Seniors surprised by own bad habits after driving retest

Originally published: September 8, 2014

Jan Thompson, 69, has been driving well over 50 years; instead of taking it for granted, he had a different thought. “I worry I’m getting too set in my ways. I’ve always driven as if everyone else on the road is an idiot. Now I want to make sure I’m not the idiot.”

If Jan was being proactive at 69, Laura Anderson* (*a pseudonym used for medical confidentiality), at 80, was facing more immediate concerns. Though she’d recently passed the new Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) test and was clear to drive, some lingering health issues had her questioning her confidence.

Enter Shaun de Jager. He’s an advanced driving instructor specializing in remedial training with the elderly and drivers suffering from PTSD after a crash. He’s thorough and authoritative, but he’s respectful and kind. He asked in advance about collision history, bumps and scrapes, tickets, warnings, current medications and recent surgeries or health issues.

Jan has a clear driving record and no existing health concerns. Recently retired as a psychology professor, he was relaxed and forthcoming with Shaun. Shaun did a walk around on the car, noted Jan’s seating, mirror and hand positions and asked about his typical driving day. No more commute, but more leisure trips and driving with grandchildren periodically.

Shaun installs a GoPro camera inside the windshield before each session he does. It only takes a moment, and the unit is not intrusive. It will prove to be one of the most valuable parts of both sessions – seeing yourself through your own eyes.
The statistics support driving tests for seniors over a certain age.

Jan obeys all traffic laws and keeps up a light stream of chatter. Shaun takes notes throughout, before asking Jan why he isn’t turning his neck much. “OK, I took a Tylenol before we came out. Sometimes my neck gets stiff…” We laugh, but it’s a sign that even this laid back man who requested this session has some hesitations.

We merge onto the highway and a Range Rover suddenly brakes. Jan’s theory of idiots seems to be holding, except it’s not: it’s the Pontiac ahead of the Rover that made the error. Jan needs to leave larger gaps ahead of his car, and he needs to be looking farther down the road.

“Standard instructions are decades old,” explains Shaun. “When we were told to leave a certain hood length, for instance, car hoods were enormous. You need that safety cushion of three or four seconds. The higher your speed, the farther you need to be looking.”

For Laura, a bout with vertigo following a transient ischemic attack – a ministroke – three years ago meant she avoided driving for a year, the only time since receiving her licence in 1952. The driving was fairly evenly split with her husband, until his own recent health issues put the onus back on her. Hence the call for help: though she’d passed her test, has an unblemished record and recovery from her health concerns has been excellent, she wanted an independent assessment.

Laura looks younger than her 80 years. Active and outgoing, she admitted to being nervous about the exercise. She’d been forthcoming with Shaun about her medical history as well as changes she’d made independently, including no highway driving, no night driving and avoiding high peak hours. Shaun put his camera into place and told her to take a typical drive around her city.

With an instructor in the car (not to mention a reporter in the back seat) everybody does their best behaviour driving. But hardwired habits are tough to break, and it would be three things that would turn out to be the most revealing: steering control, footwork, and vision.

Incorrect hand position and too much input means you lose track of where your car is headed; hands at 9 and 3 (most new cars now position their indents here) give you the best control without having to let go of the wheel, especially on left turns, one of the most dangerous manoeuvres you make every day. A few small changes to Jan’s hands meant more control with less input; Shaun was pleased with Laura’s smooth wheel movements, but suggested lowering the steering wheel a notch so her arms were level with her heart. Arms too high lead to fatigue as your heart has to force the blood upwards. She looked at him, smiling. “My arms do get tired. How did you know that?”

Both students made good use of the dead pedal for their left foot, important for squaring your body in the seat. While throttle control was consistent for both, it was vision concerns that would comprise the bulk of the day.

If you’re told you seldom check your mirrors or never scan the ever-changing landscape before you, you’d probably be doubtful, as both our drivers were. Then Shaun propped up the laptop before them and plugged in the GoPro card.

Bingo. For Jan, a tendency to fixate on one object to the exclusion of what else was going on. In a city full of pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders and other cars, it is vital to constantly scan what is going on all around your car. Shoulder checks were an issue for both drivers, and for similar reasons: Laura admitted her neck can get stiff, and Jan had already copped to occasional neck pain. Shaun suggested pushing out the side mirrors, and told Laura adding small convex mirrors would provide a broader picture.

Shaun was most concerned that too frequently, Laura had no idea what was behind or beside her. “There are lane changes you’re making that are just luck,” he explained. Careful speed and familiar routes – often noted as the biggest plus for older drivers – get thrown out the window with compromised vision techniques.

Vision problems are what plague many drivers of any age. Fixating on the car ahead instead of taking in what’s coming up behind you. Constantly scanning – providing your brain with fresh information – so you can make instant decisions to respond to an ever-changing streetscape is vital. Slowed reaction times are a product of age and we can’t afford to combine that with failure to be aware of what’s happening, and what’s going to happen.

Jan and Laura were smart to ask for help. Both left the sessions with new information and, more importantly, a new awareness. A woman I know, aged 85, refuses to admit that the many dings and dents on her car are because of her deteriorating skill; even when faced with a concrete example of the need for some remedial help, she refuses to acknowledge there is cause for concern. Jan and Laura are proof that you can prepare yourself, educate yourself and be safer.

It’s a touchy subject for families. Families say they’ll no longer let the grandkids drive with grandma or grandpa. I’m pretty blunt: what about everybody else’s kids out there?

Be proactive. Book a session or two with a qualified instructor ($200 is a fair charge for an assessment like those related here) and re-educate yourself. Cars change, our laws change, our cities change, and our bodies change. Why not meet the changes independently?

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Is it discriminatory to obligate someone who has been driving for 60 years to undergo retesting? Not one bit

Originally published: September 1, 2014

In April of this year, the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) introduced changes to testing for drivers who reach age 80.

It’s a touchy subject. As our population ages, our idea of what constitutes “old” shifts accordingly. “Old” is always someone who is … older than me. Is it discriminatory to obligate someone who has been driving for 60 years to undergo retesting? No. Just like it’s not discriminatory to not allow 15-year-olds to drive, or 18-year-olds to drink, or 54-year-olds to get a deal at Shoppers Drug Mart on senior’s day (please see your local store for details). We put barriers in place all the time for many reasons.

Driving barriers are usually there for safety reasons. When you’re piloting two tonnes of killing machine, there should be barriers. If you’re a lousy driver and rack up demerit points, you can lose your licence at any age. But the same way most places have adopted a graduated licence for people learning to drive, it makes sense to acknowledge the very act of aging can have an impact on those same skills.

Currently, if you’re 70 and over and have an at-fault collision, you could be required to take the G2 exit road test at a Drive Test facility. This is a strict component of our law; I probably couldn’t pass the G2 test today, and I’d reckon many of you couldn’t, either. Years of driving ingrain some bad habits, and the test forces you all the way back to basics. You’d be amazed at how many laws are changed over the years.

When you hit 80 in Ontario, you will be required to take part in retesting. Melissa Brabant, a Driver Improvement Counsellor at the Central Region of the MTO, walked me through the test. In a conference room setting, you’ll be with about 15 other people (it varies). Your driving record will have already been reviewed. You will do a vision test, in a machine like the one you’ve seen at government licensing offices. You view a video that’s about 45 minutes long that presents some scenarios to start discussion. It talks about new laws and road signs along with tips for older drivers. You’ll explore strengths that senior drivers have, from experience and judgement and their sense of responsibility, and limitations including changes in vision, loss of flexibility and compromised reaction times.

Finally, the new test addresses cognitive impairment. You will be shown a clock face with a time indicated, which is then taken down. You have five minutes to draw a circle, put in the clock numbers, and have the hands indicate the time. This tests visuospatial ability, how you recognize and organize information.

Next, you’ll be given a sheet containing a block of letters. You have five minutes to cross out all the Hs. This tests psychomotor speed – how fast you can interpret and co-ordinate information. You can view both tests online ahead of time; you can practice. The only difference I found was that the block of letters was much larger than the sample shown online.

Cognitive skills aren’t tested by memorizing information, which is why these tests are so important. Deceptively simple to those with no cognitive impairment, they are instantly revealing of those who are cognitively impaired.

After age 65, 10% of the population will have mild dementia, which can increase the chance of a crash by 4.7%. Adjusted for miles driven, Statistics Canada reveals that drivers over 70 are the second highest group to be involved in a collision, behind only teen males. An even bigger danger? It’s those older drivers who are less likely to have good outcomes. With age comes fragility, and fatality rates are higher than for those males. You may not be involved in a high-speed crash, but your ability to recover even from the small ones is compromised.

Years of research went into the new test, helmed by CANDRIVE, an international association that combines the work of many researchers in many disciplines. Their aim is to keep older drivers driving, safely. The cognitive tests have been used for years in other settings and they present no language barrier. Brabant smiles, telling me when an older gentleman told her he couldn’t do the clock because he was Greek, she told him to “draw me a Greek clock”. She’s also had participants so meticulous that when asked to cross out the Hs on that exercise, they even crossed out the H in “date of birth” at the top of the sheet.

She’s the first to acknowledge that people are nervous and wary when they show up. Some are angry. Some are fearful. Both the ministry and researchers stress this exercise is not about yanking licences, but about keeping seniors driving safely for as long as they can. You could be required to take a road test based on the outcome of this classroom session, or be required to follow-up with your doctor for further medical information. The road test will be the G1 exit test, without highways. There is no charge for these tests.

If you’re 80 and over and facing this retesting every two years, how can you prepare? Brabant suggests being proactive. Get your eyes tested; talk to your physician and pharmacist; ask yourself if you still enjoy driving; consider possible drug interactions, even with herbal supplements; talk to your family members; do a walkaround on your car and honestly address any dings, scrapes and dents you don’t recall getting. Consider this quote from AAA in the U.S.: ”Seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of 7 to 10 years.”

What do I suggest? Book a lesson or two with a qualified instructor, and find out how you can be a better driver. That’s what I had two senior readers do. Their stories, next week.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Think twice about laughing off a ticket you get from across the border

Originally published: August 25, 2014

If you get a moving violation in a province not your own, do you have to pay? How about if you’re in Texas or New Hampshire? If a car breaks the speed limit in another jurisdiction, can an insurance company hear it?

Oh, yes.

There is a web of details about which provinces and states share reciprocal agreements for punishing errant drivers, but assume anywhere you go in Canada will be sharing the details of that ticket with your home province’s licencing body as well as your insurance company. At last count, 41 states will also tattle and collect, though only two – Michigan and New York – will also apply demerit points to your home licence.

In a time before the internet, you could channel your inner Jack Kerouac and laugh off the geographically challenged speeding tickets they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, bother to track down. Now, be prepared for a three-pronged sting as borders dissolve between provinces, territories, states, countries and even continents. There is the dollar amount of the ticket and the chance of demerit points, the kick to your insurance, and the chance of restricted entry next time you travel. Your Canadian licence will be honoured in many places, but the same agreements that allow you to be legal also require you to pay up when you screw up.

The fact that all Canadian provinces and territories have reciprocal agreements in place isn’t surprising, and your moving violations will count just like they do at home. You should make yourself aware of differences in traffic codes in each province. Most are pretty straight forward and easy to find. Quebec gave up their “no right on red” law over a decade ago, except for the Island of Montreal, the last place in Canada to hold out. In Nunavut, feel free to use your handheld device; they probably know your reception might be cranky and you’ll give up.

Speeding tickets in some states can sting, especially when you factor in taxes and surcharges that can dwarf the original amount. It’d be nice if it only came down to money, however. Instead, double-check how far those agreements extend. They allow your insurance company to watch over your behaviour from afar, and jack your rates accordingly.

No reciprocal agreement with the place you’re headed – notably, Florida and California? Not worried about losing points? Willing to risk that you’re not going back to that little town or county any time soon? While you may not be familiar which level of government you’re dealing with, which can run from local sheriffs to state police, our information age means you might be opening yourself up to increased scrutiny at the border. You’ve been at the border; they don’t need any reason to pull you aside as it is. A quick check revealing you’ve skated out on a speeding fine isn’t going to make your crossing smoother.

If you have an outstanding ticket your licence could be suspended in that state. Ignore the ticket and the warnings and get pulled over again in that state, you’re now driving with a suspended licence, which will land you in criminal court. Worse news if you’re a Nexus card holder: if you can’t get the ticket dismissed, you might forfeit your Nexus card because that original unpaid ticket will show as an outstanding warrant.

You’re probably familiar with what you can get away with on your own stomping grounds. If the 401 in Ontario isn’t bottlenecked to its usual bumper-to-bumper creep, the flow of traffic can be counted on to be in the 120 km/h range. Yes, that’s speeding. But, if everyone else is doing it, apparently so can you. Once away from home, different thresholds kick in. Do some research on what the norms are for where you’re headed; forums are populated with people eager to tell their tales of woe.

If you’re blasting past the locals with your out-of-state plate, give your head a shake. This is their stomping grounds, and they likely know something you don’t.

What about parking tickets? Many people throw away those received out of province, reasoning they aren’t worth the trouble to hunt down across borders. It’s true: most jurisdictions don’t chase them down. One caution, however — if you’re in a rental car, the rental agency will tack a hefty fee onto your bill when they get notification. That $20 parking ticket will probably morph into $80 when it’s been through the rental agency magic math machine.

So treat the rest of Canada like your own backyard for moving violations, remember that New York and Michigan will cost you the same demerits as you’d get back home, and that 41 states will be relaying that speeding ticket information back to your insurance company.

Pay up. You’ll sleep better.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Why there’s no such thing as a car ‘accident’

When it comes to describing the behaviour of the drivers on our roads, we have a language problem. When you are speeding and hit something, you didn’t have an accident, you caused a collision. When you blow off a stop sign and T-bone someone else, you didn’t have an accident, you caused a crash. When you get behind the wheel drunk and drive into a tree, you did not have an accident; you got drunk and drove into a tree.

A lot of people believe that lack of intent means more than it does. Think about it: if I intended to jump the curb and kill you and your dog while I was sending a text, that would make me a sociopath, but the fact I didn’t mean to do it does not make it an accident.

Driving instructor Candace Calder agrees. “Instead of setting the scenario for awareness and what-ifs, to prevent the whole lead up to the event, drivers tend to think of themselves as the unfortunate victim of circumstances.” When do we stop wanting to let people be victims? When we are the wronged party. Watch how vociferously someone will blame another in the event of a crash, and listen to phrasing. “I got rear-ended by some moron,” is common; “I caused a crash when I ran a red light,” less so. More likely? “I was in an accident.”

And the media helps them feel absolved. We often read that a “tragic accident” has claimed someone’s life. That description is half right. Some outlets use the words crash and accident interchangeably; others weigh the words. Some will say a truck lost control. Trucks don’t lose control; drivers lose control. I think it’s odd you never read about a plane accident.

A recent horrific event in London, Ont., resulted in the death of a young girl and her sister, delivered via emergency C-section as her pregnant mother and another sister lay in hospital. As they exited a store, a car in reverse bashed through two pillars into the front doors. Charges of criminal negligence causing death and criminal negligence causing injury were laid. I didn’t find a single headline that called this an accident even before those charges were laid. They got it right, in the face of tragedy.

Words matter, and it’s time to scrub the word accident from our reporting when it comes to car crashes. Or collisions. There is driver error and there is mechanical failure and there are sudden health issues. Outside of those, or a meteor landing on your hood, that’s about it. It might seem like that snowstorm caused your accident, but ask any first responder or cop the number one problem in a winter “accident” and they’ll tell you speed. The snow isn’t obligated not to land on the road but you are obligated to adjust your driving according to the conditions, up to and including not driving at all.

Says Calder, “I remember some classic excuses: the tree appeared out of nowhere, the other car wasn’t there when I looked, the car suddenly went out of control, or there was ice so it wasn’t my fault. As long as people can absent themselves from the equation, or believe that there was nothing they could do to avoid the event, they are going to think of it as an accident. That way they don’t have to accept the awful responsibility or fault for the sometimes tragic event.”

No-fault insurance exists in every Canadian province. There are subtle differences in how it’s applied, but the reasoning behind it is pretty basic: if you’re involved in a reportable situation each participant is paid out by their own company. The confusing part? Fault is absolutely attributed and applied, but the very terminology – no-fault – lends itself to a dereliction of responsibility. Even if a deer hits you – surely a random accident by nature and definition – it’s a comprehensive claim, like vandalism or theft or fire.

A few months ago, I scratched the lower valence on a car I was driving when I misjudged a curb. In 33 years of driving, I’ve never done that, but it still wasn’t an accident; I was an idiot. When I’m behind the wheel my decisions dictate the outcome of the ride. If I make the right choices and cross paths with someone who doesn’t, the resulting fallout is not an accident; 99 times out of a 100, it could have been prevented.

The only exception I might have to my own rule? Sudden whiteouts. Unexpected weather patterns that send chaos onto a roadway with zero warning. I’ve never experienced one, and like all other armchair commentators I like to think I’d be able to get off the road, but after watching a video like this one, from a traffic cam in the U.S., I’d have to wonder whether being able to do the right thing would make much of a difference.

Calder makes a good point. “I wonder if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The media report the event in a passive fashion to avoid casting blame on legal grounds (reporting of the event happens early in the evidence gathering and blame apportioning process), so maybe the general public has learned to think this way, too.”

We have to stop letting ourselves off the hook.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

There was a time when “going for a drive” meant hitting the road, getting lost, and just enjoying the sights

Originally published: August 11, 2014

Sweet Corn, $4.50 a dozen.

I flew past the sign even though I wanted corn. I reasoned I’d see another sign a little farther down the road, because I was in the heart of corn country, if there is such a thing. I saw several signs. Each time I barely eased off the gas because I had to be somewhere. Didn’t I?

I was taking the scenic route, and I finally realized, though I’d budgeted the time for such a thing, I hadn’t adjusted for the reset my equilibrium would require. To get from A to B, you’re supposed to take the shortest route, the fastest route. Mapquest, navigation systems, Google Maps – everything offers you up the fastest ways to get from here to there.

That’s what’s wrong with us, if you ask me. I’m aware you didn’t, but come along for a drive, anyway. In our rush to do so many things and be first, best, fastest and shiniest, we forgot to do nothing at all. We forgot to go nowhere, to leave open the door for a surprise ending, to be happy with the route instead of searching for the reward.

When I was a kid, we were told to get in the car because we were going for a drive. Nobody asked to where, or why, or even thought to. “Going for a drive” was the whole thing. My Dad worked shifts, so a Saturday or Sunday off was a bonus, and Dad could bear a lot of things if he could drive while bearing them. Oh, he loved us, but he was a solitary man in a world of girls and while he may have had no childhood himself, he knew he had to make sure we had one. Sometimes you can see the outlines of the struggle as someone does the right thing; my Mom did it naturally, but I admit I appreciated my father’s effort more, because I know it was an effort.

Gas was cheap back then, even for a guy with four kids, working shifts in a steel plant who tried to save as much as he could because he thought he would live forever. Gas was cheap and a drive required only time, that thing you should have so much of when your kids are young and your job leaves you cherishing the moments you do get to enjoy.

We would scrap in the backseat, fighting over who got stuck in the middle, and my Dad would let our chatter fly out of the car on the current of wind that blasted from his open window. If we could keep our bellyaching (my Mom’s word) to a dull roar, we knew we’d pull over near a bridge so we could peer down into some river and fight over who saw the first fish or at least get ice cream.

We would close our eyes to guess what kind of farm we were passing, and giggle when we got it right and my Dad would say any kids of his better know the difference between cow s*** (his word) and fresh mown hay. I would wonder who had to paint the miles and miles of white fences, because I hadn’t yet learned to lift my eyes, to imagine bigger things than just the work involved.

Those drives, those drives to nowhere, taught me to imagine bigger things. I would imagine people who lived not in a bustling suburb like we did, but out here with no neighbours. I would imagine work that needed horses and tractors; kids who got on school buses in the dark; snowstorms that would isolate you even further. I would imagine my father’s protracted childhood.

When my own kids needed this the most, I couldn’t do it. Newly divorced when they were tiny, gas cost too much. Like some modern day Prufrock, I was measuring out my gas money in coffee spoons. I understood it then, but I resent it now. It was easy to feel frustrated that I couldn’t buy them the games and bikes their friends had, but what I really couldn’t give them were the rides to nowhere.

We take drives now, but it’s usually one of them behind the wheel. We talk, but it’s the talk of adults. Nobody asks what that yellow crop is because they know it’s canola. I don’t know how they know this, but they do. I marvel at a field of sunflowers and one will say, “Hey Mom, it’s just sunflowers,” and laugh. And I laugh too, but I know at five or six or seven, they would have marvelled as well.

I took the scenic route the other day, an allowance I gave myself, reasoning I was sandwiching work in on both ends. I turned off the navigation system and got lost more than once; I turned around in people’s driveways and wondered how their lives differed from mine; and I still wondered who painted miles and miles of those white fences.

Posted in Drive She Said | 4 Comments

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

Originally published: August 4, 2014

Oops, I bought a new car.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Avocado green? What car colours say about us

Do you care what colour your car is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

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

Originally published: July 21, 2014

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

As a reader, you’re no doubt aware of everything you read asking you to follow and like and engage through social media. The platforms need your clicks, and while some outlets will bait you with salacious headlines, I think there is something far better that can emerge from the noise. asks you to comment using Facebook. If you’ve populated sites that leave access wide open, you’ll know how fast comment sections can deteriorate. Some good commentary happens in these pages, and people are often more thoughtful when they put their name to their opinion. I’ve always interacted with readers because a conversation is frequently more engaging than a speech.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Drive She Said | 4 Comments

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

Originally published: July 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Drive She Said | 4 Comments

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

Originally published: July 7, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments