High-tech cars making the pool of mechanics smaller

The challenge isn’t finding jobs; it’s finding candidates with the required skillset who can adapt to an industry that’s evolving at warp speed

Originally published May 15, 2017

We spend a lot of time questioning where technology is headed in the automotive industry as it concerns those who make and buy the vehicles, but what about the impact it has on those who maintain them?

With the emphasis shifting more and more to computerized vehicles and diagnostics, how is this affecting students who were traditionally, perhaps, less academically inclined? We always heard the “head to the trades” line for the kids who were flunking traditional core education, but those skills are now vital in this industry. For both dealerships and independent garages, it’s getting increasingly difficult to find qualified technicians, as senior mechanics head into retirement at the same time the automotive industry creates a need not just for bodies to work the tools, but also for minds capable of handling the tech. How do we bridge this rapidly expanding chasm? Where will shops find skilled technicians?

Alan McClelland is the dean of the School of Transportation at Centennial College in Ontario. He started out on the tools himself, and there is perhaps nobody who better understands both sides of the equation as it moves forward at increasing speeds.

“We’ve seen a huge shift over the past 10 to 15 years,” he says. “Once, a shop had a lot of routine work that could be performed by rout, leaving the specialty work, the tougher diagnostics, to those with more advanced abilities. That routine work is shrinking, and fewer technicians are going to be able to remain productive without advanced training.”

That training encompasses an ever-growing field of study, some of it largely unheard of, or at least uncontemplated, even a generation ago. Things once considered soft skills – communication, teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, and adaptability – have surged to the fore.

Centennial College works closely with the automotive industry, offering programs staked by most of the major manufacturers. To stay cutting-edge, they have Sector Advisory Boards involving all aspects of transportation. Graduating students who are job-ready is essential to the college’s success, and this time of year is crucial to coordinating the efforts of what is being taught and how it will be applied. At a recent meeting, a government relations representative from General Motors admitted to McClelland the challenges of figuring out what the industry needs to have taught when it’s changing so rapidly.

“We realize the act of learning is as important as the learning,” McClelland. “To be job-ready, they need an increasing suite of skills.”

Mechanic and Centennial professor Chris Muir agrees. He still straddles both worlds, and has been immersed in what he calls the turbulent time starting in 1995 as the industry moved away from carburetors to fuel injected systems. “On-board diagnostics changed everything. We need technicians who are computer savvy but are also great on the tools. You have to love it, you do. The challenges and stresses are increasing, but if you want it, it’s a fascinating time to be coming into this.” Like most apprentice programs, the early years are for weeding out the weak. You will be tested.

Is it possible, or even suitable, to train a kid who has pure tool savvy to “get” the computer diagnostic part of the industry? Or to teach a kid who is a computer genius how to work the tools? McClelland notes an increase in university graduates who are entering Centennial programs with a great academic background in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math), another reason to support your children in staying with these areas in the younger grades. Much of our future skilled work will need these programs, including many of the vocational ones that were once considered a safe haven for students looking for ways to get these core subjects.

Centennial features programs in all areas of transportation, including aviation, heavy-duty equipment, motorcycle, and truck and coach. The challenge isn’t in finding jobs for graduates; it’s finding candidate students with the required skillset who can adapt to an industry that is evolving at warp speed.

Every technician working in all of those programs must be academically robust as well as mechanically capable. Those programs Centennial offers that are partnered with industry heavyweights create an atmosphere that is mutually beneficial to both: Centennial structures learning on current requirements, and the industry can specify and tweak those requirements. On both sides of the equation, the word “adaptability” comes up with increasing frequency.

McClelland is blunt about ideal students. Those who possess better academic readiness rise faster and have more flexibility in the work world. “There is a dire shortage,” he states. His message is echoed in my discussions with several independent shops and two dealerships. Finding a well-qualified technician is indeed getting very difficult. On the flip side, being that well-qualified technician means having many, many options.

Dean McClelland is succinct in his faith in the future of the transportation industry. “You can’t offshore this work. These vehicles have to be serviced right here in our communities; all this equipment does. There’s never been more opportunity for students who want to join this industry.”

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Governments, drivers wade into murky waters with vanity plates

Even if you don’t mean to be offensive with a personalized plate, what’s good today may not be tomorrow

Originally published May 12, 2017

Is it time to just ditch personalized licence plates?

Licence plates are a tricky business.

In 2013, New Brunswick screwed up in their regular issue plates (the only type that province allows), allowing 1,000 of them with a letter combination containing the offensive “JAP” to carry on through. They were pulled back after complaints of racism, and I’m hard pressed to believe how they ever got through in the first place. I’ve never seen a car sporting “ZIT” or “BUGR” on provincially issued plates. They know when to skip a combination.

Quebec only last year began issuing personalized licence plates, finally updating computer equipment. Thus far, they ask that people refrain from ordering anything that is “morally objectionable.” Oh, Quebec; you are at the start of a long and winding road.

Part of the problem is that licensing bodies need crystal balls to go along with the brass ones of some of their applicants. Human nature is to try to challenge the system, to get something past the teacher. The list of rejected plates all over the world is long and humorous, and often flat-out creepy. I prefer the inspired ones that take the entire plate into play, including the provincial or state wordings. Years ago, Virginia had “kids first” as its state slogan; someone got EATTHE stamped into their metal plate. It took years for the state to realize the implication and yank them back.

That’s something to keep in mind. You pay a premium for personalized plates in the provinces and territories where they’re available, but they remain the property of the issuing body. Recent headlines found a man in Nova Scotia prepared to battle in court to keep a plate sporting his family name from being confiscated. He’s had it since 1991. The problem? His last name is Grabher, and while I’m sure it raised a few eyebrows in previous years, the current president of the U.S. has hauled that particular phrase down into the mud and rolled around with it on a global stage. Sorry, Lorne Grabher.

I got my sister vanity plates for Christmas the year they were issued here in Ontario. The excitement as she opened the box was palpable for both of us, a 23-year-old getting such a cool present. My father was less cool when she held them up. ROZ, they declared. And underneath? Yours to discover. He didn’t have the same recall power as the province, and the plates stayed.

Governing bodies put committees in place to review applications, and most regions report reject rates at around three per cent: most plates are fine. But the Internet has produced an explosively fertile ground for the growth of slang. What was okay a few years ago, or even months, can turn on a dime. How do you keep up with it? It’s one thing to say basically no to anything with sexual connotations/slang/advertising, drug/alcohol connotations, criminal connotations, general or derogatory slang, racial/ethnic slang or political connotations, but how hard is it to police it?

Committees have to do Google searches and hit translator sites, much as car manufacturers do when naming a car. If the request means something rude in Ukrainian, it’ll be stubbed out. Increasingly, however, it’s sites like Urban Dictionary that are needed to stay current. The online reference site moves as fast as our changing culture, often setting it. If Urban Dictionary says it’s rude, your chances just tumbled. Of course, what might be okay today could very possibly enter the alter-vernacular in a year or two as not, and your once innocent plate could still be retrieved.

For all the binary nerds who tried to get 1000101, they’ve caught on. In fact, California has expressively stated it will not issue any plates with “69” in them unless that is the year of the car, but thanks for trying.

A Star Trek fan in Manitoba had a plate yanked that said “ASIMIL8.” He’d had it two years, also sporting a plate cover with Star Trek slogans. Fans would get the reference, but the province finally deemed it was insensitive and offensive to indigenous people where that word is loaded with a back history that shouldn’t be forgotten, and certainly not tossed around.

Most of our jurisdictions run applications through a gamut of meanings tests, and also consider the combination being read upside down or in a mirror. In most cases they stay ahead, but the Manitoba plate triggered cries about free speech.

I called Saskatchewan to see how it handled plate issuances. The rules line up with most other regions, though I especially like the second line:

“All slogans are checked in Urban Dictionary, Google search, Wikipedia and translation sites. If a slogan is found to be from a language the issuer is not familiar with, we may approach an elder or a contact from that community,” said Tyler McMurchy of Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI). Nine members of that group – all multicultural with multiple levels of education and job positions – make up the province’s Personalized Licence Plate committee.

“If the slogan request is offensive, suggestive, not in good taste, or does not comply with our rules, the issuer will deny the application,” he continues. “The requester may appeal the decision and at that time we will send the request to the Personalized Licence Plate (PLP) committee for a vote. Alternatively, if the slogan is questionable, the request is sent to the PLP committee for a vote.”

Are we overly sensitive? Or is this just why we can’t have nice things?

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Fixed VW diesels back on Canadian lots – but sell out quickly

Sitting since 2015, cars receive software fix and sold with high incentives, mostly to people already with deposits

Originally published April 27, 2017

Wanna buy a new 2015 Volkswagen diesel?

That’s a trick question. Even though the vehicles, those at the centre of one of the automotive industry’s largest controversies in its history, were released for sale on April 12th, they’re already long gone. The 2.0-litre TDI-equipped vehicles had been quarantined in the wake of Dieselgate, the world-wide emissions cheating scandal that brought the German automotive giant to its knees.

Since the discovery that VW had been intentionally, deviously, futzing with the pollution control software on many of its diesel cars since 2009, North American owners spent more than a year in limbo, awaiting settlement options for their tainted vehicles. When they were finally announced, those settlements were generous; depending on the age and condition of their vehicle, owners could see compensation that amounted to either a fix plus a payment of between $5,100 to $8,000, or a buyback based on the value of the car pre-scandal, plus that payment.

In the meantime, inventory already on dealer lots was frozen. With the announcement of an approved fix by the EPA in the U.S. (and accepted in Canada), those impounded cars were cleared for sale. It’s a move a lot of people were betting on, and a local dealer told me the 43 cars he had in stock were gone in a couple of days.

“Most of those cars had deposits on them all this time,” explained Sean McLaughlin, business manager at Roseland Motors Ltd. in Burlington, Ontario. “Some may have been speculators, but most are loyal VW customers.” The released cars came with a good wallop of incentives for buyers willing to head back into the diesel waters. Take the 2015 Passat TDI, for example. Dealers were authorized to give buyers 0 per cent financing for 60 months plus $7,500 finance cash, or up to $9,500 cash. If you bought one, I hope you worked the deal, hard.

What if you had an affected car and have already taken the VW money and ran? Are you allowed to double dip? Indeed. They’re two separate transactions, according to Thomas Tetzlaff, manager of public relations for Volkswagen Canada. McLaughlin agrees, again pointing out that most of those scarce-on-the-ground 2015s went to long-time customers.

The newly released cars already will have had the first of the two-phase fix done to them, a software reflashing that Volkswagen Canada says goes most of the way to correcting the emissions problem.

“The follow-up fix, that we anticipate being ready in about a year, will be a hardware one, installing things like a particulate filter with greater longevity,” explained Tetzlaff.

Should you have been rushing to purchase one of these cars? Or be disappointed that you missed the lottery? That depends.

The Automobile Protection Association (APA) reminds you to keep in mind these vehicles are two years old, and in some cases more. They’ve been stored in anticipation of the court rulings and, while they may look like new cars with zero kilometres on them, consumers should be aware there could be latent problems in the event they were not cared for properly. Tires can develop flat spots – those tires have also had their lifespan used up, even sitting – brake lines could become corroded, and they’ve been subject to the outdoor elements.

“The APA’s position is that the settlement offer is a good one, and consumers are well served by taking advantage of it and moving into a new car of their choosing, or another VW gasoline engine,” says John Raymond of the APA. Those consumers are falling into three categories: those who ditch their diesels for the cash, those who accept the “sorry” cash and get their cars fixed but keep them, and a few diehards who will not surrender their beloved TDIs at all.

There’s a reason for that. With the amendments, the performance of these cars will be affected in two ways. First is how they drive, and second is their fuel economy. Those cheats enabled VW to deliver that famous diesel torque and 1,000-kilometre range to a tank of fuel. The fixes will impact both of those things. The APA maintains, however, that if VW found a way to cheat, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to find a way to fix it. Just be prepared to compromise.

I asked Tetzlaff what steps dealers have been taking to offset these concerns, and how much help the parent company has given them.

“First, remember that this was September of 2015 when sales were halted, so we were getting to the last of the inventory. Dealers have been storing them, but many cars, not just these ones, are stored for periods of time by dealers. We had them on a 30-day basis, which means dealers were compensated for monthly upkeep on all of those cars, doing battery checks and keeping them ready for sale.”

The APA warns significant time has passed, but Tetzlaff says VW has created a pre-delivery inspection that will alleviate any concerns.

“The PDI checklist is exhaustive,” he explains. “Fluids, tires, rotors and extensive warranty. These cars are as good as anything you can buy that was made yesterday.” He also notes there is a high degree of certainty that we have seen the last of diesel passenger vehicles from VW in this country.

It may be the end of an era, but it’s one that Volkswagen will forever be tied to.

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Yes, Ontario insurance is a wreck, so you need to shop around

Recent report damning province’s system means it’s even more important for drivers to find the best deal

Originally published April 24, 2017

Last week, the Financial Services Commission of Ontario (FSCO) told us what we already know: Auto insurance rates in Ontario are the highest in the land. In fact, they’re higher by an average of 55 per cent.

The Liberal government promised cuts of 15 per cent back in 2013; that measure was supposed to be in place by mid-2015, a goal we all watched go streaming by with nary a nudge. They’ve since declared it was always a “stretch” goal, whatever that is. Kind of like an alternative fact, perhaps.

Auto insurance has always been a hot election issue, and the timing of the current whipping is expected. One thing to keep in mind? Every party has screwed the pooch when it comes to this topic, with the NDP handing a fumbled ball to two successive Conservative governments who bobbled it to the incoming Liberals. They’re all as bad as each other at promising to do something, then opening the box the day after the election and grimacing.

It’s a mess.

Our current system is a dog’s breakfast of road-blocked players each pointing fingers. The system is rife with often-fraudulent in-betweeners gorging on those sky-high rates like a mosquito landing on a corpulent, passed out drunk. Too many minor claims end up in drawn-out court disputes, with money that should be going to client care instead going to experts and consultants, who often only consult on ways to expertly bleed the system to their own advantage. It’s not that Ontarians are getting extraordinary medical attention and rehab compared to some of their other provincial counterparts; it’s that the money from those bloated rates is not making it to the consumer. For what we’re paying, we should be lying around eating peeled grapes.

Nobody really likes anyone else. Consumers scream at insurance companies, who actually have to have government approval for any rate hikes or changes to wordings or coverages. Provinces that have public insurance programs, like B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba and, partially, Quebec are held up as the answer to Ontario’s woes. But Ontarians actually have better coverage – when it makes it to the consumer – from that private system, as it produces more competitive products. Public coverage is okay as long as you never get hurt, or at least not too badly. We simply need the private system to have the fraud reined in so that consumers can actually benefit from those products, instead of for-profit healthcare enterprises and lawyers who take a 40 per cent whack off of victim settlements.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) puts the latest available fraud estimate, from 2010, between $768 million and $1.56 billion. You pay; I pay; we all pay.

We too often look at the annual cost of insurance – roughly 1,500 bucks on average in Ontario – and compare it to tales of someone in Saskatchewan who pays $500. They are getting different coverage. This was actually highlighted, in a less than positive way, last summer when one of the cost-saving measures introduced in Ontario was to reduce your standard coverage in order to reduce rates. It’s like when they reduce the size of a package of pasta but charge you the same; they think you’ll be too dumb to notice.

Don’t be too dumb. Read your fine print and contact your provider, or better yet, a broker. Brokers are good. They have access to many different insurance companies and can answer all your questions and place you with the right provider for your needs.

So, if the government(s) do squat to help you, how can you help yourself? According to Anne Marie Thomas at InsuranceHotline.com, you have to be proactive.

“Read your renewal; too many people, over half, just let it ride even though they may not be getting competitive rates. A little homework can save you a lot of money,” she explains. Don’t wait for a promised-but-probably-not-coming reduction from a government. Shop your policy and find the savings yourself.

Maybe you’re a little nervous to call up a new place to ask about quotes. Maybe you have a ticket that you are fairly certain will evade a licence check with your current company but will see sunlight with a new one. Thomas says to do your own legwork. Their site – along with others you can find online – lets you input your information and pop up an estimate. It might be in the ballpark of what you’re paying now, but it might also save you a lot of money. You don’t offer up any contact info unless you wish to pursue the offer.

We need to keep pressure on governments to fix a broken system, but we also need to stop being complacent on a major expense in our own budgets. Pay attention to changes in standard coverages and shop your renewal to protect yourself, and your money.

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In the eyes of the law, where’s the breathalyzer for drugs?

If we can’t get our game together on alcohol, what’s going to happen when we add legalized marijuana to the mix?

Originally published April 18, 2017

Canada loves being way up there, even number one, in those surveys about the best places to visit or live. Not so cool? We’re number one in alcohol-related vehicle deaths among wealthy countries, according to a study by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) reporting on 2015.

If we can’t get our game together on alcohol, what’s going to happen when we add legalized marijuana to the mix?

I pity the cops tasked with judging a cornucopia of drug-addled drivers, dabbling from both the illegal and legal sides of the aisle. Statistics are magic things; traffic fatalities are indeed down 43 per cent since 2000, but “proportion of deaths linked to alcohol impairment was 34 per cent, higher than any of the other countries in the survey.” Car manufacturers are saving us from ourselves with truly innovative safety features, but we merrily go on testing them with a hardcore of drunks who refuse to give up the wheel.

Police, politicians and advocacy groups have long been dealing with tackling booze, which continues to make up the vast majority of impaired charges. For instance, in Toronto last year, there were 1,376 total impaired arrests with 86 impaired by drugs. In 2015, there were only 24 “impaired by drug” arrests. The more accessible a substance is, the more likely police will see an increase in the number of drug-impaired arrests. But with the looming legalization of marijuana, it’s hard not to anticipate a corresponding spike in not just its usage, but acceptance. Washington state reports since legalization of cannabis five years ago, a full one-third of the impairment charges issued to drivers is for the drug.

I don’t care if you smoke dope; I do care if you get behind the wheel after you’ve done so. Pot can sabotage your reaction time and your focus; if legality entices a new group of smokers (and drivers) who haven’t previously experienced the effects of the drug, a whole new landscapes of impairment will be on our roads.

Police agencies in all jurisdictions of Canada have been working for years to train specialty officers to detect impairment in drivers, due to those substances not readily scientifically measured roadside: the cocaine, the meth, the opiates, the depressants and the hallucinogens. Roadside sobriety tests have long included more than a blow test, and recent pilot programs are introducing saliva tests.

Other countries have introduced drugalyzers, which test for the top eight prescribed drugs – Clonazepam, Diazepam, Flunitrazepam and Lorazepam, to name a few – and the top eight street drugs, including cocaine, cannabis/cannabol, LSD, ecstacy, etc. The drugalyzer units used in Great Britain cost about $4,000 Canadian and about $10 for a test strip.

Police in parts of Canada are already testing similar units. Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax and Gatineau, as well as the RCMP in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and Yellowknife, are administering a saliva test to those who volunteer to anonymously provide a sample. The results can’t be used in court, and are being used to establish protocol going forward on how or if the units might be used.

Constable Clint Stibbe with Toronto Police Services warns that just because a drug is legal, doesn’t mean you will avoid a charge if you are under impairment from it. As of February this year, their Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) are recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada; with no current measurable levels of impairment in place as there are for alcohol – in most parts of Canada, .08 BAC is indictable territory for impaired, but .05 BAC is where suspensions and impoundment set in – testimony from these DREs is accepted in court as expert testimony at trial.

Cannabis presents its own unique hurdles for judging impairment; the drug is estimated to stay in your system for about 30 days, but that number can stumble wildly depending on if you’re a one-time or long-term user. Measuring the buzz, or impairment, can be still harder. Stibbe warns that while a saliva test is a tempting threshold, it is simply another tool for law enforcement to use to augment their powers of detection. With a report released last week concluding for 2017, “the Toronto Police Service has seen an 11 per cent decrease in alcohol-related impaired driving arrests. Drug-impaired driving arrests have increased by approximately 18 per cent year-to-date,” they’re going to need all they can get.

There are a lot of substances, both legal and illegal, that people can ingest before getting behind the wheel. I doubt the legalization of cannabis will ever approach the spectacular carnage we’ve managed to achieve with alcohol, and the prohibition of that product did little to stop it anyway. We will be seeing new and improved ways for people to twist under the law and pay a lot of lawyers to help them.

But keep in mind that at this juncture, with or without a definitive version of a breathalyzer for street drugs, those DREs are considered experts in the eyes of the law.

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Teach teens an escape plan for when a driver is unsafe

We all felt invincible at that age, but every youth needs to know that their safety starts and ends with the driver – period

Originally published April 10, 2017

You’ve no doubt prepped your family for an emergency exit from your home in the event of fire. You’ve taught your kids to run away from strangers trying to give them a ride, you’ve taught your teens to call you if their ride gets impaired and they can’t get home.

I want to you do one more thing: Give them the tools to get out of a car when the one behind the wheel is driving over his or her head.

As the weather warms up, you can feel the freedom in the air. Summer teases in some days, even ahead of spring. Exam schedules loom but so does that intangible sense of possibility, not reserved for the young but surely more embraced by them. The next phase of growing up, that leaving behind of one grade for another or a new start, becomes more fraught when young drivers test their early skills with unknown territory.

There will be a headline in the coming weeks, somewhere in this country, maybe even in your community. There have been too many in the past and each one weighs heavy, stubbornly refusing to fade like so many others. A car full of young people will be out celebrating that end of school, that beginning of so much, embracing the emotion of being young and the freedom of exploring. And somewhere, something will go wrong and in the tangle of metal that is left, there will be tremendous loss. It will be because of speed, it might be because of impairment, but there will always be so many innocents affected it serves nobody to peg the blame, because it could have been any of them.

It could have been any of us.

So what can we do – as parents, as people who love these kids? I shudder when I think of the many times I must have had an angel on my shoulder as we careened around the backroads, seatbelts of dubious vintage as often off as on. Sometimes the lads had travellers, a beer in the cupholder I wouldn’t have sipped from but neither would I have said a word about. These were my friends and I didn’t want to look any younger than I was, didn’t want to be uncool. Yes, I was taught better, and I knew better, but there was that freedom and that bulletproof certainty that as long as I made it home by curfew, my world would be fine.

It’s what every kid thinks. They think we don’t know, because who admits to their children the dumb, dangerous things they used to do? Instead, I think of the friends I lost who were doing the same things I was, except I survived and they did not. And the lesson I passed to my own sons was the nature of dumb luck, instead of the long shadow of blaming someone whose luck ran out.

New cars are marvels of safety and technology, but every nanny system in the world can be overridden by a driver long on confidence and short on experience. Don’t rely on your car to be taking care of your kid, because every car starts and ends with the driver. Period.

We’ve all been in that place. The driver shouldn’t be driving. The driver is taking chances they shouldn’t. As adults, we usually have the experience and foresight to not go along in the first place, or the strength to say something. Many adolescents haven’t developed that yet – that ability to stand up to their peers and be that person who wants to grind the fun to a halt. But I think of those headlines, and I know we haven’t successfully parented until we’ve taught them how to get out of every dangerous situation and do so in a way that preserves their sense of social standing.

They don’t want to look stupid in front of their friends. Neither did I. Neither did you.

Talk to your teen about the skill level of those they drive with. They’re right to not feel safe if the driver is texting or speeding or drinking or high. They’re right to recognize – and feel unsafe – when the driver is driving above their skill set, or when the car is overpowering their experience. And your kid needs to know how to stay safe.

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Do you really know if your child is safely strapped in?

A mother got caught in the middle of a debate after posting photos of her child, strapped in and being held upside down in a car seat

Originally published April 3, 2017

A mother from Maine put up a Facebook post to show how you could test whether or not you’d strapped your child correctly into his or her car seat. It was simple, fast and effective. So of course many piled in, clutching their pearls that what she was doing was bad and can’t we think of the children?

Considering how many people get part of the child car seat equation wrong, I think she did a great service. She strapped her kid in, then hefted the seat upside down to prove kiddo was securely fastened in. If anything had gone wrong, her child would have tumbled onto her; beats launching out of that seat in the event of a collision, no?

Child car seats are mandatory, and over recent years laws have extended both their design and their usage. Transport Canada has strict rules surrounding child safety seats, and following them will prevent serious injury or death if you’re involved in a crash. Children are vulnerable, and those car seats work in conjunction with the rapidly changing safety features that manufacturers are using to protect you, the adult. That airbag that could save you could kill a little one; doing any kind of workaround on that car seat could cost you dearly.

Using a car seat correctly is a two-part equation. The seat has to be properly secured to the vehicle, and your kid has to be properly secured to the seat. In her post, that mom from Maine showed exactly how important it is to have those straps correctly placed and tightened down.

Every time people are told not to put their child in a car seat wearing a bulky winter jacket, the hooting starts that we’re being unreasonable and don’t we know anything about Canadian winters? Sure we do. But anything that creates play in the straps creates danger. Don’t use bunting bags on infants, puffy jackets and any cushioning that isn’t part of the seat when you bought it.

I’m guessing some of this comes from the same people who are driving wearing huge chunky winter boots, then telling the officer the car just accelerated all by itself.

Car seat usage is based on the age, height and weight of your child. Until they meet requirements that will allow the vehicle’s safety features – seatbelts and airbags – to operate correctly, you have to protect your child. Transport Canada’s website is a trove of information and tips for parents, including:

  • When purchasing a car, take the seat or seats you will be using with you. Measure; not even all minivans will fit three seats, especially in a row, depending on the size of your family.
  • Don’t cross-border shop for deals. Canada has different, and stricter, laws surrounding child seat use. Make sure you register your purchase to be kept abreast of recalls and updates on the seat. Acceptable Canadian products are stamped with a certification.
  • If the car a seat is installed in is involved in a collision, even if the kid isn’t present at the time, ditch the seat. Much like a helmet, one hit and it’s done. You can’t see how it’s been compromised by absorbing the hit, but it might have been. Make it part of your insurance claim to replace it.
  • Child seats have an expiry date. The plastic deteriorates over time due to ultra violet rays. Straps and buckles can get weakened or compromised with spilled food or cleaners. Also note, “if you own any car seat or booster seat made before January 1, 2012, under Health Canada’s Canada Consumer Product Safety Act, you may not be able to advertise, sell or give it away because it may not meet the latest requirements set out by Health Canada.”
  • If you are disposing of a seat, don’t make it tempting to garbage pickers; cut the straps.
  • Every province provides clinics from a variety of contributors that will install your child car seats for you, or make sure that you’ve done it correctly. I’ve attended several and installers note that there is an overwhelming majority of parents who have done it wrong. Car manufacturers are making it easier to get it right, but go to Transport Canada’s site and find the name of a clinic near you – well worth the time, and it’s knowledge you can pass on.
  • If your child spends time in someone else’s car – a care provider, or grandparents – make sure they are properly secured. Don’t play “just this once” and leave your child unsecured, and don’t use outdated or dangerous seats.

That viral post demonstrated the importance of securing your child snugly into the seat. The seat itself should have not more than a couple of centimetres of give in any direction when it is tethered to the vehicle. Check the straps often – both sets – and maintain the snug fit.

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Luxury tastes growing for Canadians, especially for SUVs

Baby Boomer money, low interest rates spurring rise in luxury car sales – but upscale sedans take a big hit

Originally published March 22, 2017

Want to hear a fun fact? In 1990, there were 65 light luxury truck models sold in Canada. In the luxury market, that accounted for 0.2 per cent. Point two. Now? They account for 60 per cent of that market, which, in 2016, meant 130,124 vehicles. These figures do not include full size pickups, nor Smart or Minis.

It’s no surprise that SUVs and CUVs fill dealer’s showrooms and dominate our roads. Buyers can’t get enough of them, and manufacturers don’t just fill the segment with attractive options, they splinter existing segments and create new ones to wring every last incarnation out of a product line that never seems to get saturated.

Dennis DesRosiers, of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, has devoted more time than usual to the phenomenon in his latest report. Luxury vehicles sales are exploding, and show no signs of stopping. “There was a day when high luxury passenger cars, like the BMW 7 Series, the Audi A8 and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class accounted for over 40 per cent of luxury vehicle sales. Now they account for only 5.9 per cent of sales,” he reports.

Aren’t we supposed to going smaller? Aren’t we supposed to be going electric? Aren’t we supposed to be, well, less like a bunch of kids in a candy store and more, I don’t know, responsible? Manufacturers surely hope not.

First, the impact of luxury sales on the market as a whole is growing at a rapid clip. In 1990, the luxury portion was 3.1 per cent of the market with 39,000 units sold. “In the following decade (2000) its share almost doubled to 5.9 per cent and 91,ooo units. By 2010 its share had increased to 9.0 per cent and 143,000 units. And the last two years it exceeded 200,000 units per year and for the first time reached 11.1 per cent of the Canadian market,” according to DesRosiers.

There are many contributing factors. Low interest rates have helped shoehorn more people into more expensive cars, as have ridiculously extended loan periods. The Baby Boomers, and the huge bags of cash they’ve been sitting on, are cracking open the last of the great pensions and dipping into a too-hot-to-touch housing market. Money, money, everywhere.

The demise of the full-sized sedan that once showcased good taste and perfectly fine utility has been replaced with a clamouring for the higher vantage point of a truck but the all the comforts of a well-appointed home.

DesRosiers notes that the U.S. market is 20 times the size by volume of Canada’s, and vehicle pricing is often lower. When the dollar was closer to par a few years back, thousands of luxury vehicles were imported into Canada. At first blush, this would seem to indicate luxury sales here would falter. Instead, it’s a case of once you go luxury, you never go back. “Now that they own a luxury vehicle, most are unwilling to move back to a mass market vehicle,” says DesRosiers.

The top sellers of the segment are BMW and Mercedes-Benz, followed by Audi, Lexus and Acura. Many badges are now stretching their reach beyond their high-end segments and venturing into mass market territory, snaring buyers who previously would have been unable to sit themselves behind the wheel of something sporting that cachet. Many of those who purchase or lease the high end rollers also turn them over rapidly, leaving behind rich secondary, tertiary and even more, fields.

DesRosiers notes there is good life in more expensive rides. They tend to be better built and better maintained, he argues. Lifespan figures bear out his words: after 25 years, 7.1 per cent of mass market vehicles will still be on the road, compared to 21.8 per cent of luxury, 24.7 high luxury, 58.6 luxury sport and 22.4 luxury SUV. DesRosiers tosses in a brain teaser from 1990 that highlights this longevity issue. “Which brand led the luxury market in 1990? … Volvo was the number one luxury brand in Canada in the late 80s through to 1990s when both Cadillac and Oldsmobile finally outsold them.” You still see these Volvos on the road today.

For consumers, it’s important to note that these aspirational buying habits can come with their own considerations. The people with all the coin buy them and often cast them aside in a few years. That may leave a lovely buffet for those of us striving to get out of our less thrilling mass market offerings, but the fact remains, more expensive cars, even if purchased for a bargain price, come with more expensive upkeep.

Premium buyers demand, and get, the latest in technology and safety. The latest also means the least tested in many cases, and you really need to measure your tolerance for putting up with bugs or glitches. If my dealer says I have to leave my vehicle with them for a few days or a week until they can replicate the problem, can I live without my car? Will they give me a loaner if I’m not Daddy Warbucks?

The report goes further into interesting points about fixed operations for the luxury brands. Dealerships need expensive stand-alones to be successful; if you’re about to shell out for a piece of high-end luxury, you don’t want to be rubbing shoulders with the great unwashed, apparently. Genesis, the upscale Hyundai brand, is facing this right now. The cars are stunning but it is cost prohibitive to develop boutique dealerships that showcase an upscale product that has yet to capture much percentage of the market.

Forecasts are for sunny skies. DesRosiers sees sales of 300,000 luxury units by 2020 and 350,000 by 2025. Brands are increasing their bricks and mortar investment to capture the expanding lucrative aftermarket and service dollars, but the combination of the required glitz means steep buy-in from both brand and dealer principals.

Canadians bought 1.95 million vehicles last year; never were so few of them sedans, and never were so many of them from the luxury segment.

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The little things can mean a lot when it comes to fine print

Warranties and insurance are unforgiving if you make one small (or large) mistake without knowing the consequences

Originally published March 20, 2017

The little things mean a lot.

And sometimes they mean everything.

When a recent bout of unseasonable weather warmed everything from the air to the cockles of motorists’ hearts, some eager beavers flung caution to the wind and had their winter tires rotated right out. “Avoid the lineups come April,” I could almost hear them saying. Who doesn’t want to check a few things off that endless to-do list sooner rather than later?

About those tires. With insurance companies now offering compensation to those who use them, most people called to ask how much of a discount they could expect. Too many others forget they’re expected to uphold their end of the agreement, and keep those tires on between specified dates. It’s usually April 1 or April 15 before they can come off, but each company differs.

The problem? By rushing spring, you could be setting yourself up for a very expensive lesson. If you have a crash before the contracted date and you don’t have on the specified tires, your insurance company can reasonably tell you you’re on your own for the damages. They had a requirement; you broke it. Remember: Insurance companies mitigate risk, and it’s very easy to mitigate you right out if you don’t play by the rules.

That might seem nit-picky, but as some comments on a recent headline-grabbing story made clear, not everybody gets how insurance works. Recent pictures show a once-glorious McLaren Spider, now crumpled by the roadside here in Burlington, Ontario, after meeting its demise by being plowed into a hydro box. Car crashes are a dime a dozen, of course, but there is something almost pornographic about seeing $300,000 worth of car with its face punched in.

Those commenters? Some were up in arms that a claim of such metal violence would be paid out to some drunk brat. They needn’t have worried; get convicted of a criminal code violation – like drunk driving – and your insurance to repair or replace that vehicle vaporizes. Dude behind the wheel was charged with Impaired Driving Causing Bodily Harm (he had a passenger) and Over 80 Causing Bodily Harm.

Maybe ride share and drive share programs are your thing. You’ve sorted out your insurance to make sure you’re all legal, but what about your leasing agreement? If you lease, you’re just borrowing the vehicle, and most leasing agreements, buried in the print you flipped past, expressly state you can’t use the vehicle as a ride-for-hire. As the world changes, leasing companies are finding ways to keep up, but read your contract carefully. A dealer principal related one story to me where the lessee brought his car in for servicing and left the Uber sign in his window. Oops.

Speaking of leasing, you might be considering it. Rates are attractive and for anyone who prefers a new vehicle every few years, it might be the way to go. By now everybody knows to be attentive to the mileage piling up, but consider a few other things that can all act as “gotchas” when it’s time to turn it in.

If you’ve had your leased vehicle for four years, it’s probably going to need tires. If you don’t replace them, they’ll do it and charge you for them. You can’t hand it back needing brakes. You can’t hand it back with holes punched in the dash for aftermarket anything. The workaround, of course, is to buy or lease a new vehicle from the same place, when they are notoriously easy-going on what they’ll overlook, because they have lots of other places to hide the cost of the things it looks like they’re absorbing. A month before your lease is up, have a technician go over it to point out where it might cost you money. Find a set of decent, used (matching) tires if you have to; it’ll be a lot cheaper than the leasing company’s solution. Actually, anything you do will be cheaper than their solution.

Fine print on warranties is a fun minefield. I had a reader learn her backup camera wasn’t included under her “bumper to bumper” warranty, because the term is misleading at best. If you take an extended warranty, make sure you’re aware of the exclusions. Longer warranties are attractive right now in many cases because of computer component and high-tech systems that are still having the bugs worked out. With so many sensors, cameras and modules that work in conjunction with each other, it can get really pricey, really fast. Do yourself a favour: Read a warranty and note what isn’t covered, rather than what is.

It might sound like the biggest snoozefest in the world, but do yourself a favour and read your owner’s manual, your warranty, your sales or leasing agreement and your insurance policy. Better to figure out what you’re going to do instead of what you should have done.

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Everyone pays for insurance fraud, even the innocent

Ever wonder why your car insurance fees are so high? We all pay the price for fraud

Originally published March 13, 2017

What if I told you that between $116 and $236 per year of your insurance premium went to line some liar’s pocket?

It’s Fraud Prevention Month, and car insurance costs – especially in Ontario – continue to escalate. While the amount you pay is the usual calculus of where you live, the driving histories of those who drive your car, how difficult the car is to steal and how much it costs to repair, fraudulent claims remain a substantial portion of that bottom line you are charged each year.

Fraud rings are headline grabbers, as they should be. Sophisticated criminals often working quite literally from street level (those who stage crashes) on up through the ranks of tow truck operators, lawyers and medical providers cost us all.

But what about that time you had the front end collision and had the body shop take care of that older dent in your door while it was in the shop? What if your neck wasn’t really that sore anymore, but you had the chance to keep going to massage appointments for just a few weeks longer? When kids broke into all the cars in your neighbourhood and you suddenly “remembered” you’d left your camera in the car that night, instead of just a cupholder full of change? These opportunistic crimes also add a more substantial tally to insurance fraud than you might realize.

Dr. Yoel Inbar is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, specializing in social and personality psychology. He focuses on moral decision making. What makes us tick. What makes us steal.

“There are several things at play,” he explains. “There’s an assumption this is a victimless crime. That the loss will be against a huge company, instead of against the collective, the other customers. We know, of course, that these costs all translate into higher premiums for all of us.”

People who would not steal a pair of boots from a retail outlet may not feel morally compromised tossing in a few older dings and dents to a larger repair job that has been warranted.

“There is an element of justification, in some cases,” Inbar explains. “You’ve been paying into this insurance pot for so long and not getting anything from it. Some people almost see it as a savings account.”

He also notes we take our cues from what is happening around us, what we come to perceive as norms. “The idea can develop that everybody else is doing it, so I can, too.”

The Financial Services Commission of Ontario (FSCO) states nearly 10 per cent of Ontarians admit committing auto insurance fraud, and 20 per cent know someone who has. The bad news for those contemplating sharing your stories? Fifty-eight per cent have no problem throwing a friend or acquaintance under the reporting wheels. The Ontario figures show males are significantly more likely to participate in fraudulent behaviour, as are millennials. Baby boomers have a better grasp (83 per cent) of what constitutes fraud over millennials (56 per cent), which perhaps explains the gap – sort of. “I didn’t know any better” doesn’t pass the smell test for this one, though.

You might read headlines of organized crime rings shaking down the auto insurance industry and wonder why you should be bothered if your neighbour scores a little extra body work on his or her banged up Impala. You should care because, while those scamming rings get a lot of media attention, in actuality, they aren’t the nuts and bolts of the fraud infrastructure. According to the latest figures available from the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), a KPMG report put out in 2013 using 2010 figures estimates total fraud in Canada at between $768 million and $1.56 billion. They break that figure out into three types of fraud: organized (those headlines), premeditated and opportunistic; they peg the organized crime fraud at between $175 million and $275 million.

Premeditated involves things like treatment programs that never take place; parts of the medical industry capitalizing on either a patient’s lack of knowledge about what they are signing or simply having patients sign blank treatment programs. Opportunistic fraud is that phantom camera in the break-in or the additional mechanical claims.

Even if the organized component of that estimate is low, that still leaves a wide margin of insurance fraud that is being paid out to elements that you and I, average consumers, have much control over. We are ripping off each other. Don’t sign blank treatment schedules from healthcare providers, and make sure you understand just what is being proposed. I’ve had this happen and didn’t even realize until months later. The (now gone) provider had claimed treatments I’d never even heard of, much less received. In a post-crash fog, I’d just been desperate for someone to get me back to work.

Professor Inbar notes that human nature is flexible, and that “possessing salient information can have a surprisingly large effect on the decisions we make.” Small tweaks can lead to big change. Insurance fraud is very much about who is watching. He notes studies have shown people react differently with something as basic as a pair of cartoon eyes attached to their monitor, or a mirror. By now we’ve all grown used to the idea that we are constantly being monitored and filmed; maybe reining in insurance fraud will be an upside to that intrusion.

Make a plan for what you will do in the event of a crash, like where you’d have your vehicle towed. Demand detailed medical and repair reports. Don’t sign blank authorizations. Ask for help if you’re unsure.

You can anonymously report suspected insurance fraud. In Ontario, contact FSCO (855-5TIP-NOW) or for all of Canada IBC (877-IBC-TIPS), or Crimestoppers.

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