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

Originally published: January 5, 2015

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

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

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

She had put her feet on the dash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

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

Originally published: December 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not because of the tennis ball.

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Sharing drunk driving checkpoint locations solves nothing

Originally published: December 22, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published: December 15, 2014

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

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

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

Of course we do. Unfortunately.

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

Originally published: December 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

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

Originally published: December 1, 2014

I love you but I hate driving with you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

There are things you can, and should, do yourself to get your vehicle prepared for winter

Originally published: November 24, 2014 – there’s a video for this on the driving.ca website

I have this terrific way of getting my tires changed. I drop my car off to my mechanic and then I pick it up. Though my father made me learn how to change a flat a billion years ago, I’ve officially entered the world of don’t ask, don’t tell: do these things I am able to do myself and we will speak no more of it.

In the spirit of digging into more of the dirty jobs we take for granted, I decided it was high time I revisited my rusty tire changing ways. The timing was perfect; the temperature has been staying low and it was time to haul out the winter tires. What did I mostly learn? It’s more about the tools than the determination. I don’t own a torque wrench, and I’d prefer my tires were installed with one. So what else is your mechanic doing behind closed garage doors this time of year?

  • Start with those tires if you’re in one of Canada’s many snowbelts. Remember: it’s about temperature as much as snow, and the more flexible compound of winter tires will keep you better adhered to the road.
  • A mechanic will also check all fluid levels, including antifreeze. You can do this yourself, but never release a hot radiator cap. A mechanic will also let you know if you should change to different weight oil for the cold weather.
  • Check your battery. A display will tell them not only if your battery is good or not, but how much life it has left. If you’ve always leased or turned cars over every few years, you may not know you’ll be replacing a battery around the four- or five-year point. Get it tested before you get stranded, and remember that deep temperatures can still tax a good battery.

If you do get stranded, you might have a tougher time getting a boost. Many manufacturers warn owners against boosting another battery; touchy electronic systems can be adversely affected, and most don’t want to take a chance. Instead, consider a self-contained booster. A check on Amazon reveals prices that are all over the place, so do some homework and be sure you’re comparing apples to apples. I really like the Noco Genius Boost lithium 12V charger; it’s advertised as Lorraine-proof (sorry, goof-proof) and it is. You can use it to charge your electronic devices as well, extending its use far beyond a dead car battery. It retails at $159.99, but watch for Canadian Tire to put it on sale for $119.99 on December 5th till Christmas; stick with reputable online sites if you’re ordering similar devices, as prices fluctuate wildly.

There are things you can – and should – do yourself.

  • Have a good snow brush. Make sure it’s long enough to let you clear the roof of your vehicle, because driving with that muffin on top of your car is not only dangerous, you look ridiculous. Make sure you clear off all your lights, too.
  • Swap out your wiper blades for winter ones. These will be a solid or encased design, so snow and ice doesn’t collect in the crevices of the blade. They should also be made of a compound similar to winter tires – they stay more flexible in cold temperatures. Follow the package instructions; they can be a little tricky at first, but usually just snap in place in a minute once you have it figured out.
  • Change to low temperature windshield washer fluid. Always carry an extra one (bungee it in your trunk so it doesn’t fly around) because being unable to see clearly in bad conditions can be deadly.
  • Have a first aid kit for emergencies. Retailers have kits ranging from $14.99 and up; once you get past $100, though, you’re probably into Never Gonna Use It Territory. Several at Canadian Tire come with a one-year road side assistance program, though I still prefer CAA. These make great Christmas gifts in any price range, but you can also make your own kit up. Last winter saw more motorists stranded due to inclement weather than in recent memory. It might not happen, but if it does, make sure you could live in your car for a few hours. If you typically go from house to underground parking, keep a pair of boots in the car. I have a pair that one of the kid’s outgrew; they look ridiculous but I’ve hauled them out more than once.

That’s the hardware, but also consider these reminders:

  • Determine if your car is operating with only daytime running lights if you don’t have your full headlight system on. There’s more detail here, but especially in winter weather, you want to be visible the whole time you’re on the road.
  • Your smartest bet in maintaining your automobile all-year round is to read your owner’s manual. Yep. That book might still be wrapped in cellophane in the glove box. Bring it in and put it in the bathroom if you’ve been ignoring it. Everything about your warranty starts here, so you should learn it. Remember that we’re considered an extreme climate zone in Canada. That means every direction and recommendation for extreme climate zones means you.

Even if you do everything right, you still might find yourself in a collision. Most people are familiar with sharing insurance info and snapping pictures. But do yourself a favour and have a list of dealers or repair shops you could have your vehicle towed to should this happen. Most of us follow a standard commute, and could know the most likely places. If not, you’re at the mercy of tow truck operators who may have their own ideas about where to take your vehicle. Police clearing a chaotic crash scene aren’t going to wait for you to make up your mind.

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Keeping traffic moving outside the country’s busiest airport is no easy feat

Originally published: November 17, 2014

“Oh, now do not put on those flashing lights, sir, that’s just like bees to honey when they see those,” yells Christine Heinz. She is wearing a neon safety vest over a down parka, hood up, because she is working outside in front of Toronto Pearson International Airport. She is keeping that passenger pick-up row moving, knowing there is no good answer that will allow you to park your butt right there so you don’t have to go park in a lot.

My son and I work like a well-oiled machine when I return from trips. When the airplane’s wheels touch down, I text him to head to the airport. In the half hour it takes him, I can be out front standing beneath the first lit up “A”. Sometimes I’m early; sometimes traffic makes him late. Watching the soap operas playing out in parking alley is never boring.

You can’t charge astronomical amounts for parking and not expect people to try to get around the rules, to try to make themselves the exception. But for people like Christine, it’s her job to make sure someone standing there ready, like me, can be picked up quickly. I chat with her as she shoos people away, always with a smile surrounding firm words.

“They know you’re here?” she asks me, pointing at a Honda to keep moving. “I’m always in the same spot,” I tell her. “Now, that’s good planning,” she laughs. We both eye the double serpentine line of headlights inching along, desperate to see their arrival before being sent out on the dreaded loop, again.

A sedan pulls up in front of us, and the driver hops out. “She’s getting in at 8:45, so I’ll just be a minute,” he promises Christine. I swallow a smile at someone who believes “just a minute” is a real measure of time. “Two minutes,” she says, waving him in. “That’s it!”

She turns to me and my surprised face. “Do you know they’re divorced, but he still picks her up after her trips? You get to know them, it’s so nice,” she tells me. The amicably divorced pair show up in less than two minutes, waving as they hop in the car.

A minivan pulls in at a strange angle in front of me, rear-end causing horns of frustration. A small woman gets out, looking lost. “Ma’am do you see your party?” asks Christine. The woman looks lost, uncertain. “If they’re not here, you’re gonna have to go farther down, maybe come back. Can you see them?” I’m not sure if the woman speaks English. Christine is kind, but she’s also eyeing cars stacking up. I feel a small brush past my leg as a boy, perhaps 3, leaps into the woman’s arms. Another child and an adult are right behind him. No matter the language, she’s found her people.

Car after car pulls in, some pretending they don’t see the security vest, some with excuses at the ready. Anger is met with a megawatt smile, telling them she understands but they have to move along. “If everyone just sat here, now how would that work?” she tells one. It’s cold out and I fish out a pair of gloves. I figure my son is trapped somewhere in that snaking line of cars stuck in molasses. The arrivals lane at the airport may be the only place that nobody cares about a traffic jam.

Three cars dart into the open space in front of me; Christine is conferring with another attendant and they’ve bought themselves some time. I start to move my bags to an open zone, when suddenly she’s got them moving again. “You’re standing out here where you’re supposed to be,” she tells me. “That boy of yours should be able to get you quick.”

I ask her if her shift is always like this. “Always. And people are pretty good, but everybody has the same reasons and excuses. It’s a pick-up zone; if your pick-up isn’t here, you have to clear out for someone’s whose is,” she finishes.

I ask her what the deal is with the emergency lights. “Oh, that’s just telling us that you’re where you know you shouldn’t be, and you don’t know how long you’re gonna be there. Like I told that guy, bees to honey, we’ll find you.”

For all the years I’ve spent “doing the loop”, circling the airport arrivals like a buzzard looking for a familiar weary face, I’ve always dodged the parking police, seeing them as thwarting my right to park where I’m not supposed to because … well, because I just really need to, this one time. It’s never one time, of course, but I’d still try feeble excuses as they shook their head and motioned me to carry on.

At last I see my car, and Christopher pulls up. As he piles my suitcase in the trunk, Christine tells me I have a good boy. I smile and ask her name. “Heinz, just like the ketchup!” She’s still laughing as we pull away, in nonstop motion greeting the grumpy and confused both with sympathy but always the same answer.

“You can’t park here, it’s for people getting their people.”

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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.”

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