Blindly following your car’s GPS can be deadly

Originally published: April 13, 2015

We’ve all heard them: Those baby-on-board signs were invented after a baby died; paste stick-figure families on your minivan and your real family will be in danger; blindly follow your GPS and you will die. Our most persistent rumours, while headline grabbing, aren’t always what they seem.

Those baby on board signs? They’ve been around since a company called Safety 1st started manufacturing them in 1984. There have been many incarnations of how they came to be, but most involve the grisly death of a child. Somewhere in Canada/Germany/U.S., the story goes, first responders weren’t aware that an infant was in a crashed vehicle. The infant was thrown clear and overlooked in a snow bank/missed in foliage/found frozen under a seat, depending on the source. The signs were to let those coming upon a crash site know to look for a child, and parents would not display the sign if babies weren’t actually on board.

Except, there was never a dead child. Safety 1st made all kinds of baby accessories, but it was those ubiquitous yellow signs that made history. They sold 10,000 signs the first month; within nine months that figure climbed to 500,000. They helped push Safety 1st to become a company that would eventually crack sales of $158-million and be bought out by the segment giant, Dorel. The knockoffs may have started just a year later, but those signs launched an impressive ship.

The company thought they would encourage those seeing the sign to drive more carefully; mostly, they inspired signs with responses like “It’s your kid, you be careful” and “No baby on board, feel free to drive into me.” Ironically, it was those very parents thinking they were protecting their kids who screwed up the usefulness of the signs, by leaving them posted whether a child was in the car or not. Perhaps a clue for first responders but hardly a reliable one; sometimes the “baby” in question was 10.

The arrival of stick figure families, seemingly standard equipment on minivans everywhere, launched a new accessory to hate. First introduced on a large scale by Woodland Manufacturing in Boise, Idaho, in 2006, the proud declarations of fertility and how many extracurricular activities you could afford for your kids bloomed overnight. An Australian couple launched My Family (TM) at the same time. Both claim to be first in a field now overrun with copycats. Regardless, you can’t escape the variations. The spinoffs (zombie families, a woman with eight cats, families abducted by aliens) proved wittier than the originals. You can get custom work done at prices ranging from $4 a sticker to $4 a figure, and My Family has recently introduced a Canadian addition: Chardonnay Mom.

They’d be pretty innocuous except for the required rumour that started last year. News organizations – real ones – started reporting those stickers could be setting you up for a home invasion or a kidnapping. A rescue group in Ohio published a warning on Facebook that tugged apart all the information contained on your rear windshield. From having a dog too small to attack, a kid at football practice and Dad away at war, it became the greatest stretch of thinking up ways to make parents more paranoid. It’s not up there with Paul is dead or Oswald didn’t act alone, but any “Bad People” stalking stick figure families are probably more Home Alone bandits than criminal masterminds.

Unfortunately, navigational systems – GPS – leading people to their deaths is no myth. Reports from around the world confirm that the systems are not failsafe, and drivers inexperienced in either the system’s operation or their surroundings – and frequently both – have paid with their lives.

Just two weeks ago a Chicago woman, Zohra Hussain, died when her husband, while following GPS instructions, attempted to cross a bridge that had been closed since 2009. Hussain died of burns after the subsequent 11 metre plunge. Boat launches and bridge abutments are frequent sites of bad directions headlines; in 2011 three women in Washington State ended up in a submerged SUV when they blindly followed the GPS in their rental. They escaped injury.

In 2012, three Japanese tourists in Australia had to abandon the car they were driving on a road that got progressively muddier; the GPS hadn’t warned them the road would be under water at high tide, and they scrambled to get out as it floated away. A German truck driver got stuck in a Swiss cherry tree in 2007. He followed the voice, he said.

Less random and occurring with more frequency in California is something rangers in Death Valley National Park have called Death by GPS.

In 2009, Alicia Sanchez was found near death by a ranger, her young son dead in her Jeep. Lost for five days in the unforgiving temperatures that can climb over 46 degrees Celsius in summer months, she’d followed GPS instructions off established roads and deeper into uncharted territory. While the national park has been posting more warnings for visitors, including that cellphone reception is extremely limited, many satellite systems are still recognizing bypasses that have been closed for decades as roads and many drivers are still blindly following their technology into trouble.

Navigational systems are a tool. Tools are only as good as the people using them, and many of the sad accounts you hear about feature people ignoring barricades and other physical warnings. From people plucked from the edge of cliffs to those trapped by rising seas, paying more attention to the view out their windshield than a screen on their dash should have been warning enough. Those tragedies aren’t rumours.

Oh, and one rumour that needs to be stomped out forever: the Chevy Nova was never misnamed. Nova does not translate into “doesn’t go” in Spanish, and the car did well in the Spanish language countries where it was sold.

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The very real dangers of turning right on a red light

Originally published: April 6, 2015

It goes something like this: when I’m driving and need to make a right turn on a red light, there seems to be a never-ending stream of pedestrians who are too rude to understand what a don’t walk signal means. They jeopardize their safety and my own because they think they own the road.

When I’m walking and need to cross on a green light, there always seems to be an idiot creeping so far into the crosswalk I’m getting the salt from her car on my coat because she is too arrogant to understand her ability to turn right on a red light is only when the crosswalk is clear, not when I’m in it. My hurrying up won’t matter; there’s someone else heading this way, so hold your horses. Don’t yell at us for catching the light; didn’t you see that chain of fools making their left turns on the red light – and our walk signal – to begin with?

When it comes to vehicles, there’s a growing chorus of voices advocating for the replacement of one of the most deadly moves a driver can make: a left-hand turn. The bean counters weep for the destruction of traffic flow, while safety advocates recognize any car crossing a live lane of traffic is most vulnerable. Over a decade ago, UPS instructed their drivers to avoid left turns – period. It resulted in significant time and fuel savings.

Lost in the discussion is the fact our roads are still deadly for pedestrians and cyclists, a group ever increasing in most urban parts of the country. Turning cars are dangerous cars for those not inside them. Drivers are accustomed to being able to make a right turn on a red light (only fully prohibited in the Island of Montreal) but many seem to forget the “making a complete stop first” part of the Highway Traffic Act.

In Toronto in 2012 (most recent complete statistics available), 326 pedestrians with the right of way were hit by cars making a left turn; 194 were hit by cars making right turns. While you’re three times more likely to die in a mid-block collision (jaywalking always puts you at risk, and cars have gathered more speed) the truth is in any car-pedestrian collision, injuries are almost always a given. The scariest part of those numbers is the fact the pedestrians had the right of way; in just 51 other turning incidents – in total – did the vehicle have the right of way. Pedestrians are being careful; cars are not.

For Toronto, incidents of cars meeting pedestrians per 100,000 population has remained steady over the past few years, in the high 70s. Vancouver, after years of ranking in the low 40s, doubled into the 80s in 2010. By 2012, more pedestrians were being killed on Vancouver roads than “drivers, passengers, cyclists and motorcyclists, combined.” Safety initiatives wrestle to get the numbers down, but if you ask me, all the traffic changes in the world won’t do a thing unless you get everyone off their phones. Enforce distracted driving laws; otherwise it’s like having drunk drivers, pedestrians and cyclists out there in some kind of urban Thunderdome.

Seattle has started a program, Vision Zero, to increase road safety by, among other things, prohibiting right-turns-on-red-lights in parts of their city core. I like it. Pedestrians don’t have to worry about the bumper creep behind them or the throttle jammer cutting them off like he’s threading a needle. During peak times, this effectively means it would be almost impossible to make a right turn as pedestrian traffic fills the crosswalk on the green light. They’re talking major intersections, so if it only takes you an extra block or two to make your right, it’s worth it.

Cyclists are supposed to follow the rules of the road, and are provided the same privileges and responsibilities as a motor vehicle driver. They are entitled to that whole lane if they want it. They are required to stop at the stop sign as well as that red light. Of course those sentences just set off a tsunami of indignation in both camps, and don’t even get me started on those ridiculous e-bikes that apparently dwell in a netherworld between law and reason.

You can draw a Venn diagram of motorists, motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians and at each intersection you can just write in the word, “hate.” I spoke with Stephen Sergenese, who worked as a bike courier two winters ago in downtown Toronto. Bike couriers are particularly noted – and hated – for their behaviour.

“Messengers do take liberties, and can be aggressive. I agree. You also quickly learn the safest approach is often the one people complain the most about.” He describes frequently being trapped between a car and a streetcar, wary of frozen streetcar tracks that can take a cyclist down fast. Exploding off a light is sometimes the only way to claim a lane. “You’re looking in your mirrors as well as far ahead; people don’t signal and few look before they swing open a door.” He admits many couriers earn their bad press but cyclists of all stripes, like pedestrians, have far more to lose if they come in contact with a vehicle.

I ask him the worst offenders. He doesn’t hesitate. “Cabs.”

With Sergenese’s assertion in the back of my mind, I asked a cabbie at the airport who the biggest offenders are on the roads. “Buses,” he replied. “And those guys on bicycles.”

The other guy.

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Streaky windshield? Change your wiper blades, already

Originally published: March 30, 2015

If you wear glasses, take them off. Dunk them in a puddle, shake ‘n’ bake them with some grit from the shoulder of the road, scrape away what you can with your glove, and then put them back on. That’s the view too many people believe is good enough to have through the windshield of their car. Add glaring sun or torrential rain and you’ll start to understand that all the airbags and traction control in the world can’t save you if you can’t see where you’re going.

I was recently in Terrace, B.C., standing in drizzling rain a couple of hours before sunrise. Nestled in the mountains in the northern part of the province, for all of its breathtaking views, it is that rain that Terrace is famous for. Fourth rainiest place in Canada, it seems, and they don’t do so badly on snow, either. What better place to talk windshield wipers?

Canadian Tire thought the same thing, so they kitted out – for free – 1,000 cars with new Bosch Icon wiper blades. It’s part of a new program called Tested for Life, and they’ll be getting feedback from real people using products in everyday settings; a sort of re-envisioned Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It’s a good place to prove how important one of the most easily overlooked parts of your car really is.

Compromised blades mean compromised vision, and if you can’t see where you’re going you’ll be heading straight for trouble.

Too many of us only give our wiper blades a second thought when we’ve already put too many kilometres on them. Bad streaking, gapping at the ends, chattering at higher speeds, chips or the dreaded tear; like many things in life, we ignore the warning signs until we finally can’t.

The Canadian Tire service manager in Terrace Bay, Tim Wiebe, explains that wiper blades are made of rubber compounds, just like tires. They perform and wear and react to temperatures and conditions in ways similar to tires. Wiper blades have evolved over the years, both in design and composition. You’ll find two basic types on the market today: the traditional metal frame with a spring assembly connecting to the rubber that contacts the windshield, and the sleeker, frameless beam blades that feature embedded springs that create evenly distributed continuous contact with the windshield.

There is a difference in price. Frame blades start under 15 bucks (and in some, you can just change the blade part), and those Icons come in around 25. You’ll find blades outside of both those price points, but for general consumers, this is the choice they’ll be making.

Your car came with one of these two types of blades, and you can check your owner’s manual for advice on replacing them. Beam blades were once the domain of higher end cars but we’re seeing more and more on less expensive models. Replacing blades can seem overwhelming when you’re faced with dozens of sizes and many makes, but a shop can quickly steer you to the proper size for your car, as can a quick Google search.

You should replace your wiper blades every six months, regardless of which type you buy. There have been studies that show people wait up to three years; I’ve heard stories of people who believe because the rubber isn’t torn, there must be something wrong with the washer fluid or even the windshield. If you can’t remember when you last changed them, you’re due. With spring finally getting here, the roads are covered with a long winter’s worth of detritus that will be spewed up from the car ahead of you, and things like highway lines have faded. The last thing you need is any part of your field of vision further compromised.

Wiebe points out blade edges can become chipped and also deteriorate over time. Jamming away with an ice scraper is probably the fastest way to destroy either design; he is an advocate of standing the blades up when snow or ice is a threat, allowing you to clear your windshield as well as to prevent the blades from freezing in place. Forget the blades themselves for a moment, and consider that he sees many wiper motors fried when someone starts up a car with the wipers engaged and they jam against ice they can’t break through.

Back in Terrace, I watched as homeowners opened front doors early that morning, initially suspicious of red cloth bags at the foot of their driveways tied to a couple of white balloons. As they crossed their rain soaked driveways to discover what it was, it became evident we were in the right place with the right presents.

The sun hadn’t made an appearance yet when Dave Reniero peered into the bag at three sets of new Bosch blades, a huge grin on his face. “I actually change all my blades out twice a year, I always need them. This is great though, because it’s one of those things that’s easy to procrastinate over.” The teams had worked into the early morning hours matching blade sizes with vehicles in the driveways, resulting in a customized fit in most cases.

Margaret Durando crossed the street to retrieve a neighbour’s freebies, telling me they were away. “When we saw what was going on, my husband told me to go steal theirs,” she said with a laugh.

You probably won’t wake up to free wiper blades on your lawn, but remember they’re a safety feature not an afterthought. Spend a few bucks; stay safe.

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How to avoid nasty surprises on your car rental bill

Originally published: March 23, 2015

The first time my father tried to rent a car, he couldn’t. It was in the 1970s and he didn’t believe in credit cards. For that reason, car rental companies didn’t believe in him. He hauled out a wad of cash – his preferred method of currency, but no dice. No credit card, no rental.

These days you probably have a credit card, and car rental agencies definitely still want it. It makes it easier for them to play a convoluted game of diminishing returns: if they’ve decided you owe for a whole whack of usurious fees and crazy charges, it’s easier to get your money if they already have it.

If you rent cars regularly, you know the drill. But for those of us who do it less frequently, negotiating the fine print can be like running across a minefield in orthopedic shoes. These are some expensive mistakes to avoid.

  • Booking: when you reserve a car, check the calendar. Prime vacation times create more demand; if you really want that minivan or convertible, book early. Calculate your intended mileage and book accordingly; mileage surcharges can pile up fast. Know that fees can start right now: you can be charged for cancelling, and you’ll be charged if you don’t show up. They already have that credit card, remember?
  • Holdback: know that most rental agreements contain a clause about reserving a charge – usually a couple of hundred dollars – on your credit or debit card that you’ve surrendered when you signed your contract. It’s to understandably cover their butt if you dump a coffee all over the carpet, but if you’re on vacation and have a chunk of available credit go missing that you hadn’t planned on, it can leave you in a bind.
  • Pick up: take pictures of your rental before you get into it. A rep will usually do a walk around with you, but pay attention to what he or she is doing. Look at that page before you initial it. Call attention to anything they might have missed, and look in the backseat and trunk, as well. Note any damage or stains before you take possession. Take a picture of the fuel gauge and the mileage.
  • Insurance: One of the knottiest questions surrounding car rentals. First, check out your own car insurance policy on your personal vehicle. Make sure you have collision coverage. You can also investigate what your homeowner insurance might provide. Call your credit card company for a clear delineation of what is and isn’t covered by your card. Better yet, dig up or download the printed details pertaining to car rentals. If you’re counting on that credit card for coverage, make sure you actually pay for the rental with that card. Rental companies are happy to provide protection, but daily rates can climb quickly and you don’t want duplicate coverage. Conversely, you don’t want any flank left exposed. Imagine a worst case scenario – a major crash in a foreign place – and ask yourself how every aspect would be covered.
  • Tolls: You can usually opt for a daily rate to offset automatic tolls, which is great if you already know that you’ll be using toll roads and if you’re certain which ones are covered off by that fee. Guess wrong, and you will be charged peak tolls – plus an admin fee. Either pay tolls manually as you go through them, or do some intense homework. If you’re in Ontario, steer all the way clear of the 407 ETR. There is no good way to take a rental car on the 407. Even if you have your own transponder, there is no guarantee the rental agency – and you – won’t be billed.
  • Fuel: you’re supposed to bring the tank back full. Depending on where you are and what time it is, this might be harder than it sounds. Is topped up then driven 30 km to the airport full? Guess wrong and they’ll ding you sometimes double the pump price just down the road. You can often opt for a fuel prepay, which means agreeing ahead of time that you can bring it back less than full. The only way to get your money’s worth is to coast it in on fumes, but for some, giving back some free gas might be worth peace of mind.
  • The fine print: download the fine print from the rental company you plan to use. Most of it would appear to be the standard gobble, but there are things you should note. On National’s contract for example – a pretty standard one – you can’t use unauthorized drivers or drive on unpaved roads. They have the right to transfer your information (including credit card) to outside parties like those toll collectors, parking tickets, towing and storage, and charge you an administrative fee per incident to do it. And watch those admin fees pile up if you get a ding: $50 on a repair under $500, $100 between $500-$1,500, and so on.
  • The return: take pictures again, including the mileage and fuel gauge. Do the walk around once again with the rep, and initial nothing you don’t agree with. Get to the trunk and the back seat, again. Plan on this taking more than a few minutes, especially if you’re catching a flight. Keep an eye on your credit card statements for a few months to follow. If at all possible, don’t return a car to an empty lot with a key dropbox. If anything happens to the car before they deem it to be in their possession (when their employee sees it) you are responsible. A Nova Scotia woman found this out the hard way last year when her rental, a $47,000 Mustang, was stolen after she’d returned it outside of business hours. While her insurance company eventually covered the loss after a public tussle with the rental company (see: fine print) if your insurance pays, you pay. Well, we all pay.

Outside of unforeseen crashes, most car rental cost shocks can be sorted out before you even leave home. It’s all about the homework.

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Driving tips you need to know before your March Break trip

Originally published: March 13, 2015

Travelling with the family for March Break? Planning a longer summer vacation away from home? In addition to remembering passports and Gravol, there are other things you might want to keep in mind.

If you’re flying to your fun and sun and renting a car, do yourself a favour: rent one from the same manufacturer as the car you drive at home. Delayed flights and missed connections mean you might land later than you planned. Sorting out tired kids late at night in strange surroundings can be enough to deal with, without trying to figure out where the wipers or headlights are. There are bound to be some updates and changes, but manufacturers tend to keep system controls in the same, or similar, places. The first time you fill up? Look for the arrow by the fuel pump on the dash to see which side of the pump to approach.

If you’re heading outside North America, of course, that’s harder to do. Unlike the U.S., European and Asian countries can have traffic laws that are vastly different from ours. You’ll think of the obvious things like which side of the road to drive on, but chances are you will need an International Driver’s Licence. Your local CAA office can do it; it’s 25 bucks and only takes a form and a few minutes, but better safe than sorry. A press junket in Spain a couple of years ago saw a group of auto journos stranded and their press cars impounded when they couldn’t produce IDLs. Nitpicky? Perhaps. But when in Rome (or Madrid), do as you’re told.

While you’re booking that overseas rental, keep in mind that the majority of rental cars in many countries will have a standard transmission. Unlike here where you would be hard-pressed to find a manual to rent (or a car with winter tires, but that’s a whole other column), the reverse is true over there. You can try to reserve an automatic, but there are no guarantees. If you’d planned on shared driving duties, you might want to consider this possibility.

If you’re driving to your destination, you already know to have your car prepped and ready to go. While U.S. traffic laws are much the same as Canadian ones, keep an eye on speed limits, especially in typical rural, or fishing hole, areas. If you’re following behind a local plate and all of a sudden they slow down, consider they might know something you don’t. I don’t recommend dodging any tickets you do end up with; there’s some version of reciprocal agreements in place in 41 states, but your insurance company is really good at hunting this stuff down and they will hold it against you.

Only 14 states and D.C. specifically ban handheld devices while driving, but if anything, driving in unfamiliar territory is an even better reason not to pick up your phone. Also make sure to change your navigation system, if you use one, from kilometres to miles. Otherwise, it’ll take “are we there yet?” to a whole new level. And, technology aside, it’s always a good idea to have an old-fashioned paper map of the area on hand, which is also a fun way to play olden times with the kids.

Border crossings can be a nightmare when it feels like the whole country is trying to cross at the same time. Check here before you go, or download one of several apps to your phone.

There are more subtle differences from state to state. Some states don’t require rear seatbelts to be engaged. If you’re driving in New Hampshire and you’re over the age of 18, you don’t have to wear a seatbelt at all. You also don’t have to wear a motorcycle helmet. That said, keep in mind their licence plate motto is Live Free or Die, but I think they omitted the word “young” from the end of that slogan. Alaska has what I call the Mitt Romney – or Seamus – law: it is illegal to tie your dog to the roof of your car before you set off.

Kind of amazing what you have to make a law against, isn’t it?

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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.

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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.

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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