Confidence and a firm grasp on the rules of the road are required to get your licence

Originally published: March 9, 2015

Giving your kid tips on passing their driving test? Why not start with the top reasons they might fail?

Tim Danter owns the DriveWise school in Oakville, Ont. He’s prepared thousands of teenagers for their roadway rite of passage.

Additionally, he carries out assessments for corporate fleets of drivers of all ages, getting a front row seat to how our driving improves as we age – and how it deteriorates.

Parallel parking: Eavesdrop on a roomful of 18-year-olds discussing their final road test, and you’ll hear a lot of talk about parallel parking. This was the bugaboo when I was getting my test; surely it’s a myth?

“No, you mess up the parallel parking badly enough, you’ll flunk your test,” according to Danter. “It’s about positioning, but it’s also about jumping the curb or not having control of the vehicle as you back up.”

Dangerous action: “If the examiner has to take physical or verbal control of the car, that’s a fail,” says Danter. If you’ve pulled out in front of a car or made a dangerous lane change, you’ll be rebooking. Sure-fire way to know if you’ve screwed up? “If you get honked at; getting honked at is not a good sign.”

Lack of confidence: Danter says many learning drivers think by driving under the speed limit or hesitating too long at intersections, they’ll be exhibiting a caution that will be rewarded. They’re wrong. “They’re not showing true mastery of the skills. They’ll lose points, and operating the vehicle that way doesn’t reflect real life applications.” This is all before the problem with impeding the flow of traffic is taken into consideration.

Collision: “The test is over. Doesn’t matter who caused the crash, protocol is that the test is stopped.” I asked if fault is determined by an examiner, and the impact that might have on future tests. “If the applicant isn’t at fault, they simply rebook the test. If they are at fault, they will be charged by police under the Highway Traffic Act.” Losing demerits points and/or getting a fine before you even get your final licence in the mail; bummer.

Too many errors: the most common reason of all. Break the law, you’ve failed. Yes, that means even a little bit of speeding. If you take a look at the list of ways you can mess up, you will notice a lot of little boxes waiting to be ticked on that long piece of paper on the examiner’s clipboard. Here in Ontario, for example, a lane change is broken down into eight movements; eight different chances to earn a tick on one exercise. You not only have to complete 10 different sections (comprised of 24 subsections), you have to do it safely and with confidence. You need to master the skills, not just know them.

I asked Danter about people driving to rural communities to take their final tests, circumventing crowded city streets and things like cyclists and pedestrians. “People do it; technically, a DriveTest facility is the same anywhere, but it’s absolutely different in smaller communities.” It’s not a myth. Some driving instruction places advertise their high pass rates achieved by ferrying students – for a fee – to more remote testing areas. If you’ve ever wondered how some people manage to get licensed, part of your answer might be here.

So when Danter is doing fleet assessments of experienced drivers, it must be easy. He laughs. “We see a different set of behaviours. The top three offences are speeding, following too closely and compromised observation skills.” Experience is a good thing behind the wheel, but the actions of seasoned drivers can be the reverse of the beginners; no more nerves, but not enough caution.

It can be nerve-wracking for parents as the new drivers in the house are learning. I’ve driven with people who are instinctively good drivers at a young age; I’ve driven with many who, with experience, drive well. And I’ve driven with people who have no business being behind the wheel, either at all or any longer. Instead of allowing wannabe drivers to go fishing for easier places to take their licences, it should be harder to get licensed, period. We should be retesting far sooner than the 80-year-old cut off in many places, as Danter’s corporate reassessments show. Car fatalities are falling because of the safer car surrounding the driver, not because of a better driver behind the wheel.

Recently, a video of a 92-year-old Wisconsin man hitting nine cars in a parking lot in about a minute went viral. He drove off, after ramming them both in forward and reverse. The most stunning part? No charges were laid. Here’s a guy who only needed one more car to score a perfect strike, yet telling police he panicked is good enough.

Too bad it’s only the kids who are so nervous about driving well.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Trapped in a car with a smoker. Is there anything worse?

Originally published: March 2, 2015

When I was 8, I had surgery on my foot which meant a cast and crutches, and it also meant I couldn’t take the school bus. Instead, for a few weeks I got to go in a taxi. The taxi was awesome; I got to sit in the front and muck with the metre, and chatter to my personal chauffeur, Marie. Marie was kind and gruff and chain-smoked the entire ride, her gravelly voice no doubt the result of those endless cigarettes.

I was fascinated, watching her use the car’s lighter. I’d inhale as deeply as I could as the initial curl of smoke left the crackling tobacco. I can still see the red packaging and the block lettering of the brand: Du Maurier. I told myself when I was old enough, I too would smoke Dumo-reers.

I never did take up smoking, because 8-year-olds are curious and easily awed and sometimes dumb and that’s why they don’t get to do things like smoke and drink and drive cars. But to this day I remember the overwhelming urge, in just those few short weeks, to mimic this behaviour. There was a time when 8-year-olds (and the adults around them) thought it was perfectly okay to be trapped in a sealed box inhaling one of man’s most perfect carcinogens: cigarette smoke.

I don’t blame Marie, or my non-smoking parents. Around this time, nearly half of Canadians over the age of 15 smoked; that number has tumbled in the ensuing decades and now sits at just under 20%. Beginning in 2008, most areas of Canada began making it illegal to smoke in a car with occupants under the age of 16 (19 in Nova Scotia). Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Quebec are still cool with letting the youngsters steep in the toxic waste of second-hand smoke. These three places also have higher than average smoker rates; in fact Nunavut is three times the national average. Won’t anyone think of the children?

England is set to adopt a version of this law later this year, following the lead of only a handful of other countries. More are heading that way, but considering all we know about second-hand smoke, it’s a little mind-blowing so many can continue to believe it’s fine to belt kids into cars like tiny hostages and subject them to this.

I remember when Ontario introduced the ban – yet another nanny-state, went the rhetoric – but really, how much can you argue? I agreed we shouldn’t have to make it a law; I also recognize it was the only way to force people to stop doing it. Babies can’t speak for themselves, and all children of smokers have a far greater risk of themselves becoming smokers. I don’t know a parent alive who gazes lovingly at their newborn and hopes they will grow up to be addicted to nicotine.

When smoking got pushed out of restaurants and workplaces and malls and arenas, I was thrilled. That 8-year-old-me had outgrown her fascination. For much of my life, it had been a smoker’s world and while I knew I was in the majority, we were indeed mostly silent. Science helped us out; if you’re a migraine sufferer you’ll know why I’d like to see it extended to people who bathe in perfume or cologne.

If you’re purchasing a new car, you’ll be hard pressed to find an ashtray and a lighter as stock equipment. You have to order a special “smoker’s package” as manufacturers maximize space for more toys and tech as they capitalize on shrinking smoking rates. I see a lot fewer piles of cigarette butts in parking lots, hopefully meaning people have stopped with that filthy habit of dumping their ashtrays. For those who still toss their cigarette butts out the window, please know there is a special place in the afterlife where you will have to face every motorcyclist who has had to dodge them.

Many of us view our vehicles as an extension of our homes. We own them, we maintain them, and we’ll do what we want in them. And I agree. I mean, I won’t buy a used car from you and neither will a lot of other people, but it’s your right to lawfully do whatever you want in your private space.

Just don’t torture everyone else, regardless of age. We shouldn’t need a law for that.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Nine easy steps to becoming a more considerate driver

Originally published: February 23, 2015

Forget the law for a moment, and let’s instead steer all the road warriors toward an etiquette book. Don’t worry, it’s not about soup spoons and white gloves, it’s about maintaining decorum from the driver’s seat because we’re really not all a bunch of animals … are we?

  • Doing the wave: Where has this gone? When did we stop acknowledging when someone has done something kind on the road? I was brought up in a car where we ALL waved when someone let us in. I’m sure we looked ridiculous, but think of the appreciation you feel when you do something decent and someone actually thanks you! When someone lets you into a string of cars, thank them.
  • Overdoing the wave: Don’t let 15 people in. Go look up “zipper merging” and “how to proceed at a four-way stop” and understand the best way to maintain a flow of traffic is not to make up your own rules. Use a wave for courtesy, play charades at home.
  • Handle the handle with care: Open your car door in a crowded parking lot the way you’d open a door into a crowded room: carefully. Careless door dinging is like vandalism; costly, avoidable and, I’m sorry, but it’s damned rude. If you can’t exit your car without destroying the one you parked beside, park elsewhere. Flipside, if you can’t park your car properly and have effectively left a gap as wide as a sneeze, you deserve what you get.
  • Back off: The backseat driver, as in, you’re in my back seat but you’re driving the car behind me. Please, just no. Apparently nobody cares that the Highway Traffic Act prohibits following too closely, and this isn’t about fools putzing along in the passing lane. When my mirrors are full of your headlights (or better yet, when you’re so far up my arse I can no longer see your headlights) I have to wonder what your gain is. You can no longer see what’s ahead of me, and surprise, surprise if I have to get around debris that will now end up stuck in your undercarriage. Sorry about that.
  • Parking lot constipation: I can’t give you the parking spot if you won’t let me go. There’s usually a third party involved – the second car also waiting for the spot – but if neither of you move, nobody wins. First car on the scene wins the spot. I’m sorry if you’ve been vulturing around the lot for 20 minutes, but nobody has any way of knowing that and it’s not worth fighting over. One car needs to surrender, the other car needs to wave thanks, and I need to go home.
  • Side streets, schmide streets: I know congestion is horrible, but for those of us living on side streets, we’re starting to feel like Whos on Horton’s clover. We are here! We are here! Refusing to make eye contact doesn’t mean I can’t see you. You had to get onto this roadway at some point; I have to get onto it here. Please be fair.
  • Just the facts, ma’am: If you hit it, admit it. The note under the windshield in a parking lot is the equivalent of a thank you note in the real world. Can you avoid it? Sure. But didn’t your mother teach you anything? And while doing the right thing should be a reward in itself, remember, there are cameras everywhere these days, so don’t count on a quiet getaway.
  • Give me a sign: I know this lane must turn right. All I want to know is that you know it too. So, yes, you still need to toss on your indicator. I actually didn’t know you were going to swing into that parking lot, so an indicator would have been welcome. Using turn signals is about more than letting others know you’re taking a left: it tells us you know what you’re doing, and that you’re doing it on purpose.
  • The universal hand gesture: No, not that one. Many of you have wondered why there is no widely recognized sign for saying sorry. This actually renews my faith in humanity: we need – and want – a way to apologize for lapses or screw-ups, to recognize that another driver has been kind enough to make room for a momentary miscue. Flashing headlights already mean get outta my way or cop ahead (note: I’m not endorsing either practice), indicators are supposed to be used to indicate turns, an interior light flashing on means you’ve dropped something, and if you’re racing to the next red light to yell at someone, mouthing the words “I’m sorry” is a little late. Elton John had it right: sorry seems to be the hardest word.

It’s too bad. I think it might go a long way toward getting drivers to put down their scissors and start playing well with others.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Here’s a novel idea: Buy a car you can actually afford

Originally published: February 16, 2015

I’m following the saga of an Ontario woman who bought a used 2010 Mini, had the engine blow and now thinks BMW should pay the freight to make her whole.

They actually did offer to suck up 60% of the tab if the work was done at their dealership; she bought the used vehicle from a different non-BMW dealer. But she’s done some research and decided the price is inflated. She should have taken the offer; she may have bought a pig in a poke, but it wasn’t BMW that sold it to her. I’m seeing a manufacturer offer up a palatable solution.

I’ve received a version of this problem more than once in my inbox, as have all my colleagues. I’ve heard of a lot of different vehicles crapping out, but I’ve had a couple identical to this one. Older Minis are infamous for not always aging well, and if this buyer had done some research before rather than after her purchase, she’d have discovered this in about 10 seconds. The Internet is your friend, used car buyer. This doesn’t make manufacturers right in not fixing ongoing mistakes they are aware of; it is to spare you the heartache of running into known traps.

A friend of a friend bought a used Smart car. I don’t know what that little Smartie had been put through, but whoever sold it to them didn’t care, and the buyer wasn’t savvy enough to find out. Once back home the problems immediately started, and the buyer finally realized that they’d bought a darling little car that was, at heart, packing Mercedes-Benz maintenance costs.

Everybody, whether buying new or used, wants to get the best deal possible on the car best suited to their needs. If you know little about cars and don’t want to be bothered to learn, don’t buy a used expensive-when-new, expensive-to-repair vehicle. If you’ve got $20,000 (what she paid for the Mini) to drop on a car and you want peace of mind, buy something – anything – new. Full warranty and the knowledge that this is the car you can actually afford.

The one time I watched this not play out was a guy my sister dated when she was a teen. He decided that for his $5,000, no way was he going used when he could get a brand new … Lada. I can still see the look on the boy’s face when he gallantly opened the door for her the first time, and the bottom hinge let go and left him holding up the door.

I’d never fault anyone for avoiding the Ladas of the world, but what about those who overshoot their mark? I call them aspirational buyers. They want the cachet behind a Benz or a Jag, or the iconic history of a Mini or a Range Rover. These are fine things to want, but the people who purchase those vehicles when new understand they are making a commitment to higher expenses than those incurred changing the oil in a Focus. Maybe you can afford to buy that car used, but that doesn’t mean you can afford to maintain it. And it’s going to cost you to maintain it.

We don’t have lemon laws in Canada, but we do have layers of consumer protection. OMVIC (Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council) have laws with teeth; CAMVAP (Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan) can go to bat for you to head off going to court; the UCDA (Used Car Dealer Association) monitors used car dealers who participate in their program; the APA (Automobile Protection Association) does their own testing and provides unbiased reporting on all aspects of the auto industry. Disclosure: the APA sponsors a TV show I host, and OMVIC is a sponsor.

The most difficult part of facing unexpected car woes, even with consumer protections in place, is that the hurt is immediate. The second your car dies on you, you are stranded. You are stuck making decisions that you may or may not (probably not) be reimbursed for. Most of us don’t have a spare car lying around; we’re stuck renting or borrowing or begging for a courtesy car. You know who is most free with the courtesy cars? Those high-end dealers you couldn’t afford to deal with in the first place. There are resources you can chase down, but they take time. Resolutions can take months from when initial problems begin.

I’m not going to go as far as George Iny of the APA did in this case and call “a used Mini a piece of junk.” I know several people who own and love their Minis. Would I let my kid buy one? Nope. But there are a lot of used cars I wouldn’t let my kid buy, and a high-end anything would be on that list. It’s like champagne tastes on a beer budget. Don’t forget what you’re drinking.

I don’t know a dealer that won’t offer you an extended warranty on a used car. Do some research; it might be worthwhile, though I won’t pay for them on a new vehicle. Look for what isn’t covered, rather than what is. It’s usually more revealing. Have a mechanic check out a car before you buy it; that hour of shop time might save you a world of pain.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Here’s the huge problem with push-button ignitions

Originally published: February 9, 2015

I don’t care if you take it personally; in fact, I think you should take it personally. What began as a no-doubt inspiring moment deep in the bowels of creation at Hoity Toity Carmakers has become a pox on much of the rest of the industry. Even if we don’t have $80,000 to drop on a car, we want our $20,000 purchase to pretend that we do. To help us along, you throw us bones like XM radio, a faux leather-wrapped steering wheel and that push button starter. Why turn a key like hordes of the great unwashed when you can simply push a button?

Actually, the hordes are shrinking, what with 72% of 2014 model cars offering a push button ignition as standard or optional. It’s a natural extension of those fabulous remote key fobs; I remember the exhilaration of being able to lock the car from the house, or to slide open a van door with the push of a button as I approached it. My joy only subsided when I realized how expensive those fobs are to replace: upwards of $300.

Several manufacturers have struggled with ignition switch woes (GM, of course, the most notable) and abandoning the key and switch assembly seems like a direct route out of the woods. The keyless option introduces a new set of problems, however, with sometimes tragic results. Growing pains included cars that needn’t be in park before being shut off and therefore rolling (“rollaways”), and engines left running in garages because a driver didn’t go through the tactile function of turning a key to shut it down, and many of today’s engines are incredibly quiet. Six carbon monoxide deaths have been recorded in the U.S., though some reports say there are more.

Less tragic but still annoying, more than once I’ve seen a key fob drive away in someone’s jacket, the car it belongs to idling in front of me. Granted, my job means I’m swapping out cars more than the average bear, but I’ve also known it to happen during more normal transactions, like parents switching cars at soccer practice to get another kid to baseball. More reminders and warnings are being incorporated, but the fact remains that a key advertised as being so smart you can leave it in your pocket means you’ll keep leaving it in your pocket.

Sometimes the inconvenience is more mundane, but more annoying. Last week, my kid inadvertently had a key fob to an Infiniti Q70 fall out of his pocket as he brought in the recycling bins. We’d been doing some car juggling, and I didn’t give it much thought for the rest of the night. The next day, his brother went out to shovel, and came in with the remains of the key fob I didn’t even know was missing. If you’d like to see what an Infiniti key fob looks like after a snowplow has run over it, please see the picture below.

fob

You get a real key hidden in the key fob. This is useful if the battery dies on your fob and you need to get into your car. The problem? You can open the car door, but you can’t start the engine. Nope. I’d not only destroyed an expensive fob, I now had a car I couldn’t move. I love all that technology gives us, but I recognize that every day we get farther away from being able to substitute even the most basic safety nets for more and more things. It might be better to light a candle than curse the darkness, but no candle was going to start that car, so I just cursed instead.

Never mind my inconvenience; first responders I’ve interviewed report they now have additional problems when they arrive on a crash scene involving a car with a push button ignition: they must locate the key to remove any chance of the engine being started if a rescuer bumps against the start button. If you’ve ever been in or witnessed a wrecked car, you know trying to locate something that small – that could be anywhere – is an added concern when every moment counts.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Act in the U.S. continues to do extensive testing across vehicle lineups, and they continue to find widespread issues of cars able to be turned off with a transmission not in park, and engines easily left running. Manufacturers continue to work with them to overcome problems like these, but some current fixes – like a dash warning that uselessly signals a driver who has already left the car – highlight the need for more work.

I don’t see the tide turning, ever. We will see more and more push button ignitions. Just do yourself a favour and remember how much they cost to replace, get in the habit of leaving it in the same place when you drive, and be certain the car is indeed in park and shut off when you exit. When you’re buying a car, ask about these important considerations, and make sure the carmaker is as interested in keeping you safe as they are in dazzling you with bells and whistles.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

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.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

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? 11foot8.com. 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.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

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.”

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment