What do we say we want? Efficient, eco-friendly small cars. What do we buy? Gas-guzzling pickups. Please do make sense of that

Originally published: August 4, 2014

Oops, I bought a new car.

Not me, but apparently, a bunch of people are doing just that. GM has found as people have started bringing in their vehicles for repair for one of the millions of recalls they’ve sent out (I hear they’re wording recall notices for cars they haven’t even built yet), a funny thing is happening on the way to the showroom: those people are realizing their old crappy car doesn’t look so hot, so they’re buying a new one.

GM is helping the effort along. In most cases, if you have a certain recalled car, they’ll give you a 500 buck chit towards a new GM vehicle. So, clutching a coupon they don’t dare let go to waste, people are hopping back into a new car by a brand they hope has learned its lesson.

The car buying public is a tricky thing. Fickle in many respects, predictable in few, we say we want one thing and then we buy another. What do we want? We want environmentally friendly smaller cars. When do we want it? We want it now. What do we buy? Pickup trucks.

Year in, year out on both sides of the border, pickup trucks – specifically the Ford F-150 – drives away with top-seller honours. Not just in trucks; in vehicles, period. Get an hour outside any of the major cities and it makes more sense, with people needing a vehicle that will do triple duty for work, recreation and less-civilized terrain. But increasingly, these pickup trucks are just as luxurious as any leather-wombed BMW or Cadillac.

I remember the oil crisis in 1973/74. More specifically, I remember my Dad freaking out he wouldn’t be able to pilot our eight-cylinder gas-sucking Rambler to the cottage. I also remember people pondering that maybe we’d have to stop driving eight-cylinder gas-sucking vehicles altogether. I’m sure the talks were earnest, until the oil started flowing again and everybody went back to buying whatever they wanted. Amnesia is awesome.

Remember when gas prices broke the signs? When station owners were scrambling to let us know that gas was now more than 99.9 cents a litre? I remember a psychologist who had nothing to do with the auto industry telling me once they’d broken that triple digit barrier, we would get accustomed to it and never look back.

Every time gas prices spike, I ask George Iny of the Automobile Protection Association if this is the time that will make everybody take a long hard look at the fuel efficiency of their purchases. Up until last year he would tell me the same thing: no. “People head to a showroom very prepared to buy that fuel-efficient subcompact, but one of two things happens. Either they look a few metres away and see a larger car for only a few thousand more, or they buy the subcompact and a year later realize they didn’t buy enough car.”

The latest figures from DesRosiers Automotive Consultants show interesting movement: while we’ve finally started buying more subcompacts, the other big gainers? Large SUVs.

Manufacturers have crammed more luxury into even their tater tot cars, and squeezed more fuel efficiency out of the big boys. If you’re wondering what happened to all the electric cars that dominated the news and the ads for so long, you’re not alone. Sales stagnated in spite of huge government incentives, as if nobody wanted to dive off the board first and test the water. The technology in these vehicles is genius, the research and development has cost billions, we said we wanted clean cars and it will be where we end up eventually. So why don’t we buy them? “Because the public can be an ass,” says Mr. Iny.

Manufacturers are going through hoops to give us a demand list that once was a wish list, and if that electric or hybrid is sitting next to a cheaper version that gets excellent fuel efficiency, we hesitate. It’s like taking your pretty sister along on a first date and wondering why your guy feels conflicted.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s this resistance to change that is aiding GM’s bottom line now, especially in the U.S. The uptick in year-over-year sales for GM’s vehicles with the biggest profit margins is eye popping. Chevy Suburban is up 73% over 2013; Cadillac Escalade up 84%; Chevy Tahoe up 93%; and the GMC Yukon up a mind-boggling 120%.

These were supposed to be dinosaurs by now. Instead, we’re seeing heels being dug in, in an economy that keeps punishing so many. Another disturbing trend? Aftermarket smokestacks on diesel trucks that produce a blast of black smoke and use more fuel – on purpose. “Rolling coal” is a YouTube hit, a direct flip of the bird to anyone who feels any agency at all in the future of our fossil fuel consumption. Keep on frackin’, boys.

What do we want? We want it all. What will we buy? We’re still not sure. When will we buy it? We’ll let you know.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Avocado green? What car colours say about us

Do you care what colour your car is?

The most popular car colour in the world is white, according to PPG Industries, the biggest automotive paint supplier. For 2013, a whopping 25% of vehicles they supplied paint for were white. There’s the usual reason: in hotter climates, white absorbs less heat. There is also a new reason being proposed: we’re matching our cars to our Apple products. I was about to dismiss that last one as silly, until I remembered a time when I actually bought a red cellphone to match my red Ford Explorer. Of course, I no longer have either, and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I did that.

Paint suppliers know we’re predicable, apparently. When stainless steel and silver signaled high tech, we loaded our kitchens and driveways in those hues. It could be worse; anyone who survived the ’60s will recall harvest gold and avocado green as cutting-edge colours. The cars followed suit, and the only colour worse on a station wagon than avocado green was Brady Bunch brown.

Manufacturers are selecting colour options up to three years in advance, according to PPG’s Jane Harrington, who is in charge of automotive colour styling. For 2016 and 2017, manufacturers are already aware we are going to be happy the recession is over and will want to buy cars in actual colours once more. In a recent interview with Maclean’s, she says “we’ll see more deep jewel tones like teal and more earthy metallics, like reddish orange, in the coming years.” On an everything-old-is-new-again note, PPG is also bringing six yellows and seven greens to the table; fear not, they’re using words like seafoam and olive with nary an avocado in sight.

In North America, black is the other top seller, along with silver and grey. I can understand hesitating between black or white, but silver or grey? I also know several times I’ve gone to buy a car, I’ve mistakenly believed I really had a choice. Staring at the colour chart after I’d chosen a vehicle, I’d let my eyes wander over the offerings. I’d no sooner linger on a fire engine red or a vibrant blue before I’d be told my choice, if I wanted the car right now, was silver. Or black. Or grey. I’d snap awake long enough to choose one, because no way was I going to draw this process out. Manufacturers don’t offer you a colour selection; they offer you a selection of the colours they want to unload.

As a kid, we’d wait weeks for a new car, and I distinctly remember 1976. My AMC-devotee father had ordered our new station wagon, and we were dying to see our burnt sienna fashion statement. My mom had helped him choose, and we’d all stared lovingly at the paint chip. No more black Rambler; we were getting a burnt sienna Matador.

It was orange. It was flaming, pumpkin orange. My mother cried, my sisters fled, and my father stood there shrugging. Paint colours have come a long way, yet even today, my father would have been considered an outlier. They say if you’re shopping with an eye to resale you should keep to those perennial best sellers. Good thing my father never sold a car in his life, and we could keep that orange car for a decade so I could drive it to university. It was a chastity belt on wheels.

Car colours, like fashion, follow trends. Sort of. We’re trendy enough to swerve from beige to less beige, but the truth is that historically, it takes a long time for colour shifts to occur. In the U.S., white has edged out grey in the past few years, which itself edged out … white. You have to go back to the mid-’90s to find all those green cars that made us all feel environmental, or something. The trend towards smaller cars has seen more fun colours emerging, perhaps because they cost less and it’s seen as less risky to follow your heart into a bag of Skittles.

I remember being impressed with a first shift toward earthier tones in the 2000s – colours seemingly based on metals like steel blue and slate grey. I remember settling on a minivan in a rich bronze, and getting it out in the sunlight upon delivery and discovering it was more like parched dirt. I kept telling the kids it was bronze, but I could hear echoes of someone wailing “burnt sienna” and I stopped talking.

A Rolls-Royce rep once explained to me that that luxury brand will make a car in any colour a client wants. If you have enough money, like the Saudi princess we were talking about, you can even get a Rolls-Royce custom painted to match your favourite moisturizer. Don’t worry about the interior – they’ll dye the leather to match, too.

I don’t even know what colour my moisturizer is, but I wonder if the princess would be interested in a classic AMC Matador in burnt sienna.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Who wants to be my Porsche-mate? Twitter answers the call

Originally published: July 21, 2014

jay-and-me1Sometimes I get to drive outrageously beautiful cars, and it seems a shame to not share them with others who love them. When I recently had the new 2014 Porsche 911 Targa S, I decided to bypass the usual suspects – friends and family – and cast a wider net.

As a reader, you’re no doubt aware of everything you read asking you to follow and like and engage through social media. The platforms need your clicks, and while some outlets will bait you with salacious headlines, I think there is something far better that can emerge from the noise.

Driving.ca asks you to comment using Facebook. If you’ve populated sites that leave access wide open, you’ll know how fast comment sections can deteriorate. Some good commentary happens in these pages, and people are often more thoughtful when they put their name to their opinion. I’ve always interacted with readers because a conversation is frequently more engaging than a speech.

You can follow us on Twitter, whether it be the website’s account or individual writers. I like Twitter as a tool, for the very reason some others find it silly: it’s short and to the point, and forces people to grab my attention. It’s also handy having links presented to me that might have flown by in the tide; by following I’ve already decided they’re in my area of interest.

But it is the very nature of social media – to be social – that matters. Information that is solely a one-way street isn’t very engaging. So, with that in mind, I carried out my own social media experiment. I simply posted on Twitter one Tuesday evening, “Saturday. Spectacular car. Convertible. 8 hour return road trip. Looking for a passenger. Anyone? Email me.”

I have about 2,000 followers on Twitter. It’s a manageable number, and time permitting, I like the nattering back and forth during elections, and being able to pass on bits and bobs of things I find humorous or remarkable or both. In a few minutes, a young woman in Hamilton emailed me. We had several people in common, as Twitter often ends up being the Kevin Bacon game: you’re only a few degrees away from anyone. Turns out she couldn’t make it, so I went to Door Number Two.

Jay Kana was smart enough to reply including the name of someone I directly know. He writes about cars and works for a Mississauga magazine; he was free on Saturday, and didn’t even ask what kind of car I had. He happily signed up knowing only five things:

  • The top would be down unless it was a monsoon
  • I eat a lot of apples on a road trip
  • We would be stopping all over the place; this was not about making good time
  • At some point, I had to check on my cottage for a few minutes
  • We would be talking to strangers

I sent him a picture of the car and I swear I heard him faint.

In the hours that followed that initial Tweet, I heard from dozens of others who wanted in on the fun. I realized I could do a five-day road trip and not get to everybody who wanted to see the car, so I compressed the list with promises to do it again, in different regions.

I ended up driving that ridiculously beautiful car for 10 hours that day. It’s fun being a tourist in your own neighbourhood, and we stopped at places I’d previously only seen fly by on the highway. We parked near roller coasters at Canada’s Wonderland and posed on Barrie’s gorgeous waterfront. We surprised Twitter followers in Bala, Ont., by showing up in their driveway. We said hi to a social media friend in Parry Sound, and accidentally drew some attention from a waterfront wedding in Rosseau.

And all the way, people on Twitter followed us as we brought them along for the ride. Jay was a terrific Porsche-mate, and by not speaking until we actually met, the conversation was never dull. The fact we’d engaged on the Twitter platform meant we already had things in common. Oh sure, I was a bunch of years older than him and had kids, but that car was an excellent starting point for two people who appreciate fine cars and love that distinctive Porsche growl.

Could it have been a disaster? Sure. My sister raised an eyebrow until I assured her my potential kidnapper had been vetted, and with the wind roaring around an open car, you could always dodge conversation if you wanted. Instead, I met a guy who was up for anything, from pawn shops to Santa’s Village, and I was reminded that collecting numbers on social media is not nearly as meaningful as collecting real people.

I don’t know when the next car will be – but I’ll post it on Twitter when I do.

Posted in Drive She Said | 4 Comments

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