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

Originally published: December 15, 2014

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

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

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

Of course we do. Unfortunately.

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

Originally published: December 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published: December 1, 2014

I love you but I hate driving with you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published: November 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You never forget your first car. Meet mine: the Ramchicken

Originally published: November 10, 2014

They say you never forget your first.

They’re right. When I was still driving my parents’ cars, I paid little attention to anything other than how much it cost to fill the tank. I’d complain about the colour – the orange AMC Matador wagon – or the fact I had to muck with the carburetor on rainy days – the black Dodge Ramcharger. I didn’t know how much tires cost, my insurance was negligible, and because my father insisted on buying cars outright, I’d never contemplated a car payment.

Then I got my own first car. A van actually, a 1984 Dodge Mini Ram. Repossessed by a leasing company, someone’s pain became my gain. It was the vehicle that helped save Chrysler, and it was the vehicle that made me a grown up. I was 21 and asking my Dad to co-sign a car loan, which actually was a bigger incentive to never miss a payment compared to the risk of a shot to my credit rating. $248.19 a month; why do some numbers stay with your forever? If anyone finds my Dudley combination lock from high school, try 42-6-47 and you’ll have yourself a dandy new lock.

Because my Dad still had his big Ramcharger, we called my van the Ramchicken. Not quite what Dodge had in mind, I’m certain, but that little dark red cargo van was a warrior. Four-speed manual with a floor mounted shift, it had no seating or windows in the back. It was big enough to move any friend schlepping a bed and dresser between semesters, sheets of plywood to the cottage or a dirt bike if the front forks were bungeed down just right. Passengers on board were no problem. I had foam coaches with stylish covers I’d made, which could be tossed in at will. Seatbelts you say? Nobody asked much about it back then, and I look at my sons and think if they ever did something like that I’d kill them. I’m officially telling stories that begin with, “Back in the day”.

Looking back, I demanded ridiculous things of that tiny van. We’d drive for 36 hours straight, pausing only to fill up the van’s tank or empty the passengers’. 240,000 kilometres were piled on in just a few years, each one noisy as the gears pulled every ounce of power from the small engine. The clutch was only ever replaced once, when someone decided it would be strong enough to drop a watercraft into a lake from a steep incline. We’d finally asked too much, and as CAA hooked up the small wounded body I felt terrible.

You do things when you’re young and naive, or at least young and energetic. No road trip is too ridiculous, no distance too far, no amount of discomfort too trying. Today I jet along in some of the safest, most luxurious vehicles on the road, and yet, I still think of my barebones Ramchicken so basic it didn’t have cup holders or even FM on the radio.

That van was driven across the country a couple of times and through most of the eastern U.S. If you’ve driven through the Rockies or parts of New England, you know the steep climbs and long slopes that form the highway. I’d look at a grade ahead, and start talking to the van. If you could hit the start of your climb just right, you could make it to the top. We’d cheer and call her baby, because we were young and dumb. All we asked was that it made it up this one hill, this one time, until the next one loomed.

In the years before the birth of the minivan, there were rumours that something new was coming. Something to replace the station wagons of my youth and the work vans that were trucks no matter how much you tarted them up with curtains or stereos. I couldn’t conceive of what this magic in-betweener would look like, yet when it arrived it seemed so obvious. Here was the answer to a dilemma we hadn’t realized we had. I look around now at most of the vehicles on the road and realize they’re all much of a muchness, as my late mother would have said. In retrospect, that humble Ramchicken had as much of an impact on the automotive world as when Ford slapped a luxury box on a pick-up truck and called it an Explorer. Maybe more.

When you drive a lot of different cars, people often ask your opinion during their own search. Every request is usually accompanied by “but I don’t want a minivan”. I reluctantly sold the Ramchicken when I needed actual seats, and it kept on going for a young man who was waiting to buy it. I went on to own more minivans, SUVs, sports cars, crossovers and sedans. As lives change, so does what you demand of a vehicle.

Sometimes you need a minivan; RIP, Ramchicken.

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Briefly Leaving A Child In The Car? A Lot Can Happen

Originally published: November 3, 2014

It’s when temperatures hit sweltering heights that we usually start reading horrific stories about children left in cars all day. Those stories are difficult to read and important to know, but the plummeting of the mercury doesn’t change the facts: don’t leave your kids in the car.

Generally, we’re talking about two different mindsets here. A child forgotten in a car, usually when a parent has deviated from a standard daily pattern, leads to those awful headlines we see every summer. Everyone believes it could never happen to them and I hope they’re right; but this 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning piece by Gene Weingarten in The Washington Post should be required reading for everyone.

Come winter, a different kind of pattern emerges. If you have children, you’ve done it, or almost certainly thought about it. Everyone says they could never forget their child in a car for eight hours; but what about knowingly leaving them for 10 minutes? 15? What if it’s about convenience, rather than neglect?

You just have to run in somewhere for a moment, maybe to grab milk or pick up another kid from school. Maybe you’re getting a coffee, or hitting the bank machine. Kiddo is snuggled in his car seat, snoozing happily. Or maybe it’s your two-year-old, who will insist on walking no matter the weather because she can do it herself.

Please don’t leave them in the car.

The heartbreaking headlines have led to what some consider vigilante action, bystanders noting a child left unattended in the car and assuming the worst and calling police or even breaking windows. The Internet predictably lights up on both sides, accusing people of overreacting. But how do I know how long your kid has been left alone? How do I know you haven’t slipped and fallen or been held up in a longer-than-expected lineup? Who wants to risk ignoring a child?

Canada’s Criminal Code is clear and police officers will follow it. Section 218 states: “Every one who unlawfully abandons or exposes a child who is under the age of ten years so that its life is or is likely to be endangered or its health is or is likely to be permanently injured, (a) is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years; or (b) is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding eighteen months.”

I asked Constable Clinton Stibbe of Toronto Police Service what someone should do if they see a child left in a car. “An individual can’t go wrong calling 911 if they see a child unattended in a vehicle. When looking at a case where the child has been left alone, the risks to the child from glass being broken to gain entry to a vehicle could also severely injure the child.”

While police will judge each situation individually, the Child and Family Services Act “does not specifically state an age when a youngster can be left alone. It does say that if a child younger than 10 years old is left unsupervised, the onus of establishing that reasonable provisions for supervision and care were made rests with the parent or guardian.” You’ll have to prove what was more important than your kid.

I know you didn’t “abandon” your child when you ran into the store, but if another car hits yours in the parking lot it’s going to be hard to explain otherwise. Little ones learn in no time how to undo a seat belt, and in the few minutes it might take you to get that coffee, they could be anywhere in the car, even if they were asleep when you slipped out. If you’ve left it running, it’s even more dangerous.
When I had a newborn in one of those baby bucket seats, I wiped out on some ice. I got banged up, though the kid was fine, and you could argue, I suppose, that he’d have been safer in the car. But if I’d smacked my head, who would have known he was even in the car?

In most child-rearing conversations I’m pretty old school. Everybody has to eat a bucket of dirt before they die, I’ve never put my kids in bubble wrap, and falling out of trees is part of growing up.

Taking a long look in the rear-view mirror of my sons’ early years, though, I’ve come to realize a few other things. I never underestimate the mindset and dexterity of a toddler, and I never overestimate an adult’s ability to keep track of time. Raising children is hard and exhausting and, often, inconvenient.

Ultimately, you don’t need a cop or a nosy neighbour to tell you; if anything – anything – happened, you’d never forgive yourself. As Stibbe says, “Without a doubt take them out.”

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

If you want to keep your car for a long time, rustproofing should be a no-brainer. But don’t be fooled by the dealership upsell

Originally published: October 27, 2014 (click for video)

To rustproof or not to rustproof, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the metal to suffer
The snow and slush of outrageous winter,
Or to take arms against a sea of brine.

-With a nod to William Shakespeare

There should be no question. You really should rustproof.

If you bought your car new, once they had you trapped in the finance office, rustproofing was one of the big upsells. A dealer will highly recommend you have your car rustproofed, and I agree with them. I just don’t agree that it should cost 500 bucks, or 750, or a grand if they really saw you coming.

First. If you plan on ditching your car at the end of a lease, don’t bother rustproofing. It can be someone else’s problem, which sounds mean but it’s true. But if you’re going to keep this car – and cars are lasting longer than ever – or sell it privately at some point, rustproofing is your friend. One caveat: if you opt for rustproofing, take it to a place that specializes in it. It may look simple, but one lazy application by a poorly trained technician means your car is vulnerable.

Rustproofing has changed over the years, but the concept is basically the same: keep moisture away from metal to prevent corrosion. Depending on your vintage, you might recall a time when people used motor oil as an undercoating. The principle was good but such practice could compromise electrical components of the car as well as be extremely messy.

Times have changed and that old oil concept has been replaced with a tar-based spray – undercoating – which effectively forms a hardened barrier to the underneath of your car. You’ll need yearly inspections to check for things like cracking, which can allow moisture to become trapped and become a problem. This is the usual rustproofing that a car dealer will be selling you; a local Ziebart quoted me $249 for this based on a passenger car.

You could choose a dripless oil spray, which forms a hardened wax-type barrier. This covers more area than the tar-based, as holes will be drilled into door panels and other areas so the oil can access more interior regions of the car. If cracks or chips form, this can let in water and hold it there, inviting possible corrosion, though yearly inspections are advised to prevent this. I was quoted Ziebart’s price for this service at $125 (should be done annually), with a combination of this and the tar-based undercoating running $400 with a 10-year warranty, needing annual inspections costing $50.

A drip oil spray treatment is used by Krown Rust Control, where I took my car for a hands-on demonstration. Like the dripless version, a series of holes are drilled into your car to augment factory access points. A light oil mixture is atomized with compressed air to form a chemical bond with the metal while displacing any existing moisture. The entire bottom of your car is then sprayed; you’ll experience a little dripping after the application, but the spray is very fine and the aftermath is short-lived. They recommend doing it each year. Cost is $120 for most passenger cars. Rust Check also does a drip oil at similar cost.

Prevention is always cheaper than cure, and your car is no different. The thing about rust? It starts in places you can’t see, and it starts long before you know it. When we think of rust and cars, we often imagine the bad old days when nobody wondered if their car would rust, they only wondered when. As manufacturers have moved to more alloys and galvanized steel and zinc coatings, they’ve been able to guarantee – usually to the five-year point – that your ride won’t rust. While it’s true from the outside looking in things are much improved, if you put it up on a hoist, you’ll get a whole other story.

Frames and suspension systems are vulnerable, as well as every spot weld and bend and hinge. Salt can start deteriorating those expensive electronic components. In the rust-belt – areas that experience harsh winters – municipalities lay down brine solutions (magnesium chloride) that are effective for safety, but take an immense toll on your car. The GTA has also been using a beet juice solution that is slightly less corrosive, but all of it is designed to stick to road surfaces, which means it also sticks to the underside of your car. Running it through a carwash will only remove a portion.

When Krown let me help rustproof my car at their head office in Stouffville, Ont., I learned it may not be a difficult procedure, but you want someone attentive and thorough doing it. Drilling holes into your car may seem counter-intuitive, but they’re drilling in specific areas to maximize access and they warranty their work.

It’s a scare tactic to tell you that rustproofing your new car will void your manufacturer warranty, and Krown’s warranty is comprehensive and will cover repairs up to the value of the vehicle. “If a customer brings a vehicle in from new, our annually renewable warranty will stay in place as long as they want to have the vehicle treated. We have customers with vehicles that are 20 years old and still under warranty with us,” says vice-president Jeremy Young. Wherever you go, look for a warranty like this.

A few places will still do a grease rustproofing job for you, which is a great rust deterrent but more costly and not as readily available.

You could also opt for an electronic box some dealers are happy to sell you for upwards of $700 – installed – but you shouldn’t because I’ve never seen any science to prove they work, and the theory is based on the submerged part of steel bridges. So, I guess if you drive a submarine, go for it.

It’s never too late to start rustproofing your car, and remember: it’s what you can’t see that should concern you.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Why texting behind the wheel is as bad as drunk driving

Originally published: October 20, 2014

I find texting and driving a lot harder than driving drunk. Those studies are right.

Ford’s Driving Skills for Life, a program perfected in the U.S. and now being brought to Canada, allows newly licensed teen drivers the chance to break a whole bunch of laws under the watchful eye of trained professionals. On a recent day at Brampton’s Power Centre, Ford transformed the parking lot into four test areas: space and speed management, hazard recognition and vehicle handling, distracted driving and impaired driving.

Students from several local high schools took part during either morning or afternoon sessions. The program offers some real-world driving experiments in controlled settings. With instructors in the passenger seat, young drivers were soon doing burnouts in a 2014 Mustang, smacking over cones as they texted behind the wheel, and crazily looping their way around a course while wearing goggles that simulate being drunk.

Students were working in groups of 10 through the various modules. As you might have suspected, many were texting on their phones in between sections, making the distracted session all the more interesting. There was a preponderance of males in attendance while I was there; if Ford does this program in your region (Calgary is up next) do your students a favour and get the girls out there.
While many of the skills being presented require far more than a 20-minute session to learn, the appeal of the program is that it goes beyond the usual driver training as well as anything you can get away with when Mom and Dad are in the car.

Understeering, oversteering, collision avoidance – all very important. But who am I kidding: I wanted to do the distracted and impaired portions of the course.

As technology leapfrogs over itself, the studies can barely keep pace. Even so, it’s rapidly becoming evident that texting behind the wheel is likely more dangerous than some levels of intoxication. Nobody likes to frame the results that way and risk throwing impaired driving under a remotely good light, but the truth is that texting takes your eyes off the road, and driving at 50 km/h, you’ll travel 14 metres in a second. That’s a lot of blind driving.

I drove around the course with instructor Hazel de Burgh. With a lot of tight turns, I’m sure we didn’t get up to 50 km/h, but when she instructed me to take a lap with my cell phone out, things got interesting. I already had it set to send to my photographer, thinking it would save some fumbling around. “Text the names of the Great Lakes,” she instructed me. First thought? What the hell are the names of the Great Lakes. Oh yeah, HOMES. I held the phone at 12:00 on the wheel, jabbing away letter by letter so I could keep one eye on the road. Or so I thought. Over went cone after cone.

The only comfort was watching the kids wreak pretty much the same destruction. Alex Morrison and Michael Macut, both 17 and self-admitted car nuts, shook their heads when I asked them if they text and drive. “It’s not worth it,” said Morrison. An interesting point both made was that driving a standard made texting not only more difficult, but nearly impossible, especially at slower speeds.

At the impaired station, police officers were on hand to accompany “drunk” drivers. Ford supplied a variety of goggles, each designed to mimic various levels of impairment. They handed me a pair of 0.08 – what most people consider the legally allowed limit in most jurisdictions. In Ontario, you might want to read the fine print. If a breathalyzer reads between 0.05 and 0.099 police will impound your car for three days and suspend your licence for five.

For good measure – literally – I tossed the 0.08s back in the bin and found some 0.12s. I put them on and promptly fell over. The goggles blur your vision but also destroy your coordination, much like a night straddling a bar stool might. As I waited my turn to drive, I tried the sobriety test – walking on a painted line. I found it nearly impossible, even when I was concentrating. Relieved to finally be behind the wheel (yes, I know that sounds terrible), I set out on the course, drunk, with a cop beside me.

I thought I did okay, which is what every drunk driver says, now that I think about it. She begged to differ, but the truth was at least when you’re drunk – or drunkish – and you’re looking out the windshield, you’ll see what you’re going to hit. Texting means looking down at your phone and you don’t stand a chance. There’s a very good reason both activities are illegal.

Can a program like Driving Skills for Life make an impact? Yes, it can. Ford has run it as part of its non-profit internal foundation since 2003, and according to Caroline Hughes, VP of Government Relations for Ford, it is very much a part of Ford’s goal to bring safety and education to local communities. I hope they expand it. You can contact them at www.drivingskillsforlife.ca.

There’s an elephant in the parking lot, of course. Injuries and fatalities from texting while driving are climbing, no matter what manufacturers may do or what laws may be made. Education is important, consequences are important, but we need more.

Samsung, the phone company, carried out a pilot program in Australia that tries to tackle the problem in a different way: what about instead of using sticks, you use carrots? Maybe it’s time to change the way we talk to young drivers. Watch this link and consider the impact we could make with concerted efforts like this, and Ford’s.

Posted in Drive She Said | 6 Comments

Is Gender Really A Factor Behind The Wheel?

Originally published: October 13, 2014

Women are better drivers than men.

Relax… that’s just a cheap shot to make you keep reading. The topic is right up there with sex, religion, politics and money. If your holiday dinners need a shot of trouble, change things up this year and talk about driving.

A recent Irish study (conducted by The University of Dublin, Trinity College) offers some interesting findings. Over the course of 13 weeks using black boxes installed in cars researchers zeroed in on acceleration, braking, cornering and speed. Drivers were provided with feedback on how to improve. So, once an error was pointed out, who would endeavour to change?

Twenty per cent of men corrected course; 80 per cent of women did. The 54 participants were 17 to 22 years old, traditionally considered by insurance companies as the group at highest risk for collisions. All knew they were being monitored, and half could access their results to see how they were doing as the project evolved.

The study actually concluded that “young women are much better at learning from their driving mistakes than their male counterparts,” not that they were better drivers. That’s really just splitting hairs; being unwilling to acknowledge and correct your mistakes does make you a worse driver.

I work with a lot of professional driving instructors in many different capacities. Sometimes it’s driver’s education for teens, sometimes for seniors, sometimes track days at very high speeds, sometimes off-road courses at very slow speeds. I ask every instructor the same question: generally speaking, who is more receptive to learning new skills? And every instructor for the last decade has told me the same thing: women.

This isn’t a driving thing at all, it’s a psychological thing. Some people are more competitive than others and see every driving situation as something to win. Some find it difficult to understand that the fastest driver on a course is the smoothest driver, not the one making the most noise. Some people believe that if you can afford an expensive high performance car you somehow – mystically –must also have the ability to drive it. Driving is a skill. For some it is a talent, but for most of us, it is a skill.

Many stereotypes are rooted in some kind of truth. I, a woman, have a lousy sense of direction. I prefer written directions over a map, though I do want the map to orient myself. I don’t consider any of this much more than a simple fact; we all learn in different ways, and I expect teachers to teach the student, not the curriculum.

I’ve driven with some spectacular drivers, and some who are less so. I’ve driven with people who I know are alive only because their car saved them, and I’ve driven with people who I believe should have their airbags on the outside of their cars to protect the people around them. Honestly, gender has seldom been a defining factor, but when it has been, it did indeed come down for the most part to stereotypical indicators: males who drove over their heads, and females who were too distracted.

Hard statistics show that young men are more aggressive behind the wheel; it’s why their insurance rates are the highest. What I find troubling about this Irish study (as the mother of two young men), is that even after errors have been pointed out and directives given to improve, so many failed to do so. Maybe they couldn’t be bothered; maybe they believed they knew better; maybe they just didn’t care.

We bitch and moan consistently about the sorry state of the drivers on our roads. Everybody is a terrible driver, if you ask everyone else. If only our new drivers were actually trained to drive rather than just pass a test. If only we retested everyone every fill-in-the-blank years to weed out the speed junkies, the slowpokes, the left-lane bandits, the distracted and the addled. If only lawyers stopped getting guilty people off on a technicality, and if only we had zero tolerance for alcohol and drugs and texting behind the wheel.

Except, extrapolate the results of that small study. Even with access to information to be safer, to be better, there is a significant portion of people who have no interest. Even if it’s youthful posturing, what happens until they outgrow it? I am a firm nonbeliever in programs that spy on your kid when you’re not in the car. If you don’t trust them, you don’t give them the keys. Sound decision-making skills are never developed when they’re created by a shock collar.

How does that saying go? When you know better, you do better?

Maybe not.

Posted in Drive She Said | 6 Comments