McLaren a welcome visitor to Ronald McDonald House

For these families of Ronald McDonald House, the stunning McLaren 650S Spider proved to be a welcome sight

Originally published: June 9, 2015 (with video)

McKayla Warder is waiting for a new heart; her own was irreparably damaged by a rare congenital defect. She survived experimental surgery before she was even born, and she’s been on a transplant list before. Though she’s overcome incredible odds — her family was told she had less than one per cent chance of surviving — the original wait list calculus saw her removed when her odds of a favourable recovery dimmed. The fact she is back on the list buoys hope and buys time for McKayla and her family. McKayla is four years old.

Sometimes I drive to run away from problems, large and small, real and imagined. Doesn’t matter what the car is. It’s the time and space between me and whatever I have to deal with, an attempt to pull myself away from some dream that isn’t. I met some kids recently who don’t have that option, kids who taught me a lot about bravery and love. Not superheroes, not geniuses, just kids. The idea was pretty straight forward: I called the Ronald McDonald House in Toronto to see if any of the families currently staying there would be interested in taking a ride in a cool car.

The McLaren 650S Spider I’d borrowed for the visit is stunning. You can’t overstate it. This is a supercar. McLaren builds race cars, and while those with deep pockets (my press vehicle clocked in at $350,000) can have one in their driveway, it is first and foremost a race car. There is no rocket ship dashboard, no dizzying array of complicated knobs and buttons and screens. It is beautiful and streamlined inside and out, the focus on a roar of an engine once heard, never forgotten, an engine that moves you to 100 km/h from a standstill in 2.9 seconds.

The forecast threatened rain, but it didn’t happen. I dropped the top and flung open those scissored doors, those doors that make you smile a little every time. Each time they arced skyward I had children gasping, loving the fun, in awe of the physics.

You’ve heard it before: when a child is facing catastrophic illness, so is their whole family. Ronald McDonald Houses around the world recognize this and create family-oriented living arrangements so families can stay together with their sick kids. Siblings attend class while parents can base close to the hospital, waiting for calls that often come with little or no warning. Ronald McDonald Houses are havens. There are 14 across Canada.

Jasmine Warder, seven, is McKayla’s older sister. When all the time and attention and resources are directed at one child for so long, siblings play a complicated role. Living at the House, Jasmine and her brothers Zachary, 10 and Tristan, 2, and mom Rejeanne are far from Windsor and the family home. Dad Justin comes out on weekends after working on the Chrysler line all week. The family has been here for several months now, with little McKayla a block away in Mount Sinai Hospital. “Last year was a perfect year; we had a whole year at home,” says Justin. Tristan has never known anything different, but for the older two, the tug of home is unmistakable.

Off to the side, a young couple stood shyly, a baby stroller between them. Baby Mia is four months old. As I peered in, her Mom, Kayla, shyly showed me where her baby had open-heart surgery at 12 days old. Her tiny chest was the length of my finger, an angry scar running down half of it. Mia stared up at me; Mia was scheduled for more surgery in two days. Jordan and Kayla are from Newfoundland, the House their only support system out here. Both parents took turns in the car, and then posed proudly for photos with tiny Mia.

“It seems crazy, riding like this, in this car; it lets you forget things just for a few minutes,” Mia’s dad Jordan told me. “Not that I ever forget, but you know what I mean.” I did. I’d heard the same thing over and over from parents and older siblings. A car that takes your breath away can also take your cares away. It’s something I’d always known, but never before considered the power of. I asked Jordan if he followed McLaren in Formula One racing. “Well, we have a TV, but it’s not hooked up to cable, you know, money,” he said quietly. Jordan and Kayla are about the same age as my kids.

A few minutes later, I told Zachary Warder to look in the side mirror. “There’s a cop!” he laughed. He asked if I get arrested a lot driving this car. Back at the House, the story quickly morphed. Jasmine began telling people that the cops had been chasing her brother and me.

Bailey Barrett, 17, slid into the passenger seat, pulling the door down and buckling up. Grinning as he realized people were taking pictures with their phones, I asked how he was doing. He’s been back at the House for nearly two months, experiencing some issues after a heart transplant two years ago. “I’m OK, but my sister back home in Newfoundland, she had a baby and I know my mom is dying to see her first grandchild.” I thought of a stranger’s heart beating in this child’s chest, and his mom back at the House whose heart was being stretched across so many children.

“But there’s so many things I couldn’t do before, that now I can. I couldn’t go on roller coasters.” Bailey wouldn’t have been able to do laps at a track in this car; the experience is more adrenaline pumping than any roller coaster. I was spending the day with the toughest kids I’d ever met, being reminded at every turn just how fragile we really are.

There was a bit of conversation happening away from the car. Eric, 16, was determined to go for a ride. Currently undergoing chemotherapy, his temperature had just spiked and he had to return to the hospital. Now. Eric was getting into the car, tucking his chemo backpack carefully at his feet. His Dad looked at me: two minutes, I promised.

It was Eric’s little brother, Antoine, however, who very much defined the day. At seven, he has more poise and insight than I could ever hope to. He told me how much he was enjoying the car. He told me Eric had been looking forward to it, hence the determination. He then told me they had to be very, very careful with his brother’s temperature: if it went above 37 degrees, they had to worry. He knew at what point they had to “immediately” get to the hospital. “It’s because it’s a bad sign for his white blood cells,” he told me earnestly. I asked him if he worried about his brother. “Yeah,” he said, quiet for the first time. “Cancer is awful.”

We pulled back into the lot, and he asked if he could sit in the driver’s seat.


Please consider supporting the Ronald McDonald House in your community.

Special thanks to Ronald McDonald House Toronto for helping set up this great day, and to McLaren Toronto for loaning the truly spectacular car.

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This is the playground where Jeep comes to worship

The Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk was made for trekking the trails of the Colorado River

Originally published: June 8, 2015

As you wind your way along the Colorado River near Moab, Utah, the precision-cut cliffs and chasms in the distinctive red sandstone form stunning natural monuments and cathedrals. The world famous Priest and Nuns (you either see it right away, or you don’t) cast ethereal shadows, especially as the late afternoon light intensifies the red of the stone. It’s not blood, it’s not rust; I’m not sure what it is. But even to these agnostic eyes, it is clear why this is where Jeep comes to worship.

Admittedly, at first glance, the 2015 Jeep Cherokees we’re driving to the trailhead of Hell’s Revenge just outside Moab look a little out of place. We’re surrounded by dozens of more traditional-looking Jeeps – the Rubicons, the Wranglers, as well as squads of gnarly-tired ATVs and a crew of dirt bikes. When you think Jeep, even after all these years, it’s the boxy versions that spring to mind. Most Cherokees carry more groceries than gear.

The aesthetic differences between the standard Cherokee and these newly released Trailhawks are subtle; less flashy wheels (buh-bye chrome), a wider stance with a more aggressive approach angle, and a flat black hood decal to restrict glare. Like black smears under a football player’s eyes, this is a simple yet useful bit of creativity: beneath an unforgiving desert sun on a difficult course, even a moment of compromised vision can be dangerous. A good clue we’re here for some schooling on judging a book by its cover is the bright red tow hooks affixed to the front and rear of each vehicle. If you’re going to buy a Jeep, go trail-rated or go home. These are Trailhawks: those hooks are stock.
Precision-cut cliffs, chasms and slickrock along the Colorado River near Moab, Utah, proved the perfect playground for the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk.

So is the locking rear axle, the off-road suspension and the Select Terrain System. Forget the cottage and chalet roads for which so many SUVs boast of being ready. Anything kitted out with decent clearance and suspension systems advertising snow, mud, ruts, sand and rocks should let you play off-road — for real.

A huge pile of slickrock abuts the parking lot; Hell’s Revenge will turn out to be hours of vertical climbs and descents, a sky-high rollercoaster of rock that looks as slippery as polished marble. It’s not, of course – it’s pale rock rising from the sand that never seems to stop blowing. Compared to the towering jagged arches and carved canyons of red sandstone we’ve been driving through, the slickrock seems almost serene. My drive partner is new to off-roading, and I have no problem assuming the first shift. Ten metres out of the parking lot, I realize that huge pile of rock is more than the marker of the start of the trail — it’s the first obstacle.

When you’re part of a convoy, you can’t chicken out. It’s too bad. I’m in a vehicle I don’t know, and all I can see is blue sky through the windshield, the part of the windshield that isn’t filled with the hood of the truck. There is nothing out either side window. I’m crawling directly up a blind hill made of something called slickrock. I glance at my driving partner, whose eyes are wide as saucers.

“I’d forgotten about the adrenaline,” I said. I kept going forward, hoping in some ridiculous way that the truck knows what it’s doing. The thing is, it does. As witnessed over and over again over the next two days. We covered just 205 kilometres in a day-and-a-half, nearly all of it trail. Wheels hanging in the air, occupants hanging by their seatbelts, switchbacks littered with boulders, these Trailhawks took everything, often as we switched between settings continually. Deep sand grabbed at the tires, a quick change of the off-road setting and it powered through like it was on pavement. You can’t talk about this vehicle without giving a shout-out to Firestone, the tires that the technology in this vehicle is quite literally riding on. Nothing could save anyone from driving off a precipice into a rocky abyss; but in this part of the world you have to be able to trust your gear to do what it was designed to do, and your driver not to do anything stupid. Stupid is usually within arm’s reach.

Moab is a popular place for off-road enthusiasts, and at one busy junction I had a more traditional Jeep waiting impatiently in my rear view mirror. Monster tires, exposed roll cage and a stripped out compartment, it definitely looked more compatible with the terrain we were sharing. As gnats started buzzing in, I raised my window (by pushing a button), adjusted the air conditioning (with the touchscreen) and found the seat ventilation (another button). Cheating? Maybe. But that’s pretty much the point of this Trailhawk: why rough it while you’re roughing it? I had dust in places I didn’t know I had places, hopping out only for pictures. After a day exploring some of the toughest trails you can find, you can head home in a luxury leather cocoon. Very few vehicles fulfill their dream of being multi-use, and just end up being a sad pile of compromises if a driver actually requires them to match the pictures in the ads. Jeep has found a sweet spot, and done it starting at $31,700, a lot less than some of the traditional rigs that combine rock climbing with social climbing.
Precision-cut cliffs, chasms and slickrock along the Colorado River near Moab, Utah, proved the perfect playground for the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk.

Most consumers buy SUVs for the ride height and drive capabilities. Most don’t use them for anything close to what they should be able to do, but there are only a handful of vehicles in these segments that I would trust with what we put that Trailhawk through, regardless of their claims. They couldn’t do it. You can match the swish interior in other competitors, you can get a roomier cargo bay in many places, fuel economy is pretty constant across them all, and design aesthetics are particular to a buyer. But for this price? Something that handles beautifully on the pavement, spoils its occupants and conquers the off-road rollercoaster of mayhem? Wow.

A good car will get you from here to there. A trail-rated Jeep? That’ll get you from here to anywhere.

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These egregious ‘dude bro’ driving offences must stop

Some men like to show off their masculinity on the road. But how far is too far?

Originally published: June 1, 2015

What makes men do weird things to their vehicles? While I’m never going to understand women who put eyelashes on their car’s headlights or reindeer antlers on their minivans, the most I’m going to do is shrug. But in some kind of testosterone-fueled pissing match, men do things to their vehicles that defy belief, and sometimes make you wonder just how deep the dumb can go.

Let’s start at the bottom. Truck nuts. Or, TruckNutz. Or Bulls’ Balls or Bumper Nuts or Bike Balls for the two-wheeled. You’ve seen them and they’re gross. While I am not a fan of decorating cars at all, I appreciate it’s a personal choice and I’d hardly push it on someone else. You want to bumper sticker/stick figure/support-ribbon your car? Have at it. But the message behind trolling the highways with a decorative set of testicles dangling from your pickup truck eludes me. To tell everyone else you’re a man? Pretty sure we can figure that out. To declare your potency? Shakespeare had a line about protesting too much.

But apart from having to look at them, your danglers are simply that: visual pollution. Surely the more manly men could find a better way to assert their dominance, and they did.

“Rolling coal” is a truly masculine flipping of the bird to that whole fake climate change thing. Who do governments and manufacturers and those goddamned environmental groups think they are, bleating about what the internal combustion engine does to our planet?

“Rolling coal” used to be something you’d see in competition, as diesel rigs battled it out in truck pulls. Owners would modify (read: remove) emission controls to purposely under-aspirate an engine, resulting in huge belches of sooty exhaust and increased power. It’s a circus trick, usually reserved for circuses, and it’s been around for years. If you’re sitting in an exhaust-saturated arena, you paid good money to be soaking your lungs in that crap, as you have every right to do.

But in the name of belligerent children everywhere yelling “you can’t tell me what to do,” the sport of upchucking toxic confetti has moved onto public roads. There is a whole movement of masculine coal rollers who leave their truck-nut-bearing brethren swinging in the breeze. Nothing says “man” more than bathing passersby or cyclists in a cloud of your carbon flatulence. Tampering with emission controls has been around as long as the emission control systems themselves; some geniuses were sawing off catalytic converters when the controls were still warm from the factory.

As far as environmental impact goes, I can’t work up enough energy to care, quite frankly. It’s a noisy and obnoxious practice, but my neighbour is hardly out there altering his Civic with a six-foot tower of chrome. Again, it’s the statement, and I wonder just what that statement really reveals. In the United States, where the practice has become entrenched, it’s taken on a definite tone that can’t be dismissed as club practice or enthusiast. The message is aimed at those seeking to advance the Environmental Protection Act rather than flout it; you can’t run over a dude on a bike or driving a hybrid, but you sure can drench him in your spume of soot, and hopefully, capture it and post it online for your fans.

Anti-establishment messages are important and need to be heard; yet statements like this one just make a narrow group of men look like idiots. While the practice is illegal in the U.S., the law-abiders are hardly the ones doing it in the first place. Laws allow politicians to throw up their hands and pretend they care about today’s headline.

What is it you’re trying to say? Increased horsepower? Buy a bigger engine. Emission controls have been around for decades, stop sulking. Many popular websites devoted to the practice are all about hating Priuses. Wow. There’s an opponent worthy of your venom. We all know the Prius will tap out.

So, truck nuts are ignorant and rolling coal is belligerent. And while my opinion on this might matter little, what I do care about is things that cross the line from boys being boys to boys hating women. It’s really that easy, and that clear.

Last year, a new creative masterpiece made the rounds featuring a tailgate decal of a woman tied up and gagged. It was a great piece of artwork — if you’re a sick ass, and it was realistic enough to be jolting people out of their commuting reveries. People called police. What could be funnier than pretending you had a woman hogtied and gagged in the back of your truck?

If you want to look like an idiot, you can have all the free speech you want. But when people launch it to this level of hostility, they send out a dangerous message. I was accustomed to conversations sparked in my car with my kids when someone sported a rude slogan or an ignorant shocker sticker (you’re going to do what with your hand, where?). But this is different. This makes me wonder how women, especially young ones, can grow up marinated in a culture that repeatedly tells them it’s OK to see themselves depicted this way, and we must defend it as someone’s right, or worse yet, a joke.

Maybe we really are so inured to images of people, particularly women, being debased, that you can sport this decal on your truck and think it’s funny or harmless.

Boys will be boys, right?

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You’ve probably installed your child seat wrong. Here’s help.

Buying and installing a child car seat can be an exercise in confusion. But getting it wrong can have dire consequences

Originally published: May 26, 2015

When it comes to child cars seats, the seat has to be properly installed in the vehicle, and the child has to be properly installed in the seat. It sounds simple, yet 80 to 90 per cent of parents are getting it wrong. The consequences can be devastating.

In the quest to acquire the multitude of things you need when you have a baby, it can be overwhelming – and expensive – when you start to investigate child car seats. Rear facing, front facing, boosters, weights, heights, tethers, anchors, positioning in the car … it’s a lot of details. And they’re details you need to get right.

Recent changes in law from Transport Canada make things easier for you, by introducing stringent rules surrounding the buying, selling and use of child safety seats. They also remove any thought you might have of casually borrowing one or hitting Kijiji or Craigslist to save a few bucks.

Seats have “best before” dates stamped on them. They expire. You must replace seats when they reach that date. Like many helmets, they are also only allowed one impact; that means a seat in a car involved in a collision, whether a child is in the seat or not, should be ditched. Most insurance companies will cover the cost of a replacement in the event of a crash, so make sure to let them know. Because of new requirements, no seat manufactured before January 2012 may be given, sold or advertised for sale in Canada. It may seem extreme, but according to the Centre for Disease Control, child seats reduce the incidence of death for infants up to one year old by 71 per cent, and for children aged 1 to 4, it’s 54 per cent.

National Safety Mark

National Safety Mark

Canada has some of the strictest laws on the books regarding car seats, which means using one imported from the U.S. to get a break could get you fined. Legal seats have a distinctive stamp on them – National Safety Mark – that readily identifies compliant appliances. In Ontario, fines start at $240 and two demerit points. Purchases made elsewhere also mean you won’t be notified of recalls. Because of the vast number of models and types of seats on the market, notices are frequent. You can check the latest ones here.

It may seem silly, and even wasteful, not to recycle that seat that appears to be in perfectly good condition. The problems are often things you can’t see: wear and UV rays can weaken plastic; spills and cleaners can take a toll on straps and buckles; installation manuals can be long gone and labels can be faded or blurred; changes to regulations may mean it no longer meets standards. For direction on life span (unless involved in a collision) of many brands, you can check Transport Canada’s site. Out-of-date seats should be destroyed outright.

It’s estimated 80 to 90 per cent of seats are installed incorrectly, meaning an overwhelming majority of children are not properly secured in the cars they ride in. While car manufacturers have made tether anchors and lower latches more convenient, it is still up to parents to carefully follow all directions for installation. Help is close at hand, however. I attended a clinic put on by Pfaff Automotive here in Toronto (they hold clinics that are open to anyone, regardless of what they drive. You can check here for a schedule, but clinics led by qualified installers are held in every province. Find one near you by checking here. They’re free; they just want to get your kid safely buckled in, and I can’t recommend them enough.

I watched Mohammad Bhorat of Baby Car Seat Installers put a front facing seat in an SUV in the attached video below, and I realized my own two kids had never been properly belted in. We’d been close, but not right. I recall the joy at finally being able to get them out of those seats when I should have been so grateful that the restraints actually existed at all. I rode home from the hospital on my mother’s lap.

Research into this subject has enlightened me about the “automotive holy grail”: which vehicles will let you have three cars seats in the second row without being the dreaded minivan. At press time, they were the 2015 Chrysler 300S, the 2014 Ford Taurus, the 2013 Chevy Impala, the 2013 Chrysler 300 and the 2011 Chrysler 200 and 300C. All useful information, but I still wonder why people, especially people with three or more little ankle biters, are avoiding minivans. The new versions are awesome. There. I said it. For hauling families and all their gear around, there’s nothing better.

A step-by-step guide on correctly installing a baby seat

Google “crash test child seat” videos to see why you must take this seriously, and then remember these main points to start:

  • The car seat must be the right type for the age and weight of your child
  • It must be current, and have full instructions accompanying it and displayed on the sticker
  • It must never have been in a collision, whether the child was in it at the time or not
  • For front facing seats, tether strap must be securely and properly in place
  • Seat belt must be securely and properly attached
  • If using lower latch system, follow car manufacturer’s instructions
  • You child must be properly harnessed in the seat, with no padding, bulky clothing or bedding interfering with the straps. For warmth, bundle your little one over the straps, or look at specialty covers that don’t interfere with the seat performing its job.
  • Your child’s caregiver’s vehicle must adhere to the same rules; no “it’s only twice a week” in grandma’s car
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Let’s face it, gender differences in driving exist

Yes, it’s true, gender differences exist behind the wheel. But let’s lay off the grand, sweeping generalizations

Originally published: May 18, 2015

“Texas Study Suggests That Distracted Driving Laws Should Target Women”

I love these kinds of headlines. Really, I do. I like definitive answers to why something is somebody’s fault. It’s easy to hem and haw and ride so many fences you get splinters up your butt, but a headline like that invites – no, demands – blame be laid.

This particular study, in Preventive Medicine Reports, was focusing on who uses cell phones and texts behind the wheel more often, men or women. It was carried out at large intersections in six major Texas cities over two years, on medical and academic campuses. Some of the results were expected: actual cell phone use has declined, but texting has increased; people driving alone were four times more likely to be talking on the phone; those under 25 were more likely to be engaged in conversation on their cell. The kicker? Women were 63 per cent more likely to talk on the phone while they were driving.

Most of these types of surveys pick on age rather than gender, though dangerous driving habits always crack down to insurance: who pays the most? The insurance industry doesn’t play around. He who causes the most damage pays the highest premiums, and that “he” is usually an 18-year-old boy, give or take a year or three.

Statistical studies are really numbers soup. They love clickbait headlines, like that one, and it worked. I clicked. But then I kept clicking, and realized you have to do a sophisticated cat’s cradle to gather every thread of pertinent information before you can make glorious, sweeping assumptions that women are terrible drivers. Or that young people are. Or old people.

One study, by the University of Michigan in 2011, was reported on under the banner “Study shows women more likely to cause traffic accidents”. Setting aside the tic I get when I see the word “accident”, the headline isn’t even right. When the researchers set up the parameters “[u]sing the General Estimate System data from a nationally representative sample of police-reported crashes, the researchers expected to find that male-to-male crashes would account for 36.2 per cent of accidents, female-to-female would make up 15.8 per cent and male-to-female would make up 48 per cent of crashes. Instead, they found female-to-female accidents made up 20.5 per cent of all crashes, much higher than expected. Male-to-male crashes were lower than expected, at 31.9 per cent, and male-to-female crashes were 47.6 per cent.”

Let’s rewrite that headline: “Study shows women likely to cause more traffic accidents than we originally thought they would”. The men are still causing more crashes. Women are crashing into women at a rate of 20.5 per cent; men are crashing into men at a rate of 31.9 per cent, and men are crashing into women at a rate of 47.6 per cent. Yet the noise is all about women causing crashes.

To get back to those insurance numbers. Young men pay more than other demographics because they get into more crashes, and they tend to kill people when they do. Young men aggressively commit to their fate, because most of them believe they have superhuman powers and will never die. They often have someone they’re trying to impress in the car with them: boys are three times more likely to do something dangerous if there’s a girl in the car, slightly more than that with a male. Every age group has the bumpers and dingers, but the catastrophic injuries – the most expensive payouts – pool here.

Part of the problem with surveys is you’re reading percentages and it becomes easy to ignore how large – or small – the actual study was. I reported on an Irish study last year about young drivers based on gender, but made sure to note how small the survey actually was (the girls came out ahead in that one). You can get any result you want from a survey if you word the questions a certain way, carry it out in a certain area or limit your scope with an eye to your outcome. Too many surveys finding their way onto national forums were funded by someone with vested interests in certain outcomes. The study noted at the top of this column admitted it was carried out near academic and medical campuses, probably skewing the results.

Anecdotally speaking, I actually believe that there were a higher number of females using their phones in that Texas survey. I believe younger women text more, young men drive more aggressively, people with little kids in the car can be greatly distracted, people in sports cars drive differently than people in pickups, and I believe the AAA quote from the U.S, “seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of seven to 10 years.”

This is not all people. I can probably find you statistics that disprove every one of those things. But what matters isn’t a study that lets one segment smile smugly and declare themselves the winner, when every driver is capable of a lapse in judgment or a lack of skill that puts everyone in danger, whether for a single moment or for all of them.

I’m open to most discussions about gender differences in driving, because I believe they exist. My sons are better at parking than I am; I’m better at anticipating what other drivers are going to do. I’m still an excellent parker because it’s a skill you can learn, and they’ll likewise gain other experience as they get older. I’m currently spearheading a program for teen drivers, and I’ll state unconditionally that teen boys and girls have some definite behavioural differences. I find headlines using words like “laws should target women” counterproductive, even as they aim to be provocative.

I just believe that correct information should be used in how we train people, not how we disparage them.

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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