Mom taught me the true meaning of driving

It was through her mother’s insistence that Lorraine Sommerfeld learned what driving is all about

Originally published: May 8, 2015


Lorraine with her mom, 1990

I grew up understanding that my mother always got what she wanted.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Her family came first and she usually wielded that power on our behalf. But over time I came to understand that if I wanted something – or wanted something to happen – Mom had to want it, too. In psychology books this is called manipulation; in real life this is called running a household.

When I was 17, I had grand plans of attending university in some distant place. My parents knew we could only afford for me to commute to the next city. I’d put off getting my licence, mostly because I had no pressing need. Recognizing I’d now be driving to school, Mom told me to go pass my test. Before I could pout about missing out on living away from home, I was also told I was free to use the family cottage on my own. I started to understand the true meaning of driving, that knitted matrix of freedom and independence. She pressed the keys into my hand.


Lorraine with her mom, around 1968

Though both of my parents were drivers, they fell into the fairly typical pattern of their era when it came to long hauls: Dad drove. Whether it was across the prairies or down into the U.S., north to the cottage or an hour outside of town, Dad was behind the wheel and my mother sat beside him pressing on an imaginary brake pedal and avoiding eye contact with people he’d found a way to piss off.

My Dad was actually an excellent driver in many respects: he had lightning fast reflexes and eyesight like a hawk; he also had an undeniable belief that he owned the road. But if Dad wasn’t driving, the running commentary from the right hand seat was often more than my mother could bear. She wasn’t aggressive enough for him, and he saw so many lost chances to teach another driver a lesson. He was like a middle-aged Mufasa holding an orange AMC Matador station wagon aloft for his entire kingdom to behold. My mother simply wanted to get from A to B without anyone throwing up.

A funny thing happened when I started driving. Turns out I was a decent combination of my father’s confidence and my mother’s care. As my father’s health began to falter his struggles were the elephant in the car. With lungs full of asbestos after decades in a steel plant, my mother was now dealing with not just a lion, but one hobbled by a thorn. “Rainey needs the practice,” she told him, not thwarting his freedom, not threatening his independence. She pressed the keys into my hand.


Two year old Lorraine around 1966

It was a deft sleight of hand, that move. It was something that would benefit my father without acknowledging it was a need, it allowed me to gain valuable wheel time for a career that even then required it, and it took my mother out of the line of fire for driving errors, both real and imagined.

I’d moved out by the time Dad was strapped to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day, but we knew he had to stop driving. Imagine pulling up to a light and noticing the driver beside you is wearing an oxygen mask. Now picture him scowling at you like you’re the crazy one. This talk – The Talk – is more loaded than any ocean going freighter. As Mom watched my father dutifully renewing his licence, she silently beseeched her grown daughters, all of us considering her own declining health. Family problems always require family solutions.

Because actions speak louder than words, we showed my father there was nowhere he wanted to go that we wouldn’t take him. A man who gladly stuck close to home anyway, one of us was on call for scheduled appointments if Mom was busy, and invitations always included pick up times. I took him to check out the cottage, and drove him to auctions for things he couldn’t possibly need but might find he couldn’t live without. I couldn’t limit his freedom or remove his independence any more than I could ignore my mother’s fears. I quietly took the keys from his hand.

My mother was in charge of just one car purchase in her life, the car we all knew Dad would never drive. She loaded it up with all the things he’d always eschewed: the air conditioning, the plush interior, the cruise control and the FM stations she’d never listen to. Dad entered care just six months after it was delivered and he died a year after that.

Where Dad dealt with loss by denying it, my mother instead faced things head on. As her health ebbed and flowed she filled her days with grandkids and family and friends. She desperately sorted out photo albums to make sure each of us had the only important thing that is ever left: images of where we came from and the stories we tell.

Mom fought for many things, both in living and in dying. But there were no steely stare downs over driving as there had been with Dad. I wasn’t going to have to convince her of something she already wanted. Looking back, I realize she’d always searched for the safest, most peaceful outcome and she’d been the better driver for it. As she pleaded with first the calendar, and then the clock, she saved her energy for a different battle, one not remotely about freedom or independence.

She pressed the keys into my hand.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Surprising facts about the dark side of tinted windows

Originally published: May 4, 2015

Travel to most southern U.S. states and you’ll notice a lot of darkly tinted car windows. Not just the rear windows, the front ones, too. It’s practically a necessity in areas that experience intense sunlight for much of the year. Tinting does everything from help overtaxed air conditioning systems to reduce fading of upholstery to blocking harmful UV rays that ruin plastic.

Come north, though, and severely tinted front windows usually signal someone is up to something. Any window tinting by the manufacturer is legal. Many other forms are not. Manufacturers are aware of, and strictly adhere to, federal standards, settling on something usually referred to as “factory tint.”

It’s the stuff done afterwards that can leave you holding a ticket. As Ursula Bennett, of Mississauga, found out, buying a used car directly from a dealer might not even protect you. Dealers aren’t manufacturers. Bennett, along with her husband, owns two cars with tinted windows: a 2009 Chrysler 300 and a 2006 Dodge Charger.

A few weeks ago, a municipal police officer wrote Bennett a ticket for her darkened windows. Bennett was surprised: she’d purchased the car used from the Chrysler dealer she’d always dealt with. She assumed the tinting was legal.

Ursula Bennett and her husband bought the 2006 Dodge Charger R/T and 2009 Chrysler 300 pictured here from a Chrysler dealership. They came with tinted windows. Bennett was recently handed a ticket for her darkened windows.

Ursula Bennett and her husband bought the 2006 Dodge Charger R/T and 2009 Chrysler 300 pictured here from a Chrysler dealership. They came with tinted windows. Bennett was recently handed a ticket for her darkened windows. Supplied, Ursula Bennett

Ursula Bennett and her husband bought the 2006 Dodge Charger R/T and 2009 Chrysler 300 pictured here from a Chrysler dealership. They came with tinted windows. Bennett was recently handed a ticket for her darkened windows.
Supplied, Ursula Bennett

Ursula Bennett and her husband bought the 2006 Dodge Charger R/T and 2009 Chrysler 300 pictured here from a Chrysler dealership. They came with tinted windows. Bennett was recently handed a ticket for her darkened windows.
Supplied, Ursula Bennett

“I know it can look very dark in some conditions, and at night. But I’d seen similar tint on the same car — cop cars.” I asked her if the tint was factory. It wasn’t. A search online reveals countless 300s for sale with some degree of tinting, all done aftermarket.

The law, with few exceptions, isn’t concerned with how you tint your rear windshield or back windows. Only Nova Scotia prohibits you tinting anything but the top of the windshield, and New Brunswick not even that; Manitoba requires a 35 per cent visible light transference (must let 35 per cent of light in) on the rear glass and back doors. For reference, “limo tint” is a 5 per cent tint. Other than that, Canadian provinces are happy to let you bunker it up as long as you have side view mirrors.

Front windows are where the problems start. No province lets you tint the windshield beyond the factory band at the top; and while most jurisdictions won’t let you tint the front side windows either, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Newfoundland offer up an array of choices. In Quebec, you can tint front side windows up to a 70 per cent visible light transference. Manitoba will stop you at 50. A device called a photometer measures this, making both jurisdictions far more transparent, so to speak, than Ontario and Newfoundland.

The problem in Ontario and Newfoundland is there is currently no measurable number — it’s entirely left to an “officer’s discretion.” Laws that leave themselves open to interpretation also leave themselves open to abuse. It’s crazy that these two places have rules for almost everything governing cars on the road, yet none for something that affects visibility.

And what happens if a Quebec driver with windows acceptable in his or her home province gets stopped in Ontario? Is he or she breaking the phantom law? Again, it’s the officer’s discretion. There are instances of tickets issued to non-residents, but more often a car legal in Ontario might be ticketed as illegal in Quebec (as Quebec police have a reputation of going after Ontario plates). Police, in general, don’t seem bothered enough to crackdown on cars with U.S. plates, though again it’s discretionary.

“There is a caveat in the Highway Traffic Act that allows an officer to use his or her discretion,” says Constable Clinton Stibbe of Toronto Police Service. Section 73 (subsections 2 and 3) of the Act states that the front windows can’t be obscured by a colour coating or spray that interferes with the driver’s view of the roadway or “substantially obscures” someone’s ability to see into the car. It’s up to the officer to decide.

Stibbe makes an important point about the need for the eye contact, something hard to do with tinted windows. As a pedestrian, before you step off a curb when you arrive at a four-way stop, the interaction with a driver requires a degree of not just acknowledgment, but trust. I have to know what you intend to do, and I have to know that you’ve seen me. Think of how often you respond differently because you see someone on the phone or texting. You need this information, and dark tinting obscures it.

Sightlines on many modern cars are also terrible; blacking out rear windows makes backing up at night a crapshoot. Yes, backup cameras help, but Canadian weather renders many of them useless when you need them most. Darkened side windows simply make it harder to see everything from parked cars to pets on the roadway at night. Lane changes in the dark become risky. Parking can be a gamble.

Problems like Ursula Bennett’s kick in when conditions change. Black interiors appear darker through tinted glass than lighter ones, the time of day greatly alters perception and so do weather conditions. What might pass an officer’s discretion one day might not the next. Without photometers to gauge, your car is sporting an accessory you can’t alter according to conditions.

Some American states require the aftermarket tint supplier to embed a sticker identifying their work, though no Canadian provinces do.

With organizations like the International Window Film Association providing updated standards and laws for all provinces and states, there is little doubt that reputable window tinting firms know exactly what is legal. On websites, in quotes and over the phone, they adhere to the law. Could they provide tinting considered illegal if a customer pushed? Probably. But without having to identify their work, the liability rests with the customer. Consumers are also free to avail themselves of one of the many do-it-yourself kits, those bubble-streaked messes that couldn’t possibly have been the goal.

Stibbe says darkened windows in the rear of a vehicle aren’t much of a police concern here, though in parts of the U.S. there are heated debates about profiling of cars for just this reason.

“For front windows, it’s a safety issue; we have to be able to clearly see the driver.” I did a ride along with an OPP officer one time; I can tell you walking up to a car on the side of the highway with blacked out rear windows is scary to this regular, unarmed person.

Considering Ursula Bennett’s situation, I asked Stibbe why the law here isn’t clearer, or enforced more consistently: “Hey, those licence plate covers sold at ministry offices? Those are illegal,” he laughed.

No wonder so many of us are in the dark.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Online comments prove some drivers say the dumbest things

Originally published: May 1, 2015

Driving is a team sport. You’re sharing the road with a lot of other people you know little about, and yet, your fate could lie in their hands. As someone who reads a lot of what other drivers have to say online and elsewhere, I have become more afraid: The following are pulled straight from several horses’ mouths.

“…just another stupid law made by the canadian government to get more more out of tax payers. it goes the same for seat belts in my eyes. who’s really at risk? are you indangering anyones life? no… its a choise you make for yourself. it isn’t harming anyone other than yourself.”

This comment is, obviously, “sic.” The commenter is talking about aftermarket window tint on cars. In researching an in-depth piece on the topic, I keep stumbling over rants like this one, and it reminds me what regulators, manufacturers, lawmakers and the cops are dealing with. And the rest of us? The rest of us are dealing with this mindset, too.

One commenter notes he was in a residential area and “pulled out to pass a slow car … I’m in the left lane he put on his turn signal and turned at the same time, minor whack in to the rear of his car … I was not at fault, I got charged anyhow.” If you hit someone from behind, you’re going to be hard pressed to prove you weren’t following too closely, no matter how stupid they are, no matter if they “suddenly” mashed on their brakes. You know why? Because they might have screeched to a halt to avoid hitting a kid. No matter how “suddenly” they did something, your job is to anticipate they might “suddenly” do anything.

“I’ll get the mechanical [pass] with the fenders, then once I get the plates and inssure it, take em off and play ignorant if I get stopped.” (As inspectors everywhere wince.) This is an excellent example of the lengths some will go to circumvent a law they think is stupid or shouldn’t apply to them. Getting around something often takes more energy than simply doing what you’re supposed to do.

Articles about drivers who block the left, or passing, lane are always fertile ground for dissention. But you simply cannot get around the comments that always, always show up, proving points of view can be as blinkered as surely as any parade horse: “They may not be oblivious to the traffic behind them, they may simply be doing the speed limit. Please remember that the speed limit is the maximum speed that a vehicle is to travel at, taking the road conditions into account. If they are doing the speed limit there is no reason for them to move over since anyone that wishes to pass them is committing a traffic offence.”

Don’t be the person who says things like this. Such rigid thought doesn’t work in the real world, and shades of grey was a concept in learning how to navigate life long before it was a bad dirty book. While you won’t get stuffed in a locker anymore, there are still people who will want to do that to you.

The seatbelt diatribe is one I cannot believe still has legs. This is the civil liberties hill you choose to die on? You’ll happily let insurance companies track your every move so you can save a few bucks, we have red light cameras and photo radar digitally forcing you to obey traffic laws; but when the choice is all yours, you’re cool with turning yourself into a human catapult against all scientific evidence that your odds of surviving plummet? In Canada, 95 per cent of occupants wear seatbelts. In 2004 to 2008, 36 per cent of fatally injured drivers and 38 per cent of fatally injured passengers were not wearing their belts at the time of the collision. And yes, I’ve heard the oft-repeated myth of the friend of a friend who only survived a fiery crash because they refused to buckle up.

Aftermarket exhaust systems are an awesome barometer for measuring the hate level in a room. The town of Caledon, Ont., recently banned loud pipes, much to the chagrin of motorcyclists who say their safety will be thwarted. Exhaust is always polarizing: “Had dinner at Red Lobster. On the way home I got pulled over by a straight up **** of a cop. He said my exhaust was too loud… and that ANYTHING other than factory is illegal in Oklahoma … as he was stating this a Neon with a fart-can drove by that I pointed at and he said he will get him later. I said politely ‘Sir, this truck is high mileage from up in the Ohio area, and the stock exhaust had rusted out… but that it was replaced with a D.O.T approved replacement. It still has cats and mufflers. He then says, ‘I’m not an idiot, there are no tips out the back!’ … He said I can take it up with the judge… all of this on my BIRTHDAY… I know this was just one of those JEALOUS, duschebag [sic] cops…”

I have no idea if Dude’s pipes were illegal, or if the cop was a straight-up anything, or even if it was his birthday, but the words “politely” and “sir” stood out more than any others.

It’s usually the cosmetic accoutrements that raise the most fuss among car lovers. You’ve probably seen those neon lights that make a vehicle look like it’s sitting atop a cloud made from crushed unicorns. Laws vary, like everything else, and forums prove that confusion reigns. What also reigns? The value of those laws: “Lawmakers are morons. How is a car with neons going to distract someone…Besides a hot girl is much more distracting. I can recall several times in which I had to swirve [sic] because of someone hot (or i thought was hot at 40mph).”

Such a drag to “swerve” for a girl you only thought was hot at 40 mph.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

The dirty secrets of vehicle-emissions testing

Originally published: April 20, 2015

This past December, British Columbia wound up its AirCare program, which for 22 years had been doing mandatory testing of vehicle emissions. Higher industry standards meant failure rates were few, and the province concluded the program had served its purpose.

Ontario, on the other hand, decided the same diminishing failure rates didn’t really justify a biannual badgering of its citizens who owned vehicles older than seven years, so it would instead change the emissions testing to flunk more cars.

It’s not quite that simple, but it sure feels like it is.

Introduced in 1999 by the Ontario government, “Drive Clean” was initially meant to weed out vehicles belching unrestrained amounts of exhaust fumes, their particulate emissions contributing to smog and increasing pollution. More than 15 years later, there have been huge reductions in emissions, but those gains are overwhelmingly the result of advances in technology — so long, carburetors — and cleaner fuels.

And even though the costs for taking the tests (sometimes repeatedly) are still borne by taxpayers (not to mention the time), the program makes barrels of money for the Ontario government. According to a 2012 Auditor General’s report, the program — which is supposed to be revenue neutral — turned a surplus of $11-million in 2012. It’s targeted to have a surplus of $50-million by 2018.

Since its inception, the Drive Clean program has been more thorns than roses. Initially requiring tests on cars every second year once they were just three years old, it was soon nudged to cars over seven. Every two years, owners have to arrange a visit to an accredited Drive Clean facility and pay $30 (it used to be $35) to get a clean bill of health. Any car under seven years old, unless it’s the current model year, must also be tested if it is being sold — even those that are essentially brand new.

According to George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association (APA), “failure rates for cars less than 10 years old are now below five per cent. That means 20 vehicles are inspected to identify one bad one – it costs over $700 to pick up a polluter. For vehicles less than seven years old, the cost is in the thousands of dollars to pick up a problem, as only one to two per cent of vehicles fail for legitimate reasons.”

The test was changed in January 2014 from a tailpipe emissions test to one that now reads your on-board computer. This change narrowed the margins for a pass and resulted in an increase in failures, a bump from the previous five per cent to eight to 10 per cent, depending on whom you ask. Cars built from 1988 to 1997 still use the older tailpipe testing method; model years before 1988 do not need to be tested. A failed test means you can’t renew your vehicle registration until it’s made to produce cleaner exhaust.

The Drive Clean test reads the emissions computer OBDII (on-board diagnostics) system; as you drive, your computer cycles through numerous self-tests and stores that information. The problem is your car won’t be in test mode if the battery was recently disconnected, drained or boosted, or your computer codes were cleared during a recent repair. If an emissions reading can’t be obtained, you’ll be told to go drive around for a few days and essentially build up a user history – get your car to run through a complete drive cycle. Of course, the questions are many:

  • My engine light is on. Will I pass the Drive Clean test? No. Automatic fail. While there are ways to turn the light off, they will all erase the emissions data that the test must measure. I’ve heard of people putting a piece of tape over the light because it bugs them; this will not fix the problem. Do yourself a favour though: if your light comes on, check your fuel cap. Sometimes it’s simply not closed properly.
  • The next step is a diagnostic test to tell you what is triggering the engine light. This will cost about an hour of shop time, usually about $75 to $100.
  • If the required repairs exceed $450 (including the diagnostic), you can request a waiver for repairs above that amount and punt your problems down the line until the next inspection, in two years.
  • “There is no environmental benefit from issuing a waiver to a polluting vehicle,” says Iny.

We’ve come full circle on the biggest problem of the Drive Clean program.

Eli Melnick is the owner of Start Auto in Toronto. “The intentions of the program were good,” he notes, while acknowledging that it’s execution has hobbled much of it. “When pollution controls were introduced in the late 1970s, many were clumsy and people were disconnecting and circumventing them as soon as they could.” People were disabling them as fast as the EPA could make manufacturers install them. Reduced power and reduced fuel efficiency among other things had people sawing out catalytic converters and connecting a pipe instead, says Melnick.

“The program initially played a significant role in getting heavy polluters off the road. The problem is that fixing emissions problems on a vehicle doesn’t have a high perceived value; the car might not feel any different, so people don’t want to deal with it.” The environmental impact is enormous, he notes, but a car that won’t run is far more likely to get you to fix it then one that is emitting something you can pretend isn’t there.

When your engine light comes on, it is always a signal that something is wrong in your car’s emissions system. So is that sufficient for making people deal with the issue? “As long as a car starts and goes, you wouldn’t believe how many people will just keep driving. That engine light fail on the Drive Clean test is sometimes the only way to get people to repair leaky pipes, rusty gas tanks and evaporative emission control (EVAP) systems.” Melnick explains the light can come on for a hundred different reasons (up to two hundred in some cars) and the initial reason could be hiding other, bigger problems. “The light doesn’t shine any brighter to indicate more than one issue,” says Melnick.

Like Iny at the APA, Melnick cites the conditional waivers as a major negative issue. You’re essentially identifying the worst offenders, and providing a way to let them get off the hook. It took political will (Conservative) to start the program, and it would take political will (Liberal) to end it; in the meantime, neither party has found the teeth to patch the most obvious hole in the program.

Suggestions from the pros:

  • Any program like this has some well-documented instances of fraud. Deal with a mechanic you trust. If suggested repairs seem out of line, get a second opinion.
  • If your engine light comes on, get it checked immediately. Shadow problems could be stacking up behind that initial one.
  • Don’t wait until the day before your renewal is due; you might need a few days to get your car to test mode.
  • Your Drive Clean pass is good for a year. You can get it done months in advance.
Posted in Drive She Said | 5 Comments

Blindly following your car’s GPS can be deadly

Originally published: April 13, 2015

We’ve all heard them: Those baby-on-board signs were invented after a baby died; paste stick-figure families on your minivan and your real family will be in danger; blindly follow your GPS and you will die. Our most persistent rumours, while headline grabbing, aren’t always what they seem.

Those baby on board signs? They’ve been around since a company called Safety 1st started manufacturing them in 1984. There have been many incarnations of how they came to be, but most involve the grisly death of a child. Somewhere in Canada/Germany/U.S., the story goes, first responders weren’t aware that an infant was in a crashed vehicle. The infant was thrown clear and overlooked in a snow bank/missed in foliage/found frozen under a seat, depending on the source. The signs were to let those coming upon a crash site know to look for a child, and parents would not display the sign if babies weren’t actually on board.

Except, there was never a dead child. Safety 1st made all kinds of baby accessories, but it was those ubiquitous yellow signs that made history. They sold 10,000 signs the first month; within nine months that figure climbed to 500,000. They helped push Safety 1st to become a company that would eventually crack sales of $158-million and be bought out by the segment giant, Dorel. The knockoffs may have started just a year later, but those signs launched an impressive ship.

The company thought they would encourage those seeing the sign to drive more carefully; mostly, they inspired signs with responses like “It’s your kid, you be careful” and “No baby on board, feel free to drive into me.” Ironically, it was those very parents thinking they were protecting their kids who screwed up the usefulness of the signs, by leaving them posted whether a child was in the car or not. Perhaps a clue for first responders but hardly a reliable one; sometimes the “baby” in question was 10.

The arrival of stick figure families, seemingly standard equipment on minivans everywhere, launched a new accessory to hate. First introduced on a large scale by Woodland Manufacturing in Boise, Idaho, in 2006, the proud declarations of fertility and how many extracurricular activities you could afford for your kids bloomed overnight. An Australian couple launched My Family (TM) at the same time. Both claim to be first in a field now overrun with copycats. Regardless, you can’t escape the variations. The spinoffs (zombie families, a woman with eight cats, families abducted by aliens) proved wittier than the originals. You can get custom work done at prices ranging from $4 a sticker to $4 a figure, and My Family has recently introduced a Canadian addition: Chardonnay Mom.

They’d be pretty innocuous except for the required rumour that started last year. News organizations – real ones – started reporting those stickers could be setting you up for a home invasion or a kidnapping. A rescue group in Ohio published a warning on Facebook that tugged apart all the information contained on your rear windshield. From having a dog too small to attack, a kid at football practice and Dad away at war, it became the greatest stretch of thinking up ways to make parents more paranoid. It’s not up there with Paul is dead or Oswald didn’t act alone, but any “Bad People” stalking stick figure families are probably more Home Alone bandits than criminal masterminds.

Unfortunately, navigational systems – GPS – leading people to their deaths is no myth. Reports from around the world confirm that the systems are not failsafe, and drivers inexperienced in either the system’s operation or their surroundings – and frequently both – have paid with their lives.

Just two weeks ago a Chicago woman, Zohra Hussain, died when her husband, while following GPS instructions, attempted to cross a bridge that had been closed since 2009. Hussain died of burns after the subsequent 11 metre plunge. Boat launches and bridge abutments are frequent sites of bad directions headlines; in 2011 three women in Washington State ended up in a submerged SUV when they blindly followed the GPS in their rental. They escaped injury.

In 2012, three Japanese tourists in Australia had to abandon the car they were driving on a road that got progressively muddier; the GPS hadn’t warned them the road would be under water at high tide, and they scrambled to get out as it floated away. A German truck driver got stuck in a Swiss cherry tree in 2007. He followed the voice, he said.

Less random and occurring with more frequency in California is something rangers in Death Valley National Park have called Death by GPS.

In 2009, Alicia Sanchez was found near death by a ranger, her young son dead in her Jeep. Lost for five days in the unforgiving temperatures that can climb over 46 degrees Celsius in summer months, she’d followed GPS instructions off established roads and deeper into uncharted territory. While the national park has been posting more warnings for visitors, including that cellphone reception is extremely limited, many satellite systems are still recognizing bypasses that have been closed for decades as roads and many drivers are still blindly following their technology into trouble.

Navigational systems are a tool. Tools are only as good as the people using them, and many of the sad accounts you hear about feature people ignoring barricades and other physical warnings. From people plucked from the edge of cliffs to those trapped by rising seas, paying more attention to the view out their windshield than a screen on their dash should have been warning enough. Those tragedies aren’t rumours.

Oh, and one rumour that needs to be stomped out forever: the Chevy Nova was never misnamed. Nova does not translate into “doesn’t go” in Spanish, and the car did well in the Spanish language countries where it was sold.

Posted in Drive She Said | 4 Comments

The very real dangers of turning right on a red light

Originally published: April 6, 2015

It goes something like this: when I’m driving and need to make a right turn on a red light, there seems to be a never-ending stream of pedestrians who are too rude to understand what a don’t walk signal means. They jeopardize their safety and my own because they think they own the road.

When I’m walking and need to cross on a green light, there always seems to be an idiot creeping so far into the crosswalk I’m getting the salt from her car on my coat because she is too arrogant to understand her ability to turn right on a red light is only when the crosswalk is clear, not when I’m in it. My hurrying up won’t matter; there’s someone else heading this way, so hold your horses. Don’t yell at us for catching the light; didn’t you see that chain of fools making their left turns on the red light – and our walk signal – to begin with?

When it comes to vehicles, there’s a growing chorus of voices advocating for the replacement of one of the most deadly moves a driver can make: a left-hand turn. The bean counters weep for the destruction of traffic flow, while safety advocates recognize any car crossing a live lane of traffic is most vulnerable. Over a decade ago, UPS instructed their drivers to avoid left turns – period. It resulted in significant time and fuel savings.

Lost in the discussion is the fact our roads are still deadly for pedestrians and cyclists, a group ever increasing in most urban parts of the country. Turning cars are dangerous cars for those not inside them. Drivers are accustomed to being able to make a right turn on a red light (only fully prohibited in the Island of Montreal) but many seem to forget the “making a complete stop first” part of the Highway Traffic Act.

In Toronto in 2012 (most recent complete statistics available), 326 pedestrians with the right of way were hit by cars making a left turn; 194 were hit by cars making right turns. While you’re three times more likely to die in a mid-block collision (jaywalking always puts you at risk, and cars have gathered more speed) the truth is in any car-pedestrian collision, injuries are almost always a given. The scariest part of those numbers is the fact the pedestrians had the right of way; in just 51 other turning incidents – in total – did the vehicle have the right of way. Pedestrians are being careful; cars are not.

For Toronto, incidents of cars meeting pedestrians per 100,000 population has remained steady over the past few years, in the high 70s. Vancouver, after years of ranking in the low 40s, doubled into the 80s in 2010. By 2012, more pedestrians were being killed on Vancouver roads than “drivers, passengers, cyclists and motorcyclists, combined.” Safety initiatives wrestle to get the numbers down, but if you ask me, all the traffic changes in the world won’t do a thing unless you get everyone off their phones. Enforce distracted driving laws; otherwise it’s like having drunk drivers, pedestrians and cyclists out there in some kind of urban Thunderdome.

Seattle has started a program, Vision Zero, to increase road safety by, among other things, prohibiting right-turns-on-red-lights in parts of their city core. I like it. Pedestrians don’t have to worry about the bumper creep behind them or the throttle jammer cutting them off like he’s threading a needle. During peak times, this effectively means it would be almost impossible to make a right turn as pedestrian traffic fills the crosswalk on the green light. They’re talking major intersections, so if it only takes you an extra block or two to make your right, it’s worth it.

Cyclists are supposed to follow the rules of the road, and are provided the same privileges and responsibilities as a motor vehicle driver. They are entitled to that whole lane if they want it. They are required to stop at the stop sign as well as that red light. Of course those sentences just set off a tsunami of indignation in both camps, and don’t even get me started on those ridiculous e-bikes that apparently dwell in a netherworld between law and reason.

You can draw a Venn diagram of motorists, motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians and at each intersection you can just write in the word, “hate.” I spoke with Stephen Sergenese, who worked as a bike courier two winters ago in downtown Toronto. Bike couriers are particularly noted – and hated – for their behaviour.

“Messengers do take liberties, and can be aggressive. I agree. You also quickly learn the safest approach is often the one people complain the most about.” He describes frequently being trapped between a car and a streetcar, wary of frozen streetcar tracks that can take a cyclist down fast. Exploding off a light is sometimes the only way to claim a lane. “You’re looking in your mirrors as well as far ahead; people don’t signal and few look before they swing open a door.” He admits many couriers earn their bad press but cyclists of all stripes, like pedestrians, have far more to lose if they come in contact with a vehicle.

I ask him the worst offenders. He doesn’t hesitate. “Cabs.”

With Sergenese’s assertion in the back of my mind, I asked a cabbie at the airport who the biggest offenders are on the roads. “Buses,” he replied. “And those guys on bicycles.”

The other guy.

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Streaky windshield? Change your wiper blades, already

Originally published: March 30, 2015

If you wear glasses, take them off. Dunk them in a puddle, shake ‘n’ bake them with some grit from the shoulder of the road, scrape away what you can with your glove, and then put them back on. That’s the view too many people believe is good enough to have through the windshield of their car. Add glaring sun or torrential rain and you’ll start to understand that all the airbags and traction control in the world can’t save you if you can’t see where you’re going.

I was recently in Terrace, B.C., standing in drizzling rain a couple of hours before sunrise. Nestled in the mountains in the northern part of the province, for all of its breathtaking views, it is that rain that Terrace is famous for. Fourth rainiest place in Canada, it seems, and they don’t do so badly on snow, either. What better place to talk windshield wipers?

Canadian Tire thought the same thing, so they kitted out – for free – 1,000 cars with new Bosch Icon wiper blades. It’s part of a new program called Tested for Life, and they’ll be getting feedback from real people using products in everyday settings; a sort of re-envisioned Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It’s a good place to prove how important one of the most easily overlooked parts of your car really is.

Compromised blades mean compromised vision, and if you can’t see where you’re going you’ll be heading straight for trouble.

Too many of us only give our wiper blades a second thought when we’ve already put too many kilometres on them. Bad streaking, gapping at the ends, chattering at higher speeds, chips or the dreaded tear; like many things in life, we ignore the warning signs until we finally can’t.

The Canadian Tire service manager in Terrace Bay, Tim Wiebe, explains that wiper blades are made of rubber compounds, just like tires. They perform and wear and react to temperatures and conditions in ways similar to tires. Wiper blades have evolved over the years, both in design and composition. You’ll find two basic types on the market today: the traditional metal frame with a spring assembly connecting to the rubber that contacts the windshield, and the sleeker, frameless beam blades that feature embedded springs that create evenly distributed continuous contact with the windshield.

There is a difference in price. Frame blades start under 15 bucks (and in some, you can just change the blade part), and those Icons come in around 25. You’ll find blades outside of both those price points, but for general consumers, this is the choice they’ll be making.

Your car came with one of these two types of blades, and you can check your owner’s manual for advice on replacing them. Beam blades were once the domain of higher end cars but we’re seeing more and more on less expensive models. Replacing blades can seem overwhelming when you’re faced with dozens of sizes and many makes, but a shop can quickly steer you to the proper size for your car, as can a quick Google search.

You should replace your wiper blades every six months, regardless of which type you buy. There have been studies that show people wait up to three years; I’ve heard stories of people who believe because the rubber isn’t torn, there must be something wrong with the washer fluid or even the windshield. If you can’t remember when you last changed them, you’re due. With spring finally getting here, the roads are covered with a long winter’s worth of detritus that will be spewed up from the car ahead of you, and things like highway lines have faded. The last thing you need is any part of your field of vision further compromised.

Wiebe points out blade edges can become chipped and also deteriorate over time. Jamming away with an ice scraper is probably the fastest way to destroy either design; he is an advocate of standing the blades up when snow or ice is a threat, allowing you to clear your windshield as well as to prevent the blades from freezing in place. Forget the blades themselves for a moment, and consider that he sees many wiper motors fried when someone starts up a car with the wipers engaged and they jam against ice they can’t break through.

Back in Terrace, I watched as homeowners opened front doors early that morning, initially suspicious of red cloth bags at the foot of their driveways tied to a couple of white balloons. As they crossed their rain soaked driveways to discover what it was, it became evident we were in the right place with the right presents.

The sun hadn’t made an appearance yet when Dave Reniero peered into the bag at three sets of new Bosch blades, a huge grin on his face. “I actually change all my blades out twice a year, I always need them. This is great though, because it’s one of those things that’s easy to procrastinate over.” The teams had worked into the early morning hours matching blade sizes with vehicles in the driveways, resulting in a customized fit in most cases.

Margaret Durando crossed the street to retrieve a neighbour’s freebies, telling me they were away. “When we saw what was going on, my husband told me to go steal theirs,” she said with a laugh.

You probably won’t wake up to free wiper blades on your lawn, but remember they’re a safety feature not an afterthought. Spend a few bucks; stay safe.

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How to avoid nasty surprises on your car rental bill

Originally published: March 23, 2015

The first time my father tried to rent a car, he couldn’t. It was in the 1970s and he didn’t believe in credit cards. For that reason, car rental companies didn’t believe in him. He hauled out a wad of cash – his preferred method of currency, but no dice. No credit card, no rental.

These days you probably have a credit card, and car rental agencies definitely still want it. It makes it easier for them to play a convoluted game of diminishing returns: if they’ve decided you owe for a whole whack of usurious fees and crazy charges, it’s easier to get your money if they already have it.

If you rent cars regularly, you know the drill. But for those of us who do it less frequently, negotiating the fine print can be like running across a minefield in orthopedic shoes. These are some expensive mistakes to avoid.

  • Booking: when you reserve a car, check the calendar. Prime vacation times create more demand; if you really want that minivan or convertible, book early. Calculate your intended mileage and book accordingly; mileage surcharges can pile up fast. Know that fees can start right now: you can be charged for cancelling, and you’ll be charged if you don’t show up. They already have that credit card, remember?
  • Holdback: know that most rental agreements contain a clause about reserving a charge – usually a couple of hundred dollars – on your credit or debit card that you’ve surrendered when you signed your contract. It’s to understandably cover their butt if you dump a coffee all over the carpet, but if you’re on vacation and have a chunk of available credit go missing that you hadn’t planned on, it can leave you in a bind.
  • Pick up: take pictures of your rental before you get into it. A rep will usually do a walk around with you, but pay attention to what he or she is doing. Look at that page before you initial it. Call attention to anything they might have missed, and look in the backseat and trunk, as well. Note any damage or stains before you take possession. Take a picture of the fuel gauge and the mileage.
  • Insurance: One of the knottiest questions surrounding car rentals. First, check out your own car insurance policy on your personal vehicle. Make sure you have collision coverage. You can also investigate what your homeowner insurance might provide. Call your credit card company for a clear delineation of what is and isn’t covered by your card. Better yet, dig up or download the printed details pertaining to car rentals. If you’re counting on that credit card for coverage, make sure you actually pay for the rental with that card. Rental companies are happy to provide protection, but daily rates can climb quickly and you don’t want duplicate coverage. Conversely, you don’t want any flank left exposed. Imagine a worst case scenario – a major crash in a foreign place – and ask yourself how every aspect would be covered.
  • Tolls: You can usually opt for a daily rate to offset automatic tolls, which is great if you already know that you’ll be using toll roads and if you’re certain which ones are covered off by that fee. Guess wrong, and you will be charged peak tolls – plus an admin fee. Either pay tolls manually as you go through them, or do some intense homework. If you’re in Ontario, steer all the way clear of the 407 ETR. There is no good way to take a rental car on the 407. Even if you have your own transponder, there is no guarantee the rental agency – and you – won’t be billed.
  • Fuel: you’re supposed to bring the tank back full. Depending on where you are and what time it is, this might be harder than it sounds. Is topped up then driven 30 km to the airport full? Guess wrong and they’ll ding you sometimes double the pump price just down the road. You can often opt for a fuel prepay, which means agreeing ahead of time that you can bring it back less than full. The only way to get your money’s worth is to coast it in on fumes, but for some, giving back some free gas might be worth peace of mind.
  • The fine print: download the fine print from the rental company you plan to use. Most of it would appear to be the standard gobble, but there are things you should note. On National’s contract for example – a pretty standard one – you can’t use unauthorized drivers or drive on unpaved roads. They have the right to transfer your information (including credit card) to outside parties like those toll collectors, parking tickets, towing and storage, and charge you an administrative fee per incident to do it. And watch those admin fees pile up if you get a ding: $50 on a repair under $500, $100 between $500-$1,500, and so on.
  • The return: take pictures again, including the mileage and fuel gauge. Do the walk around once again with the rep, and initial nothing you don’t agree with. Get to the trunk and the back seat, again. Plan on this taking more than a few minutes, especially if you’re catching a flight. Keep an eye on your credit card statements for a few months to follow. If at all possible, don’t return a car to an empty lot with a key dropbox. If anything happens to the car before they deem it to be in their possession (when their employee sees it) you are responsible. A Nova Scotia woman found this out the hard way last year when her rental, a $47,000 Mustang, was stolen after she’d returned it outside of business hours. While her insurance company eventually covered the loss after a public tussle with the rental company (see: fine print) if your insurance pays, you pay. Well, we all pay.

Outside of unforeseen crashes, most car rental cost shocks can be sorted out before you even leave home. It’s all about the homework.

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Driving tips you need to know before your March Break trip

Originally published: March 13, 2015

Travelling with the family for March Break? Planning a longer summer vacation away from home? In addition to remembering passports and Gravol, there are other things you might want to keep in mind.

If you’re flying to your fun and sun and renting a car, do yourself a favour: rent one from the same manufacturer as the car you drive at home. Delayed flights and missed connections mean you might land later than you planned. Sorting out tired kids late at night in strange surroundings can be enough to deal with, without trying to figure out where the wipers or headlights are. There are bound to be some updates and changes, but manufacturers tend to keep system controls in the same, or similar, places. The first time you fill up? Look for the arrow by the fuel pump on the dash to see which side of the pump to approach.

If you’re heading outside North America, of course, that’s harder to do. Unlike the U.S., European and Asian countries can have traffic laws that are vastly different from ours. You’ll think of the obvious things like which side of the road to drive on, but chances are you will need an International Driver’s Licence. Your local CAA office can do it; it’s 25 bucks and only takes a form and a few minutes, but better safe than sorry. A press junket in Spain a couple of years ago saw a group of auto journos stranded and their press cars impounded when they couldn’t produce IDLs. Nitpicky? Perhaps. But when in Rome (or Madrid), do as you’re told.

While you’re booking that overseas rental, keep in mind that the majority of rental cars in many countries will have a standard transmission. Unlike here where you would be hard-pressed to find a manual to rent (or a car with winter tires, but that’s a whole other column), the reverse is true over there. You can try to reserve an automatic, but there are no guarantees. If you’d planned on shared driving duties, you might want to consider this possibility.

If you’re driving to your destination, you already know to have your car prepped and ready to go. While U.S. traffic laws are much the same as Canadian ones, keep an eye on speed limits, especially in typical rural, or fishing hole, areas. If you’re following behind a local plate and all of a sudden they slow down, consider they might know something you don’t. I don’t recommend dodging any tickets you do end up with; there’s some version of reciprocal agreements in place in 41 states, but your insurance company is really good at hunting this stuff down and they will hold it against you.

Only 14 states and D.C. specifically ban handheld devices while driving, but if anything, driving in unfamiliar territory is an even better reason not to pick up your phone. Also make sure to change your navigation system, if you use one, from kilometres to miles. Otherwise, it’ll take “are we there yet?” to a whole new level. And, technology aside, it’s always a good idea to have an old-fashioned paper map of the area on hand, which is also a fun way to play olden times with the kids.

Border crossings can be a nightmare when it feels like the whole country is trying to cross at the same time. Check here before you go, or download one of several apps to your phone.

There are more subtle differences from state to state. Some states don’t require rear seatbelts to be engaged. If you’re driving in New Hampshire and you’re over the age of 18, you don’t have to wear a seatbelt at all. You also don’t have to wear a motorcycle helmet. That said, keep in mind their licence plate motto is Live Free or Die, but I think they omitted the word “young” from the end of that slogan. Alaska has what I call the Mitt Romney – or Seamus – law: it is illegal to tie your dog to the roof of your car before you set off.

Kind of amazing what you have to make a law against, isn’t it?

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Confidence and a firm grasp on the rules of the road are required to get your licence

Originally published: March 9, 2015

Giving your kid tips on passing their driving test? Why not start with the top reasons they might fail?

Tim Danter owns the DriveWise school in Oakville, Ont. He’s prepared thousands of teenagers for their roadway rite of passage.

Additionally, he carries out assessments for corporate fleets of drivers of all ages, getting a front row seat to how our driving improves as we age – and how it deteriorates.

Parallel parking: Eavesdrop on a roomful of 18-year-olds discussing their final road test, and you’ll hear a lot of talk about parallel parking. This was the bugaboo when I was getting my test; surely it’s a myth?

“No, you mess up the parallel parking badly enough, you’ll flunk your test,” according to Danter. “It’s about positioning, but it’s also about jumping the curb or not having control of the vehicle as you back up.”

Dangerous action: “If the examiner has to take physical or verbal control of the car, that’s a fail,” says Danter. If you’ve pulled out in front of a car or made a dangerous lane change, you’ll be rebooking. Sure-fire way to know if you’ve screwed up? “If you get honked at; getting honked at is not a good sign.”

Lack of confidence: Danter says many learning drivers think by driving under the speed limit or hesitating too long at intersections, they’ll be exhibiting a caution that will be rewarded. They’re wrong. “They’re not showing true mastery of the skills. They’ll lose points, and operating the vehicle that way doesn’t reflect real life applications.” This is all before the problem with impeding the flow of traffic is taken into consideration.

Collision: “The test is over. Doesn’t matter who caused the crash, protocol is that the test is stopped.” I asked if fault is determined by an examiner, and the impact that might have on future tests. “If the applicant isn’t at fault, they simply rebook the test. If they are at fault, they will be charged by police under the Highway Traffic Act.” Losing demerits points and/or getting a fine before you even get your final licence in the mail; bummer.

Too many errors: the most common reason of all. Break the law, you’ve failed. Yes, that means even a little bit of speeding. If you take a look at the list of ways you can mess up, you will notice a lot of little boxes waiting to be ticked on that long piece of paper on the examiner’s clipboard. Here in Ontario, for example, a lane change is broken down into eight movements; eight different chances to earn a tick on one exercise. You not only have to complete 10 different sections (comprised of 24 subsections), you have to do it safely and with confidence. You need to master the skills, not just know them.

I asked Danter about people driving to rural communities to take their final tests, circumventing crowded city streets and things like cyclists and pedestrians. “People do it; technically, a DriveTest facility is the same anywhere, but it’s absolutely different in smaller communities.” It’s not a myth. Some driving instruction places advertise their high pass rates achieved by ferrying students – for a fee – to more remote testing areas. If you’ve ever wondered how some people manage to get licensed, part of your answer might be here.

So when Danter is doing fleet assessments of experienced drivers, it must be easy. He laughs. “We see a different set of behaviours. The top three offences are speeding, following too closely and compromised observation skills.” Experience is a good thing behind the wheel, but the actions of seasoned drivers can be the reverse of the beginners; no more nerves, but not enough caution.

It can be nerve-wracking for parents as the new drivers in the house are learning. I’ve driven with people who are instinctively good drivers at a young age; I’ve driven with many who, with experience, drive well. And I’ve driven with people who have no business being behind the wheel, either at all or any longer. Instead of allowing wannabe drivers to go fishing for easier places to take their licences, it should be harder to get licensed, period. We should be retesting far sooner than the 80-year-old cut off in many places, as Danter’s corporate reassessments show. Car fatalities are falling because of the safer car surrounding the driver, not because of a better driver behind the wheel.

Recently, a video of a 92-year-old Wisconsin man hitting nine cars in a parking lot in about a minute went viral. He drove off, after ramming them both in forward and reverse. The most stunning part? No charges were laid. Here’s a guy who only needed one more car to score a perfect strike, yet telling police he panicked is good enough.

Too bad it’s only the kids who are so nervous about driving well.

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