Young drivers need to know they can rely on you

Teaching good driving habits and being there when they need you will help keep them safe

Originally published August 8, 2016

“Did you know that almost 20 per cent of reported collisions in Canada happen during July and August?” –

If you think about it, it’s not really surprising. In winter months, we tend to be more cautious, at least aware that conditions are playing a large role in how we pilot a vehicle. But in summer months, many of us are in holiday mode. The most recent available Canadian statistics indicate that August is actually host to the largest number of collisions. There’s a reason that police forces across the country roll out aggressive campaigns around each long weekend; they often target different things (impaired, distracted, truck safety) but the summer months also present them with a problem we should have solved by now: seatbelt usage.

A 2013 Canadian study in Accident Analysis and Prevention found a link between traditional vacation times and a more casual attitude towards buckling up. With traffic fatalities plunging due to spectacular advances in safety technology, it is stunning that we are still finding ways to get ourselves hurt.

That technology, however, is leading me to a different observation. With cars taking over more and more of the driving duties with warnings and sensors and nanny systems, drivers’ skills seem to be softening, replaced with complacency and outright laziness. Why shoulder check when the little alarms will beep? Why do a walk around when you have a back-up camera? With technology replacing eroding abilities for some of us, it is also taking the place of skills and awareness that some drivers never had.

Fiat Chrysler recently did a recall on hundreds of thousands of power steering systems that could fail. But before they did, their initial response to the problem surprised me. They said they needn’t do a recall because if the power steering in an affected vehicle failed, drivers would be able to safely steer the car off the road.

Sure. Because everybody is familiar with what we used to call Armstrong steering. Power steering has been in pretty much everything on the road for decades. To expect drivers who have never not had it to be able to 1) identify the problem in a fraction of a second, at speed and 2) to automatically default to a skill that is at best rusty and at worst, not there, is dangerous. It’s the same with power brakes. If I’m requiring drivers to have a reliable set of skills when they drive, manufacturers have to acknowledge what those skills truly are.

If you have young drivers in your family, you can be an invaluable trove of wisdom. They’re going to ignore you about a lot things; we did the same to our parents. But looking at those summer road statistics, there are things you can do that can make a difference.

Let them tell you the truth. If your kid does something stupid, and finds him or herself stranded somewhere (too many beers, not where they said they’d be), please let them call you anyway. Help them. Go and get them, no questions asked. You can have a talk at a later time, but even then, don’t punish them for telling you the truth. My father insisted on a curfew come hell or high water, and looking back, it was the most dangerous thing he could have done. I was a good kid; there were still times I should have stayed where I was, or called for help.

Teach them what the car can’t do. Driving today is ridiculously easy – point and shoot. While I’d love to have all new drivers learn on a manual transmission, that’s not going to happen. So, make sure they know what it feels like to bring that car to a dead stop in an emergency. Get it up to 50 km/h and tell them to stand on the brakes. They need to know what it feels like, and how the car will actually react. Make them get out and show them the actual distance it took the car to stop. I hope they never have a child or animal run in front of them, but they need to know what to do, and how it’s going to feel, in case it happens.

Teach them some tips on distance perception. Ask how long they think the broken line segments are on a highway; when you’re going 100 km/h, they seem to be as long as your arm. Show them they’re closer to a couple of metres in length, and you need a cushion ahead of you if you have to stop. While you’re driving, tell them to send a text and see how long their eyes were off the road. Now throw the phone in the trunk.

Tell them to speak up, and to stand up. Everybody has been in a car with someone who shouldn’t be driving. Sometimes you realize too late, sometimes it’s a change of plans you weren’t prepared for. Teach your son or daughter to suggest an alternative, or to at least get out and call you. Back them up for having the courage to do it.

Tell them they can always follow a bad decision with a good one. This is probably the most important thing kids need to know. We all screw up and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I could have easily been dead for some of the dumb stuff I did way back when. I don’t want inexperienced drivers dying because they make a mistake. They can halt a string of bad decisions at any point along the chain if they know you would rather have them alive, even if it seems like there is no way out. Your life experience has taught you there is always a way out, even if it’s painful.

There are no accidents on our roadways, not even in these disproportionately represented summer months. Drivers make mistakes and sometimes the cost is deadly. Hire professionals to teach your kids, take a refresher course yourself, remind them that driving is a serious task we take for granted, and let them know that phone they all have at their disposal can always be used to call you for help.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

The Lamborghini Aventador draws a crowd via social media

Lorraine Sommerfeld took to Twitter to recruit a few eager passengers, and made some special connections along the way

Originally published August 2, 2016 (with video)

2016 Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4. It’s a mouthful as well as an eyeful; slung as low as a stalking panther, all sharp edges and bevelled glass, a carbon fibre rocket wrapped around a leather cockpit.

It’s also Batman’s car of choice, which means the car resonates through generations and demographics for several reasons. Sure, it screams “I am rich,” with a price tag ticking in at over $563,000, but it also fires up imaginations as surely as those 12 cylinders fire up those 700 horses. And it was those imaginations I was after, rather than those who could afford to safely tuck one in their garage at night.

I’ve said before that social media is only good if it is truly social; propping up a myth with no message is about collecting people, not interacting with them. With that in mind, I told Twitter followers, both on my account and Driving’s, that I’d be flinging those mighty bat wings up and taking people for rides. A jam-packed weekend in soaring temperatures ensued, and I was reminded that sometimes a car like this is a wonderful catalyst for connecting.

Lamborghini and I had been keeping a close eye on the weather because this roadster needs the top down (or rather, off) for full effect. Two carbon panels, each weighing just six kilograms, come off with the release of a lever and then snap into precisely allotted grooves in the tiny forward trunk. You can’t play mix and match with the pieces and change the order, and a piece of advice I’d been given upon pick up (“you’d always cover your passenger’s head first to be polite”) stayed with me for the four days I had the car.

Up went the bat signal on Twitter, and out came the people. In Toronto, Dan Plishka spent a full hour with the car; mostly he stared, and we finally coaxed him to sit in it. Turns out he’s a Festiva man, belonging to a club of other Festiva connoisseurs. “Well, it’s not like my Festiva,” he announced, gazing at the Aventador. His Festiva is what my son terms a Frankenfest, assembled from parts of every other kind of car you can imagine. Dan is a car man and was happy to talk about his Festiva for an hour.

Lucas’s parents brought him as a surprise; Mike posted a pic on Twitter of the Lamborghini poster he’d had in his room as a teen – he’d brought his own son out to see the new incarnation. I had husbands and wives pondering who looked better behind the wheel; Sandy saw neighbours she’d never met before; Adrian asked his Dad if he was ever going to get out so he could have a turn; Sophia drove nearly an hour for a five-minute drive and declared it worthwhile; Spencer asked to park his own pride and joy – a new Mustang GT – beside it for a wonderful photo op.

The Twitter component of this weekend circled back in a near-magical way. I heard from a reader who asked if I could surprise her neighbour with a visit with the car. She gave me his name, and said, “by the way, he has nearly 10,000 followers.” Now, that is a healthy number, in fact nearly eclipsing the combined total of my account and the official Driving one. I took a peek at Jim Yarrow’s account: he’d never posted a single entry or even header photo, yet had this host of followers. I presumed he was too famous to tweet because he sure wasn’t getting followers by posting selfies he’d taken in his bathroom mirror.

It turns out back in 2001, he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 47. “It was by chance it was even found in a PSA test. I did that typical guy thing, getting my annual physical every five to ten years,” he chuckled. He had surgery but the cancer ultimately spread, and while he looks hale and healthy, he is also living with a diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer. The Twitter account? A couple of years ago, Prostate Cancer Canada asked him to pen an article on the importance of PSA testing. When the article connected well on Facebook and the PCC site, he set up a Twitter account intending to use it as a vehicle for awareness. Time slipped by, as it does.

And then a Lamborghini showed up in his driveway. Out came the cameras, and a picture of Jim and his wife Bonnie is now at the top of his Twitter account. His first tweet was a shout out to Lamborghini and Driving for making this possible.


A friend’s son climbed up a ladder and took a spectacular shot of Jim behind the wheel. It seemed the whole neighbourhood was in the driveway that afternoon, the car the focal point for so many stories. I told Jim he had a very powerful platform at his disposal, that army of followers he could speak to.

I spoke to him a couple of days later. “I’m going to do what I always intended,” he told me. “This has given me the nudge to get back on track and get the message out. I was only 47 when I was diagnosed; my article was called Not on My Radar.” He thanked me. He needn’t have.

It’s always about the car, but it’s never about the car.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Expanded Uber insurance is good news, but still not perfect

‘There are going to be gaps in coverage … because there are loopholes,’ says one insurance broker – and there are larger issues to consider

Originally published July 25, 2016

Uber may have been a breech birth – all feet first, head last – but it is most definitely moving mainstream and finally bending to all those silly laws it was so intent on breaking.

Make no mistake; many of those laws have had to do some gymnastics to acknowledge that people – rideshare users, not just the providers – were going to do it anyway. Many will call it an uprising or revolution, I still call it a company that broke rules and endangered customers and drivers alike, and I’ll still never use them. I can be stubborn, too.

Two things happened almost simultaneously: I started noticing advertising for Uber drivers on TV, and then it was announced that, finally, all people using Uber in Ontario and Alberta would be covered by insurance the moment they stepped into an Uber car. More on that development in a moment.

First, the ads. I heard a wistful man’s voice listing off the reasons for using an unnamed product. I thought it was for some erectile dysfunction meds, because they always start out wistful and end up thankful, too. Then at the end they tell you to be an Uber driver to make all your economic dreams come true. Uber also said way back in 2014 that their intention was always to replace all their drivers with automated cars, so I think they’ve left a critical line out of their warm and fuzzy message: Come work for us until we don’t need you anymore, and that will be as soon as we can make it happen.

In April, Arianna Huffington, of the Huffington Post, joined their board. She’s good at this; she doesn’t pay her writers, so I found the irony a bit rich that she’ll be helping a company that ultimately would like to not have to pay its drivers. Uber is that idiot your daughter married, finally putting on long pants and getting a real job, but underneath you should always questions its motives. You can put in your “scorpion giving a frog a piggyback ride” story right about here.

Uber started out flouting laws. It ran roughshod over the cab industry in every city it entered by undercutting fares and flooding the market with “drivers.” That’s in quotes because drivers only had to prove they had a newish car and were willing to work stupid hours (called “flexible”) to run around picking up fares. The appeal to users was simple: a handy phone app brought a ride to you fast, and in most instances cheaper than a normal taxi. Throw in Uber drivers (who needs background checks?) who embraced the concept and became chauffeurs with elegant manners and free water bottles, and riders were smitten.

The truth was crappier; Uber’s promised average wages were not borne out by many of its drivers, and message boards are flooded with drivers who once in, started experiencing death by a thousand cuts. Needing to preserve a perfect five-star rating (users report their experience) is a noble aim, but one person’s friendly banter is another’s intrusive chatter. You can go broke betting on people’s moods, as Uber drivers found out. The company’s goal to please its users came at a cost to its drivers.

While taxi drivers and companies staged strikes in many centres against the Uber “invasion,” I never saw the battle that way. The cab industry has long needed cleaning up; laws surrounding it are antiquated and, indeed, struggled to cope with the surge of new technology that made Uber so popular.

I have no stink with the business model, only the way it was introduced. Don’t get me started on the fact Uber is aware that you can’t use a leased private vehicle to do this work, either.

The biggest issue has always been insurance. It wasn’t until two months ago that an insurance product actually existed in Canada – with Aviva – that could provide Uber drivers with the coverage they need to be using their cars to earn income. Previously, standard policies did not stretch to become commercial ones without an appreciable bump in rates – many times normal annual fees. Drivers simply skirted the issue by failing to inform their insurance provider that they were now acting as a livery service, which basically voided their policies. Uber did that whistling and looking sideways thing because hey, they’d dotted their “I”s and crossed their “t”s in their fine print, and used better sleight of hand than David Copperfield to pretend their own insurance covered their drivers. It didn’t. Cowards.

Until now. Uber has finally, in Alberta and Ontario, secured a policy with Intact Financial Corporation (IFC) that protects riders and drivers from the moment a ride is arranged until it is completed. Awesome, right? Hold up. For those Uber drivers who trotted over to Aviva a couple of months ago to be insured and legal, do they have to trot back? In theory, no, while drivers still do have to notify their personal car insurance companies that they are driving for Uber, the work portion of their car usage is now covered under the Uber/Intact policy. The bitch, of course, is in the details.

From Sound Insurance broker, Debbie Arnold: “The edict from Intact is that if the client is insured outside of the Intact family (Belair, Novex, Jevco), they must advise their personal automobile insurer that the vehicle is used for Uber, and Intact is picking up the usage as soon as the driver accesses the Uber app. The problem is that this is new to the industry and we don’t know how the courts will react in the event of a serious claim. However, Intact says that the liability limit is $2,000,000 once the passenger is picked up, the deductible is $1,000 (if they purchased physical damage coverage on their personal policy, and if on that personal policy the deductible is $500, the driver is on the hook for the $500 deductible difference), but they are only providing standard accident benefit coverage (so if the driver purchased maximum buy-ups for med/rehab and attendant care, that additional coverage will only apply when the vehicle is used for personal purposes, not while driving for Uber). There are going to be gaps in coverage here even when the driver informs their personal carrier because there are loopholes.”

As municipalities struggled with a service their voters loved but their entrenched businesses despised, Uber trounced around not caring. Drivers raced to make some money free of all those silly things like regulations and insurance and taxes and oversight – gawd, how annoying is legislation, right? Insurance companies knew two things: They were getting an increasing number of drivers and passengers who weren’t covered, and they were missing out on a chance to make money.

The short takeaway? This is great news for consumers. It’s good for drivers who understand the limitations of the improvement — kudos to the insurance industry for working with local governments to find a way to keep their citizens protected — but the cost of this will come from somewhere, and I’m guessing it’s not Uber’s cashmere-lined pockets or those riders they want to keep bribing with undercut pricing.

Yup. It’s the drivers who will bear this. Until, of course, there are no drivers at all.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Driving while Pokémon is now a thing, and it’s dangerous

New game craze isn’t meant for the car, and it’s just as bad as texting or being drunk

Originally published July 18, 2016

The headlines about the crashes started within hours of the game being released. Actually, it hadn’t even been released in Canada yet, but like anything that flies through the air, boundaries are a mere stutter to those with the technological savvy to find a way. And in the case of Pokémon Go, a new version of an old fad, this is precisely the desirable demographic.

First, a little origin of species. Pokémon was a video game first released in 1996. They quickly followed it up with collectibles, not unlike the baseball cards of yore. My sons are now 24 and 21, but Pokémon was a staple around our house, with piles of kids on the front step playing got ’em, got ’em, need ’em endlessly. Instead of a real life pro team, the Pokémon cards had their backstory in a video game and cartoon.

Flash forward two decades, and Game Freak (owned by Nintendo) in conjunction with Niantic has done the near-impossible: they’ve fired up the imaginations of those now-grown original Pikachu chasers and set their sights on an even bigger demographic. I know what you’re thinking; morons, idiots, you gotta be kidding me. But think for a second. As soon as my son explained to me the new concept of Pokémon Go (the new improved version) I started laughing and shaking my head in admiration.

An Arizona Dept. of Transportation (ADOT) freeway sign along westbound Interstate 10 discourages playing “Pokemon Go” in Phoenix. ADOT said the warnings will be posted on overhead highway signs around the state for the next week.
An Arizona Dept. of Transportation (ADOT) freeway sign along westbound Interstate 10 discourages playing “Pokemon Go” in Phoenix. ADOT said the warnings will be posted on overhead highway signs around the state for the next week.

Setting: Nintendo Head Office, Conference Room for Important Meetings
Challenge: Introduce a new game with a built in base to help ensure success while we build a new target demographic
Problem: People are trying to get their kids away from their screens and off their butts. Kids don’t go outside anymore, haven’t you heard?
Solution: How about a game based on a GPS that forces them to go outside to collect their valuable points?
Result: Someone just got a promotion

You need a phone, and you need a data plan or WiFi on that phone. I’d say nearly all of those original Pokémoners have these two things. The characters they grew up with pop up on their phone, in their neighbourhood; all they have to do is go outside and walk around and catch them. It’s called augmented reality, which is just another name for the world we now raise our kids in. The game is calibrated to be played at a walking pace. The second day my son had it, he and his friend walked 24 kilometres. The next day, they walked 18. They met up with groups of other friends. Both boys have summer jobs; both attend school. I open my mouth to bitch, but seriously, the kids are outside hanging out, getting some serious exercise and loving it. I shut my mouth.

But of course people had to go and wreck it, of course, because people are lazy. Within minutes of thousands and thousands of youth taking to their feet to chase imaginary creatures (hey, don’t knock it; I see a ton of people sporting things that count their steps and the only reward is a number and they are obsessed with the damned things), still others decided to take to their cars. You can catch all the things in a car, right?

Not really. Remember that “calibrated to a walking pace” thing? No problem. Drivers are driving at walking pace. Within hours they were causing collisions. A player down in New York crashed into a tree. There were no serious injuries, because this is the opposite of a high speed collision. In Quebec, a Pokémoron (my name for those who Pokémon Go and drive) backed into a police cruiser. With cops in it. Oops. In Baltimore, this happened:

Police around the world are warning against driving or cycling while playing. Because the target cartoons pop up on a phone screen, you have to move towards them. They can be in backyards, parks, kitchens, anywhere. But they move around and once you get it in your sites, you have to lob Pokéballs at it – essentially little pokébullets. Once captured, you move on. If you’re not already, you will soon see packs of people (all ages; not just those teenagers) or lone warriors wandering around intensely chasing imaginary things. They will stop while they take aim. Then they will continue.

If you think people addicted to texting was bad, get ready for the next wave of worse. Distracted walkers on phones has been a problem for years; distracted drivers texting is near drunk driving danger levels. Pokémon Go is in fewer hands but growing, is slower paced but is more addictive.

If you know anyone who has spent years in front of a computer playing World of Warcraft or anything similar, the entire idea of a game that pushes them outside and makes them walk around is brilliant. That is about to be co-opted into something dangerous is inevitable. Too bad, that.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Feet still on the dash? I’ve got a bone to pick with you

Your dangerous driving habits may not be my problem, but they are my business

Originally published July 11, 2016

When does your dumbassery become my business? When it becomes my problem, like when you cut me off with no signal or back down an off ramp.

I know when it becomes my problem, like when you endanger my life or those of your fellow motorists, when we are left trying to predict what you might do while you’re on the phone. Or while you’re perfecting your DUI: driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or sheer stupidity. These all become my problem the second you drop it into drive.

A friend sent me a picture the other day. He saw the truck driving on the highway. I could hear him gnashing his teeth and I understood why: I get sent at least one pic or story a week about something similar. Ever since I wrote about Bethany Benson last year, who had her life implode because she’d had her feet propped on the dash when the airbags went off in a collision, people want me to know it’s still happening.

It’s not my problem, I think. It’s just not. But is it my business? I think it is. I had a Santa Fe behind me on the highway in Mississauga two months back. Mom driving, her 13-year-old daughter in the passenger seat; I’m pretty good at kids’ ages, so I’ll stick with 13. Anyway, Daughter had her feet up on the dash and I was horrified. Traffic was heavy, with conditions that are perfect for those chain reaction crashes you see at low to moderate speeds. The kind where the airbags go off. Heading down Highway 400 a few weeks later, I saw the same thing.

If we can’t get through to teenagers that they’re risking their lives doing something as simple as propping up their legs on a dashboard, can’t we at least get through to the parents? Right after Bethany’s story was published, I saw a young couple with American plates on their car and they both had a leg on the dash. Yes, the driver had his left leg propped up on the dash.

Airbags are glorious things, truly. They have saved so many lives even with the massive Takata recall currently underway (one in seven cars on American roads, 34 million cars worldwide), experts agree it is far safer to leave in potentially dangerous bags than run the risk of not having them there at all.

The thing with airbags, however, is they are created to work with a vehicle’s other safety systems. They work in conjunction with seatbelts, for instance, and if you have reclined your seat you’ve compromised both systems; you are not being protected. Airbags are aimed at car occupants, quite literally. The one in the dashboard is supposed to hit your upper torso, not behind your knees as it did Bethany. It shattered her. Deploying at over 300 km/h, its work is done in a fraction of a second. You have no time to reposition yourself. If I see someone with their feet on the dash, it’s not my problem, but if I can, I’ll make it my business.

The headlines about pets and kids left in cars never abates, either. The numbers hold steady despite ad campaigns and warnings and terrible headlines. I put myself through that sweaty nightmare a year ago making a video, so you wouldn’t have to.

The problem with defining things that are my problem and things that are my business is one of human nature. I can write articles and make videos and give talks and always, without fail, I get responses that basically say, “I would never do that so that could never happen to me.” The more distance we can put between ourselves and something horrible, the more comfortable we are in our righteousness. The problem, of course, is you can’t speak for everyone who matters to you, for those you love. Put aside your determined rightness for a moment, and simply explain the implications of things they might do.

Anyone who has pets should know exactly how fast a car heats up – several minutes, not 45. They should know a window cracked is like an oven door opened a little: useless.

Quit dismissing those doing dangerous things as morons who shouldn’t have a licence. Those morons might, quite honestly, be members of your family or people whom you love. People do dumb things all the time, though it’s only those who get caught doing them who make the headlines.

Don’t bother sending links and clips to people if you’re one of those people, like my late father, who cut out everything and foisted his opinions and interests on us repeatedly; we tuned him out. By all means follow up with the links, but next time everyone is around, simply say, “Don’t put your feet on the dash or the airbags could blow your legs off.” Simple. In the next breath, remind them if they leave their car or kid in a car for even a minute, there is very likely someone willing to smash the window to get them out. And then move on and get some potato salad and a beer.

Make it your business, even if it’s not your problem.

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Picking up strangers in a McLaren is harder than you think

Intent on sharing the wealth, Lorraine Sommerfeld tries to give commuters a lift in a McLaren 570S. But finding willing passengers isn’t easy

Originally published July 4, 2016 with video

Though my colleague David Booth cautioned back in the fall that the McLaren 570S isn’t to be called a “supercar” – at their behest – try telling that to the throngs of people who crowd around it no matter where you go. Try to explain that all this sexy, shiny, sleekness isn’t a supercar.

The Ventura Orange is a retina burner. It’s virtually the same colour as the 2015 650S Spyder I took to Toronto’s Ronald McDonald House last summer, which actually inspired this year’s choice of challenge: When you’re driving a car that people are snapping pictures of whether it’s moving or not, who wouldn’t want to go for a ride?

The plan was simple: Rig up the McLaren with a couple of GoPro cameras, pull up to a bus stop and offer people a ride; instead of just staring and Instagramming, they could actually hop in. I mean, that’s the offer everyone always wants to hear when they see this car, right? We actually christened it our own LRT – Lorraine Rapid Transit. Many people took pictures. A few even got rides.


We thought we’d be making people take a number. It turns out even with an accompanying pace car – a hot blue new convertible Mustang with a driver and videographer pressed into service – some people were a little spooked. It wasn’t me. I look like the suburban mother of two that I am. I presented photo ID in my outstretched hand, and even a section of the newspaper to prove I existed and McLaren knew I had their car.

But over and over, I’d pull up and people would just stare in stunned silence at the car. Initially I just dropped the window and yelled across the passenger seat; unlike last year’s car, this one wasn’t a convertible, and it quickly became apparent I’d have to hop out to prove I wasn’t a serial killer with good taste in cars. The thing is, when those scissored doors swing up, we move from awesome to overwhelming.

“How’d you like to save your bus fare today?” I asked one young woman. She actually took a few steps with me, but hesitated. In that gap, Jermaine Nelson moved in. With an ear-to-ear grin, he strolled towards the car.

“Wait. Is it stolen?” was his first question. In a decade of driving amazing cars, I’ve never been asked that. I asked where he was headed, and he lamented that he wasn’t going farther than he was. “I’m actually going to a job interview,” he grinned. Deciding this was absolutely a good omen, Jermaine hopped in and we got him to his job interview – way, way too early.

Sarah Gannage had a better idea. “Oh, yes, my feet are killing me. But can we pretend my apartment isn’t just up ahead?” She closed her eyes and pushed out in the seat and asked me if this is how rich feels. I admitted I only borrow the feeling, but yes, I guess it must. We threw in a few extra blocks to make the experience last longer.

The last pickup was the easiest. I spied a friend of my son’s at a stop and told him to hop in. Like the cobbler’s children going unshod, many of the kids around here end up missing out on rides in fancy cars because of time constraints and being away at school. Kevin Devine instantly figured out he’d be too early for his destination, and we opted to take a scenic route instead of arriving early. “Look at how everybody stares at this car,” he said, amazed. It is definitely a different feeling from the inside out.

It took pulling up to a bus shelter with a lone young man standing in it to crystallize the day for me. With no traffic around, I hopped out to talk to him. He couldn’t take his eyes off the car.

“You wanna go for a ride?” I told him who I was, indicated to my crew in the next car and told him what we were doing. His eyes never left the car. “No,” he said. “It’s okay.”

“No problem,” I replied. “But it’s legit, and you’ll be safe.”

He got in the car. Turns out he was a car fanatic, knew much about the car, and was working and in school, saving for his own car. It wouldn’t be a McLaren, but it would be special. He actually worked in a related field, one I promised him I wouldn’t reveal. Like Jermaine from my first ride, this lad got to work far too early.

As we pulled into the parking lot, he tucked in a grin and agreed it had been worth the gamble.

“You can just tell your mom it was that lady from the paper and TV,” I told him with a smile.

“Are you kidding? If I tell her I did this, she’d kill me.”

Next time I do this I’m going back to social media. Keep an eye on your Twitter feeds for @drivingdotca and @tweeetlorraine. These amazing cars are meant to be shared.

*Note: Nothing was harmed in the making of this story. No children were approached, there were no hidden cameras, press credentials were on display and no laws were broken. We did discover an orange McLaren is probably not the best car to use when carrying out a covert operation.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

The best car inventions for normal people

These six inventions have really helped make our day-to-day lives behind the wheel that much easier

Originally published June 27, 2016

I know fuel injected engines were a major upshift from carburetors, and I appreciate them. And the use of lighter materials to get better fuel economy, crumple zones and airbags to save our precious cargo, and windshields that don’t explode like a shattering firework – all spectacular inventions.

But over the past 20 years, the following are the things that have made the biggest difference in how our cars serve us day to day and how our families drive across town or across the country. Some of them were always the purview of those breathing more rarefied air, but for now, this list is within the clutches of even many entry, or near-entry level vehicles; you know, the ones so many of us drive.

The sliding door on a minivan: This concept should have won a Nobel Peace Prize. Small children jack open their doors with a mighty boof not because they are wild animals but because they are small children. “Yay we’re here!” coupled with, “I can do my own door” meant a ding in a neighbouring car before Mom or Dad was even out of the driver’s seat. Some kids are brats. Some parents are lax. But most kids are just not big-picture thinkers and sliding doors gives them a little buffer while they grow up.

Two sliding doors on minivans: If you’ve done that brutal reach that leaves you and your lower back feeling like a Sherpa who carried a socialite up Mount Everest, you know that the advent of dual doors was almost as glorious as discovering one door could slide. Add the introduction of remote powered sliding doors on minivans, and I’m not sure my heart can take this trifecta of parenting liberation.

Heated seats: These got more important for us peasants right around the time that many jurisdictions starting introducing stricter idling bylaws. Most parts of Canada serve up some notorious winter weather, and the days of starting the car and leaving it to warm up for 15 minutes (or more) are long gone. Heated seats give you a near-instant cradle of warmth and allow you to putt along in relative comfort until the car’s heater finally kicks in.

Bluetooth phone: Manufacturers like Hyundai learned early on this was a safety feature, and as such a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have. With a cellphone in every pocket, it’s antiquated thinking to believe this connectivity should be an option. While I rarely hook up a phone when I’m driving (the stats are right: hands-free is nearly as dangerous as handheld), nobody should not have the option. Standard USB ports are about more than customized playlists, as well; they’re about a phone being charged when you need it the most.

Navigational systems: Whether via your phone or in-dash, the advent of this tech was by a terrible breech birth followed by an even worse puberty. Early systems were crap, and I applaud the first adopters who waited out the shotgun marriages of car manufacturers and Silicon Valley until we arrived where we are today. I still hate touchscreens (though I’m open to anything that is at least consistent), and I still think we owe it to future generations to show them how to use (and fold) a paper map. There will always be horror stories of people getting lost, but then, there always were. It’s too bad we can’t factor time and fuel saved by getting there right the first time into official fuel economy numbers.

Push-release fuel doors: Yay! If I never have to hunt for a fuel release lever again, it’ll be too soon. Especially to find it on the floor covered in slush or a floor mat, or stuck behind the shifter which hides it when it’s in park. Ford got here first in mainstream, and by doing away with gas caps altogether they made me very happy. Remember the first time you find out the narrow plastic tether on your gas cap is broken? And it rolls under the car? Yeah, that. No thanks.

All of these inventions lead me to the number one question I apparently will have until they pluck my cold dead fingers from my keyboard: Why can’t the vast majority of manufacturers sort out the fundamental problem they have with their daytime running light systems? Why am I still seeing so many dark rear-ends on cars as drivers do not realize they don’t have on their full lighting system? Cruising along with weak front lamps and no back ones, it’s easy to blame drivers for not understanding how their cars work. But with these same manufacturers lighting up dashboards, the first, best visual clue these drivers would have had in decades past has been removed.

Manufacturers, please toggle the wiring harness to respect that rear visibility is just as important as forward; do not light up the dash if a full lighting system hasn’t been activated at dusk and dawn, either by a driver or an automatic setting; be consistent across your brand, like Mercedes-Benz.

We’re spoiled with levels of safety and comfort and entertainment from all over the automotive spectrum. But when it comes to lighting systems? Most of you carmakers need to get your lit together.

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Kids continue to be left in hot cars. It’s time for a real solution

Automaker-installed back seat alarms seem like a common-sense solution. So why isn’t it a reality yet?

Originally published June 20, 2016

A recent press release from GM headlined “GM leads industry with new Rear Seat Reminder” had me excited. Briefly. Then I read it. Four paragraphs about how our busy lives can lead us to forget a briefcase, a lunch or even, gasp, a kid, in the back seat and how the new feature in coming Acadias would lead the way for a technological advance in saving that lunch. Or maybe that kid. Until this line: “The feature cannot detect items in the backseat, so it is always important to check the rear seat prior to exiting the vehicle.”

Not good enough, GM. Not good enough, any of you manufacturers. Upon shutting off the car, if the rear doors were opened 10 minutes before the vehicle was started, or if the rear doors are opened and closed during the trip, drivers receive an audible chime and a message to check their rear seat before exiting the vehicle. I will wager right here that within a week, drivers will be either ignoring the warning or scouring their owner’s manual to turn it off. The only thing that will prevent children (or anything) being accidentally left in the back seat of vehicles will be a notification triggered by weight (for instance, something that weighs more than a sack lunch).

Broaching the topic of children left in hot cars is like hugging a porcupine. It has to be done carefully whether the porcupine wants it or not.

I’ve written about hot cars before. I’ve trapped myself inside of one for an hour at noon on a June day to prove how dangerous cars can become even when they’re not moving. I’ve begged people not to leave their pets or kids in a car even for a few minutes, regardless of the season. But summer is the killer, and the deaths continue. An American neuroscientist, Dr. David Diamond, a professor at the University of South Florida, calls it an epidemic. That country continues to see, on average, 37 deaths a year due to small children being left behind in cars. More than half of these children were not intentionally left in the car.

I know. You’d never do that. You’d never forget your child. Those people are negligent and murderous and should be behind bars. Read the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece in the Washington Post by Gene Weingarten and try to keep believing that. I mean it; it’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read, and the most devastating. It’s not crackheads and morons whose children are left behind to die in cars; it’s pediatricians, cops, scientists, clergymen, electricians, accountants and chefs. It is not about people who hate or abuse their children. It’s about the ways our brains work, including those with big, smart brains.

That piece first ran in 2009, and was the first to delve deeply into how and why loving parents could ever kill their child by forgetting about them. The topic is so polarizing because the stakes are so high. If you leave a laptop or a squash in your hot car accidentally, the worst that can happen is really not the worst at all. I would venture it is impossible to accidentally leave your dog in your car; those fools are doing it on purpose. Some leave their children on purpose, because casinos don’t have daycares (this happens a lot, believe it or not), or I’ll just be a minute what could possibly happen?

In the avalanche of publicity that surrounds each fatal event, the inventors and the patent claimers shift into full gear, right alongside the blame brigade. Aftermarket solutions range from sticking a post-it note on your dash every time you get into your car with your kid to pads you place under their car seats that trigger an alarm if weight remains on them. All have been found to be lacking and unreliable during real-world testing, because like most best practices in automotive technology, the only viable solution will have to come from the manufacturers and be integrated into the car at a primary level, not as a glued on afterthought.

The GM offering is a step in the right direction, but an ineffective one. It will remind you to turn off a chime, not to check your backseat. If I put a heavy backpack on the front passenger seat, virtually every car I’ve ever owned will tell me my passenger is not buckled in. If they can monitor weight and make everyone buckle up, they can monitor weight and tell the driver if something remains on the seat.

Manufacturers shouldn’t hesitate, believing those of us without small children won’t appreciate the upgrade. Who hasn’t left a bag of groceries in the back? Who hasn’t forgotten a purse or briefcase? If I can’t lock or leave my car until I’ve rescued one of those items, I’d be happy for the reminder.

If it was a child, I’d be on my damned knees weeping in gratitude.

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What makes some (rude) drivers think they own the road?

An encounter with a belligerent pickup driver makes Lorraine Sommerfeld ask: When did we decide to forget our manners?

Originally posted June 13, 2016

When I was a teenager, my sister and I used to drive around in her Volkswagen Bug and listen to Motown and look at boys. We had this cool little paddle with sayings on it that you could flip around and “talk” to other drivers, mostly “hi” and “thank you” and “wanna party?” You can only imagine the toxic things that would be written on such a sign today; oh, the innocence of earlier times.

And yet, there has never been a time when some form of communication between drivers has been more needed. The top three? “Your headlights aren’t on,” “your indicator is on,” and “I’m sorry.” I didn’t make those up; that’s what I hear from readers year in and year out.

After an incident at a drive-thru recently, I’d like to add one more: “What the hell are you thinking?”

More and more places have two drive-thrus now, which is confusing to some of us. They’re always jammed close together, and once you commit to a chute, you’re stuck like a bull at a rodeo. If you’re like me, you will always, always, always pick the worst line, and for that reason I usually just park and go in. Usually. Not this day.

A guy in a big pickup was hollering into the machine next to me; I’d already ordered and had pulled ahead nearly a car length. Pickup finished his order and pulled up. He honked. I looked up, uncertain. He had his hood stuck a few inches from mine. I gave him my curious face – eyebrows knotted – because I was genuinely unsure about what he was doing. You come through double drive-thrus and merge, like getting on a highway and receiving a hamburger if you do it right. They line up your orders based on how they’ve received them. There is no reward for getting there “first” if you weren’t, indeed, first.

Pickup didn’t care. He was going to win this race. I just sat there. I was hemmed in from the back even if I’d wanted to back up, and I didn’t. I looked at his screaming red face and considered how embarrassing it would be to have a stroke in a drive-thru after you’d just ordered lunch by yelling into a clown’s mouth.

The drive-thru area is a little knotted curl of curbs with some decorative shrubbery. It was only ever intended to have one entry point, so the second one had been added with a shoehorn and a can of axle grease. This was no matter for Pickup; I watched as he climbed his truck up on the curb to go around me, taking a bite out of a small tree as he did so. He slammed his truck down ahead with a thump of satisfaction. He got to the window and I watched as he was told his order wasn’t ready; he’d have to pull ahead and wait. The young woman sighed when I asked her what had just happened. She said it happens a lot and I wondered, again, why people get so competitive when they get behind the wheel.

A recent brawl in a Costco parking lot in Mississauga, Ontario destroyed the shopping cart myth – that if we were piloting shopping carts instead of cars, we’d be ever so much more polite with one another. Two couples got knock-down drag-out, and their cars weren’t even turned on. Pursing my lips and asking what is wrong with people nowadays would make me look ancient, but seriously: What is wrong with people nowadays?

I haven’t come up with a way to tell you you’re driving with just your daytime running lights on; I’ve devoted columns to the subject and so have my colleagues, and I’ve begged those who understand explain it to those who don’t. Instead, I mostly get comments like, “If you’re too stupid to not have your headlights on, you shouldn’t be driving at all.”

And that is the essence of much of the communication breakdown between drivers: I’m better than you are, and instead of taking a moment to see if a mistake is a lapse instead of a gauntlet, I will judge and berate you, and cut you off to make sure you get my point.

The absent headlights and taillights, and the eternal indicator, are safety factors; we can’t see you or we have no idea what you’re about to do. Merging lanes, especially at construction zones, are irritating – and the resulting bottlenecks are going nowhere unless people look up, work the zipper and stop bullying their way to the front. Maybe those overhead signs could be used to urge you to check your headlight system; maybe high school physics courses could teach how to merge lanes and remind people two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time, no matter how belligerent they are.

What we could do more of? We could say thank you. It’s easy. Someone lets you in, wave your thanks. Somebody does the right thing and doesn’t block an intersection, acknowledge it. A gentlemen recently applauded my parallel parking job, and it made my day.

We may not have all the signs, but we have enough that we could make life a little easier for each other. As for that drive-thru? I often pay for the order behind mine. Pickup Dude was an idiot.

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

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

Originally posted June 6, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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