Despite the stigma, many used car buyers aren’t deterred from purchasing recalled vehicles

Originally published: July 14, 2014

Would you buy a used car that has had a recall? How about one that has had multiple recalls?

According to the Automobile Protection Association, Canada’s watchdog, you not only would, but you do – in large numbers.

“Vehicles are complex, and safety and product upgrade recalls are a foreseeable part of the ownership experience – not that different in some respects from the upgrades we expect for our electronic devices and computer software,” says George Iny, director of the APA. “[Usually] recalls occur before there are any deaths or injuries, often even in the absence of property damage – a risk has been apprehended.”

Mr. Iny cautions that not all recalls are created equal. Different manufacturers have different thresholds for issuing one. He notes Toyota likely hid more recalls than it issued for 20 years, as they accumulated a stellar reputation for reliability and safety. The sudden acceleration headlines changed that culture, and the hit to the company, while substantial at the time, did little lasting damage to their reputation. “Ford, on the other hand, issues recalls for problems that could be limited to cars assembled by one new guy on the night shift, apprehended before any vehicles had been sold to the general public.”

By his estimate, three Ford recalls might equal one Toyota recall. Manufacturers have different trigger points, and the nature of the recall is more important than the number.

If you’ve found the used car you want to buy, how can you make sure it’s safe? Is a used car dealer obligated to make sure any recall work has been performed? The short answer is no. In the U.S., thousands of General Motors’ now infamous Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions are sitting on used car lots, faulty ignition switches still in place. Not only are they being sold, their price has actually slightly increased in the weeks since the massive ignition failures have come to light. Not by much – maybe 150 bucks on average – but these models are still rising and falling along normal resale curves. This fact is sure to punch the juice out of multi-million dollar lawsuits being filed arguing that owners will find themselves with white elephants on their hands.

According to Jim Hamilton, Legal Services Director for the Used Car Dealers Association (UCDA) in Ontario, the UCDA keeps their dealers informed, and their dealers know that a car that has had outstanding recalls performed is worth more, and costs them nothing. ”If you withhold material information at the time of sale, you are breaking Ontario law,” he notes. The rub? Getting that information from manufacturers can be frustrating. As a buyer, you must be vigilant.

“The stop-drive order on the 2013 and 2014 Chevy Cruzes that GM issued was critical. Those cars are not only on GM lots – they’re in used fleets. Yet I can’t get affected VIN numbers to tell my dealers.” The UCDA represents 4,700 dealers in Ontario; Hamilton notes that if he can’t get timely information from a manufacturer, he’s not sure how an individual dealer can. Hamilton sent me copies of his thank-you-for-contacting-us correspondence.

The bottom line? Do your own check. Transport Canada has lists of recalls available, but sometimes only specific VINs are affected. Dealers should be able to verify what recalls were addressed, and if they know about it, they are obligated to either fix it or tell you when you buy it. Manufacturers tell owners and their own dealers about recalls, but if you’re uncertain of the provenance of a vehicle, do some digging. Manufacturers argue that the media messes up the message, but frequently, it’s that same media that forces them to take responsibility. Consider that not long ago, insiders estimated about 10% of cars on the road were lemons. Today, that number is closer to 1% according to the APA.

As a prospective buyer, what warrants your attention? Dennis DesRosiers of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants sees little impact on resale value of cars due to recalls. In fact, in the cluster of bad news, many will keep their recalled vehicle off the market and the law of supply and demand kicks in: the fewer available of a certain model, the higher the price.

Mr. Iny suggests looking for patterns of repeated recalls, especially in the first couple of years of a new design. While it could be an indicator of faulty manufacturing or design, as the whole recall culture struggles for transparency, it could also show “a robust internal process and commitment to ironing out the kinks in an otherwise decent used car buy.”

We’re in the midst of an overhaul of how manufacturers are coping with admitting fault. The nature of our instant – and intense – media means slow responses aren’t going to cut it. That same media, most notably the U.S. newscast 60 Minutes, was rightfully blamed for the furor over Audi’s unintended acceleration “problems” but it still effectively iced the brand for two decades in North America. You can’t unring a bell, so manufacturers should see more upside in stepping up sooner rather than later, something GM is facing now, at astronomical hits to their financials as well as their reputation.

The uptick in recalls across the board in the wake of GM this year signals exactly that. Is damage permanent? Mr. Iny indicates that the Ford Explorer and the defective Firestone tires killed the halo around that vehicle. And, unlike the new Dodge Dart, you’ll never see a reincarnated Pinto.

And to think, that was in the good old days before the Internet.

Posted in Drive She Said | 4 Comments

Embattled General Motors tries to buy back the public trust. But settlement could be 13 years too late

Originally published: July 7, 2014

GM is set to pay out at least $1-million for each death attributed to their faulty switches. They’ve finally worked out a formula calculating how much each person, now dead as a result of a flawed part they were aware of and decided to hide, is worth. They will factor in potential earnings, spouses and dependents.

Of course they have to pay, and of course there is no good way to put a dollar amount on a dead person. But we do it every day; remember those insurance policies that used to be offered to school children, where they sorted out how much the loss of each body part was worth? Back then we giggled over how much our individual limbs were worth, blissfully not realizing that we’d never known anyone actually hurt enough to make a claim. I also found it odd that you were worth less if you just died. As I got older, I learned the costs involved of surviving a catastrophic injury, and finally understood.

GM has lots of people to make claims. There is the official count of 13, but they know it will go higher. As recall notices ramped up, investigators started a redo on old cases. GM was aware of a problem in 2001; they started recalls in February, 2014. The first attributable death happened in 2005, when a Maryland teen died in her Cobalt when the airbags failed to go off. Reuters News Agency ran an investigation of their own using crash statistics and came up with 74 questionable deaths, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) acknowledges they believe the official numbers will escalate.

“Reuters searched the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), a national database of crash information submitted by local law-enforcement agencies, for single-car frontal collisions where no front air bags deployed and the driver or front-seat passenger was killed.” This is admittedly swinging a broad net, but it quite aptly describes the circumstances of the fatal crashes in the official 13. They put the results against cars in the same segment, and found Saturn Ions fatally faltering at nearly six times the rate of the Toyota Corolla, and Cobalts at over four times.

The New York Times has done an excellent ongoing series about the faces behind the numbers. The affected cars were primarily smaller, entry-level vehicles. The kind that teens might buy, or that their parents might buy for them. Young families on limited budgets. It’s a devastating read, not so much for the fact that so many people died in such a violent way, but because they were blamed for their own demise. Stunned families were dismissed in the David vs. Goliath scenario, told their loved one was drunk or a terrible driver. After all, nobody sails off a highway and hits a tree unless they’ve done something to deserve it.

As late as February of this year, GM officially stated, “[a]ll of these crashes occurred off-road and at high speeds, where the probability of serious or fatal injuries was high regardless of airbag deployment,” which is sort of mind-boggling, if you think about it. The cars were “off-road” because the brakes and steering failed when the ignition switched itself off, not because drivers were trying to, well, go off-roading. It is this type of insult that has compounded the pain of surviving families.

The wording of the settlement offer package has been stripped of all judgment. Prove the crash involved one of the cars in question (there is a list of 10 vehicles in the document) and that the airbags failed to deploy. You only give up your right to sue if you accept a cheque. The million dollars is a starting point, and those severely injured will get more. GM is facing potentially billions in payouts; the cut-off date for crashes is December of this year, meaning they’re allowing future claims that might happen. The settlement itself is a plainly worded one-pager, an absolute unicorn in today’s legal world. They are using the transparency they’ve been accused of lacking all these years.

For nearly a decade, families have been living with this. Not just the loss of their loved one, but the judgment that somehow they did this to themselves, and in some cases, to somebody else. Inexperienced drivers, they said. Careless drivers, they said. Drunk drivers, they said. No seatbelt, they said.

We knew the part was faulty and decided it was too expensive to fix it, they didn’t say.

Big fat cheques will absolutely assist those living with catastrophic injuries. Big fat cheques will ease the burden for families left behind. But something tells me the admission that their loved one wasn’t responsible will be worth even more.

Can you buy back public trust? Money talks, but so does 13 years of silence.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Is your car blowing hot air? Getting at the root of the problem can be a costly and frustrating exercise

Originally published: June 30, 2014

Cars are awesome, until they’re not.

I call it the absence of malice problem: I only notice something is wrong because I take for granted how often everything is right. Turn the key and go; it’s what we demand of today’s cars, and it’s what we overwhelmingly get. When things do go awry, it’s always interesting to see how people cope. When your brakes go from spongy to making that funny grinding sound, you call your mechanic or drive straight to the dealership. If the engine suddenly starts cutting out, or a tire blows and you thwap to a halt by the side of the road, same thing.

But if your air conditioning starts blowing hot air, you do other things. You punch the dash; you adjust the little vents. You jam away at the settings. You turn it off and turn it on again. And again. Then you leave the car in the driveway overnight, and go out the next day and actually believe it might be OK, like it just needed a little rest so it could become air conditioning again.

My Dad didn’t believe in air conditioning, so we stuck to the plastic seat in the back of the station wagon, our small legs requiring skin grafts when we tried to move. There was a choice, of course. We could sit on a blanket instead; the temperature at sweltering levels, and we could pick between itchy wool and molten plastic. We’d fight over the windows and stick our heads out like puppies, which was fun until Mom and Dad did up their windows and my father would yell “buffeting!” and make us close them. I liked that sound, the suction of air that whumped around the interior of the car, making me think this was what outer space must sound like. Children without air conditioning develop excellent imaginations.

If your car is older and blowing hot air, you might want to give your next steps a hard think. The voyage to the root of a dead air conditioning system can be exasperating, exhausting and expensive. Your coolant has leaked out, and you can’t just top it up. It’s illegal to add a gas to your system that depletes the ozone (in Canada, usually R134A); you have to find the leak, and this is where the fun begins.

Very basically, your car’s air conditioning system is made up of three major components: the compressor, the evaporator and the condenser. There are lots of hoses, tubes, valves and sensors connecting them all. A technician has to figure out where the leak is occurring, and will pressurize the system with nitrogen to find out. This diagnostic isn’t the expensive part. Several shops told me it’s about an hour at shop rate to tell you what’s going on.

Find the leak, fix the problem, easy. Sort of. These are expensive parts and systems, and one of them – the evaporator – is usually behind the dash which requires a lot of rip-apart work. When the kids were small, I had a 10-year-old car. The air conditioning went, I foolishly let an eager young mechanic talk me into letting him fix it. I committed to Phase One believing it was Phase Done. While the 600 bucks was huge to me at the time, having the A/C working again seemed like a necessary one.

Until a week later, when I once again had vents blasting hot air. I slammed back into the garage with no good grace, demanding that he fix the fix. And that is when I learned the most valuable lesson, ever, about old cars and air conditioning.

All of the parts of that system are the same age, which means if one goes, why shouldn’t the others? Finding the leak and replacing one is zero guarantee that you can’t develop another leak in another part in a week or a month. Was I prepared to go perhaps $1,500 dollars in to get back my arctic air? On a car that was maybe worth $2,000? I told the kids we were now driving like in olden times.

I’ve watched mechanics explain this to a customer. I’ve witnessed the truth of the term “shooting the messenger” more times in places that specialize in auto air conditioning than just about anywhere else. My theory on expensive mechanical repairs to older vehicles is pretty simple: if a car you trust has cost you little in recent years and needs a couple grand to keep it going for another year or two, that’s cheaper than new car payments while you take some time to consider your next purchase.

My theory on air conditioning? It’s a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have for most of us. Drop the windows, find a nicer blanket and stick your head out the window.

Besides, this is Canada. Snow is just around the corner.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

These five tips are the only things you need to heed before hitting the road this summer

Originally published: June 23, 2014

The kids will be out of school in a week or two, and you will be deluged with list after list of how to get ready for a road trip. Whether the trip is for the day or a week, well-intentioned editors will lobby for – and get – extensive tips and tricks for keeping everybody happy and healthy, or at the very least, alive. You only need to know five things. Everything else will be like all the stuff you learn in Lamaze classes; great in theory, but out the window when the pain really hits.

  1. Get your car checked. Today. Not the day before you go, but now. An hour with your mechanic might save your entire trip. Ever been by the side of the road in Buttfuzzle, Pennsylvania? Ever seen that look on the tow truck driver’s face as he tells you he has a cousin who has a garage? Most new cars come with a roadside assistance program, and most of us forget when it’s run out. You might know in theory how to change a flat tire, but make sure you know how to do it on your specific car. I spent half an hour looking for the jack on an expensive luxury SUV a few weeks back, only to discover it was made of toothpicks and straw. How much you pay doesn’t always translate past the leather interior and howdy doody navigation system.
  2. Give children power. They are basically being held hostage back there, often in car seats. I’ve been in traction and had more mobility than my kids had in those things. I used to be one of those preachy people who said I’d never let my precious angels tangle their minds with movies and video games. Then I had kids and realized I was prepared to buy peace at any cost, and I also realized growing up, our favourite car game was counting roadkill. My Mom wanted to sing; we wanted to play guess the carcass. If your teens are mopey and sulky, congratulations. They’re normal. Don’t make them sit at the same table when you stop for lunch, and yes, your daughter probably is flirting with that guy who looks like a carny, but she’s been trapped with her family in a space the size of a rowboat for a week, do you blame her?
  3. Ziplock bags. This gets its own number, it’s that important. They come in lots of sizes and they have uses you haven’t begun to imagine. You can put a wet bathing suit in a ziplock bag. You can put barf in a ziplock bag. You can put garbage, medicine, snacks and shells in ziplock bags. If you don’t, you will have wet things making dry things wet; you will have fighting over one bag of pretzels; you will have shells and stones that sure weren’t that stinky when we collected them; you will have things handed to you while someone says, “What do I do with this?” Ziplocks are a barrier against all things wet, smelly, leaking or gross.
  4. Stop the car. You’re not only making time, you’re making memories. Oh, nobody will appreciate it in the moment, but one day, as you sit around dinner or give toasts at weddings, these are things you will reach for. If you’re the Smiths driving through Smithville, stop and take a picture at the road sign. There is a huge rock painted like a snapping turtle near my cottage and not only do I think people should take pictures of their children on it, I think people should have their wedding photos done here.
  5. Do not open the cage. Generally speaking, children must learn things for themselves. The fact you know better doesn’t matter; true life lessons are never second-hand stories, they’re all experienced up close and seared into your memory bank. At 14, I learned a lesson that I carry with me to this day. When you travel with a cat, there is a reason you put it in its cage. It is for safety of the creature and the sanity of the voyagers. The problem? Nooly (don’t ask) hated his cage. As he yowled and cried, cage perched on the seat between two of us, we whispered and comforted him and believed he was being tortured. We sat in stop and go traffic en route to cottage country, windows down because air conditioning was for other people. My father was already cussing the conditions, and when he started panting – Nooly, not my Dad – we truly believed our cat was on the edge of certain death. Quietly, carefully, my sister and I eased open the cage. The plan was a cuddle and a whisper of love, calming our baby only for a moment to remind him all would be right with his world in an hour or two. Before the catch was fully free, the cat rocketed out of the cage and dove under the pedals beneath my father’s feet.

That was the first time we’d ever actually been grounded at the cottage.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Driving my father up to the family cottage for the last time was an emotional ride for both of us

Originally published: June 13, 2014

DadIf my Dad were alive he’d be 88, and I often wonder which 18 years, like notes on a piano keyboard, he would have willingly surrendered. Actually, I already know: none. He surrendered nothing willingly, ever, including the wheel.

When I was a kid, there was never a question: if we went anywhere as a family, Dad drove. No matter how tired he was, no matter how crabby he was, Dad drove. Mom was a good driver, but Dad would slot himself behind the wheel, crank up CFRB, jam a piece of Wrigley’s in his mouth and get ready to make sure nobody passed him. Mom would mash on her imaginary brake pedal and say, “Oh, Al,” at intersections.

We only ever went to two places: his hometown in Saskatchewan or the cottage, a humble affair we’d had since I was eight years old. Both were marathons with Dad earning bonus points for making good time, a phrase I thought had capital letters when I was a child. Making Good Time embraced many factors, from little girls not being able to pee, to running on fumes until we could make the only gas stations he trusted not to water the gas. As we reached the age we could legally stay home alone, one by one we abandoned the station wagon piloted by a man we loved but hated driving with.

Then a funny thing happened. I started taking him places myself. At first my mother would use the excuse that I needed the practice, and he should let me drive. As he got sicker, we finally had to explain to him that other drivers were becoming alarmed when someone pulled up in the lane next to theirs with an oxygen mask strapped to his face. He would grumble and acquiesce, a word that sounds more elegant than the action really was.

We would argue on those rides. He would tell me I was going too slow, or too fast, or to watch for that idiot opening his door. He would bark at me the same way he would bark at the idiot making a left, or the idiot on a bike, or the idiot jaywalking. He’d always been gruff and I refused to let myself believe this was more than that, that this was anger from pain. He knew he was dying and didn’t want to give an inch, let alone give up the wheel. Maybe I kept taking him because I thought I was giving him a measure of independence; maybe I kept taking him because nobody else would; maybe I kept taking him because he’d always taken me.

The year before he died, he started making noises about heading up north. He liked to check out the cottage each spring. “I’ll take you,” I heard someone say. It was me. The family scattered before I could change my mind.

We had two cars, one a standard and one an automatic. I chose the one that would make Dad most comfortable. I showed up early and Mom and I got him settled, his oxygen tank tucked by his feet, and his ever-present baseball hat perched on his head. I pretended I couldn’t see the Velcro on his shoes – the only way he could do them up.

The trip was a disaster from start to finish. He’d insisted on bringing lunch – he’d packed dry rye bread and dill pickles. Nothing else. I got a speeding ticket. In front of my father. We made it to the cottage, but got stuck at the base of an icy incline as we went to leave.

“Should have brought the standard!” he bellowed around his mask. I gritted my teeth, and tried another angle. “I told you! You need lower gears! What were you thinking?” I looked at him through tears of frustration, wondering why I’d ever volunteered for this. As the hill kept winning, his words got sharper. I finally put him out of the car, momentarily stunning him into silence.

I got the car up on the next try, parked it and went back to get my father. He leaned heavily on me as I tugged him up the incline, his voice rasping but still issuing instructions. I wanted to yell back, to scream that he wasn’t helping, that I was the only one who would even bring him. I looked around at the calm of the forest, the snow receding in the shadows, the sunlight weak yet still heralding what would be another year at his favourite place on earth. My favourite place.

It was a quieter drive home, both of us scared to stir up the detente. I’ve always told my sons that you push the hardest against the one you know will never leave you. My Dad and I knew we would never leave each other, though I’m reminded every day of the cliffs we narrowly pulled back from.

He never saw his cottage again. He had roared at me because he knew it, and I hadn’t roared back because I knew, too.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

If you want to fix the congestion crisis, you have to get at the root of the problem: Too many cars on the road

Originally published: June 9, 2014

I’m driving a car with “green” plates this week, a Ford C-Max Energi. It’s one of the few cars with enough headroom for my 6’4” son, and while the battery takes up most of the trunk space (a fact Iremembered as I stuffed 200 bucks worth of groceries onto the back seat yesterday), it also allows me to use the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes with only one – me. And that’s where the guilt begins.

I know full well as I zip along I’m using just as much fuel as many of the poor bastards stuck in the slow-moving Tetris game to my right. My hybrid switched from the electric engine to the gas one long before I left the on ramp.

As HOV lanes have been introduced in the Greater Toronto Area over the past few years, prickly arguments are made when the rules get stretched. Initially, it was fun to hear of people using blow-up dolls as passengers; some try to argue that a pregnant woman counts as two people, which of course is an entirely different debate. Let’s just say if you’re pregnant and get caught using the lane, you’d better be prepared to give birth right there and then to avoid a ticket.

In Ontario, those green plates allow you access until June, 2015. Incentive, of course, to buy that hybrid. To go along with all those other government rebate incentives you get because so few people can stomach paying an overwhelming amount of money for an underwhelming amount of car. But while I can trundle along in my borrowed righteousness, I’m passing a lot of vehicles that get excellent fuel economy, too. Why can’t that motorcycle use these lanes? Why not that Smart car?

HOV lanes are a congestion win while being a psychological loss. If you’re not in that lane, you hate the people who are. On a crowded highway, try to make your way over to that lane. Try to get out of it to get to your exit. There are drivers who are better at blocking than whoever won the last Super Bowl. Those clearly marked entry and exit points make good sense on paper, but I think you should be able to exit commuter lanes when it’s safest to do so, not when the paint says you can.

An older gentleman, a little rattled by a previous incident, asked me about commuter lane etiquette. “Am I required to speed excessively just because the person behind me wants to?” he asked. Good question. Ask a cop, you’ll get the standard mumble about speed limits. Truth is, we’ve been conditioned to pass on the left. If the passing lane now has another lane to the left, that must be a passing passing lane. I told him the truth: if traffic is moving decently, just cruise in the right-hand lane. I am a firm believer in extracting yourself from any driving situation that makes you tense or angry. If that means the highway terrorists win, I can live with it. I’m not going to play Stand Your Ground with an idiot piloting a death machine as he takes a break from an eight-hour shift of playing Grand Theft Auto.

A recent traffic study released by TomTom put Vancouver in fifth place for the worst traffic congestion in North America, while Toronto landed ninth. It’s nice to be included with the heavy hitters, like New York and San Francisco, but it’s a problem that costs billions in lost productivity every year, and it’s getting worse instead of better. There is talk now of using the lanes as toll generators – you can pay to be special. It would be a novel idea here in the GTA for a toll road to generate money for use in the region it resides in; the 407 Express Toll Route was trumpeted as an answer to endless commutes, but instead is just a cash cow for the Spanish company that owns most of it.

The problem? If present HOV lanes are converted to High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, some present users will probably get turfed out because of space. In several American jurisdictions, they work because cars have to have three or more occupants to use them free, while singletons can pay the toll. This might mean if you and your spouse are currently carpooling, you’ll be back with the great unwashed.

Traffic gurus can push around all the numbers they like, but the bottom line is that if I have to suffer, so do you. It doesn’t have to make sense; this is not reasonable people pushing shopping carts around a grocery store. We’re talking about overcrowded roadways full of people spending too much time bottled up in their vehicles while everybody thinks public transit is for someone else, and without a cohesive plan in place, it really is.

Those green-plated tree-hugger buggies? Still just more cars on the road.

Posted in Drive She Said | 8 Comments

There’s nothing more embarrassing than admitting you can’t drive something because it’s a manual

Originally published: June 2, 2014

A reader once called me elitist because I said I preferred to drive cars with standard transmissions. I hadn’t said my preference made me smarter or kinder or more charming; I’d simply said it was more fun to drive a stick, and that having the skill was a useful one.

The car I own is an automatic, just like 90% of the rest of the vehicles on the road. But like my sisters, I learned both methods as a teenager because my father said there was no way one of his girls would get stuck with some drunk idiot on a date and not be able to get home. At least I’m marginally more charming than my father was.

Whether the cars I’ve owned were standards or not, I’ve always been grateful that I learned young. You never know when you’re going to meet up with a clutch – on a motorcycle, a tractor or a sports car – and I’ve told my sons the same thing: there’s nothing more embarrassing than admitting you can’t drive something because it’s got a manual transmission. Well, maybe there is, but not much.

Every time I’ve had a standard as my car that week, I’ve taught my sons to drive them. They’re not always thrilled, and they grumble, until that magic moment when it all clicks. My youngest son Ari, 19, was still lining up a summer job when I received a manual a few weeks back. Perfect timing. I hauled him out to practice; it had been a couple of months since the last time. Over his sighing objections, I reminded him he could end up with a landscaping company or a car dealership, and he’d better be prepared for anything.

Some of the old arguments in favour of standards are disappearing. Fuel economy can be better depending on driving styles, but current automatic engines have come a long way. If you can order a car with a manual transmission you might save some money, but they’re often the stripped down version in other ways. Anything you save at the time of purchase has to be factored into your more limited market when you go to sell it, if you do.

If you have a regular daily commute in the any of Canada’s major congestion centres, you’ll probably stress your knee out in record time. While clutches are nowhere as stiff as they once were, it’s still more work and I understand why people trying to get around Vancouver or Montreal or Toronto would opt out of three pedals.

I think every driver, especially young ones, should learn on a standard for a more compelling reason: it’s quite literally more engaging. You have to understand more about your car. You have to appreciate your input is actually determining how the engine is responding, and you have to pay attention long past dropping it into D and taking off, essentially the movement of a point-and-shoot automatic.

It’s a lot harder to text and drive in a standard; it’s harder to eat and drink and talk on a phone. It doesn’t take long to realize the farther you’re looking ahead, the easier it will be to pick a gear that allows the smoothest trajectory. Distractions coupled with short-sighted vision behind the wheel are major factors in collisions, especially among less experienced drivers.

It’s not going to happen, and I understand that. If I had the money to put where my mouth is, I’d have a stick as our daily driver. But with three young drivers using it, I had to go with more immediate needs. Next time, I tell them, as I try to get them proficient.

Teaching someone requires patience. I like that the Internet now lets you show someone exactly what a clutch is doing with graphics; I find understanding the mystery is a big part of the learning curve. A few years ago, I watched BMW’s head instructor teach a teen to drive a manual, and he showed him how to work through the gears, never engaging the throttle. The engine accelerated to the next gear, and the kid could concentrate on the action of the clutch without worrying about the gas pedal. It’s more than a cool party trick – it’s a stripped down good first step to getting familiar with something new.

If knowing the overwhelming majority of cars are automatics on our roads allows you to opt out of considering the skill, think about this: in most European countries, the ratio is reversed. Try to rent a car with an automatic transmission, and you’ll find it not only difficult, but sometimes impossible. If you do, you’ll have to reserve far in advance, pay a hefty premium, and there are no guarantees it will be waiting, even then. Your European vacation could be more disastrous than the Griswolds’.

My son ended up working at a car dealership this summer. He came home his first day, grinning at me. Tasked with gassing up demos, it seems the second car he’d gotten in was a stick.

Sometimes Mom knows best.

Posted in Drive She Said | 10 Comments

Having a friend who owns a pickup truck can be a real blessing. Just make sure you don’t become the dreaded “pickup moocher”

Originally published: May 26, 2014

Andy Warhol promised everybody they would get their 15 minutes of fame. For those unaccustomed to the spotlight, it might get a little uncomfortable. But for one group of people, who don’t even have to have any discernible talent, that fame and popularity never wanes. These are the people who own pickup trucks. They are eternally popular.

If you ask your insurance agent if it’s OK to lend your vehicle to someone else, she will say “no.” Well, first she might pause and then sigh, but she will proceed to tell you all the reasons it’s a stupid idea. “You have to make sure they’re a licensed driver,” she will begin. “Your insurance coverage goes with the car, regardless of driver. That means in the event of a crash, your insurance company – and you – will be on the hook. Say goodbye to your perfect rating.”

“But it’s my brother! I trust him. He just needs to move some stuff to his cottage; it’s a one-time deal,” you might protest.

There is so much wrong with that sentence, my pretend insurance agent just left the room. Lending to family seems like a no-brainer, and sometimes it’s fine. But people do funny things when pickups enter the equation. Nobody stands in IKEA eyeing six cartons of Billy bookcases and says, “Say, didn’t Aunt Lois just get a new Prius?”

People who own pickups are aware of things like towing capacity. They know important details about full loads and clearance. People who borrow pickups think capacity means the skipping rope they’re tying it all down with won’t stretch any farther. These are not evil or stupid people, but they have bought into the dream they see in all the ads about pickup trucks. If Sam Elliott has assured them how rugged it is, it must be. And if that truck in the magazine is climbing up the side of a mountain, then my brother’s pickup will surely be fine hauling a 14-foot fishing boat up Highway 400, along with a tinny holding a barbecue, four lawn chairs, a coffee table and a rug.

While it’s the driver who will be responsible for traffic violations like speeding, it’s the owner who is going to discover unpaid parking tickets come licence renewal time. In Ontario, there is now an even more pressing topic to add to the vehicle-loaning discussion: stunt driving. An acquaintance found out the hard way the far-reaching implications of roadside judge and jury. Helping friends move, they’d asked him to drive one of several trucks they’d loaded up. No problem. Until this young driver was pulled over in a speed trap and tagged at 50 km/h over the posted limit. The vehicle was impounded for a week, fully laden. They couldn’t get anything out of it. The charge took months to wend its way through the courts, but the friendship died right there by the side of the road.

So how should the pickup dance work? Both sides have duties and obligations.

Pickup Owner:

  • If you have no problem lending your pickup but prefer that nobody else drives it, offer up your services as well as your truck’s. It will make you a mover as well, but you already knew that.
  • If you have a problem with it, say so. “Sorry, I can’t help you out this time” is fine. It only takes lending something once and getting it back broken to sour even a saint.
  • Ask to see a valid licence.
  • Anticipate the worst in advance. This is the toughest provision: if a tire goes, who pays? How many kilometres are we agreeing to? Is there roadside assistance? Is it transferable? Is it okay if their wife/son/cousin drives it too?
  • As you toss over the keys, tell them how you’d like any problems solved. “Call me, or have it towed to here, or leave it right where it is.” Compounding is good for interest, bad for problems.

Pickup Moocher:

  • If you need to borrow a truck, plan to rent one. Don’t put a friend on the spot by making everything hinge on them accommodating you at the last minute.
  • Wait until I offer. When I had a minivan, I begged my sister to use it on her holiday. I trusted her. It made sense. We just swapped vehicles for a week.
  • Bring it back full. I don’t care how much gas was in it when you got it, top it up. Run it through a wash, and clear out the garbage. It shows gratitude and respect. If someone has just lent you their truck, they deserve both.
  • Make sure the vehicle has valid insurance and proper registration. If it has a trailer, double check all the wiring harnesses.
  • Own up. If you scratched something, heard a weird clunk or dragged an oil pan across a rocky cottage road, admit it.

Oh, and remember to keep in touch with your friends-with-pickups at times other than when you need a truck. That’s how conspiracy theories get started …

Posted in Drive She Said | 6 Comments

10 Reasons I Want Willie Nelson’s Tour Bus

Originally published May 19, 2014

The vintage touring bus, which sold for $80,000, is like a time machine back to an era of headbands and wood panelling

If my mom were still alive, she’d no doubt tell me to stay away from places like Craigslist. She would intuitively know that hanging out there would be the equivalent of hanging out at smoker’s corner at my old high school. You might pick up bad habits, you might see something scarring, or somebody else might see you there and decide you were bad.

But if it weren’t for Craigslist, how else would I know that Willie Nelson’s tour bus was for sale?

I can think of 10 reasons why I must have this bus. The fact I don’t need a bus doesn’t matter. This bus was part of Willie Nelson’s very own entourage of buses. The fact it still exists, and wasn’t written off being rolled through a prairie ditch as it rambled between gigs, or jammed under an underpass when the driver lost the “think-we-can-make-it?” bet, is reason enough to want this vehicle. But here are 10 more:

  1. It gets 7 mpg (33 L/100 km). There is nothing that says “shove it” to the world of rules and regulations than 7 miles to the gallon. It’s so bad it’s good.
  2. It is a 1983 Eagle, and is a far worthier thing to be remembering about 1983 than A Flock of Seagulls. Think about it, Willie looked the same then as he does now. Hell, he probably looked the same when he was 10. If you passed Willie Nelson on the street, you’d yell, “Hey, there’s Willie Nelson!” If you passed the guy from A Flock of Seagulls on the street, you’d yell, well, nothing, because it’d just be some random guy walking down the street.
  3. Button-tufted leather can be enjoyed at the front of the bus. Supplied, Craigslist

    Button-tufted leather can be enjoyed at the front of the bus.
    Supplied, Craigslist

  4. It has a button-tufted leather dashboard. This is the same thing your dad has on the bar in his basement, when your mom finally let him take over the space with a pool table and a dart board and a bar fridge. The bar where you swiped booze from when he wasn’t looking, and got sick because you grabbed the first bottle you could reach and it was dark rum and you’ve never drunk dark rum again since. Every time you see button-tufted leather, you wonder why you start feeling faintly nauseated. Now is the time to put that memory to rest, by putting your feet up on Willie’s dash next to the CB and the 8-track.
  5. It has a rural mural painted on each side, and a giant bald eagle on the back. Everything about this bus will announce to people you are a real deal cowboy-type person. Whether you’re from Toledo or Toronto, you will board this bus and develop a southern drawl, and no doubt a sudden affinity for pot.
  6. The interior features enough red velvet and dark woodwork to send out a subtle message of beer drinking saloon with a hint of brothel. If this was in any other vehicle, you might think it would seem tacky, but I defy you to lounge back against that bolstered velvet, listen to Willie sing Crazy and tell me it doesn’t all work. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see swinging saloon doors on it, and would have considered paying more if I’d found them.
  7. The bus can seat up to eight people “depending.” Depending on what exactly? We don’t know. Supplied, Craigslist

    The bus can seat up to eight people “depending.” Depending on what exactly? We don’t know.
    Supplied, Craigslist

  8. That ad says it sleeps eight “depending.” Usually when you see “depending” in reference to sleeping arrangements, it means “depending” if grandma comes or not. I’m going to say “depending” means something very different in this scenario.
  9. They only want $29,000 for it. Bids spiraled quickly, but they priced it according to what similar buses were worth. I don’t think the owner thought as highly of Willie Nelson as I do.
  10. This ad is steeped in code. The next time you hear Willie sing If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time, that means he knows you purchased this ride and will be joining you shortly.
  11. See all that red velvet? No way could someone have thoroughly checked out all the nooks and crannies. I guarantee you there are headbands jammed in there, somewhere.
  12. Willie is known to be a laid back kind of guy. Mostly, he’s known to be stoned more often than not. My master plan would be to drive this bus to wherever he’s playing and park it. When Willie emerges, he’s highly likely to recognize it and come ambling over. I think he ambles. With a little luck, it will be a concert where Kris Kristofferson shows up. We will toast Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, and talk about the good old days.
  13. In true Willie Nelson form, a majestic eagle mural adorns the back of the bus. Supplied, Craigslist

    In true Willie Nelson form, a majestic eagle mural adorns the back of the bus.
    Supplied, Craigslist

Original Ad Due to the extremely high demand and the amount of offers being thrown at us for this bus. We have decided to take offers all the way to 12:00 AM Central 5/3/2014 for this bus. We are planning to sell this bus this weekend. The current offer is $36,000 at this moment. As of 10:07am Central this morning. Feel free to contact via Call, Text, or Email. If no one answers we will try to get back to you ASAP

1983 Eagle Bus

Engine 92 Detroit Diesel
Transmission Automatic
Generator 15kW Diesel Generator
The bus gets 7 mpg with the generator running. The bus sleeps about 8+ just depending the situation. It has 4 A/C Units on the roof with heat as well. This bus was built for Willie Nelson in the 80s. The bus is in great working condition without any issues. If you have any questions call or text show contact info. Cash is the preferred method of payment. No trades or financing.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

With insurance fraud rampant and bad driving becoming an epidemic, it’s no wonder so many are turning to dashboard cameras for protection

Originally published: May 12, 2014

What if we operated under the assumption that all of our actions were being recorded? No, not just when we find ourselves in the midst of yet another drunken stupor, but when we are doing something as mundane as dropping the kids off at school, or searching for a parking spot in a crowded lot, or pulling out to pass on a busy highway.

Chances are good you should assume somebody really is recording your every move. It may be illegal to use handheld devices to take photos or video in many places, but dashboard cameras are now being mounted in more and more cars. Like most technology, what was once reserved for the special and wealthy is now cheap to obtain and easy to install.

“The things you see when you don’t have a camera or a gun,” you’ve probably muttered to yourself on more than one occasion. While I don’t want to think the car behind me is packing heat, I’m at the point where I assume it is packing a GoPro.

How fast is Big Brother moving in? In February 2013, the Chelyabinsk meteor hit in the southern Ural Mountain range in Russia. Within minutes, thanks to the magic that is the Internet, the whole world had incredible video of the event. The blinding flash, loud boom, the shockwave that blew out windows and injured 1,500 people in six cities, all recorded instantly. How? Dash cams, of course.

Initially there were questions about the authenticity of such footage. How could so many people have recorded such a sudden event? How could they have it so soon? Do people in parts of the world actually just drive around filming things? Well, yes, they do. In places where insurance fraud is endemic and policing is open to interpretation, drivers arm themselves with dash cams for protection. In 2009, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev called his country’s drivers “undisciplined, [and] criminally careless.” Thirty-two per cent of the population responded by calling the police, “the most corrupt institution in the country.” That the meteor hit in a place rife with so much highway hatred meant we all got to see something pretty spectacular with our own eyes.

This past March, two pickups collided in Kenora, Ont., after one ran a stop sign and entered a highway. A dash cam recorded the emerging truck, but it did even more than that: it recorded the driver using his cell phone, and on the strength of that video, charges were upgraded. A picture is worth a thousand sworn statements.

In New Jersey, a police dash cam caught officers beating an innocent man, after they’d stated otherwise. A colleague of mine driving in Florida had a semi throw a tire just ahead of him. The result was $2,800 damage caused by the errant tire, and the footage he got on a dash cam meant insurance not only settled instantly, they waived his deductible. He said/she said testimony seems almost quaint in comparison to footage that nudges out weak memories and overrides persuasive arguments.

Is there a downside? Of course there’s a downside. When the keeper of the footage becomes judge, jury and executioner (which means, “I’m gonna put that on YouTube”), you can publicly be called out for behaviour that may or may not be worthy of the attention. If you think someone has slandered you, do you launch a defamation suit saying your reputation was damaged because they made you look like an idiot? Most things I see of this nature on the ‘net don’t blur out licence plates, and in this age of information, that makes identifying cars (if not the driver) possible. Keep in mind that licence plates are public information, and it’s not like somebody stuck a camera in between the blinds of your bathroom window.

A further problem, one that journalists and the courts increasingly find themselves dealing with, is a public that expects – demands – irrevocable proof outside of reasonable constraints. Like legal shows that led to real life juries wanting DNA evidence for shoplifters, the public will believe a report only if you can show them the video. If the accepted standard becomes “go video or go home,” look for the corruption to infiltrate that medium, and soon.

Many cars have had the equivalent of airplane black boxes for years now, and some insurance companies are offering to give you a trip nanny, with the explanation that if your driving is as safe and predictable as rice pudding, they’ll lower your rates. I’d actually take a camera over a box that only records sudden stops and penalizes me for them. Not hitting a kid who leaps out from the sidewalk should surely be a plus.

The U.S. has mandated that by 2018, all new cars will be equipped with back-up cameras. Don’t be surprised to see more coming equipped with cameras on the front end, as well. If every picture tells a story, you’ll want to make sure it’s telling yours.

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