Should ‘personality disorders’ result in driving bans?

Originally published: February 2, 2015

If you had the power, who would you yank off our roads?

This discussion got very real recently, when, on December 29th, 2014, Russia announced a new law that appeared to severely limit, block or remove the driver’s licences of citizens who had personality disorders. They referenced the World Health Organization’s (WHO) section ICD-10 in their decree. Most headlines focused on the more clickbaitish segment of the designation: sexual disorders.

“Transgender people banned from driving,” appeared in The Guardian. “Russia bans transgender people and other ‘deviants’ from driving,” said the International Business Times. “Russian says transsexuals unfit to drive,” announced Al Jazeera, while the BBC went with “Russia says drivers must not have ‘sex disorders’.”

ICD-10 is chockablock full of fun stuff. It’s here you’ll find your pedophiles and your problem gamblers, your Munchausens and your schizophrenics. Your bipolars (caveat: I am bipolar), your exhibitionists, your compulsives and your transsexuals. It even scoops up pyromaniacs and kleptomaniacs. The Association of Russian Lawyers for Human Rights helpfully ran a pic of a man performing in drag to let everyone know some of their favourite entertainers wouldn’t be allowed to drive to their gigs.

Reading the list, it became clear to me that Russia has solved any gridlock problems it may have had in one fell swoop. It also immediately reduced its brutal fatality rate that hovers around 30,000 annual road deaths in a population of about 143 million. By comparison, the U.S. experiences about 33,000 fatalities per year in a population more than twice that of Russia, at about 316 million. If followed to the conceivable letter, the new law meant there would be nobody left on their roads. And here I thought it was all about the vodka.

With a lightning speed backlash from Human Rights organizations and LGBT groups around the world, not to mention nearly every mainstream media outlet, the Russian government quickly put a few shims into the proposed law; they would only be enforcing legislation if someone suffered “chronic and prolonged mental disorders with severe or persistent symptoms.” Sounds more than fair. Instead of a widespread blanket ban, only those a psychiatric commission deems incapable of driving will be barred.

I would totally trust a Russian government agency. Absolutely. A government run by a man who still insists that Russia’s invasion of Crimea was by invitation, like a wedding or something. If 5,100 people (to date) die at a wedding. I don’t fault the world’s media one iota for shooting back at the dangerous and homophobic wording of the proposed law.

Russian Health Minister Oleg Salagi says this will affect less than 1% in the “disorders of adult personality and behavior” category. Further fuzzy areas were sharpened slightly: while the original wording would encompass – and ban – amputees, officials admitted that they could keep driving their specially equipped cars. I can find no further clarification for the proposed law also forbidding those under 150 cm tall (4 foot, 11 inches) from driving. I currently have a Micra in the driveway; it would make someone 150 cm tall look like Gulliver.

While the world media has focused on the hot button topics of Russia possibly forbidding transsexuals, transgenders, fetishists, and exhibitionists from obtaining a driver’s licence, the equally problematic catch-all of mood disorders remains in play. I guarantee if you stand in the centre of the five people closest to you and throw a pebble, you would hit someone living with a mood disorder, if it’s not you. To imagine people avoiding getting help because a diagnosis may cost them their driver’s licence is a giant step backwards as well as futile. We’re everywhere.

Maybe Russia thought they could slide this one by us. After all, Saudi Arabia has been front and centre on the stupid driving laws for years. A woman was recently given 150 lashes for being caught driving while female, though that nation is currently “considering proposals to allow women to drive,” according to something called the king’s advisory council. “The recommendations … to change the law would apply only to women over 30, who must be off the road by 8 p.m. and cannot wear make-up while driving.” That deadly mascara.

When I write about seniors, I get mail saying they should be off the road. Ditto when I write about teens. Same holds true for parents with kids in the car, BMW drivers, angry men, motorcyclists, cyclists, taxi drivers, certain nationalities and people who have bumper stickers. Basically, everybody thinks nobody should be on the road.

While I would happily sign anything trying to introduce better driver training and more comprehensive testing, I still see Russia’s proposed law as dangerous and Saudi Arabia’s as just batty. Civil rights and human rights matter.

I spent a morning dropping the Russian document into a translator to get as much information as I could directly from the source. Under a preponderance of wordage about what they should do about their drunken driving problems, one sentence leapt out: “we need to learn foreign practices.”

Judging from those fatality rates, it would be a start. Just not Saudi Arabia’s.

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Learning in a controlled environment allows teen drivers to make mistakes

Originally published: January 19, 2015 (Video included)

There are beginner driver training programs that will call off a scheduled in-car session because of bad weather. The fact I think that is entirely counterproductive will not change their ways, but then the whole issue of training new drivers is full of landmines.

If you have a 15- or 16-year-old in your family, chances are the discussion of a driver’s licence has been on the table along with dinner. It may seem they go from baby seat to booster seat to driver’s seat in the blink of an eye, but it’s your job as a parent or guardian to make sure they get the best training and the most opportunities to use that training.

Don’t teach them yourself. Being a good driver does not necessarily make someone a good teacher. Many insurance companies will give your teen a break on insurance – usually about 10% – if they’ve completed a recognized driver’s ed course; in some cases, training will carve months off the graduated licence time requirements; check provincial government websites for recognized facilities before you put down your money. Also, note that even if your teen has no interest in getting a licence now, their clear driving record starts when they get licensed whether they’re driving or not; it’ll help with insurance rates down the road.

While it varies slightly from province to province, driver training programs combine a mandated minimum number of classroom hours and a further set of in-car driving sessions, both with a professional instructor. Over the past decade we’ve seen an increase in facilities providing driving simulators. Simulators are used to augment training for police, first-responders, truck drivers and other professionals and they can be a valuable component of your teen’s learning.

The highlight of visuals back when I got my training through my high school was gory black and white films and pictures of people with steering columns driven through their chests. The idea was to scare us safe, I guess, but the only take away I got was learning some crash scenes are near pornographic in their violence. I’ve never found fear a very useful motivator in long-term skill development: I want drivers who are calm and confident in their actions, not petrified of everything around them.

I like the simulators for several reasons. Our kids are used to screens, and to learning interactively. They’re accustomed to the technology, so time spent is not wasted on getting used to a strange setting. The visuals used are detailed and clear. Cityscapes, rural settings, school buses, ambulances, errant pedestrians and kids running into traffic; the instructor can set the program to replicate a near limitless combination of scenarios.

The weather can be changed; if you “drive” onto a loose shoulder, the car bumps and the wheel pulls, hard. You can feel the “car” react to speed bumps or a blown tire, which the instructor can make happen at random. Oncoming traffic with high beams? Check. A deer suddenly jumping out? Check. Just blew off a red light? Smash. It might start off feeling like a game, but over and over, I’ve seen students get absorbed in the task at hand, and take it very seriously. The beauty of the exercise is the ability to go over situations that a student might never face as they gather real-world experience (or perhaps ever), in a safe environment.

Tim Danter, driving instructor and owner of Drivewise in Oakville, Ont., says the simulator is an invaluable component of his driver’s ed course.

“Learning in a controlled environment allows for errors, and skill development. Even if they don’t encounter a dog running in front of them, we can take them through multiple collision avoidance scenarios.” As we speak, he casually blows out a rear tire on the “car” my videographer, Clayton Seams, is driving. Tim does it again, this time coaching Clayton through it, something he’s never experienced in years of driving.

Propelling a car is pretty easy; the point and shoot operating systems belie the immense power they contain. Our kids have grown up watching how we drive, making them already accustomed to the feel, if not cognizant of the skills required. Alberta allows 14-year-olds to get a highly restricted beginners licence, and I’ve let my sons learn from about that age near our remote cottage. Go karts are an excellent tool as well as fun.

Nothing can take the place of experience, invaluable wheel time that can only be acquired one way. We had a house rule: whoever had their beginning licence drove. It wasn’t always convenient, but it was the surest way to make sure the newest driver got as much varied experience as possible. If driving with your learning driver makes you crazy, hand the passenger seat over to someone more patient. You can zap a kid’s confidence in 10 seconds, and anxiety is a terrible thing to have along for the ride.

If you’re starting the process of deciding who should teach your teen to drive, ask friends who have recently completed programs, consult government websites for accredited programs, and ask questions about the instructors. I prefer programs with simulators. As I drove my project guinea pig, Katya, home after her testing on the simulator, I asked her if she’d had any revelations.

“It was hard to concentrate on the road and answer questions at the same time. You don’t realize how much your focus could shift.”

Our new drivers are using cars that are far safer than what I learned on, but they’re also learning amid a lot of new technologies. Katya learned in a few minutes why hands-free conversations are just as distracting as handheld. And she got to learn that, safely.

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Drivers of big rigs continue to collide into bridges and overpasses, despite clearly marked warning signs

Originally published: January 23, 2015

Bridge porn. Overpass porn. I don’t care what you call it; it’s too hard not to keep watching. A while ago, car site Jalopnik featured a website that in turn features truck after truck piling into an overpass with the clearance plainly marked: 11’8” (3.55 metres). The name of the site? They’re called “can openers” and “under blunders”. Easy to see why. Unlike other types of traffic mishaps, those involving bridges and overpasses can affect stability from both above and below.

Last summer, just in time for the August long weekend, the eastbound lanes of the Burlington Skyway Bridge were closed for four days. The bridge is a critical link between the Niagara Peninsula and the Toronto area, including traffic heading in from across the American border. More than 75,000 cars a day cross the bridge; during rush hour on Thursday, July 31, a dump truck with a raised bed slammed into a truss and scaffolding that were part of maintenance work being done on the bridge.

The truck driver was charged with impaired driving, and the fallout was immense, not to mention the cost. Images were immediately fired out over news sites and social media platforms, and while no one was injured, the lasting image from the crash is the back of another rig caught in the collapsed structural mess, with “Smart” emblazoned across its rear doors. Sometimes, you don’t need a caption.

In places like Vancouver and New York City, the necessity of keeping bridge traffic moving cannot be overstated. Simultaneous problems on the Lion’s Gate Bridge and the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge can snarl long tendrils of traffic into Vancouver and the North Shore. Hurricane Sandy proved in Long Island and Manhattan and outlying boroughs how logistically vulnerable bridges can be coping with natural disasters, let alone the man-made kind.

It’s not always about the perils taking place on top of the roadway; in December of last year, a Miami drawbridge crashed down onto a luxury yacht, Rockstar. Upgrades and maintenance had been scheduled for the following month, but not in time to save Rockstar from its final curtain.

Sometimes it’s aging infrastructure that creates bridge or overpass chaos; other times, it’s a combination of human error and mechanical failure or simply bad weather. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge collapse in Tampa Bay, Florida, in 1980 saw 35 people killed when their vehicles – six cars, a pickup and a Greyhound bus – plunged into the abyss created when a freighter – without radar and weather-blind in a storm – crashed into a pier and took a massive section of the road down. The nightmare of the road disappearing under your wheels as you drive over water makes the eerie photo that came to represent the event more surreal; a yellow Buick Skylark stopped only inches from the edge.

Bridge height requirements exist in most countries, but they apply to current and future builds, not those already in existence. A standard rig has a box height of 13’6” (4.11 metres), and professional trucking companies sort out routes to avoid these expensive under blunders. But as the video at the top of this piece reveals, that doesn’t stop scores of private trucks, RVs and rentals from being driven by people who seemingly have no idea how large their vehicle is.

I remember being surprised that you can drive an RV nearly nine metres long with a G licence. You can just rent it, hop in and go. It’s not that the pedals and steering wheel are much different from your car, it’s the fact you are now barreling down a highway in your living room. It was on a very narrow bridge in the maritimes I discovered the side mirrors on an RV are like a cat’s whiskers: if they don’t fit, your arse doesn’t fit. I physically hopped out to take a look before proceeding. I do the same if I’m in an unfamiliar vehicle and entering an underground garage, and I still duck as if that will somehow help.

It’s one thing to require signage to clearly post minimum heights; it’s apparently another to tell some drivers that physics is a real thing.

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Allowing insurance companies to spy on your driving habits can have some unforeseen consequences

Originally published: January 12, 2015

“Telematics are an interdisciplinary field encompassing telecommunications, vehicular technologies, road transportation, road safety, electrical engineering”

That’s the definition from Wikipedia, which I tell my kid is not a reliable source, but for now that definition will do. It’s all the vast and wildly changing ways your car interacts with you and the world around it, how it functions, interprets and defines myriad mounds of information. If you owned a car even 10 years ago, you’re aware of how fast technology is advancing; if you owned a car decades ago you’ll appreciate (or maybe not) that you are essentially driving a computer with tires.

Imagine you have a squawking baby, and instead of trying to guess why it’s wailing, you could plug it into a computer and have the reason displayed for you. No more endless nights. No more wondering what you’ve forgotten, or haven’t tried, or never knew. That’s what technology has given us with our cars. Plug it in, let the computer spit out the codes, remedy the problem and off you go!

It doesn’t always work that way, but with more things that can go wrong it stands to reason the fix will end up being complimentary to the levels of complication. Your car will tell you what ails it; and increasingly, your car will also squeal on you. This is the marvel of telematics. Like the black boxes they always scramble to find in the event of an airplane crash, our cars all have a version of this implanted in them.

Several years back, American insurance company State Farm started offering their clients the chance to have their every move monitored while driving to allow them to save money on their premiums. Other companies have followed suit. Demonstrate to their version of Big Brother that you are a safe driver and they’ll clip your rates. Telematics in the monitor report how often you drive, how far, how quickly you brake, how erratic your steering might be and if you’re inclined to hit things. Other companies have followed suit, and ducklings in 40 states have opted in. For 2016, GM’s OnStar will be offering this built-in to their systems; your participation is optional.

Who wouldn’t welcome the chance to save some money? Who isn’t an excellent driver, sick of paying to balance the statistics against those lunatics out there driving up rates? If you’ve got nothing to hide, who cares who looks?

I’m always surprised at how quickly people are willing to put a price on their basic freedoms. Average savings are about 10%, it turns out; while insurance premiums are brutal and insane in Ontario, most places are a little more tempered. Would I let you monitor my every move while I drive to save $180? Not a chance.

The downside to this hyper spying is usually glossed over. What if they find you’re a terrible driver? Will they hike your rates? Well, no, they say. “Not yet” goes unspoken. And an even more insidious thought creeps in here: insurance companies are hardly going to shave that off their bottom line and not make it up somewhere else. If I simply say, “No thanks,” will that result in my rates increasing because I won’t play? What if someone else drives my car, and one of us is excellent and one less so?

Many cars now feature eco systems, usually little green leaves that light up when you are driving well. You are rewarded, like some Pavlovian auto dog, for driving as smoothly as a fart on a sailboat. If you have to have an impact on the environment, at least you can make it as gentle as possible.

A couple of years back, I took part in an experiment. I hypermiled across this glorious country from Halifax to Vancouver. It was a stunt, really, to use as little fuel as possible. The goal was to employ every trick in the book to not use gas. We made it on four and a half tanks in a new Passat. On paper, quite a feat. In practice? Ridiculous. And often dangerous.

Driving to the rhythm of a black box produces the same thing. It may register a car that never goes over the speed limit (though is frequently under, which is equally dangerous); it may register a car that glides away from a light slowly enough to guarantee nobody else makes the light. It may register that you’ve come to no sudden stops, which could be due to your diligent awareness of all around you, or the fact that you’re plugging along in the passing lane and making all go around you. There is no context.

Because I have sons, I’ve had manufacturers presume I’ll be very excited with their new nanny systems that allow me to monitor their driving habits. Putting governors on speed and radio levels, and computer programs that allow me to download where they’ve been and how they’ve driven. They presumed wrong. If I don’t trust my kids with my car keys, they don’t get the keys. How in the world could it ever have helped my parents to never trust me, or me to never learn to make decisions without someone watching my every move?

I’m all for drivers developing better skills and becoming safer. That’s called training. Altering your driving patterns to satisfy a box regardless of your circumstances is like training a surgeon on a game of Operation.

You may learn not to light up the clown’s nose, but you haven’t really learned any skill.

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A deployed airbag inflates at about 320 km/h, and you don’t want your legs to be in the way when it does

Originally published: January 5, 2015

For Bethany Benson, 22, it should have been an uneventful drive back from her aunt’s house in Michigan to her own in Oshawa. It was August 2, 2010, around 5 p.m. With her boyfriend at the time behind the wheel, they crossed the border and she decided to stretch out as best she could in the confines of her mom’s 2002 Sunfire. She reclined the seat a little and propped her feet up on the dashboard, soon sleeping as the farmlands that lined Highway 402 outside of Strathroy, Ont., slipped past.

Bethany knows what happened next only through the accounts of other people. A small car and a motorcycle were involved in a collision that would eventually cost the motorcyclist his life; coming upon that crash, a transport truck driver would hit his brakes to avoid it; the Sunfire was travelling behind the transport with Bethany asleep in the passenger seat. As the brake lights flashed, her boyfriend desperately tried to avoid the suddenly stopping rig. He couldn’t.

Looking at photos of the Sunfire it’s hard to believe Bethany and her boyfriend survived. He would require 100 stitches, but Bethany would have her life altered forever because of one chance decision she made before nodding off.

She had put her feet on the dash.

A deployed airbag inflates at about 320 km/h. That’s a little faster than most Formula One cars race. This is what hit Bethany’s hamstrings, driving her knees into her face. Her left eye socket and cheekbone were broken, as was her nose. Her jaw was dislocated, a tooth cut through her lower lip and she would lose her spleen. Both feet were broken and compressed, and would eventually end up nearly 2 sizes smaller than they were before the crash. Her left pupil would remain permanently dilated affecting her vision, her hearing would remain altered and her memory would be wiped and rebooted like a faulty computer program. But perhaps the most dangerous injury would be the one her mother was told at the time not to worry about: a brain bleed.

Before August 2, 2010, Bethany Benson had been on her way to becoming a teacher. In September, she would be heading back to Trent University to finish her degrees in French and History, then on to a B. Ed in Teacher’s College. Instead, after a day on life support following the crash, she awoke no longer bilingual; she would have to relearn French, and even much of her English.

Four years later, the young woman sitting before me appears to be like any other 26-year-old. She matter-of-factly lists off the injuries she suffered, though sometimes coming back to things she’s left out. She was slated to have her first amateur boxing match that fall, proving herself to be more than a casual athlete. Kayaking, rollerblading, skating, snowboarding; she tells me surrendering her various gear in the year after the crash was difficult, a tangible acceptance of changes that would be permanent.

“Any shoes I wear have to have these special orthotics in them. They cost $450, and the shoes they fit cost $180. I had to get rid of my high heels, I know it sounds dumb…”

No, it doesn’t sound dumb. Along with losing so much of what many of us take for granted, she also lost most of her friends. That boyfriend who was driving is gone, and Bethany is still angry that he wasn’t charged. I tell her four years is a long time to carry around something she can’t change; when I ask her mother later how she feels towards the boy, she smiles and says she has no hard feelings at all.

That brain bleed? Bethany was no longer the Bethany she was before the crash. She says she could no longer do what her friends were doing; bars and clubs are physically draining, her hearing now ultra sensitive. Her mother adds more nuance.

“I got back a different daughter. I lost a sweet 22-year-old who worked full-time and put herself through university. She was on a great path. I got a 13-year-old with anger issues.” In the months immediately following the crash, Bethany would text people in the middle of the night. Texts that were angry and inappropriate, texts she doesn’t remember sending, but texts that many couldn’t see as a product of a damaged, changed brain. With fits of rage interspersed with understandable depressions, this Bethany is no longer that Bethany.

Mary Lachapelle is a housing co-ordinator with Durham Region. Brunette like her oldest daughter, she has a lovely smile that she uses often, though her words are tinged with a kind of resignation. Where Bethany has told me she realizes she will no longer be able to teach or do most of the sports she once loved, Mary has been forced to take a longer view.

“I have had to realize that my child will always live with me. We’ll have to find a house that affords us both some privacy and separation, but she is essentially a 13-year-old.”

I’ve asked to speak with Mary for some perspective on Bethany’s life since the crash, and what the future may hold. It quickly becomes clear that everything Bethany must deal with in turn becomes something Mary must.

“There will be no early retirement. Bethany only has medical benefits through my work, and there’s no way I can let that go.” In the years since the crash, their days have been filled with lawyers and lawsuits and insurance companies as well as the medical fallout of a daughter who has suffered a major brain injury. Within that legal labyrinth, Bethany is actually suing her own mother. Mary shrugs with a wry smile; Bethany flinches as she tells me this. Insurance companies work in twisted ways sometimes.

In an odd footnote, Bethany had been involved in a collision on August 2, 2009 – exactly one year before this crash. A cab she was riding in in Toronto was t-boned. The legal fallout from that event has been folded into this one as lawyers and insurance adjustors argue over who will pay what to whom.

“They said the brain bleed would be absorbed back into her body. It seemed her physical injuries were the biggest problems,” says her mother. In retrospect, there are questions about what opportunities or treatments might have been lost because of this line of reasoning.

“My daughter is 26. I’m not legally able to know what meds she might be taking, or when. And yet, she is basically a 13-year-old, with all the immaturity and impulsiveness you would associate with that. She’s naive.” As we speak Bethany is sitting nearby texting madly on her phone, their 14-year-old Lhasa Apso, Max, at her feet. It is clear mother and daughter are close; it is also clear that Mary has had to support these myriad new problems and challenges while simultaneously grieving the loss of the child she once had.

In all of our exchanges and throughout our meeting, Bethany is adamant about getting out the message: everything she had, everything she was, changed because she put her feet up on that dash. Airbags and seatbelts are designed to save you, but you compromise that with something as mundane as improper and reclined seating positions. Bethany wants to be an advocate, be able to pass along the message to others who could benefit from all she has suffered.

Speaking with her mother, I sense an even broader message. With insurance companies putting a two-year cap on progress – a benchmark passed 2 years ago – Mary wonders if her daughter has reached her peak recovery.

“I don’t know if she’s improving, or if I’m just getting better at managing.”

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There was a reason I dreaded parking in the old family garage

Originally published: December 29, 2014

I know people who suspend a tennis ball from a string in their garage so they can line up their windshield when they park. This is a fascinating concept: keeping an expensive car in the spot it was designed to go instead of using that place to keep toboggans and Christmas ornaments, a bookcase that will be for someone, someday, a bucket filled with left-handed gardening gloves, boxes of dusty Mason jars because the urge to preserve never coincides with the year the garden produces a bounty, and shelves of nearly empty paint cans that have thawed and frozen four times and still nobody has done the touch-up from the last decorating binge.

As kids, we weren’t supposed to keep our bikes in the garage. They were supposed to be locked in the shed at night. Every night, somebody would yell, did somebody lock the shed? It was our version of the Waltons. If nobody wanted to go check, somebody would just say yes. One night my bike was stolen from the shed, and I still don’t know if it was a lying Waltons night. It probably was, and I deserved it, but it had been my first not hand-me-down bike and though it was used, it hadn’t been used by one of my sisters. I’d painted it blue and now somebody else had my new old blue bike.

I know exactly how big my garage is. It is a tiny bit smaller than a 1966 AMC Rambler station wagon. I grew up in this house, and each winter, my father would shove his clutter to the walls of the garage and announce we’d now be parking inside. Shovels and brooms and cans and bins would line the space like wallflowers at a high school dance. If he was driving, he would get out and raise the door, then jab the car into the space as if he were being dared not to.

If we hadn’t gotten out ahead of time, we would ease our little girl bodies through spaces as wide as a sneeze, our winter coats buffing the side of the car and trapping winter deep in the wool fibres. Dad would pretend he had all the room in the world and tell us to quit complaining.

If you went back out a few minutes later to grab your forgotten book bag, you could hear the beast settling and ticking, ice dripping quietly to the cement floor. Once I thought this might be a good place to escape a noisy house, and I’d snuck out with a book. It was cold and it was dark, and this was one of the first times I learned that just because I could imagine it, that didn’t make it real.

If Mom was driving, she’d just leave the car in the driveway. She hated the garage, and we didn’t have a tennis ball. Dad would bark about the snow and the next day, she’d try again. We’d hold our breath with her, backseat navigators wincing in anticipation of contact. It would happen on occasion, and it was then I learned that it is difficult to decide if some bad situations are best resolved by carrying on, or backing out and repeating the damage in reverse. Mom would just throw it into park and tell us to be quiet.

Paint scratches on a car are like most secrets – not secrets at all. Dad would start to say something, and Mom would give him that look and mutter something about threading a needle with a Rambler. He’d shut up.

The garage door was heavy and the protruding frame cut into valuable parking space. It had two huge rusty springs, and it wasn’t long after I moved back in that one of those springs let go and shot across the garage. Dumbfounded that something that had been there forever hadn’t continued to be, I went to the hardware store seeking a replacement. The assistant suggested I buy two; I nodded, and said something about keeping a spare. He raised his eyebrows and kindly said replace them both.

We knew people who had immaculate garages, and I’m jealous still when I step into an uncluttered space, more organized and cleaner than any room inside my house. My mother would marvel at friends who didn’t have to step over toolboxes to get to a garbage can, and her eyes would dance as she declared the floor clean enough to eat from. Dad would be envious they had a garage wide enough that nobody scratched the hell out of the car getting it in there.

I don’t park my car in the garage, though my current car is far smaller than any station wagon we ever owned. Maybe if I had a tennis ball, I tell myself. Instead it holds the accumulation of kids in residence, bikes I forget to ask about when everybody is home, and too many snow shovels. There are also shelves of ancient Quaker State and Armor-All, settled in their greasy dusty rings where my Dad left them before he died in 1996.

It’s not because of the tennis ball.

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Sharing drunk driving checkpoint locations solves nothing

Originally published: December 22, 2014

I was 17 when I walked into the kitchen one cold January morning. It was just after 6 a.m., and the radio that sat perched on a shelf was churning out the news. My Dad had a look on his face I’d never seen before.

“Rainey, Allan’s been killed.” I don’t recall most of the following week, though I’ve never forgotten the last 34 years. When your first boyfriend gets killed by a drunk driver, time warps, and then flattens out.

Attitudes towards drinking and driving have changed a great deal. Canada has in place zero tolerance for young and new drivers; we’ve seen the “acceptable” blood alcohol content (BAC) drop to 0.05 from 0.08, though in Saskatchewan, where alcohol-related driving offences persist, they’ve dropped it to 0.04. Ontario has the RIDE program; Alberta and Manitoba have the Checkstop Program; British Columbia has the CounterAttack program; every populated part of Canada has a version of it. It’s that time of year when you can expect to encounter a phalanx of police cars as you go through the holiday season.

We have a tangled relationship with alcohol and driving. One is a right; one is a privilege. Your eyes can glaze over trying to ascertain the effects of booze on people of different weights and genders. You watch people start making important decisions about their ability to drive home after they’re half-plastered, and we actually need commercials to tell us it’s OK to take the keys away from someone. Who wants to get into an altercation with a mean drunk?

The Internet is awash in do-it-yourself kits for those trying to plan their drinking and driving. Buy your own breathalizer! Blow and go! Couple things to remember, though. The only number that will matter is the one on the equipment the police use, and your BAC will actually go up for 30 to 90 minutes after your last drink. Your get out of jail free card might be the exact opposite. The average price of those kits is about $120; that’s a few cab fares.

Across Canada, laws have been tightened in recent years. Depending on the province you live in, that first offence 0.05 can cost you a licence suspension and/or vehicle impoundment from 24 hours to three days. In some cases in Ontario if there is a sober passenger, they can drive your car. If somebody in your car is sober and can drive, why the hell were you behind the wheel?

Many of us were raised with 0.08 being the magic cut off point. It is, in a way, only now it defines where criminal charges can set in. If you’re thinking of playing Name That Impairment, cops are getting specialty training to identify a wide range of drugs – both legal and illegal. If they suspect impairment, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt.

There are people who cry foul at the RIDE and Checkstop-type programs. There are others who take to Twitter to warn of where checkpoints have been set up. I admit to a secret dark place in my cold heart for these people. Ride checks take seconds – literally. I’m against cars being tracked for insurance purposes, I’m against monitoring how and where your kids drive and virtually every other Big Brother tentacle we keep getting sold in the name of safety. I am not against you being asked if you’ve been drinking while you’re on the road.

Your reaction to booze can change with your mood, your health, how tired you are or what you’ve eaten. It can change with age. Lists of numbers and stats that generalize can’t capture any of this, but you know what you know whether you admit it to anyone else or not.

As a kid, we didn’t use seatbelts on long trips; I can’t remember if the old ’66 Rambler even had seatbelts. Today that is inconceivable to me. As a kid, I remember my Dad spending afternoons drinking beer with my uncle (they didn’t like each other; there was a lot of beer) and then he’d drive us home. Today that is inconceivable to me. I hope the current generation will make the idea of texting while they’re driving inconceivable for the next one – it’s even worse than impaired driving.

Pleading with the hardcore drinkers is never going to change them. I wince when I read of people who have stacked up multiple DUIs and wish the court systems would recognize that impaired driving is like handing a drunk a handgun. Our cars are weapons; impaired drivers can be killers.

But don’t name a designated driver for me. Don’t take a cab because I’m asking you to. Don’t even do it because it’s the law. Do it for that 20-year-old boy who died 34 years ago.

And do it for that 17-year-old girl who was changed forever.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Whether it be hogging the passing lane or listening to the radio at full blast, these seven driving infractions may be legal, but they’re still infuriating

Originally published: December 15, 2014

We rattle on at length about the stupid, illegal things people do while they’re driving. What about the stupid legal – or debatably and/or grey area legal – things that people do?

  1. I’ve watched this one happen more than once, and it’s always like a telegraphed slow motion train wreck. You can see it coming. In bumper to bumper traffic in lousy weather, someone will be speeding along in the HOV lane. Yup, they’re one of the special ones and it’s legal and I’m jealous when I can’t do it, but watch that long line of red lights cramming the lanes beside zippedy-do-dah alley. If something mucks up over there, they’re going to dodge right into that open space to the left. By all means take advantage of your advantage, but continue to drive as if anything ahead of you could – and will – happen.
  2. Listening to your sound system on “stupid loud”. That’s higher than 11. They’re your eardrums and not mine, but if you can’t hear emergency vehicles until you see their lights filling your rear-view mirror, you’re dangerous not only to yourself but to everyone else on the road. Many of us have compromised senses already; why would you knowingly remove one that could literally put you in the middle of a life-or-death situation for someone else?
  3. Road conditions are terrible. Everyone is slowed to a crawl. Except you. You have the traction – if not the brakes – to keep aiming for 100 km/h, and you’re going to do it. Will you get a ticket? Likely only after you’re in the ditch or jammed up the butt of another car. Cops aren’t going to race after you (though you can’t outrun a radio call) because they know Darwin is parked just up ahead, ready to pull you over.
  4. You’ve straddled a couple of parking spots with your cherished chariot, or nudged up so close to the vehicle beside yours they’ll need the Jaws of Life to get in. Is it illegal? While it may violate some bylaw statutes in public lots, in private ones, it’s up to those who monitor it. I’ve never seen a ticket on one of these; what I have seen – increasingly – are others taking photos to upload to a number of sites calling out these selfish and/or oblivious parkers. I think that would be more embarrassing, frankly. Licence plate numbers are public, but whether you can post those plates and not contravene PIPEDA (Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act) remains fuzzy. So to speak.
  5. That brat on a skateboard who just shot out in front of you. That idiot jaywalking in the dark on a rainy night. That cyclist cutting lanes. They all may be at fault if something goes horribly wrong, but you being right doesn’t make them any less injured or dead. You’re not legally obligated to anticipate everyone’s dumb move, but wouldn’t you rather avoid the hollow victory of being in the right just to prove it?
  6. Nearly everywhere in Canada (not Nunavut) has outlawed using handheld devices while driving. What haven’t been outlawed are handheld meals. Unless an officer observes you swerving madly or you actually cause a collision because the lid flips off your coffee, most jurisdictions haven’t made eating in your car illegal. That is excellent, because I like to believe we’re smart enough to not attempt to one hand a Big Mac before it falls apart on our dry-clean only pants. Right?
  7. That puddin’ head clogging up the passing lane? Because our laws are full of wordings like “should” and “flow of traffic” and others that remain open to interpretation, in many cases it is technically legal, if not right, for them to keep doing what they’re doing. Police don’t like to ticket someone for going the speed limit; the fact everyone around them is going with the “flow of traffic” means cops aren’t likely to weigh in unless a driver edges into dangerous or reckless behaviour, but it’s others who are more likely to do that. Left lane bandits are usually one of two things: someone who is totally unaware of what is going on around them, or someone who believes it is his or her civic duty to school the rest of us. Is this the most annoying driving behaviour? Probably. We all like to think we couldn’t be goaded into doing stupid things, but someone destroying the flow of traffic engenders more road rage than nearly anything else. We have laws for that road rage; why not have some laws with teeth to take care of lane hogs once and for all?

Lawmakers realized early on that it’s impossible to cover every possibility. With so many factors involved on a roadway, there’s a lot of play in the rope around many of our laws. Everything you just read comes down to common sense and a spirit of unselfishness. Do we really need more and more laws to tell us this?

Of course we do. Unfortunately.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Self-entitled drivers continue to use and abuse specially designated parking spots

Originally published: December 8, 2014

When I recently did a Top Ten parking violations column, I was taken to task for leaving out the most grievous one. That was intentional, because it deserves a column of its own. And I saved it till now, probably the best time of year to find the festive season bringing out the worst of the worst.

Accessible parking zones are those big, handy, clearly marked spaces right near the doors of every building. You may have even noticed more of them lately, as accommodating an aging population while encouraging a more inclusive society allows more people to participate in more activities. This is a very good thing; this is an encouraging thing; this is a vital thing.

What is less good, less encouraging and less vital is some selfish ass deciding his or her immediate concerns trump all of those real reasons.
There was a time when users had actual licence plates with a wheelchair logo on them. Those designated areas were called handicapped parking spots. As time evolved, it became clear that some nuance was useful: a person with mobility issues might not always be riding in one specific car, thus a portable sign made more sense. It also became clear that while some disabilities were permanent, many were not; a medical professional could issue a temporary permit, usually valid for two to 12 months, and all of these would be reviewed and renewed at certain intervals.

A funny thing happened on the way to the parking lot. People realized that those portable signs meant you could use grandma as a placeholder, leaving her in the car while you went shopping. Or you could lend, borrow, lose, steal or counterfeit those portable signs. What a wonderful cross section we are, those who follow the rules and those who thumb their noses at them. There are also those who believe they are merely bending or extending the rules: sure, the person who requires this pass isn’t technically with me, but I’m doing errands on their behalf, so close enough, right?

In most jurisdictions, a valid accessible parking pass allows you to park in many areas for free and in many no parking/no stopping zones for a period of time. It’s like a get out of jail free card, and for those with mobility issues, it’s a freedom they deserve. Consider the eligibility guidelines laid out by the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario:

  • you can’t walk without assistance of another person, brace, cane, crutch, a lower limb prosthetic device or similar assistive device or require the assistance of a wheelchair
  • you suffer from lung disease to such an extent that forced expiratory volume in 1 second is less than 1 litre
  • a portable oxygen is a medical necessity
  • your cardiovascular disease impairment classified as class 3 or class 4 to standards accepted by the American heart association or Class 3 or 4 according to the Canadian cardiovascular standard
  • you are severely limited in the ability to walk due to an arthritic, neurological, musculoskeletal or orthopaedic condition
  • your vision is 20/200 or poorer in the better eye with or without corrective lenses or the greatest diameter of the field of vision in both eyes is 20 degrees or less
  • you have a condition or functional impairment that severely limits your mobility

Provinces vary, but all eligibility requirements hinge on an ailment or injury that compromises the holder’s mobility. Not all of these issues may be obvious to a casual observer, though blatant abuse of this system has turned many of us into fuming vigilantes. Believe me: someone is always watching, and many of us wish it were someone who could slap you with fines that can go up to $5,000.

The CBC recently reported permit issues have risen 64% in Ontario over the past five years. 179,632 permits were issued in 2013, about 1.3% of the population. If I’ve deciphered the Ontario building code correctly, the mall nearest me with 2,861 parking spots should have 39 marked as accessible. It has 97, or about 3.4%. As I waited to pick up a kid from work there last week, I watched two of the four accessible spots I could see repeatedly filled by people either waiting like I was, or running to the Starbucks located by that exit. My terribly unscientific observance can’t relay how many people who had a legal right to those spots were inconvenienced, only that none of them should have been at a facility that is providing nearly three times the accommodation the law requires.

I take issue with other designated parking spots. Being pregnant is not a handicap; temporary permits can be issued by your doctor should you require one. Having small children is not a handicap (though, yes, there are many times I might have argued that one differently).

Unlike designated accessible parking spots, those pink placarded ones are not protected by law. They’re a courtesy of the mall where you’re shopping, but if that’s the case, I’d like to see them extend the courtesy a little further. I’d like designated spots for people who take up two spots, and I’d like a section for people who can’t open their car doors without an almighty boof that dings up the car next to them. I’d like an area for people who get in their car, start it, and proceed to do their makeup, talk on their phone or read their owner’s manual, all while a chain of people are waiting for a spot. These areas could all be in the back 40 of the lot.

The list of requirements to have a valid accessibility permit is clear. Designated spots should be – and usually are – clearly marked. Don’t use someone else’s permit; don’t continue to use a permit you no longer need; and maybe more importantly, don’t think your sense of entitlement outbids someone else’s rights.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

What do you do when your loved one is a bad driver?

Originally published: December 1, 2014

I love you but I hate driving with you.

Forget all the awkward conversations you do your best to avoid; this is the worst. It’s easy to bellow and bitch at “The Others”, those on the road putzing along in the passing lane, those who refuse to signal, and those who run red lights. But what do you do when the source of your teeth grinding is someone you love? What do you do when you know there is no hope of change, little possibility of rehabilitation?

There are several types of Bad Drivers We Love (BDWL). There is the one who has never been good, and never will be. An acquaintance of mine loves to get new cars. She buys expensive cars, and usually shows up in my driveway with her latest acquisition. I am glad she does this, because it’s nice to see what’s making her happy and because she usually throws me the keys and says, “Let’s go for a ride.”

The only time this gets un-fun is when she doesn’t throw me the keys. She is a lovely person who has a great job that allows her to indulge her love of fine automobiles, but she is a horrendous driver. She drives much too fast most of the time and she is usually not looking at the road. Her offspring have asked me if I can intervene, but the sad fact is that bad drivers are pretty much like alcoholics: they have to admit they have a problem. The law may provide some bumper guards on the situation, but I’ve known more than one moneyed person who considers speeding tickets a cost of driving the way they like, and they just write cheques to fix the bumps and scrapes they incur.

A woman I knew years ago was married to a maniac. Huge ego, huge truck, huge paycheque, huge sense of entitlement. Whereas my well-off friend didn’t think she was a bad driver, this guy revelled in being a road bully. He simply didn’t care. His wife wouldn’t let him drive with the kids in the car, and I couldn’t help but think that was a great solution for them, but what about the rest of us out there sharing the road with him?

I love my kids, but I put them in the BDWL category of “I know they will get better”. I’m sure it’s as much optics as anything, but I think people follow too closely. I think my kids do this more than anyone else. I have no problem barking at them, but I’m also aware negative reinforcement doesn’t work. They’re too old for me to say, “Hey, good work!” and give them an M&M like when they were potty training, but I wish there was something comparable. Experience makes them better every day, and I’m quite sure I’m overreacting, a parental hazard. They will outgrow my judgmental categorizing.

A tougher BDWL? The people who have the opposite problem. They’ve always been good, safe drivers, but now they’re less so. Sometimes it’s an inability to adjust to new technology and more crowded roads. Sometimes it’s the belief that no tickets = no problems. Sometimes it’s someone who is totally clueless about what is taking place all around them, and the impact on their driving environment. This might be an aging parent, and this is one helluva hard conversation.

“I don’t know why people are always honking so much,” said one Bad Driver I Love several years ago. I grimaced inwardly, knowing he was inciting the wrath of all around him because he’d taken the passing lane to pass a slower car – the right move – and stayed there. For ages. Wrong move. He was observing the speed limit, but there is the speed limit on the sign and there is the speed limit on the road. Even cops hate to get into that discussion, the flow of traffic rule. Unable to be a shrinking violet this late in my life, I suggested he might want to get over. He did so immediately, but the next time we drove, he was back to his old habits. Here’s a hint: if you get honked at a lot, you’re doing something wrong. A lot of somethings.

Dealing with these situations is child’s play compared to the big one: The Bad Driver You Love That You’re Married To. Because I’m allergic to matrimony, I can make this a deal breaker. But I grew up in a family where my parents both drove and my father made my mother nuts. He treated driving like some kind of combat, and it was years before I learned that when people go to pass you, you aren’t supposed to speed up as if some gauntlet has been thrown down.

I believe you should pay close attention to the driving habits of someone you’re about to marry. Much is revealed here, and little will ever change. If you think she’s timid and she thinks she’s careful, your exasperation will indeed turn her careful into timid. Timid is not good. If he thinks he’s confident and you think he’s aggressive, raising the point will only make him more aggressive to prove his competence.

I’ve said before that telling someone they’re a terrible driver is like telling them they’re terrible in bed: you’re not going to say it to someone you care about, though it’s knowledge they could use. The worst thing about Bad Drivers We Love is that they are blissfully unaware they are bad.

Which I suppose means I might be someone’s Bad Driver.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments