You never forget your first car. Meet mine: the Ramchicken

Originally published: November 10, 2014

They say you never forget your first.

They’re right. When I was still driving my parents’ cars, I paid little attention to anything other than how much it cost to fill the tank. I’d complain about the colour – the orange AMC Matador wagon – or the fact I had to muck with the carburetor on rainy days – the black Dodge Ramcharger. I didn’t know how much tires cost, my insurance was negligible, and because my father insisted on buying cars outright, I’d never contemplated a car payment.

Then I got my own first car. A van actually, a 1984 Dodge Mini Ram. Repossessed by a leasing company, someone’s pain became my gain. It was the vehicle that helped save Chrysler, and it was the vehicle that made me a grown up. I was 21 and asking my Dad to co-sign a car loan, which actually was a bigger incentive to never miss a payment compared to the risk of a shot to my credit rating. $248.19 a month; why do some numbers stay with your forever? If anyone finds my Dudley combination lock from high school, try 42-6-47 and you’ll have yourself a dandy new lock.

Because my Dad still had his big Ramcharger, we called my van the Ramchicken. Not quite what Dodge had in mind, I’m certain, but that little dark red cargo van was a warrior. Four-speed manual with a floor mounted shift, it had no seating or windows in the back. It was big enough to move any friend schlepping a bed and dresser between semesters, sheets of plywood to the cottage or a dirt bike if the front forks were bungeed down just right. Passengers on board were no problem. I had foam coaches with stylish covers I’d made, which could be tossed in at will. Seatbelts you say? Nobody asked much about it back then, and I look at my sons and think if they ever did something like that I’d kill them. I’m officially telling stories that begin with, “Back in the day”.

Looking back, I demanded ridiculous things of that tiny van. We’d drive for 36 hours straight, pausing only to fill up the van’s tank or empty the passengers’. 240,000 kilometres were piled on in just a few years, each one noisy as the gears pulled every ounce of power from the small engine. The clutch was only ever replaced once, when someone decided it would be strong enough to drop a watercraft into a lake from a steep incline. We’d finally asked too much, and as CAA hooked up the small wounded body I felt terrible.

You do things when you’re young and naive, or at least young and energetic. No road trip is too ridiculous, no distance too far, no amount of discomfort too trying. Today I jet along in some of the safest, most luxurious vehicles on the road, and yet, I still think of my barebones Ramchicken so basic it didn’t have cup holders or even FM on the radio.

That van was driven across the country a couple of times and through most of the eastern U.S. If you’ve driven through the Rockies or parts of New England, you know the steep climbs and long slopes that form the highway. I’d look at a grade ahead, and start talking to the van. If you could hit the start of your climb just right, you could make it to the top. We’d cheer and call her baby, because we were young and dumb. All we asked was that it made it up this one hill, this one time, until the next one loomed.

In the years before the birth of the minivan, there were rumours that something new was coming. Something to replace the station wagons of my youth and the work vans that were trucks no matter how much you tarted them up with curtains or stereos. I couldn’t conceive of what this magic in-betweener would look like, yet when it arrived it seemed so obvious. Here was the answer to a dilemma we hadn’t realized we had. I look around now at most of the vehicles on the road and realize they’re all much of a muchness, as my late mother would have said. In retrospect, that humble Ramchicken had as much of an impact on the automotive world as when Ford slapped a luxury box on a pick-up truck and called it an Explorer. Maybe more.

When you drive a lot of different cars, people often ask your opinion during their own search. Every request is usually accompanied by “but I don’t want a minivan”. I reluctantly sold the Ramchicken when I needed actual seats, and it kept on going for a young man who was waiting to buy it. I went on to own more minivans, SUVs, sports cars, crossovers and sedans. As lives change, so does what you demand of a vehicle.

Sometimes you need a minivan; RIP, Ramchicken.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Briefly Leaving A Child In The Car? A Lot Can Happen

Originally published: November 3, 2014

It’s when temperatures hit sweltering heights that we usually start reading horrific stories about children left in cars all day. Those stories are difficult to read and important to know, but the plummeting of the mercury doesn’t change the facts: don’t leave your kids in the car.

Generally, we’re talking about two different mindsets here. A child forgotten in a car, usually when a parent has deviated from a standard daily pattern, leads to those awful headlines we see every summer. Everyone believes it could never happen to them and I hope they’re right; but this 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning piece by Gene Weingarten in The Washington Post should be required reading for everyone.

Come winter, a different kind of pattern emerges. If you have children, you’ve done it, or almost certainly thought about it. Everyone says they could never forget their child in a car for eight hours; but what about knowingly leaving them for 10 minutes? 15? What if it’s about convenience, rather than neglect?

You just have to run in somewhere for a moment, maybe to grab milk or pick up another kid from school. Maybe you’re getting a coffee, or hitting the bank machine. Kiddo is snuggled in his car seat, snoozing happily. Or maybe it’s your two-year-old, who will insist on walking no matter the weather because she can do it herself.

Please don’t leave them in the car.

The heartbreaking headlines have led to what some consider vigilante action, bystanders noting a child left unattended in the car and assuming the worst and calling police or even breaking windows. The Internet predictably lights up on both sides, accusing people of overreacting. But how do I know how long your kid has been left alone? How do I know you haven’t slipped and fallen or been held up in a longer-than-expected lineup? Who wants to risk ignoring a child?

Canada’s Criminal Code is clear and police officers will follow it. Section 218 states: “Every one who unlawfully abandons or exposes a child who is under the age of ten years so that its life is or is likely to be endangered or its health is or is likely to be permanently injured, (a) is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years; or (b) is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding eighteen months.”

I asked Constable Clinton Stibbe of Toronto Police Service what someone should do if they see a child left in a car. “An individual can’t go wrong calling 911 if they see a child unattended in a vehicle. When looking at a case where the child has been left alone, the risks to the child from glass being broken to gain entry to a vehicle could also severely injure the child.”

While police will judge each situation individually, the Child and Family Services Act “does not specifically state an age when a youngster can be left alone. It does say that if a child younger than 10 years old is left unsupervised, the onus of establishing that reasonable provisions for supervision and care were made rests with the parent or guardian.” You’ll have to prove what was more important than your kid.

I know you didn’t “abandon” your child when you ran into the store, but if another car hits yours in the parking lot it’s going to be hard to explain otherwise. Little ones learn in no time how to undo a seat belt, and in the few minutes it might take you to get that coffee, they could be anywhere in the car, even if they were asleep when you slipped out. If you’ve left it running, it’s even more dangerous.
When I had a newborn in one of those baby bucket seats, I wiped out on some ice. I got banged up, though the kid was fine, and you could argue, I suppose, that he’d have been safer in the car. But if I’d smacked my head, who would have known he was even in the car?

In most child-rearing conversations I’m pretty old school. Everybody has to eat a bucket of dirt before they die, I’ve never put my kids in bubble wrap, and falling out of trees is part of growing up.

Taking a long look in the rear-view mirror of my sons’ early years, though, I’ve come to realize a few other things. I never underestimate the mindset and dexterity of a toddler, and I never overestimate an adult’s ability to keep track of time. Raising children is hard and exhausting and, often, inconvenient.

Ultimately, you don’t need a cop or a nosy neighbour to tell you; if anything – anything – happened, you’d never forgive yourself. As Stibbe says, “Without a doubt take them out.”

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

If you want to keep your car for a long time, rustproofing should be a no-brainer. But don’t be fooled by the dealership upsell

Originally published: October 27, 2014 (click for video)

To rustproof or not to rustproof, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the metal to suffer
The snow and slush of outrageous winter,
Or to take arms against a sea of brine.

-With a nod to William Shakespeare

There should be no question. You really should rustproof.

If you bought your car new, once they had you trapped in the finance office, rustproofing was one of the big upsells. A dealer will highly recommend you have your car rustproofed, and I agree with them. I just don’t agree that it should cost 500 bucks, or 750, or a grand if they really saw you coming.

First. If you plan on ditching your car at the end of a lease, don’t bother rustproofing. It can be someone else’s problem, which sounds mean but it’s true. But if you’re going to keep this car – and cars are lasting longer than ever – or sell it privately at some point, rustproofing is your friend. One caveat: if you opt for rustproofing, take it to a place that specializes in it. It may look simple, but one lazy application by a poorly trained technician means your car is vulnerable.

Rustproofing has changed over the years, but the concept is basically the same: keep moisture away from metal to prevent corrosion. Depending on your vintage, you might recall a time when people used motor oil as an undercoating. The principle was good but such practice could compromise electrical components of the car as well as be extremely messy.

Times have changed and that old oil concept has been replaced with a tar-based spray – undercoating – which effectively forms a hardened barrier to the underneath of your car. You’ll need yearly inspections to check for things like cracking, which can allow moisture to become trapped and become a problem. This is the usual rustproofing that a car dealer will be selling you; a local Ziebart quoted me $249 for this based on a passenger car.

You could choose a dripless oil spray, which forms a hardened wax-type barrier. This covers more area than the tar-based, as holes will be drilled into door panels and other areas so the oil can access more interior regions of the car. If cracks or chips form, this can let in water and hold it there, inviting possible corrosion, though yearly inspections are advised to prevent this. I was quoted Ziebart’s price for this service at $125 (should be done annually), with a combination of this and the tar-based undercoating running $400 with a 10-year warranty, needing annual inspections costing $50.

A drip oil spray treatment is used by Krown Rust Control, where I took my car for a hands-on demonstration. Like the dripless version, a series of holes are drilled into your car to augment factory access points. A light oil mixture is atomized with compressed air to form a chemical bond with the metal while displacing any existing moisture. The entire bottom of your car is then sprayed; you’ll experience a little dripping after the application, but the spray is very fine and the aftermath is short-lived. They recommend doing it each year. Cost is $120 for most passenger cars. Rust Check also does a drip oil at similar cost.

Prevention is always cheaper than cure, and your car is no different. The thing about rust? It starts in places you can’t see, and it starts long before you know it. When we think of rust and cars, we often imagine the bad old days when nobody wondered if their car would rust, they only wondered when. As manufacturers have moved to more alloys and galvanized steel and zinc coatings, they’ve been able to guarantee – usually to the five-year point – that your ride won’t rust. While it’s true from the outside looking in things are much improved, if you put it up on a hoist, you’ll get a whole other story.

Frames and suspension systems are vulnerable, as well as every spot weld and bend and hinge. Salt can start deteriorating those expensive electronic components. In the rust-belt – areas that experience harsh winters – municipalities lay down brine solutions (magnesium chloride) that are effective for safety, but take an immense toll on your car. The GTA has also been using a beet juice solution that is slightly less corrosive, but all of it is designed to stick to road surfaces, which means it also sticks to the underside of your car. Running it through a carwash will only remove a portion.

When Krown let me help rustproof my car at their head office in Stouffville, Ont., I learned it may not be a difficult procedure, but you want someone attentive and thorough doing it. Drilling holes into your car may seem counter-intuitive, but they’re drilling in specific areas to maximize access and they warranty their work.

It’s a scare tactic to tell you that rustproofing your new car will void your manufacturer warranty, and Krown’s warranty is comprehensive and will cover repairs up to the value of the vehicle. “If a customer brings a vehicle in from new, our annually renewable warranty will stay in place as long as they want to have the vehicle treated. We have customers with vehicles that are 20 years old and still under warranty with us,” says vice-president Jeremy Young. Wherever you go, look for a warranty like this.

A few places will still do a grease rustproofing job for you, which is a great rust deterrent but more costly and not as readily available.

You could also opt for an electronic box some dealers are happy to sell you for upwards of $700 – installed – but you shouldn’t because I’ve never seen any science to prove they work, and the theory is based on the submerged part of steel bridges. So, I guess if you drive a submarine, go for it.

It’s never too late to start rustproofing your car, and remember: it’s what you can’t see that should concern you.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Why texting behind the wheel is as bad as drunk driving

Originally published: October 20, 2014

I find texting and driving a lot harder than driving drunk. Those studies are right.

Ford’s Driving Skills for Life, a program perfected in the U.S. and now being brought to Canada, allows newly licensed teen drivers the chance to break a whole bunch of laws under the watchful eye of trained professionals. On a recent day at Brampton’s Power Centre, Ford transformed the parking lot into four test areas: space and speed management, hazard recognition and vehicle handling, distracted driving and impaired driving.

Students from several local high schools took part during either morning or afternoon sessions. The program offers some real-world driving experiments in controlled settings. With instructors in the passenger seat, young drivers were soon doing burnouts in a 2014 Mustang, smacking over cones as they texted behind the wheel, and crazily looping their way around a course while wearing goggles that simulate being drunk.

Students were working in groups of 10 through the various modules. As you might have suspected, many were texting on their phones in between sections, making the distracted session all the more interesting. There was a preponderance of males in attendance while I was there; if Ford does this program in your region (Calgary is up next) do your students a favour and get the girls out there.
While many of the skills being presented require far more than a 20-minute session to learn, the appeal of the program is that it goes beyond the usual driver training as well as anything you can get away with when Mom and Dad are in the car.

Understeering, oversteering, collision avoidance – all very important. But who am I kidding: I wanted to do the distracted and impaired portions of the course.

As technology leapfrogs over itself, the studies can barely keep pace. Even so, it’s rapidly becoming evident that texting behind the wheel is likely more dangerous than some levels of intoxication. Nobody likes to frame the results that way and risk throwing impaired driving under a remotely good light, but the truth is that texting takes your eyes off the road, and driving at 50 km/h, you’ll travel 14 metres in a second. That’s a lot of blind driving.

I drove around the course with instructor Hazel de Burgh. With a lot of tight turns, I’m sure we didn’t get up to 50 km/h, but when she instructed me to take a lap with my cell phone out, things got interesting. I already had it set to send to my photographer, thinking it would save some fumbling around. “Text the names of the Great Lakes,” she instructed me. First thought? What the hell are the names of the Great Lakes. Oh yeah, HOMES. I held the phone at 12:00 on the wheel, jabbing away letter by letter so I could keep one eye on the road. Or so I thought. Over went cone after cone.

The only comfort was watching the kids wreak pretty much the same destruction. Alex Morrison and Michael Macut, both 17 and self-admitted car nuts, shook their heads when I asked them if they text and drive. “It’s not worth it,” said Morrison. An interesting point both made was that driving a standard made texting not only more difficult, but nearly impossible, especially at slower speeds.

At the impaired station, police officers were on hand to accompany “drunk” drivers. Ford supplied a variety of goggles, each designed to mimic various levels of impairment. They handed me a pair of 0.08 – what most people consider the legally allowed limit in most jurisdictions. In Ontario, you might want to read the fine print. If a breathalyzer reads between 0.05 and 0.099 police will impound your car for three days and suspend your licence for five.

For good measure – literally – I tossed the 0.08s back in the bin and found some 0.12s. I put them on and promptly fell over. The goggles blur your vision but also destroy your coordination, much like a night straddling a bar stool might. As I waited my turn to drive, I tried the sobriety test – walking on a painted line. I found it nearly impossible, even when I was concentrating. Relieved to finally be behind the wheel (yes, I know that sounds terrible), I set out on the course, drunk, with a cop beside me.

I thought I did okay, which is what every drunk driver says, now that I think about it. She begged to differ, but the truth was at least when you’re drunk – or drunkish – and you’re looking out the windshield, you’ll see what you’re going to hit. Texting means looking down at your phone and you don’t stand a chance. There’s a very good reason both activities are illegal.

Can a program like Driving Skills for Life make an impact? Yes, it can. Ford has run it as part of its non-profit internal foundation since 2003, and according to Caroline Hughes, VP of Government Relations for Ford, it is very much a part of Ford’s goal to bring safety and education to local communities. I hope they expand it. You can contact them at

There’s an elephant in the parking lot, of course. Injuries and fatalities from texting while driving are climbing, no matter what manufacturers may do or what laws may be made. Education is important, consequences are important, but we need more.

Samsung, the phone company, carried out a pilot program in Australia that tries to tackle the problem in a different way: what about instead of using sticks, you use carrots? Maybe it’s time to change the way we talk to young drivers. Watch this link and consider the impact we could make with concerted efforts like this, and Ford’s.

Posted in Drive She Said | 6 Comments

Is Gender Really A Factor Behind The Wheel?

Originally published: October 13, 2014

Women are better drivers than men.

Relax… that’s just a cheap shot to make you keep reading. The topic is right up there with sex, religion, politics and money. If your holiday dinners need a shot of trouble, change things up this year and talk about driving.

A recent Irish study (conducted by The University of Dublin, Trinity College) offers some interesting findings. Over the course of 13 weeks using black boxes installed in cars researchers zeroed in on acceleration, braking, cornering and speed. Drivers were provided with feedback on how to improve. So, once an error was pointed out, who would endeavour to change?

Twenty per cent of men corrected course; 80 per cent of women did. The 54 participants were 17 to 22 years old, traditionally considered by insurance companies as the group at highest risk for collisions. All knew they were being monitored, and half could access their results to see how they were doing as the project evolved.

The study actually concluded that “young women are much better at learning from their driving mistakes than their male counterparts,” not that they were better drivers. That’s really just splitting hairs; being unwilling to acknowledge and correct your mistakes does make you a worse driver.

I work with a lot of professional driving instructors in many different capacities. Sometimes it’s driver’s education for teens, sometimes for seniors, sometimes track days at very high speeds, sometimes off-road courses at very slow speeds. I ask every instructor the same question: generally speaking, who is more receptive to learning new skills? And every instructor for the last decade has told me the same thing: women.

This isn’t a driving thing at all, it’s a psychological thing. Some people are more competitive than others and see every driving situation as something to win. Some find it difficult to understand that the fastest driver on a course is the smoothest driver, not the one making the most noise. Some people believe that if you can afford an expensive high performance car you somehow – mystically –must also have the ability to drive it. Driving is a skill. For some it is a talent, but for most of us, it is a skill.

Many stereotypes are rooted in some kind of truth. I, a woman, have a lousy sense of direction. I prefer written directions over a map, though I do want the map to orient myself. I don’t consider any of this much more than a simple fact; we all learn in different ways, and I expect teachers to teach the student, not the curriculum.

I’ve driven with some spectacular drivers, and some who are less so. I’ve driven with people who I know are alive only because their car saved them, and I’ve driven with people who I believe should have their airbags on the outside of their cars to protect the people around them. Honestly, gender has seldom been a defining factor, but when it has been, it did indeed come down for the most part to stereotypical indicators: males who drove over their heads, and females who were too distracted.

Hard statistics show that young men are more aggressive behind the wheel; it’s why their insurance rates are the highest. What I find troubling about this Irish study (as the mother of two young men), is that even after errors have been pointed out and directives given to improve, so many failed to do so. Maybe they couldn’t be bothered; maybe they believed they knew better; maybe they just didn’t care.

We bitch and moan consistently about the sorry state of the drivers on our roads. Everybody is a terrible driver, if you ask everyone else. If only our new drivers were actually trained to drive rather than just pass a test. If only we retested everyone every fill-in-the-blank years to weed out the speed junkies, the slowpokes, the left-lane bandits, the distracted and the addled. If only lawyers stopped getting guilty people off on a technicality, and if only we had zero tolerance for alcohol and drugs and texting behind the wheel.

Except, extrapolate the results of that small study. Even with access to information to be safer, to be better, there is a significant portion of people who have no interest. Even if it’s youthful posturing, what happens until they outgrow it? I am a firm nonbeliever in programs that spy on your kid when you’re not in the car. If you don’t trust them, you don’t give them the keys. Sound decision-making skills are never developed when they’re created by a shock collar.

How does that saying go? When you know better, you do better?

Maybe not.

Posted in Drive She Said | 6 Comments

How to avoid the dreaded ‘car buyer’s remorse’

Originally published: October 6, 2014

“I’m all out of love, I’m so lost without you…”

Air Supply was right. I should have bought the navigation system in the last car. I admit it; I messed up. In that down-to-the-wire grind of price, options and where-will-we-be-in-three-years, I left out something I forgot I rely on in all the other cars I drive. We all have GPS on our phones, but I don’t like the kids mucking with that on the road. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still happy with my purchase, but if someone asked me what I’d do differently, there it is.

Someone did ask. A recent Auto Trader survey commissioned by Angus Reid reveals that a full third of Canadians who bought new cars are less than thrilled with their purchase. Maybe we just get crabby when the shine wears off, maybe we don’t do enough research, or maybe we get overwhelmed on the showroom floor. More likely, it’s some combination of all of these things.

You can have a car almost immediately, once you’ve made up your mind. Sales people are trained to get you into that chute and, sometimes, you end up choosing between three cars that are available rather than three cars you’ve narrowed it down to. There’s a big difference, and choosing from the former is more likely to have you doing the walk of blame the next morning.

People frequently ask me what I think they should buy. I drive a lot of cars, but likes and dislikes are subjective, so I tell them the truth: let me ask you a series of questions, and from that I’ll be able to tell you what not to buy. The rest is up to you.

Buying a car is difficult. You have to factor in reliability, warranty, price, cargo room, your primary driving needs, whether you’ll love it in February as much as you do in July, fuel economy, maintenance costs … the list goes on. We joke about some people making a decision based only on colour, but frankly, you pretty much only have a half dozen hues to choose from these days, and you can live with any of them. But no heated seats at -20 degrees Celsius, or wiper blades tucked so far out of sight you can’t de-ice them? Yeah, those are things you wish you’d paid more attention to.

There are some important notes to glean from the survey. Ontarians especially – half of them – said their next car purchase would be from a manufacturer other than the car they have now. That’s sending up a flare to all manufacturers; for generations, they’ve relied on repeat customers as they predict what changes to make to their lineups. If truly half of their existing base will be up for grabs, it doesn’t just change the playing field, it stands it on its head.

As the market splinters between more manufacturers, they know one bad experience will be enough to lose a customer. It doesn’t take much; years ago I went to lease a new version of my older van from one of the Big Three; same model and trim package. They’d removed the radio controls from the steering wheel. Might have saved them a handful of bucks on the new model, but it cost them a customer. I consider that a safety feature and they messed with it.

Don’t want to be in the whine cellar?

  •  Do your research. The Internet doesn’t know if you’re male or female, old or young, frugal or a spendthrift. Never before have so many people been able to gather so much information while sitting around in their underwear.
  • Test drive, test drive, test drive. Don’t laugh. Some people don’t, and others don’t test enough. Like a dating profile or a job resume, just because it works on paper doesn’t mean the chemistry will be there.
  • Fast forward six months. Flip the seasons over and cover it in snow or picture it in sweltering temperatures.• Got a 14-year-old? In two years, she might be learning to drive this car.
  • Get over your minivan hate. Great, practical vehicles that work for people and gear, sometimes it’s the right answer.
  • Get over your oversized love affair. If you’re driving – and paying for – too much car, downshift.
  • Be realistic. Subcompacts are terrific for urban drivers, but if you’re constantly moving child seats in and out, you’ll only be making your chiropractor rich.
  • Ask about the costs you can’t see. Run-flat tires will run over your wallet; if you’re leaving behind a domestic for your German dream, get ready for $150 oil changes.
  • Buy the whole car. Too often we get swept up in “how much does it cost a month” and realize we’re paying for too many years.
  • If you think you’re getting ripped off, check out Unhaggle or Car Cost Canada or use the Automobile Protection Association’s (APA) excellent car buying service. Driving also has a handy Car Comparison tool that helps you compare up to eight cars at a time and a Local Pricing & Incentives tool that shows you what other people are paying for their cars and the promotions your local dealers are offering.

What would end your love affair?

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Bright dashboards and daytime lights continue to fool us

Originally published: September 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

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

Originally published: September 22, 2014

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

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

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

Targa crash signals end of race, but team still determined

Originally posted: September 18, 2014

The car is a write-off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Seniors surprised by own bad habits after driving retest

Originally published: September 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments