk into their dealership knowing little beyond that she wants a red car. It’s the laugh that pisses me off, not the fact that someone knows little about a prospective purchase, especially a large one. If you are a professional, it is your job to make sure you sell the right vehicle to that person. If the colour is their starting point, then it is now yours. I could ask someone I’d never met 10 questions and get a pretty good handle on what kind of car they need; it’s not that difficult, and if I’m selling cars, my job is to find the right 10 questions, not to belittle someone for not understanding a complicated industry. Buying and selling cars is a confidence game in the best and worst sense of the phrase.

The internet has changed much of this however, as Ostiguy notes. “Women spend more time researching before they set foot in a dealership; men spend more time after.” Women know the internet is a genderless way to ask questions and seek opinions, and Ostiguy also says women are better communicators. “They take advantage of more information, whether it’s through social networks or reviews, but they also research the sellers, not just the cars. Women are building a relationship, and people who successfully sell to women know it.”

The car industry knows a lot about you. They know women are more rational, and more likely to stick to a budget. They know men are more emotional and spend more. Older women are more skeptical because wisdom comes with age; I worded that last sentence myself.

What about thinking I’d prefer to buy from a woman? About 20 years ago, there was a push to get more women onto the sales floor. Because apparently, I’ll walk into a dealership and automatically trust another woman, as if our ovaries send out some kind of bat signal. Nope. I want a sales associate who will be honest, transparent and address the person asking the question.

At that same car show, a woman told me she walked out of a dealership because a sales rep consistently pointed out interior finishes to her while discussing chassis components with the man who was with her. She said she was the one buying the car, for herself. She asked about tire sizes; the rep opened the glovebox. She asked about the four-cylinder versus the six-cylinder; the rep showed her the stereo.

Where gender can make a difference is at the back of the house. Service managers have to be great communicators; they are the gateway between the customer and the person fixing the car. The sales transaction is actually such a small fraction of owning a car, I barely notice if I’ve been sold a car by a man or a woman. The ongoing relationship with that dealership, however, needs to be something I can count on. I’ve dealt with several female service managers – the people who explain what’s going on with your car when you bring it in – in the past, and I’d be happy to see more women in this important role. The automotive industry provides a lot of excellent career opportunities for women in every area.

As the way we buy and maintain cars changes, it is the very same soft skills that have historically put women at a disadvantage that will soon be what makes or breaks a dealership.

What do women want when they buy a car? I want to be respected for what I do know and be educated on the things I don’t. I won’t be swayed by a pink car unless I actually want a pink car. If you advertise the car, I want you to have it. If I say I don’t want expensive up-sells, I don’t want to be orphaned in some windowless sales office until I change my mind.

Honesty. Transparency. A good experience. The same thing men want.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Is photo radar a lifesaver, or yet another cash grab?

The jury’s still out on whether photo radar is an effective speed deterrent, but one thing is clear: It rakes in a lot of money

Originally published: February 23, 2016

“The use of the first known method of speed enforcement dates back to 1902 in Westchester County, New York. This system was composed of three dummy tree trunks set up on the roadside at 1-mile intervals. A police officer with a stopwatch and a telephone was concealed in each trunk. As a speeding vehicle passed the first trunk, the hidden police officer telephoned the time to the second police officer, who recorded the time at which the vehicle passed him and then computed its speed for the mile. If the vehicle was exceeding the speed limit, the officer telephoned the third police officer, who proceeded to stop the vehicle by lowering a pole across the road.” (U.S. Department of Transportation report, 1992)

This is so awesome I can barely stand it. For as long as there have been cars on the road, there have been drivers breaking the laws and cops trying to stop them. An unsubstantiated tale is that in 1895 (or 1902, depending on your source), the only two vehicles on the road in Ohio collided, which would lend credence to the fact that, left to their own devices, drivers are an absolute menace. But what about when we introduce other devices?

When Toronto Police Services recently asked for a budget increase, city council said, effectively, “something is gonna have to give,” and within a week Toronto Mayor John Tory was pondering reintroducing photo radar. In its previous incarnation, it was a total bust, politically. The Ontario New Democrats introduced it to howls of consternation in 1994, and it was promptly snuffed out in the next election cycle by the incoming Conservatives. That was much about politics and the misuse of power (same thing?), and the conversation about any upside to photo radar got stuffed in a bag because this was also around the time that governance with vision seemed to become as illegal as speeding.

Like most touchy topics, it’s important to ask the right question: Does photo radar save lives? Does it reduce collisions and increase safety? And, does photo radar provide a steady stream of income for the municipalities who use it?

Let’s line up some unassailable facts. If cars don’t connect with pedestrians, pedestrians live. If cars connect with pedestrians at a lower rate of speed rather than a higher one, the pedestrians’ chances of survival are much better. Drivers and passengers in those cars are now protected by stellar safety systems, so comparing their before and after injuries, especially on lower-speed roads, is difficult. Let’s make this about pedestrians.

If all cars are travelling at a uniform speed, there are fewer collisions. Photo radar usually produces those results, unless you take into account those drivers who often get away with speeding (out-of-towners in some places like Winnipeg, cops themselves in Calgary, or people who just don’t care). Initially, photo radar was always going to be used for school and construction zones. Most of us don’t want to open up the mail to a ticket a few weeks down the road, so the stick (a fine of a few hundred bucks) works far better than the carrot (think of the children!).

Is photo radar effective? Well, it’s expensive to implement, it works best with citizen support and it appears to change driver behaviour in the moment. Jurisdictions using it report fewer collisions, but if driver behaviour is only changed in one particular place at one particular time, it isn’t hard to see why opponents feel it is strictly a cash grab. I can see it for some residential areas; I would hate to see it on highways, which need proper policing.

The one question that is without question? It makes money – lots and lots of money. In 2014, Winnipeg issued the equivalent of a $22 ticket to every man, woman and child in the city. I’d go visit Winnipeg but I’d be scared to even run down the street. Winnipeg loves photo radar. But while the city budget is slopping over the edges with these well-gotten gains, a vocal segment of the citizenry is now questioning where a reasonable idea went off the tracks. Like an open bar at a stranger’s wedding, it’s simply too easy for municipalities to get drunk with easy money.

Edmonton brought back photo radar to some of its streets in 2012. Calgary has six mobile photo radar cars it can position around the city. Smaller venues like St. Albert, Alberta, hide their cameras for optimum gotchas. Edmonton actually likes this idea and is probably thinking up places to hide their cameras right now. Quebec has 37 radars and red light cameras. British Columbia experiences the same political yo-yo as Ontario.

Like tickets issued at red light cameras, the punishment is a fine but no demerit points; it is the car’s registrant who gets mailed the ticket. This is the actual crux of the problem. Some (people with money) will consider mere fines a cost of driving the way they please. Photo radar tickets do not impact anyone’s insurance rates. You simply pay to play, and the house wins, every time. Well, unless it doesn’t, like that time in 2011 that Alberta had to refund $14 million in fines on 140,000 tickets because a single ticket was found to be faulty. Damned machines.

As I write this, it appears Toronto’s mayor is also exploring the option of civilians directing traffic at some pedestrian-concentrated zones. For as much as I might be on board with photo radar in some residential core areas (far, far wiser than dropping speed limits to a blanket 30 km/h), even I know circumventing the Highway Traffic Act to let the Citizen’s Arrest Brigade direct traffic is a mistake. Those heart-warming tales of people springing into action during massive blackouts to diffuse hectic intersections as people hand them water bottles and high-fives is a one-off; don’t think the romance of that rare event will translate into a power mad PTAer telling you to move your car, or else.

Or maybe you’re just sick of the constant interference of stealth technology in your life. “On highways and back roads across the U.S., Canada and Bermuda last week, motorists who took chances with the speed limits were encountering a new operational hazard. It swooped down on them with the swiftness of a hawk and was, oftentimes, as invisible as the Thought Police in Orwell’s chiller. The unwitting speed demon saw no police car in his rearview mirror.” That was in Time Magazine. In 1953.

I say we consider going back to dropping poles across roads.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

This is the only car buying tip you’ll ever need

Sticking to your guns – and your budget – is key to making a new car purchase you can live with

Originally published: February 16, 2016

There is really only one thing you need to know when you go to buy a car.

Nobody wants advice they didn’t ask for, and people who do ask don’t want as much as they’re usually given. Having said that, if I’m falling off the side of a cliff and someone asks for the only piece of advice on buying a car that I’ll have time to give as I hurtle toward a certain death, it would be this: Don’t buy a car a month at a time.

You’ve probably started noticing stray headlines that are showing up on sites you visit. Reputable sites, mainstream sites, sites you’ve visited on purpose. Yet there it is, in the margin or at the bottom, crazy second-rate headlines that remind you of knockoff merchandise called Kalvin Kline or Goochi. They’re like the ShamWow commercials of the Internet: “More Canadians with bad credit are eligible for car loans,” said one that popped up on my screen the other day. Oh, awesome, I thought. The absolute best thing to do for people with shattered credit is to buy a car they can’t afford.

Cars are big purchases; tens of thousands of dollars. And yet, they seem to overwhelmingly be called $300 a month purchases in every ad I see. When I look through real estate sections, the big number is always the big number. Rentals are usually advertised by the monthly price because you’re only signing up for a year, and you can usually find a way to squirrel out of it sooner if you really have to. You can’t squirrel out of a car purchase.

Because few of us can walk into a car dealership and plop down tens of thousands of dollars like Oprah or a pirate, we have to wisely decide what our budget can bear. The problem is not in establishing how much we can afford a month towards this purchase; the problem is forgetting you have to multiply that number by all those months to realize how much you are actually paying.

Ontario has something called all-in pricing, which means a dealer is required by law to post the total price of a car excluding only HST and licensing. There can be no fine print under the fine print. That price written on the windshield, stuck in the window, printed in the paper or posted on the website must be the true price. Confusion can set in if consumers have read an ad placed by the manufacturer; they do not have to abide by the all-in rule. Which is crazy and confusing, if you ask me.

This law is a good one, and can help buyers determine how much a car costs. The problems set in when you get inside a showroom and wander, physically or emotionally. Perhaps they don’t have that exact model as advertised (they are supposed to be able to get it); maybe it’s only on certain colours, and you really want orange; maybe your heart skips a beat when you see a higher level of trim or the next model up, and your original decision now looks like a wallflower. I blame consumers as much as I blame sellers.

But, this is your money. Don’t be pushed off your position. The first question out of a salesperson’s mouth is going to be, “How much do you have a month to spend?” This is where you fight back, at the very first question. If you know you have $25,000 because you’ve budgeted 400 bucks a month for five years, don’t let them magically get you into a $35,000 car that costs the same $400 a month – for an extra 24 months. It’s not magic, it’s math.

The up-sell happens in increments. GPS would be nice; the leather looks lovely; I can totally hear the difference in that stereo. The first time a salesperson says, “For an extra $35 a month we can get you into this model,” hesitate. Then get out your calculator and multiply that 35 by 60, your original payback plan. You might want it for $35, but do you really want it for more than $2,000? When they suggest you can keep to your original payment by extending your payment period, just leave.

There are several ways to finance a car purchase. Talk to your bank. Maybe that incentive financing is right for you, if that zero or one per cent is on a car you want. If you have no intention of leasing but find yourself considering it to “make” your monthly target, go home and think some more. Be wary of any place that will give you money when nobody else will, unless it’s your parents. Actually, be wary of that, too.

Reputable dealers want you happy with your car purchase for years to come. They need your future business and your referrals. There is no cooling-off period, no contract hangover clause that will undo your signature. The weight of that sum – those tens of thousands of dollars – should feel big. Don’t let anyone do some sleight of hand to let you think otherwise.

And don’t do that sleight of hand to yourself.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Henry Ford’s dream of tough, plant-based cars now a reality

Among his many innovations, Henry Ford pioneered the use of organics in vehicles. Ford is now advancing its founder’s back-to-the-land thesis

Originally published: February 8, 2016

If you’re going to be stranded in the middle of nowhere after some disaster, natural or otherwise, you might want to be stuck there with a Ford product. Although I can’t promise you’ll magically turn into a mechanic or a MacGyver, you’ll at least have something to eat.

For over a decade, Ford has been experimenting with swapping out components of its cars to use plant-based products instead of petroleum-based ones. In setting up strategic partnerships with agricultural interests on both sides of the border, they’ve paved the way for the car industry to incorporate, and find ways to incorporate, things like soy, corn, tomatoes, wheat, coconut, bamboo, algae, dandelion and sugar cane. Sound like a feast? Ford thought so, too.

They invited some journos and foodies recently to Actinolite, a top-flight Toronto restaurant where they put the chef and his staff to perhaps the ultimate test: make a car taste good. The automobile industry comes under fire from environmentalists, and the fact is, no car makes the environment better. You can read elaborate explanations that creating batteries for hybrids and electrics saps more of the earth’s elements and creates more pollution during its birth than it will ever negate, and there are several studies debating the impact of using various fuel sources.

According to the automaker, the average Ford vehicle uses between 20 and 40 pounds of renewable materials – with almost 300 parts, across various platforms, derived from sources such as soybeans, cotton, wood, flax, jute and natural rubber.

But actually sourcing components in a farmer’s field isn’t the whole story. It’s about finding ways to use the throwaways – parts of the plant that are currently burned or discarded – and finding ways to use this former refuse to replace expensive oil-based parts. There are stumbling blocks; initial tests, displayed in the test labs in Dearborn, Michigan, show soy-based foam looking like everything from bad movie popcorn to crazy cloud-shaped explosions. These natural products are broken down to their molecular level, and then the work begins; they have to meet strict safety standards, be predictable in both performance and lifespan, and be able to be produced at volume. This often requires innovating new tools and production scenarios, because food frequently doesn’t act like the things it is replacing. It’s a long-term project and venture that Ford has been committed to for nearly 15 years now.

Every Ford sold today contains naturally derived components. They’re usually things you don’t think much about, like soy foam head rests or wheat hull-reinforced plastic storage boxes. Carpet fibres might be from recycled clothing; castor oil-based fuel lines and soybean oil-based gaskets and seals; cellulose-reinforced plastic increasingly takes the place of glass-reinforced plastic.

The goal is twofold: Make use of renewable products while achieving the goal of lowering weight to improve fuel economy.

This idea of looking to nature is hardly new for Ford. Fordlândia, an entire town carved out of the Brazilian rainforest in 1929 by Henry Ford, was a fascinating precursor to his company’s back-to-the-land thesis. The impetus then was to break a stranglehold held by rubber barons (sorry, I couldn’t help it) who had a monopoly on rubber production, which Ford needed for tires. His idea? Grow his own. To that end, he transplanted what he had – production capability, workers and a support community – to a place that had what he didn’t: rubber.

The idea was pretty awesome, on paper. Believing his engineers could surely create a rubber forest, he let them have at it. In the meantime, a total slice of Americana bloomed in the jungle. “It included a power plant, a modern hospital, a library, a golf course, a hotel and rows of white clapboard houses with wicker patio furniture. As the town’s population grew, all manner of businesses followed, including tailors, shops, bakeries, butcher shops, restaurants and shoemakers. It grew into a thriving community with Model T Fords frequenting the neatly paved streets,” writes Alan Bellows in his article “The Ruins of Fordlândia.”

In addition to workers brought from home, Ford hired locals to work on the project, but decided they would have to behave the way he wanted. No booze, no local food, no gambling, no dancing girls. The locals eventually revolted, the rubber trees failed to thrive, the Brazilian military was forced to wade in and the remnants of the town are now a curiosity you can visit if you happen to be down that way.

Ford was roundly lambasted for not doing his botanical homework for starters, for failing to recognize the very human factors that would be involved in understanding people are, well, people, and that sometimes you simply can’t bend things to your will no matter how much money you throw at it.

The true loss? His failure with both Fordlândia and a later attempt farther down the river called Belterra contributed to the widespread use of synthetic rubber. Synthetic rubber, which is made from petroleum. The very thing this company is now pushing back against.

So while hearing that Ford is looking for ways to turn tomato skins into bio-plastics or rice hulls into wire harnesses, the truth is that the idea was germinating in the mind of its inventor a century ago. The recent dinner, with a menu featuring soybean custard, bamboo with kelp, and tomato with algae (not gonna lie – some of these things were not as good as the others), was an elegant as well as elevated reminder that we have to find a way to work with the planet, even if you’re a car company.

Oh, and if you’re stranded with that Ford? Eat anything made from corn first. Yum.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments