Autonomous cars don’t make sense for the rest of us

Sure, self-driving cars could work wonders in busy urban centres. But how well will they work up in pickup country?

Originally posted June 6, 2016

Can we talk about the elephant in the room when we’re talking about autonomous cars?

While most manufacturers are building the vehicles and teaming up with computer companies and people delivery services to streamline the task of getting us from here to there in the quickest, safest way, they’re forgetting something: some of us don’t see ourselves as widgets requiring transport. Some of us see this innovation as a precursor to the loss of doing something we love and can’t see autonomous cars doing: driving in our real world.

It’s easy to see the benefits of removing human behaviour from overcrowded urban centres. A system that maximizes how many people you move in an orderly fashion; a system that uses computer apps to avoid collisions, adapt to weather and source the best routes around never-ending congestion. We have all of those things now, and the next step is the car taking charge and using them with little or no input from the driver.

But all this talk is ignoring how many of us, in not just Canada but also the U.S., choose not to live in these dense clusters of major cities that keep providing the reasons we’re being told we not only want, but need, automated cars.

Sorry, Charlie. A lot of us don’t. I see dueling statistics; the latest StatsCan numbers (2011) peg our urban/rural split at about 80/20, and the U.S. is the same. I also see that the Ford F-150 remains the top-selling vehicle, period. So if my first instinct is to say that development always follows the money and the majority, I look at those statistics and remind myself that this is a three dimensional equation: many of those in urban cores don’t own cars, or use them infrequently and rely on walking, cycling and transit. There may be more of them, but when you factor in who is actually buying cars, the scale tips back somewhat.

A StatsCan study shows that once you get 10 kilometres out of an urban core, vehicle usage snaps up regardless of neighbourhood configuration. If we’re not in the nub, we drive. Fair enough that automated cars would work well for this ring around the middle. That still leaves a lot of us who don’t live in any kind of density, and don’t commute to any kind of core.

Vehicle ownership in Canadian households was at 1.47 in 2009, up from 1.43 in 2000. That’s an average of course, and considers one household equals another one. They don’t though; if I live in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, or Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec, chances are good I’m going to have a vehicle for each working member of my household, or close to it. Hell, I live in a fancypants suburb of Toronto and our city’s transit system is a joke. We have three cars in the driveway. One kid tried a school commute but what would be a half-hour drive became more than a two-hour transit commute – one way – that was insanely expensive.

So a lot of us own or lease cars. The industry’s sky-high sales figures show that. But when the talk turns to autonomous cars – and it always does – I sigh. Our overcrowded highways really could use a break from human stupidity, and that human factor is behind nearly all of the fatalities and injuries and property damage we see strewn across our roads every day. Get rid of the human behaviour to save the human body! This is where autonomous cars make sense; but not all the world is a crowded, urban highway.

Every discussion on autonomous vehicles features the stock shots of the Google car zipping about in perfect harmony (until it gets rear-ended by a human doing human things, something autonomous cars struggle with predicting), and congested highways highlighted with a train of red brake lights. And all I can think about is my friends just an hour north with two pickups in the driveway, the “good” truck and the “old” truck, and wonder where autonomous cars would fit into their lives. Remember, more of us buy pickup trucks than Honda Civics.

Am I allowed to say I don’t want an automated car because I don’t need one? Am I allowed to say I don’t want an automated car because I take vehicles places where roads run out? Am I allowed to say I don’t want an automated car making decisions when it’s entirely possible that car’s decision making process could be compromised by damaged sensors, bits on the fritz or scrambled bytes? Am I allowed to say the entire process seems to be focused on those electing to live in urban cores or to be trapped in endless commutes?

I already get in disputes with a navigation system at least once a week; last night it was incapable of working around a highway closure no matter what settings I chose; I went old-school and asked a guy at a red light for directions. I have zero interest in a car using that same misinformation telling me to hush and go to sleep while it makes the same wrong decisions. More importantly, as I trundle up back roads to my cottage, I want excellent safety features but I don’t want a phantom hand on the wheel.

Hey, car industry, and hey, media – your wishing wonderland doesn’t represent my world. Would be nice if someone thought about the rest of us.

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Texting in cars won’t go away with sneaky police photos

Texting in cars won’t go away with sneaky police photos

Originally published May 30, 2016

Over the May long weekend, RCMP in British Columbia were setting up DSLR cameras with super-long lenses to snap drivers mucking with their phones and doing other distracted things. The resulting tickets will be backed up with photographic evidence, goes the thinking, because most of us suspend the belligerence when caught red handed.

With the ability to catch you in the act from over a kilometre away, I admit my initial thought was, “Finally, cops will start busting all those morons I see glued to their phones,” because I swear, every third car I pass has a driver texting. When people see a cop, they drop their phone. But this snoopy thing? Well, now we might be getting somewhere. Right?

Texting drivers are 23 times more likely to be involved in a collision. We know that, and yet, even as people wag a finger at drivers who use their cells, many are still doing it. Hands-free is legal, but not as safe as we pretend. Your eyes may be on the road, but your mind is not. Everywhere, fines and demerits are being raised and yet the problem persists, just like the fact that too many still drink and drive.

Decades of educating and legislating have seen the number of drunks behind the wheel fall, though even that seems to be just hammered down to a stubborn threshold; it seems we will never end a core group determined to drive after drinking, unless they are physically removed from the driver’s seat. Drunks get behind the wheel because drunks make that decision while they’re impaired; it’s why the campaigns all highlight making the decision before you’ve started imbibing, rather than after.

Seatbelt legislation is often used as a model of success for behavioural change. Most of us buckle up, and most of us know that seatbelts work in conjunction with those airbags. Not buckling up may be your idea of going rogue, but car manufacturers can only save you if you use the features as intended. A body repair shop worker I know tells me he can’t believe the condition of some of the cars that come into his shop after a major crash, and that the occupants were not severely injured. He says even a decade ago those same occupants would have been dead. Call me cynical, but I think a lot of those tumbling fatality statistics have far more to do with automotive safety advances than improved driver behaviour.

But cellphones are proving to be their own kind of hell on our roads. Cellphones and their connective counterparts – Twitter, texting, Facebook, email – can be addictive. They ping the same part of your brain that gets ramped up when you gamble or have sex, and give it a hit of dopamine. You’re not imagining that pull you feel when your phone rings, or a message lands. Your brain wants that rush. You’re supposed to enjoy things to feel that chemical release; it’s our hardwired reward system.

The problem arises when we combine these interactive exercises with driving – driving that needs to be not just our primary focus, but our only one. Car manufacturers have loaded a ton of distractions into today’s vehicles, and most have had to dial back what works as you’re rolling along; jamming away at a navigation system at speed is deadly, though so is trying to scroll through a bunch of touchscreens to turn down the heat. Manufacturers have a lot to answer for in their quest to let us entertain ourselves (sometimes to death), but handheld devices are on us, even when mated to the vehicle’s in-house systems.

If you watch AMC’s Better Call Saul (and why wouldn’t you?), you’ll know that one of the top lawyers on the show believes he has electromagnetic hypersensitivity; on the rare occasions he gets into the office, everyone must toss their cellphones into a bin and go electronic commando. If you’ve ever been somewhere and been told to shut your phone down, you’ll know it’s almost impossible for some people to do so. Watch someone’s phone vibrate and watch their hand twitch to reach for it. The only way to ignore it is to bin it and remove it from the room. It’s startling, if you think about it, how fast we got here. Remember waiting until the end of the day to play back messages? Remember waiting for a letter in the mail?

Which is why the threat of fines does little to get cellphones out of drivers’ hands. It’s a deeper rooted Pavlovian response.

It’s also why, after ruminating for a few days on the RCMP’s quest for long-range photo surveillance, I did an about-face. The loss of privacy, even in a public place, will do nothing but generate fines while failing to address the core problem: getting drivers to remove the phone from their reach, to remove the temptation that is too great for too many to overcome. They admit they have to get a photo with the phone clearly in sight, meaning anyone holding it beneath the dash can’t be caught this way.

Surreptitiously snapping pictures of people is gross. I’m on board for red-light cameras, as those intersections are clearly marked. But this long-range photo snipering is too Big Brother for me; I much prefer the campaigns here and in the U.S. a few years ago, where cops posed as homeless people or squeegee kids at intersections and busted those texting.

That was ingenious, and no more invasive than the driver beside you glancing over.

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Car-sharing a leased vehicle? You’re playing with fire

This is a get-rich scheme that’s bound to fail

Originally published: May 23, 2016

“In December 2015, it was possible to lease a Chevy Cruze for $18/month with $0 down. There was no catch – it was real and I added multiple Chevy Cruzes to my ‘fleet.’ ” – from a website instructing people how to get rich by sharing their cars.

This would be awesome advice, except you can’t drive for programs like Uber or rent out your car with services like Turo if you have a leased car.

Turo, a car-share program that launched here in Canada a few weeks ago (formerly known as Relayrides), has been working its way through the U.S. much like Uber, though it provides a different service. Uber lets you summon a ride with a tap on your phone; it cuts out taxis and airport limos. Turo lets you rent a private car for a day or a week and drive yourself; it cuts out car rental agencies. Both services thrive on the whole “who-needs-rules?” policy to celebrate and support the “new” economy that so many are embracing. Foolishly.

I’ve used this space in the past to draw attention to the fact that many Uber drivers have been operating without insurance; your normal personal auto policy does not permit you to drive commercially. Taking money – and failure to inform your insurer that you are doing this – will retroactively void that policy in most instances. The problem? Commercial policies are incredibly expensive in comparison to personal ones; it’s why a cab ride costs more. Uber doesn’t care, because Uber’s guidelines for drivers are full of words like “make sure you notify your insurer.” Your insurance is not their problem. They have a policy that covers their ass. Aviva Canada recently introduced a bridge policy to allow its customers to drive up to 20 hours per week for a ride-share program and be covered, for a bump in their rates. Several brokers I’ve spoken to have not been inundated with calls.

“The proper insurance … will show only on the actual policy, not the ‎pink slip,” explains Debbie Arnold of Sound Insurance. That bump might be as little as $500 additionally per year, or as much as … well, that depends on your driving record. Colour me skeptical, but if someone is already paying a premium for being a, shall we say spirited driver, I’m sure the accompanying rise will be far more than five hundred bucks, though admittedly less than the quote of $17,000 one driver received before the introduction of Aviva’s new hybrid policy.

Canadian jurisdictions are struggling with how to adapt to a new world order; do they demolish their existing rules because companies like Uber don’t care anyway? Some are trying to do a stepchild version, like Toronto letting the traditional cab industry do “surge” pricing while requiring Uber drivers to submit to the city a copy of their driver’s licence, vehicle inspection and proof of appropriate insurance. Alberta has gone one step further and requires car-share drivers to have a professional Class 4 licence, as well as a police check. Mississauga recently outlawed Uber, period. I’m not against change, and these business models have certainly been embraced by users. I am against lawless, unregulated, undocumented and no doubt tax-evading schemes masquerading as the wave of the future.

I am mostly against commercial interests – Uber, Turo – dodging and weaving around the law. I’m against fuzzily worded instructions to those eager to make a few bucks. Turo does better than Uber on insurance – they have a commercial policy in place for their car owners that covers their vehicles while they are being driven by others. But as that opening quote demonstrates, they’re sitting on their hands while their “agents” throw themselves into legal jeopardy. When I spoke with Turo CEO Andre Haddad, I asked about people assembling fleets of cars to keep the money rolling in. He told me he was proud of their entrepreneurship but failed to mention how using leased vehicles in that fleet was breaking their lease agreements virtually every time.

“Most lease agreements forbid commercial use; you can’t sublet a lease,” explains J.P. Ostiguy, senior manager with the Alta Group, the country’s largest Nissan and Infiniti dealer group and part of Zanchin Automotive. He has seen a leased vehicle seized, when it was brought in for service covered in Uber signage. “The agreements say you can’t use it for commercial purposes without written permission; and that’s just not going to happen,” he says.

It stands to reason. When you lease a car, you don’t own it. The owner is the leasing company and you are essentially paying to borrow the car. Car forums are full of people saying things like, “Just don’t tell your insurance company, just don’t tell your leasing company.” Nice. Vehicles that have been used as rentals are identified and classified as such for a reason. Our laws protect consumers by informing them of their history. Do you want to buy a car that’s been used like a taxi without knowing it? Before you say “not my problem,” trust me: It will eventually be your problem, whether you buy one or your kid does. People who demand consumer protection in the vehicle world have a role to play; you can’t suck and blow at the same time.

Those seeking to make money on ride-share and car-share services are soon discovering that the prettiest girls get asked to prom. Users want upscale vehicles and will pay more. They’re answering by assembling upscale cars, basing their budgets on the waterfall of cash they will soon be hauling in. The Turo site in the U.S. features a lot of high-end stock, such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Do posters own these cars? Perhaps. But I don’t know a single owner of a really great car who hands the keys over to a stranger, which leads me to believe we have a whole new set of people prepared to say, “What could possibly go wrong?”

Dunno about you, but I’ve been around long enough to know plenty can, and will, go wrong.

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Where are all the female crash test dummies?

Car safety has come a long way — particularly if you’re a male driver

Originally published: May 16, 2016

You may not know it ladies, but there is a good chance that car you just purchased for its excellent crash rating won’t do as well to protect you as it will your husband or father. After decades of using only male crash test dummies, agencies who perform the crash testing – including Transport Canada, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – finally use a female form. But that doesn’t mean they’re using her to base the bulk of their research on.

According to a 2013 report by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, the likelihood you would die from car crash related injuries back in 1970 was 27.6 out of 100,000. By 2010, that number had tumbled to 11.1/100,000. While car manufacturers have always known consumers would be taking safety seriously, the only way they can create and refine safety technology is with input from the medical community; they need to know how human bodies react in crashes.

For decades, this was achieved using cadavers. We don’t like to think about it, though Spain admitted it had gone back to using cadavers in 2013 because it was just too expensive to purchase the technical marvels years of research have created: those anthropomorphised crash test dummies.

Crash test dummies became so popular in the late 1980s after they debuted in a series of public service announcements (what better way to say “we’re no longer using live animals and dead people!” then to show us the dummies?), they even had their own line of toys. They proved too successful, and soon had to disassociate themselves from the original campaign because people found it off-putting that a child’s toy featured bodies blowing apart. Guess they’d never met a kid.

Crash testing has been around since the early 1930s, when car manufacturers realized they would have to start protecting occupants as more and more vehicles flooded the roads. Manufacturers, government and insurance companies have all played important roles in those falling fatality rates. It was Mercedes-Benz engineer Bela Barenyi who introduced crumple zones, used beginning in 1959, allowing a vehicle to systemically fold in on impact to absorb the brunt of a collision. Until then, the thinking had been more tank-like: big and heavy will protect occupants, when in fact a car maintaining its rigid shape simply left its occupants to be hurtled about at full force. Crumple zones mean the vehicle now absorbs more of the force, making it safer for those inside.

Those who specialize in the science of protecting drivers and passengers face an onerous task. “Do not underestimate the complexity of the human body,” laughs Suzanne Tylko, chief of Crashworthiness Research for Transport Canada. I had initially contacted her to ask why females are so sadly underrepresented in her industry – literally. Overwhelmingly, crash test data are centred on the use of a typical male crash test dummy. Female dummies existed in a limited way, though it wasn’t until the 1980s that GM incorporated them into its testing, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration only started using them in 2003.

Tylko acknowledges there are pronounced differences between the sexes that impact the outcome of a crash; she also doesn’t see it changing much. “There are so many factors, that we really have to get a representative dummy, an average,” she notes. Things like age, bone density, organ size and fitness – a population steadily gaining weight has presented manufacturers with issues ranging from seatbelt accommodations to actual seat size. From a safety perspective, it would be impossible to replicate every factor.

And yet, parsing information on what is the safest ride for a woman soon becomes near impossible. While Tylko’s lab looks at every configuration within a car regarding driver, passenger and rear seat occupants, the fact remains that the female crash test dummy — yes, the female crash test dummy (there is only one model) — is 4-foot-11 and weighs less than 50 kilograms. I could practically put her in my pocket. As heartening as it is to see more institutions recognizing that women deserve to be included in the ongoing research, it’s hard not to scratch your head at the wisdom of creating a single representation of half the population that is the size of Thumbelina. The manufacturer, a Detroit company called Humanetics, has several variations of male dummies, and Transport Canada is soon to take delivery of THOR, the newest and best version. Price tag? Between $650,000 and $800,000.

A young, fit male is going to have the best odds of surviving a crash. That makes sense, as the auto industry has spent decades finding out what is safest for a dummy version of him. A Carnegie Mellon University study from 2007 found that men have a 77 per cent higher risk of dying in a collision than women; I can see why the industry is taking pains to protect the most vulnerable. But the same study points out an 18-year-old male has the same driving risk as an 80-year-old female, which tells me we’re looking at something even the most sophisticated crash test dummy can’t factor in: behaviour.

The advanced work by people like Suzanne Tylko and her colleagues in countries around the world has helped us arrive at a generation of the safest vehicles, ever. Companies such as Humanetics have banished, for those who can afford it, the grisly use of cadavers, though researchers are quick to point out the invaluable contribution they made to the field of biomechanics. “We are predicting risk,” says Tylko. She notes that every test puts forth incremental increases in safety, and allows researchers to build relative comparisons that can be ranked. Seatbelts are designed to be used in conjunction with airbags; always have your seat in the proper position.

When you go to buy a car, keep in mind the crash test ratings, but also keep in mind who they were based on. From the Washington Post: “A 2011 study by the University of Virginia’s Center for Applied Biomechanics found that seatbelted female drivers in actual crashes had a 47 per cent higher chance of serious injuries than belted male drivers in comparable collisions. For moderate injuries, that difference rose to 71 per cent.”

A Swedish researcher, Astrid Linder of the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, has developed a female crash test dummy that better represents the distaff side of things. It’s still a rough prototype, but Volvo is involved.

Which means I can look forward to seeing it.

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Boneheaded drivers, stunt driving is not all about speed

Blocking a driver from changing lanes? Bolting off a light to make a left turn? Congratulations, you could be charged with stunt driving

Originally published: May 9, 2016

You might remember when Ontario introduced its infamous stunt driving laws in September 2007. There was a lot of outcry in some sectors that the law essentially made a cop the judge, jury and executioner, right there by the side of the road. I may (cough) have been one of them. Do 50 km/h over the speed limit, and you get automatic impoundment of your car for seven days, a $2,000 fine and a week-long suspension of your licence. And that was just the start of the fun. By the time you added in demerits (six) and other circumstances, you could be up to $10,000 in fines and jail time.

The “50 over” part was of course what grabbed easy headlines; there was always more to the law than that, and it’s why variations of it have been picked up in other parts of Canada like Quebec, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Manitoba. There are differences within the respective laws, but the spirit is similar. Alberta continues to monitor according to speeding and careless driving laws, though tiny Prince Edward Island has a section on what qualifies as stunt practices.

Call it whatever you like; speeding, street racing, aggressive driving, stunt driving, dangerous or reckless driving – critics are correct that existing laws cover most of what is included under many stunt wordings; some, like reckless driving, fall under the criminal code. But the intent was to give officers a tool that addressed an increasing practice on our roads: people using them as racetracks. It’s hardly new; Jim Stark and Danny Zuko were sending up sparks on screen long before The Fast and the Furious made its debut. What has changed is increasingly sophisticated cars, and a lot of unsophisticated drivers trying to replicate their onscreen heroes.

The stunt law wasn’t about using a hammer to kill a flea; it was about using a hammer to pound in a very large, stupid nail. The charge covers things like weaving at high rates of speed, crossing into oncoming traffic for longer than it takes to complete a pass (playing chicken), blocking someone from changing lanes, and more. In Ontario, if you bolt off a light and make a left ahead of oncoming traffic, that’s stunting. Someone in your trunk? That, too. The speed is the instigator of the charge in most cases, but it is surrounding behaviour that backs it up. I agree with critics of the law that speed alone shouldn’t merit the roadside hook; according to Greg Schweiler at, people charged with stunt driving are gambling so much on pleading not guilty they will gladly plea out to 49 over and have the charge reduced to Section 128 of the Ontario HTA – speeding. He acknowledges that courts rightfully view 50 km/h over in the city far more harshly than they do on the highway. Don’t look for much leeway there.

My initial concerns back in 2007 were that cops would be gleeful at the chance to get any car doing 151 km/h on our highways onto a tow hook. They’d be making the call for kicks. Actually, the wording of the law (and cops don’t make the laws) says they “shall” seize the car for impound if it’s doing 50 km/h over the speed limit. Not “may.” Shall. Because those speeds are often accompanied by the characteristics inherent in street racing – weaving, blocking, lifting and squealing tires – I’m okay with getting them off the street and letting them have their day in court. Toronto Police Services Constable Clint Stibbe tells me virtually every ticket is fought in court, too, with varying results. He clocked a woman doing 101 km/h in a 50 zone; she was late getting her kid to school, who was in the back seat. The bigger concern here isn’t being played out on the highways; it’s the idiots who are using your local streets as racetracks.

I profile other drivers as surely as airport security profiles fliers. I’ve taught my sons to pay attention to signs drivers give off if they’re about to get aggressive: creeping at crosswalks, eyes clapped only on the traffic signal, ready to blast out of the blocks like some Olympic sprinter. Yes, you get to be first – but too bad you didn’t notice a pedestrian step off the curb. I don’t trust polite drivers who wave others through stop signs, long after they legally should have gone themselves, or if you’re looking at your passenger as you talk to them, or if your driver’s seat is reclined so far back you look like you’re sitting in your La-Z-Boy after eating too much dinner at grandma’s.

You’re not in control if you have your dog on your lap. Actually in some jurisdictions this falls under the stunt laws, like in PEI where it is not permissible for “any person or thing to occupy the front seat of a motor vehicle in such a manner so as to impede the driver in the free and uninterrupted access to and use of the steering wheel, brakes and other equipment required to be used for the safe operation of the motor vehicle.” This means you can’t have Fifi on your lap, or a watermelon, or your date.

Do laws like this really change anything? I knew a man who viewed those speeding billboards much as he did menus; it was the cost of driving as fast as he wanted, and he had the wallet to do so. The extended fear of the punishment being so much more than a speeding ticket – stranded by the side of the road, impound fees, insane insurance rates – has provincial police saying it is definitely making a measurable impact. Some argued it was not constitutional, including a judge. But back in 2010, the Court of Appeal for Ontario in R v. Raham upheld the constitutionality of Ontario’s stunt driving provisions. This decision was not appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, according to the Ministry of the Attorney General’s Office.

There will always be some, like the 18-year-old from Kleinberg, Ont., who two years ago was busted doing 240 km/h on Highway 407. Hard to think the law meant much to him, when he’d posted a picture of his Nissan GT-R on Twitter the week before under the caption, “bring on the tickets.”

He forgot about the bus pass.

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Ontario licence plates need a serious overhaul

Government looks at problems of fading and peeling but little has been done for a permanent fix

Originally published: May 2, 2016

If it’s my imagination, then it’s everybody else’s as well. It used to be a faded licence plate was the province of a stubborn old dude like my father who refused to part with it, regardless of threat of ticket. Up until 1973, in Ontario you renewed your vehicle registration and got a new plate every year. After that, we moved to a sticker system that admittedly was more environmentally friendly, but made for many sparse garage walls. And yet, head out to any parking lot or roadway in Ontario right now, and you will encounter too many vehicles sporting fading, peeling licence plates.

The problems surfaced in late 2012, when the manufacturer, Trilcor Correctional Industries (licence plates are made by inmates just like in the movies; this one the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario) moved from a solvent-based paint to a two-part process involving an aluminum coat and a film. If you look, you’ll notice a reflective quality to the numbers and letters; the trouble was, those layers had trouble adhering to the raised edges on the plates, and started to prematurely bubble, peel and fade.

People complained. The provincial government responded, saying the plates had a five-year warranty and if you detected a problem, you could simply replace them free of charge. Anne-Marie Flanagan, advisor with the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, notes the Ontario plates are made to similar specs as other North American jurisdictions. Even so, they commissioned the National Research Council to carry out an independent investigation into why the fading and delaminating was occurring.

“The report noted that potential factors, like climate, may affect plates and included a few recommendations including to investigate that the correct pressure is being used in the embossing process – which we have now investigated and confirmed.”

So they’re trying to fix a problem without saying it was a problem. They may use the same process as the rest of North America, but only Ontario and a few U.S. states are having issues. Back in 2008, a batch of 90,000 plates manufactured in Nova Scotia experienced peeling and fading; the government there identified the batch and has waived the replacement fee for those affected even outside the five-year warranty period.

Estimates of returned Ontario plates are running at about 2 per cent of the 1.4 million plates put out annually. I must live in some anecdotal hotspot because I see far more than 2 per cent every time I leave the house, and wonder how many people perhaps haven’t noticed, or who don’t understand it’s a legal problem, too.

Here’s the thing: Nothing lasts forever, especially something exposed continually to our climate. Vehicle owners have an obligation to maintain all the parts of that vehicle, including government-issued plates. But to go from something that outlasted most cars (I have plates that are over 20 years old) to something that is fading faster than Bill Cosby’s reputation, and shift the onus onto consumers to take care of it, is unfair. If you miss the five-year cutoff for warranty, new plates just went up to $40 from $29. Personalized plates now start at $310, meaning that warranty window is even more important should you experience problems. Licence plates should last longer than five years, and so should the paint on them.

If you don’t care about the cosmetic factor, consider the legal one: Section 13 of the Highway Traffic Act requires you to keep your plate clear of obstruction, meaning everything from snow and dirt to rust and fading. That plate must be clearly legible. Constable Clint Stibbe with Toronto Traffic Services says police will be looking at intent – are you purposely obstructing your plate? – but it’s ultimately about education. “An officer will usually issue a warning the first time, but once that’s in the system, it’s up to the owner to get that plate fixed. The next time, a ticket will be issued.” It’s a $110 ticket.

Keep in mind you may not paint or glue the letters back on yourself. Be careful what aftermarket holders and covers you might be tempted to purchase; although you can purchase some right at the ServiceOntario counters, they’re not a government-issued product. Stibbe cautions that some covers can work as privacy screens, whether you intend them to or not. If they reflect or refract light or otherwise obscure the plate, you might be on the hook for it. But he admits there is little appetite to bust drivers for sporting clear plastic covers.

I can name 100 things I’d rather do than stand around a cramped government office tucked into an even more cramped plaza trying to exchange licence plates that have had reported ongoing problems for more than three years.

“The government is committed to continuing the investigation into this matter. In 2015, the supplier of the reflective sheeting implemented changes to its production process which is consistent with changes implemented in other jurisdictions. We are monitoring the situation to see if these changes improve the plate quality,” says Flanagan. In the meantime, check out your newish plates. If you see problems starting, go get in that line and change them out under warranty. If they’re simply old, suck up the 40 bucks to avoid a larger fine.

As for the government making a change to the production process: What took so long?

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Spring inspections can save money down the road

Switching tires is the perfect time for a look-over after the trials of winter

Originally published: April 27, 2016

Have you ever been to a palm reader? What if I told you a decent vehicle technician could do an equivalent of a palm reading on your car, and there’s nothing shady about it? According to Bill Gardiner, Canada’s “Car Doctor” speaking recently from a Kal Tire location in Toronto, your tires are like the palms of your car, and reveal a lot of information with the right inspection.

“Wear patterns reveal problems with suspension or alignment. They’ll show a lack of rotation when your tires were put on, and signs of under-inflation, which affects safety as well as fuel economy,” he says. Tires are one of the most important components of your car, yet are often overlooked and under-appreciated. If you’re banging them off curbs and damaging sidewalls, if your driving habits cause premature wear and if you can’t be bothered replacing them, every safety feature in your car is compromised.

“Canadians really have an optimal opportunity to have their car inspected,” he says. “Most of us change out tires twice a year with the seasons, and it’s the perfect opportunity to be proactive about maintaining your car.”

He notes Canadian winters can wash lubricants out from steering and suspension systems. The gunk – salt and brine – sets in and can do a number on ball joints and tie rod ends.

“New cars are so well engineered and insulated, the driver doesn’t get audible clues that something is starting to go wrong,” Gardiner warns. You also get used to driving your own car, and things like brakes becoming spongy and steering starting to pull can be subtle rather than overt. A seasonal once-over will check those brakes, fluid levels, filters, wiper blades, bulbs and the battery.

It’s easy to treat our cars the way we treat our bodies, and respond to the parts as they break rather than heading trouble off at the pass. Maintenance will always be cheaper than repair, however, especially if you factor in the sudden onslaught of breakdown costs while you’re on holiday or by the side of the road. A flat tire is easily repaired by roadside assistance or you, but other problems could present a torn-up vacation and a blown-up credit card.

Check the inflation of your spare tire (if you have one) annually in the summer; if you want your tech to check it, clear all the junk out of the trunk so he or she can get to it. If a tire goes, get as far off the roadway as you can, safely. Don’t change a tire next to a live lane of traffic; call for assistance if you can’t make it to an exit. There’s a reason many parts of the country levy a huge fine for failing to slow down and change lanes around emergency vehicles; it’s a deadly place to be.

Gardiner points to your owner’s manual as the standard. Most will have two schedules for maintenance, and he reminds you that Canada is considered a severe climate zone. Some manufacturers are now insisting on the use of synthetic oil, and doing otherwise could cause problems if a warranty issue arises. Same goes for the timing on those oil changes — a common question is whether you follow the month or the kilometre; he suggests twice a year regardless for the average driver, once if you’re a low-miler.

Dealerships can be aggressive with their own maintenance schedules. While vehicle owners want to take care of their cars, most of us are looking for the most reasonable way to maintain our warranties. Compare those blockbuster packages offered by the maintenance department with the manufacturer’s schedules in your owner’s manual. If they’re not close, ask questions.

Gardiner also notes the other side of the coin, less reputable shops and chains that rely on costly upsells once they lure you in with a cheap poster price. “Most manufacturers do not recommend you flush any fluid reservoirs. When you start hearing about flushing and serpentine belts and air cabin filters from one of these places, you’re likely getting an upsell by an unlicenced technician.”

Batteries typically last about five years, but Gardiner says that number is falling as more and more parasitic draws are placed on it with increased electrical loads. All the wingdings – clocks, lights and systems that perform even when you’re not in the car – contribute to a steady drain. He says more batteries fail in summer than winter, another reminder to consider if you should be replacing it. Once again, head back to your manual to make sure you replace the battery with a CCA rating (cold crank average) that meets or exceeds the one that was original to the car.

A good technician will be able to tell you a lot about your car’s performance and problems, starting with the tires. But the first step is planning your maintenance so everything else you plan goes off without a hitch.

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Turo has a legal leg-up in car sharing field

Peer-to-peer car rental isn’t perfect, but insurance and roadside assistance cover users

Originally published: April 20, 2016

I think the sharing economy is a crock. It started out warm enough; borrow my underused this, trade me an hour of babysitting for an hour of snow shovelling.

But any iteration on a grand scale withered on the vine in the past decade. It seems most of us noodle away building our own networks and don’t really need SnapGoods or a Groupon to tell us how to do it.

Allowing an entity to profit from, but avoid the responsibility for, things that were previously based on community (lending a lawnmower, catching a ride, raising a barn), is backwards and destructive. The only “sharing economy” survivors are, in fact, full-fledged corporate entities.

This has been my unvarnished opinion of Uber’s illegal activities all along; I’m watching things like Airbnb operate outside of the licensed and regulated hotel industry, and Uber push its “play now, worry later” mentality onto other industries. Uber is making inroads in some places, such as Toronto, which is pretending to create a level playing field to keep the cabbies from storming the castle, while other places, such as major cities in Germany, have told Uber to pack up its nonsense and go home.

But there’s a sort of new kid on the block, effective now in Ontario, Alberta and Quebec: Turo. You don’t ferry people around in your car for cash; you actually let them drive your car. You hand over the keys for a day or a week or whatever is required. The company boasts drivers can save as much as 30 per cent over standard rental rates and owners can earn 600 bucks in a good month. Minimum booking is a day; average is five.

The San Francisco–based company started in 2009 in the U.S. as RelayRides (the new name came into effect November 2015), but a new moniker has led to some rebranding. Go to its site, punch in your destination and shop for a ride. Price ranges are all over the place; on the U.S. site the scale starts at ten bucks a day, but that was next to Nicholas’s 2016 Corvette that he would let you rent for $608 per day. I don’t know who Nicholas is; every car has an owner’s name and picture attached, so you can remember this isn’t some nameless, faceless corporate behemoth. It’s Tinder for rides, though Turo makes a straight 25 per cent off the top, which makes them … something.

Turo passes a huge peer-to-peer program test that Uber so miserably failed until just last month. They’ve introduced a partnership with Intact Insurance and Belairdirect to provide coverage for the customers driving the cars, and for the cars while they are being rented. Or “shared.” Whatever. Car owners must be customers of these companies in the three Canadian provinces on board in order to use Turo, but the Turo policy is independent of personal policies; it is a commercial policy that supplies “$2M third-party liability, standard accident benefits, physical damage limit of $75K and replacement cost for up to 4-year-old vehicles.” Turo pays the $1,000 deductible in the event of a claim; it also provides roadside assistance to the renter.

Turo CEO Andre Haddad emphasizes that the company’s goal is to make better use of the millions of cars that sit idle, and let owners offset costs of buying and maintaining a car. Issues like a renter losing your car for a week under Ontario’s stunt driving law would be handled “on a case-by-case basis”– a popular, and perhaps correct, answer whenever I push on events that may be rare, but I would still want to know about before I offered up my car, not after.

Like most of the sharing economy, Turo has had its issues with compliance. It suspended service in New York City in May of 2013 because that city’s laws forbade an insurance policy like Turo’s (then RelayRides) to supersede an owner’s personal policy. It resulted in a $200,000 fine for “put[ting] New Yorkers at risk through false advertising, unlicensed insurance activity and other violations.” This, of course, is the nut of the problem that those entering into any version of the peer-to-peer rental – be it a house, a car or a ride – must eventually face. Current law can’t keep up with technology, and governing new ideas with old rules is like watching Donald Trump give a speech: he just keeps making crap up, but so many people like it that what’s right gets lost to what’s popular.

How out of touch is legislation? As recently as 2008, the Ontario Highway Transportation Board ruled it illegal for people to carpool outside of work-related trips, such as hauling a bunch of kids to a hockey game. Lawmakers are struggling to keep up, as evidenced with Uber’s bully tactics in most fields it shows up to play on. Turo entered Canada with the insurance problem essentially solved, though Haddad chuckles (but doesn’t answer) when I ask what grey areas of the law they might be dancing across.

The car rental industry is understandably unhappy with its grass being cut, and Turo has had to iron out issues at places like the San Francisco airport, where rental companies pay a premium to do business. Haddad stresses that the Turo experience is about much more than renting a car; it’s about being able to rent a unique car or truck that will make your travels exciting (and full of many high fives, according to the website), all while making owners happy and prosperous. There are high-end cars like that Corvette and some Teslas on the site, but they’re outnumbered by cars that look remarkably like the Elantra in my driveway.

When asked about the fact that some are now capitalizing on the idea and essentially putting together fleets of cars to rent out – leasing cars to turn a profit – Haddad applauded what he called their “entrepreneurial spirit.” I doubt car rental companies, with their associated costs, compliances and tax rates would share his enthusiasm. More importantly, according to J.P. Ostiguy, senior manager with the Alta Group, you best be careful about leasing-to-rent. You will most likely be busting the terms of your lease, which here in Canada are pretty black and white.

Will Turo take off in Canada? With the insurance dilemma addressed and roadside assistance in place, it probably will. A lot of people would like to drive a special car once in a while, and exotic rental places tend to have a lot of geldings in their stables. It’s built for urban centres and as long as owners make pick up and drop off convenient, I don’t see who is going to miss a fleet of rental cars classified only as compact or midsize.

Not when you could drive Nicholas’s Corvette.

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Recalls slipping through the cracks can be deadly

Lax regulations mean there is no easy way to tell if a car has had its recall dealt with

Originally published: April 11, 2016

A jury has awarded $15 million to the parents who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Enterprise Rent-A-Car of San Francisco after their daughters, Raechel and Jacqueline Houck of Santa Cruz, died in a fiery crash in 2004Alert Driving, North America News, August 2010

The recent changes to Ontario’s vehicle safety certification program were long overdue, after being untouched for more than 40 years; you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue that cars haven’t changed significantly in that time.

But did the government miss out on one of the biggest safety issues of all? Absolutely. That rental car noted above, a 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser, had been issued a recall warning of a fire hazard, yet had been rented out four more times, with the work never performed.

If you’ve purchased a new car, you’ve no doubt received notices of recalls – perhaps in your mailbox, certainly when you’ve taken your car in for maintenance at the dealer. Your information is retained by the manufacturer and you are notified whenever recalls are issued for work to be performed. This works well if you’re the original owner of your vehicle and you’ve never moved; factor in a vehicle changing hands or an owner moving about and not updating records, and you can see how the recall chain can be easily broken.

Sometimes recalls are massive – think GM ignition switches or Takata airbags – but often they’re smaller items on a small subset of one model year, or even cars coming off a line during a certain shift. In theory, manufacturers want to be seen getting ahead of a potential problem; as you know from explosive (literally) headlines, it is often the intense pressure from lawsuits and governing bodies that finally makes them step up. Prevention is cheaper than a cure.

When Ontario’s safety standards were recently changed, critics instantly asked why something as important, and basic, as a check for outstanding recalls wasn’t made a requirement of a used car being given a stamp of approval for resale. The vehicle is in the hands of a licenced seller or mechanic, over 70 pages of paperwork is being checked, and yet no pass is taken over the recall history of the vehicle?

At present, you can go on Transport Canada’s website and check the recall history of any vehicle using the vehicle identification number (VIN) that is clearly visible on the driver’s side of the dash through the windshield. The problem is in finding out if those recalls were, in fact, carried out. The new legislation failed to correct the long-standing problem of consumers buying potentially dangerous vehicles with open recalls, some dating years back; the longer a recall is open, the harder it can be to get it serviced. Picture trying to get parts to service a 10-year-old car versus a two-year-old one; sellers might be less inclined to chase down the work on a car they already stand to have a narrower profit margin on.

The Automobile Protection Association (APA) would have been happy just to see a mandated notice of the open recall, if not a fix. The newly introduced safety standards continue to place the onus on the consumer to work through myriad information platforms to determine if the car they’re purchasing could be dangerous. This is ultimately doable, but unreasonable; if a cheese slicer or a toaster has a recall issued on it, it’s yanked from sale until it’s made safe. Why, then, can you buy a car with a recall?

George Iny, president of the APA, is concerned that “car dealers have a similar culture around recall compliance as the U.S. daily rental companies used to have. In the view of dealers and their associations, it’s the customer’s problem, not theirs.

“A second-year law student answering an exam question would have no problem figuring out the dealer selling a used vehicle would be liable for injury or property losses stemming from an open recall existing prior to the sale as a used vehicle,” says Iny. “Curiously, that understanding appears to have eluded the best minds in the auto industry, including the lawyers representing dealer trade groups. APA’s secret shoppers have identified vehicles with open recalls at both new and used vehicle dealerships.”

His sentiment is echoed by Warren Barnard, executive director of the Used Car Dealers Association of Ontario. “There’s really no way changes to the Ontario vehicle inspection program could deal with recalls, which is an area of federal jurisdiction. Unfortunately, Transport Canada doesn’t seem to be taking the matter seriously. Unlike in the U.S., there is no single database in Canada where dealers or consumers can do a search on a vehicle’s 17-digit VIN to determine if there are any open recalls (recalls that haven’t been fixed) on that particular vehicle. If NHTSA in the U.S. can do it, Transport Canada should be able to do it here, too.”

There is no sure fix. GM recently issued its third recall for 1.4 million cars between 1997 and 2004 for oil leaks that had led to fires; 1,345 of the fires had happened after an initial recall and repair, meaning that even if a consumer had managed to source the problem, it still wasn’t solved. Iny shakes his head that government regulators continue to work in silos, with Transport Canada and provincial regulators passing up the most obvious opportunity to stem the flow of vehicles deemed in need of fixes by their manufacturers before they change hands to unsuspecting consumers.

Ford wrestled with nearly 15 million recalled vehicles for the years 1992 to 2004 across much of its lineup surrounding a faulty cruise control switch that caused many house and garage fires. Like the GM fires, many occurred long after the vehicle had been shut off. Would you know if your 2003 Ford Super Duty had the repair done if you’re the second or third owner? If you inherited it from Uncle Bob, did he get around to it? You could contact the brand-specific dealer to access that information, or call the manufacturer’s customer service line.

Resellers are unlikely to spend so much time chasing down open recalls, a fact Iny laments may ultimately end in the prohibition of sales on cars with open recalls. “Too bad,” he says, “as that will create a lot of inconvenience concerning the majority of recalls, where the potential for harm is remote.”

Should consumers be responsible for doing their own investigation on a potential purchase? Of course they should. You can run a VIN number on your phone as you stand in front of the car, and that should be one of the first things you do. But consumers should also expect a vehicle that has passed a government safety standard and is being sold by a regulated seller has also been cleared for open recalls. If those governing and sanctioning bodies can’t easily access whether the work has been performed, will you?

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Lending – or borrowing – a car can test a relationship

Asking questions and common courtesy can help avoid problems when the keys are handed back

Originally published: April 4, 2016

Baby, you can drive my car … or can you? Depending on what you drive and who your friends and family are, car lending can be no big deal – or, a minefield.

Let’s establish two sides of the scenario: There are those who offer to lend people their cars, and there are those who ask to borrow cars. What’s in between those two groups? That minefield.

You know that you have to protect your insurance rating to keep your premium where it is (or to access sometimes imaginary “decreases”). You get minor damage fixed on your own dime, you drive according to conditions, you’re careful in parking lots and you dread the behaviour of the idiots on the road around you.

When you hand your keys to someone, you are handing over your insurance rating like a small mewling infant. It requires the same constant care and consideration as that baby; people who offer their vehicles to a friend know this, and have already decided they trust the person they’re tossing the keys – and the baby – to. People who ask to borrow a car may not know this, or may not respect this, or may not care. I mean, it’s just a car for a couple of hours, right?

The hard facts:

Make sure anyone you loan your car to has a valid driver’s licence. Don’t make a face when your friend loaning you their car ascertains this. Weirder things have happened; just ask Judge Judy.

Someone else driving your car with your permission is covered under your insurance policy. If they have their own car insurance, their Accident Benefits Coverage will cover things like medical care, but actual damage to vehicles and property will be on you. If they don’t have their own insurance, their workplace or provincial benefits coverage will still be in place in addition to your policy.

If they’re involved in a collision, that claim will impact your insurance. If they get a speeding ticket, that will not impact your insurance rating. If they get a parking ticket and don’t pay it, that will come to roost when you go to renew your licence sticker.

Most insurance policies do not define the lending of a car. This is reasonable and allows people to have flexibility with their own property when handled in a prudent manner. Trouble will follow, however, if you do things that constitute a material change in risk; anything that is drastically different from what you signed up for will restrict or void your policy. Allowing your 18-year-old neighbour to use your car for the summer is a material change in risk; letting your brother use it to visit his girlfriend for the weekend is not.

While you don’t have to notify your insurance company of something like a one-off road trip your car is taking with a friend driving, do know that your insurance policy is only valid in continental North America. That lost weekend in Mexico will have to stay lost.

If you’re from out of province, know that there can be differences in policies on issues like injury claims, caps and right to sue. And for parents intent on making sure their teen doesn’t drive their expensive and/or collector car, you might be surprised at the lengths you have to go to; it’s not enough to tell them ‘no.’ Your insurance policy factors in your licenced householders on all vehicles; if you want to separate that expensive-to-insure new driver from your expensive-to-own car, you have to specifically remove them from that car in writing. The upside is your rate will be reflected on your driving record only; the downside is, if your kid takes that car, with or without your permission and crashes it (like the Vancouver teen who recently destroyed his mother’s Mercedes while doing 250 km/h), you’ll have to report it stolen – by your own kid.

The insurance questions are actually the easy part of the car lending equation. Things get sticky everywhere else. Speaking of sticky, don’t trash the interior of a car you’ve borrowed. If you know the owner doesn’t eat or drink in the car, respect that.

Here are a few other things to consider; have the uncomfortable conversations right up front, though from the perspective of the borrower, some things shouldn’t even warrant conversation:

  • If I borrow your car and blow a tire, who’s going to pay? If I slam a pothole and don’t tell you, who pays later?
  • If that borrowed car is sitting in a driveway overnight and a tree branch falls on it, who pays?
  • What is the deductible on the loanee’s policy? Be prepared to pay it if you’re involved in a claim.
  • Find out if the vehicle has collision insurance. If it doesn’t and you smuck up a fender, now is not the time to declare the car not worth fixing. Not your call.
  • Return it full of fuel. I don’t care where the needle was when you picked it up; owning a car costs a lot more than gas. And make sure you use the right grade of fuel.
  • Return it clean.
  • Return it when you say you will.
  • Use it for what you said you were going to use it for. A car returned with hundreds of mysterious kilometres on the speedometer is like your spouse having a blackout weekend and returning home with no memory of it.
  • If you can’t drive a manual transmission, don’t lie.

Contrary to popular belief, people with pickup trucks are not waiting around for calls at the end of the month. There’s also a reason many who are kind enough to help you out insist on doing the driving: If you know little about trailers or payloads, you can do a lot of damage. If that means you score the loan of a truck and a driver, thank him/her appropriately.

The best advice is from Pete Karageorgos, Director of Consumer & Industry Relations for the Insurance Bureau of Canada: “If in doubt, ask your insurance representative or call IBC’s free consumer information centre at 1-844-2ask-IBC (1-844-227-5422).”

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