Who do you call if your new car is a lemon?

Sometimes, car purchases don’t always go as promised. Here’s how to set things straight when that happens

Originally published: July 20, 2015

The number of “lemons” on the road is often still batted around at 10 per cent; that’s unfair and dated information. George Iny of the Automobile Protection Association (APA) stresses the number is actually closer to one per cent. That doesn’t mean only one per cent of cars will experience some issues, but that more like one per cent are actually lemons in the way most of us define the word: a car that is beyond saving.

Last week I discussed a persistent myth surrounding new car purchases, that there is some kind of legal cooling-off period where we get to change our minds. There isn’t, and we don’t. You sign that contract, you’ve purchased that car. You can’t change your mind on any of the extras you agreed to in most cases, either.

Canada doesn’t have so-called lemon laws. The U.S. does, though they vary from state to state. In Canada, there are layers of consumer protection that you can access if you have problems with your vehicle or the dealership itself. The Federal Office of Consumer Affairs (OCA) lays out the law surrounding the Consumer Protection and Business Practices Act; Ontario and Alberta have more specialized organizations in Motor Vehicle Industry Councils: OMVIC and AMVIC, while British Columbia has the Motor Vehicle Sales Authority (MVSABC). These are funded by consumers – you’ll see a line on your sales contract that says “OMVIC, $5.00” in Ontario. Five bucks from each purchase stakes the Council which investigates dealer practices, issues warnings and hands out fines, or even suspends dealers.

In Ontario, Alberta, or B.C. you call OMVIC, AMVIC or MVSABC if you find dealers misrepresenting themselves, running fraudulent ads, or lying to consumers. These organizations run independent investigations – monitoring ads and practices – as well as respond to individual complaints. They even determine if the cars actually exist in those too-good-to-be-true ads. Consumers have a reasonable expectation of the featured vehicle actually being available to purchase at the advertised price; it often isn’t, but getting you into the showroom was always the intention. It’s a common tactic. A recent AMVIC investigation turned up some terrible numbers; 22 of 35 new dealers shopped in Calgary were not in compliance.

Advertising is a perennial sore spot in the industry. To cut through some of the noise, four provinces (Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta) now require dealer advertising to post all-in pricing; only Quebec requires manufacturers to also post all-in pricing. This means the advertised price has to include everything except tax and licensing. No admin fees, no certification fees, no protection fees. Most dealers adhere to the law, but others don’t. In those provinces, if the price advertised in the window, in the paper or online doesn’t match what you’re quoted for the corresponding vehicle, call your provincial consumer advocate.

So, you’ve had a good relationship with the dealer and you’ve got your new car. What do you do if trouble sets in? First, go talk to the service manager at your dealership. Be as specific as you can about your complaint. Does the noise occur only when the engine is cold? During a turn? At what speed? The more information you can provide the better. I recommend using your dealer for scheduled maintenance at least during the warranty period. You build a relationship here, and you’ll have someone to go to bat for you with the manufacturer should problems arise. You are required to have held up your side of the equation – maintenance – when it comes to warranty issues.

It is important to contact them sooner rather than later; with warranties ticking away, you want a paper trail of when you started addressing it. Go online and see if any other owners are experiencing similar problems (I just Google make + model + year + problems). With the U.S. sharing many of the same vehicles, it can help to access 10 times the population of Canada.

Don’t be alarmed by recall notices. Recent devastating losses have made the industry a little jumpy, and some manufacturers are very much playing “better safe than sorry”. Getting ahead of the curve on a potential issue is preferable to pretending it doesn’t exist. If your car is older and you had a problem fixed on your dime that is now facing a recall, contact the manufacturer for recourse. An APA membership ($77 first year, $39 renewal) provides counselling and directions on many issues like this one.

If you have ongoing issues with your new (or newish) vehicle, and reasonable attempts at a resolution have fallen short, you can call the Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan. A national body, CAMVAP is funded by manufacturers, and the service is free to consumers. You can call and speak to a real person. It can give you a voice at the table without hiring lawyers when your efforts to resolve a manufacturer’s defect or have a warranty honoured have been exhausted.

CAMVAP requires your car be from the current or previous four model years and under 160,000 kilometres; you can own or lease, it can be new or used but initially purchased from an authorized dealer; it has to be for personal use; you must have provided the dealer and the manufacturer a reasonable opportunity to address and correct the problem.

One thing to consider: in order to bring a manufacturer to the arbitrator’s table, they have to be part of the CAMVAP program. Currently, some manufacturers – notably, BMW (Mini) and Mitsubishi – are not in the fold. CAMVAP can’t help you.

The program says it resolves most disputes within 70 days, far more quickly than a court case would play out. The decisions can range from ordering repairs at the manufacturers’ expense, buying back your car, reimbursing you for repairs you’ve already had done, and possibly helping you recoup out-of-pocket expenses. They could also decide the manufacturer has no responsibility in your case. When you enter into CAMVAP’s program, you sign off going beyond their decision. It is binding.

Most car transactions go smoothly. Car sales are increasing every quarter, consumers have access to more information than ever before, and there are several excellent car-buying services out there if you prefer to let someone else do the negotiating. Cars themselves are more reliable than ever, but know your rights and resources; you can never be too prepared.

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Regret the extended warranty? It’s hard to fix costly mistakes

Remember, when you sign on the dotted line of a new car contract, there is no cooling off period

Originally published: July 13, 2015

“When I got home I started going over my new car contract, and I realized that I’m getting an extended warranty I’m not even sure I need. Can I get out of it?”

I get a version of this question every week. It could be questioning a service charge, fabric protection, undercoating, paint protection or many of the other lines of minutiae that make up the densely packed wording of most contracts. I have to refrain from simply saying, “No,” because it borders on being snarky and insensitive, which doesn’t help anyone including a new car buyer who just made an expensive mistake.

That contract is a legally binding agreement. You don’t get to change your mind. You don’t get a cooling off period. If you said yes to that trade-in amount, yes to the upgraded floor mats and the etchings, yes to an electronic rust proofing device that doesn’t work, you have chosen what’s behind curtain number three.

Michael Turk is a lawyer with the Automobile Protection Association (APA), a non-profit consumer association I work with on my TV show. “It remains the question I can count on getting every week, even after years and years of doing this,” he tells me.

I’ve spoken with advocates like the APA, and I’ve spoken with car dealers, psychologists, and market experts. Some emotional switch gets flicked at some part of the process when the pen hits the paper. A salesman will call it “closing a deal”. I liken it to that moment a calf falls over and gets its legs all tied together.
Buying a new car is not a process to be taken lightly. Research and test drive the heck out of any car before signing on the dotted line.

Buying a new car is not a process to be taken lightly. Research and test drive the heck out of any car before signing on the dotted line.
Stock image, Fotolia

Buying a new car can be like standing at the gates of a midway. So much going on, so much noise, so many distractions. Educated consumers have already done their homework – and statistics show buyers are more prepared than ever before – but when the heavy artillery gets hauled out (that would be the airless little room you get stuck in with the financial person) it takes some strong knees not to buckle. Here’s the thing: if you want some of these products and services that are offered, that’s fine. But if you don’t, you shouldn’t be beaten or guilted into submission.

A reader recently contacted me after realizing she’d been sold a third-party warranty on a brand new SUV she’d purchased. She’d misunderstood what it really was, she told me. After she outlined what had happened, I saw why. While the warranty on her new car was excellent, she’d been informed it wasn’t “bumper to bumper”. It was. The salesperson began outlining scenarios that would prove to be precarious: if the backup camera was damaged, it would cost her $6,000 to fix it. I told her if something was faulty, it would be covered. If she sustained damage, that would be an insurance issue. The camera was one example in a long list of fear-based nonsense she was assaulted with. None of it in writing, all enough to make her not only second guess all the research she’d done, but to also suck the joy out of the entire purchase.

Fortunately, the same salesperson had screwed up a number on the contract which delayed the final approval. In the interim, we found a 30-day escape clause buried in the fine (or, finer) print. Turk, the APA lawyer, steered her through the process. I warned her it wasn’t enough to send an email cancelling the clause; she needed proof they’d received it. Turk told her they wouldn’t rework the numbers on the final contact, they would probably refund that portion via a cheque. What took seconds to do will take a few months to undo, and she’s one of the lucky ones.

A new car purchase is essentially two halves of a transaction. The car itself, which seems pretty obvious. It takes a lot of work to make sure you’re buying the best car for your needs both now and a few years from now. It is reasonable to assume that the bulk of your homework should take place here.

The other side of the equation happens after you’ve sorted out the buy. “Let’s just go draw this up!” you are told. You can see the exclamation point. It’s a relief, actually. You’ve finally navigated the reviews, the advertising, the incentives and your brother-in-law’s advice and found the perfect car. Now, all of a sudden that warranty your salesperson was telling you was one of the best in the industry – you know, to make you buy the car – has become one only a fool would trust.

There are times that extended warranties make sense, and you should already know if this particular car or your particular driving lifestyle requires it. Period. Decide ahead of time what path you’ll choose for rust proofing or undercoating (if you’re not sure of the difference, get back to Google): is the factory warranty long enough for you? Could you be having it done yourself for a fraction of the cost? (Yes). Fabric protection might be good if you’re a slob, but know that you can apply any of those products yourself. If you don’t want to, sure, let them. Know that if you have the upholstery cleaned, it removes that protection.

I’m not against salespeople and dealers receiving a fair price for fair work. Anyone who bludgeons a dealer and expects to have an ongoing relationship with them is an idiot. But likewise, any dealer who upsells a customer to the point they’re questioning the entire brand is deserving of every negative stereotype the auto industry pretends they’ve evolved away from. When you sign that contract, you don’t have a cooling off period.

The final word goes to Michael Turk: “I just wish they’d call us before they buy instead of after.”

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Using your car as a taxi? Don’t lie about your insurance

When it comes to working with hire-a-drive services like Uber, you can’t afford to ignore the insurance implications

Originally published: July 6, 2015

Uber drivers can use the HOV lanes,” read the headline. Upon closer observation, the sentence continued: providing they have three or more occupants, just like everyone else. So close, Uber, so close. The trendy hire-a-drive app that puts a car at your fingertips in many parts of the world just can’t seem to catch a break. Does it deserve to?

The Pan Am Games are set to descend upon the Toronto region in the coming days, promising to swirl the already catatonic gridlock further down into the depths of hell. I’m sure more than a few Uber drivers were parsing the fine print that allows taxis and airport limos to use the coveted HOV lanes, now temporarily drawn on an additional 185 kilometres of major highways around the Greater Toronto Area. That’s in addition to the existing 50 permanent kilometres. In the eyes of the law, Uber still hangs in a no man’s land.

This article started out six months ago as a stunt piece: I was going to simply become an Uber driver for a day and report back. A call to my insurance broker simply seeking background information ground that idea to a halt, and fast. Even hinting what I was considering would cost me my private car insurance policy, a risk I can’t afford to take. A quick pivot sent me to Twitter looking for an existing Uber driver who would let me ride along; after an initial encouraging phone call and a few email exchanges, he went to ground, never to be heard from. Guess having his name in the paper was too much of a risk.

News organizations aren’t fans of pseudonyms, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t even get someone to play along with a black bar across their eyes and a voice scrambler. Uber advertises itself as an excellent way to make easy money if you own a car. You must be 21 with a full licence, own a four-door car less than 10 years old, pass a background check they pay for, and have valid car insurance.

Therein lies the rub for prospective Uber drivers here in Canada. “Will any of the described automobiles be rented or leased to others, or used to carry passengers for compensation or hire, or haul a trailer, or carry explosives or radioactive material?” Every insurance company in Canada uses forms that carry some version of this sentence, and if you check “no” and then sign off on the application and then start accepting fees for ferrying people (or pizzas) around, you could be committing fraud.

It’s not that you can’t be an Uber driver and also have insurance; it’s that you can’t lie about it. A recent Forbes survey published in the U.S. found “…while the vast majority of respondents – almost 70% – say they plan to purchase a policy in the future, a disturbing 84% say they do not tell their insurer or their agent/broker about their ridesharing activities.”

Uber outlines how their end of the deal functions: your responsibility is riding on your personal insurance, and if damages reach past your limits, their own insurance will kick in. Uber knows you’re driving for Uber; there’s a good chance your insurance company does not, unless you notified them. And notifying your insurance company of your Uber intentions can work out one of two ways:

  • You call your company and ask innocently if considering being an Uber driver could affect personal insurance. They could cancel your insurance or at the very least start investigating it because now they know what you’re doing or;
  • They can offer to sell you the proper product for what you’re considering, which is commercial coverage. This will be – and I’m ballparking here – maybe three times your current rate.

So, there’s a chance some individuals won’t call their insurance company, and if that Forbes survey is even close to accurate, the chance is most won’t. Who can remember ticking that box so many years ago? Besides, if I start delivering pizzas, I’m hardly going to have to call my insurance company, right? Actually, you are. Your insurer does need to know that you’re delivering pizzas. They want to know if anyone in your household with access to your car is delivering pizzas. Or flowers. Or Uber clients.

It’s not that they’re going to jack your rates similarly for pizzas and passengers. As Pete Karageorgos of the Insurance Bureau of Canada is quick to point out, “Insurers know pizzas aren’t passengers. Our job is to match policy to risk; it’s critical that you inform your provider of any material change to that risk, and be transparent about it.”

If you’re not, you’re swimming in a fraud pond. In the event of a crash, insurers can opt to deny the claim, leaving you at the mercy of someone like Uber’s Internet promises. They could also decide to cover the claim, but then back charge you the premium you should have been paying had you notified them in the first place. I like to complain about usurious insurance rates, especially here in Ontario, but I would be angrier if payouts to drivers using their vehicles commercially are pooled with my non-commercial activities.

A call to police services reveals that cops consider this a matter of licensing unless a driver is breaking the Highway Traffic Act. Constable Clint Stibbe raises an interesting thought, however, as we wind up the call.

“Right now, police cars, rentals cars and taxis that are decommissioned have to be registered with the Ministry so as to be readily and honestly identified to buyers. Where’s the protection for buyers buying a car that hasn’t been flagged but has been used commercially?”

Uber may indeed end up being too big to fail as riders vote with their wallets, and their phones. But until licensing commissions and politicians sort out the fine print, your biggest concern if you plan on driving for Uber in Canada isn’t whether you can use the HOV lanes – it’s whether your insurance will kick you to the curb.

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Here’s how it feels to be locked in a hot car for an hour

Lorraine Sommerfeld endures 52 C heat inside a sweltering car and finds this is no place for any living thing

Originally published: June 29, 2015
(With video)

I made it to the 50-minute point before I thought I was going to throw up.

Not bad, actually, when you consider I was sitting in a car in the middle of a parking lot, the outdoor temperature a breezy 26 C (79 F) while the air surrounding me had reached 50 C (122 F).

If you leave your child or pet in a car in hot weather, they could die. Fast.

There are two scenarios to this topic, and each is different. The first is people who have absentmindedly left their child in a car, usually after a change in morning routine, to catastrophic effect. Every single person who swears this could never happen to them needs to read this Pulitzer Prize winning piece from Gene Weingarten at The Washington Post. Yes, it could happen to you. Science explains how.

This tragic occurrence — a parent not realizing they’ve left a child behind — is vastly different from those who knowingly do so. I decided to give a voice to your dog, the one you just told “I’ll be right back,” and to your kid who — finally — fell asleep after crying and fussing for so long. Who wants to wake him? What’s the harm in a few minutes? And what of all the vigilante nonsense we hear, people wanting to smash windows when it’s obvious you’ll be charged, or worse, beat up? It’s harder than it looks to smash a window, and you sure don’t want to risk showering glass on the thing you’re trying to save.

Within 10 minutes, the interior thermometer in the car had already jacked up to 31 C (87 F). OK, I was a little surprised at how fast that happened. But I chalked it up to being spoiled for years by air conditioning. Everyone knows what that blast of hot air feels like when you first get into your car in summer, but, oh, how quickly it dissipates when you flip a switch. No flipping today.

What is merely “uncomfortable” for an adult can in fact be dangerous for a child; kids heat up three to five times faster. If that child is upset or terrified, the number ramps up even more. Dogs can only cool themselves by panting and sweating through their paws. Your 10 minutes does not equal their 10 minutes.

Your closed car is not a shelter from the heat. Black interiors along with all that glass trap air, heat it up and reflect it. It’s a very efficient oven, and cracking a window open a couple of inches is about as effective at cooling it off as opening your oven door an inch. It doesn’t do much to bring the internal temperature down.

By the 20-minute point, I became aware that I had given up on moving. At all. Every exertion just made me more uncomfortable, and it was easier just to sit there. Think about that: your dog is not just sitting there at this point; he is jumping around trying to get out. Every exertion makes his body less able to cope with the heat. Your child would be sobbing by now. If trapped in a child seat, he would be struggling to get out. My temperature, which had started out a normal 38.6 C (98 F), had already risen one degree Celsius and not only had I not exerted myself at all, I was doing this intentionally. I knew what was happening.

By 30 minutes, I was lightheaded. My videographer, Clayton Seams, knocked on the glass and asked if I wanted to kill the experiment. I’d been watching him setting up cameras, his shirt blowing in the steady breeze coming off Lake Ontario. No. I’d been hotter than this, right?

By 40 minutes, sweat was running down both arms. I couldn’t hold a pen anymore. My personal temperature had risen another degree Celsius. A headache was starting that is still thudding as I write this, four hours after we’d finished. I had water with me, and Clayton motioned for me to take a swig. Oh, yeah. Do something sensible. It reminded me of being at high altitude where your brain craps out, and you wonder why people don’t just use common sense. At this temperature, common sense starts to get murky.

By 50 minutes, I am very much staring at the clock, my own twisted New Year’s countdown. The thermometer has synched up with the time: 50 C (122 F). I wanted to open the door. I wanted a shower. I wanted to prove how easily you could overlook something that can become deadly in a matter of minutes.

Police will tell you to never leave your child unattended in a vehicle, period. People argue their nine-year-old is perfectly fine for 15 minutes. Nothing is perfectly fine locked in a car in summer, even on overcast days. Unless that child has express permission to exit that car and can safely do so, it’s not fine. It’s not about your trust in your kid or your right to decide what is best. When the temperature has doubled in less than an hour, what more do you need to know?

Your cars should also be locked in your driveway so kids can’t play hide and seek in them. Leave your pets at home if they can’t come in with you at your destination. Never leave anyone alone in a car that he or she is unable to get out of on his or her own.

Police and insurance companies explain that I could be charged or held responsible for breaking a window to help a child or pet stuck in a hot car, and they suggest calling 911 if you see either in a car unattended over the summer months. You can take a picture of a licence plate if someone shows up and takes off yelling at you (a common response) and police can have a chat with them later.

At the 60-minute point, the internal temperature of the car was now 52 C (126 F). After today, I’ll tell you this for free: I’ll risk the charge. If I see your child or pet in a locked car, I’m breaking that window. Charge me.

Posted in Drive She Said | 6 Comments

Lowering urban speed limits an exercise in futility

Dropping residential speed limits to 30 km/h is not only ludicrous, it’s ultimately pointless

Originally published: June 22, 2015

Across Canada, the default urban speed limit is 50 km/h. It drops in school zones and construction zones, but by and large 50 it is.

You can read years of arguments for raising the limits on our major highways — nobody drives the limit anyway, and if they do, you know where to find them: in the passing lane. In some denser residential areas in parts of Toronto, limits are already at 40 km/h, but some want to lower these to 30 km/h.

Dueling agencies are at work here. The Toronto Board of Health relays the sobering fact that if a person is hit by a car going 50 km/h, they have an 85 per cent chance of dying. If that same car were only going 30, the risk falls to five per cent. It’s hard to argue the fact that going slower would save lives.

Except this argument is being made in a fact vacuum, and it’s unrealistic and probably unviable. Slapping up signs telling everybody to now go 30 would have as much impact as telling people on the highway to go 80 km/h. Drivers aren’t computer models. Drivers aren’t mathematical equations. And quite honestly, humans in general, whether they’re pedestrians, cyclists or drivers, aren’t the most predictable lot, either.

Human behavioural studies (NYU, Yale among them) present some fairly obvious and consistent findings: people obey laws that make sense to them. Having the majority of a populace obeying the laws makes everyone happier and safer. Make laws that make sense and you’ll spend less money enforcing them and have more people voluntarily following them.

Get in your car and drive 30 km/h. You’ll see immediately why this will be a ridiculous law. Unless you’re in a parking lot or a school zone, it’s ludicrous. Politicians love to look like they’re scoring points with this kind of thing, but giving your constituents a false sense of security is a terrible way to chase re-election.

Those who work in transportation in Toronto know simply dropping speed limits to crawl levels won’t achieve much. While not refuting the Board of Health’s numbers, they’re tasked with the bigger problem of explaining there are many moving parts to this issue. The goal is to make sure no car makes contact with a pedestrian or cyclist — at all. Speed traps, traffic calming medians, and speed bumps all have limited effect: police can’t monitor thousands of residential streets, and owning your home doesn’t mean you own the road it sits on. They say reducing speeds will have to come with more speed bumps and increased enforcement. Cha-ching.

Speed bumps make people erratic; they speed up in between and then nail their brakes to tackle the bump. Irritated drivers are dangerous too. High clearance SUVs can absorb the bumps, but if you think it’s a pain getting your low-clearance car over them, imagine emergency vehicles loaded with life-saving equipment trying to race against a clock down a street littered like an obstacle course.

Discussion about lowering inner city speed limits is almost always predicated by a death, usually of a child. It’s understandable, but it’s also not the reason to change laws. Human pain does not make for good law, just as piles of soggy teddy bears and clutches of dead flowers do not make for noble tributes. It does not make you cold to want to base governance on good practice rather than emotion. The sad truth about any law is that “good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.” Plato said that, and he’d never even seen a car. The people who are going to speed down your street are still going to speed down your street.

We also have to consider the other side of the urban equation: pedestrians and cyclists have an obligation to be aware of their surroundings. Parents have a duty to teach their kids how to safely cross a street and obey traffic signals. People walking along, head tucked down into their phone are nearly as dangerous as drivers doing the same thing. Cyclists who want to be counted under the protection of traffic law have to obey it. The vehicle will always inflict the most damage, but that doesn’t mean the driver was always in the wrong.

I live in a dead end court, and successive generations of kids have always been taught that a street is not a playground, no matter how it appears. The worst offenders for speeding have always been people who lived here. Always.

I’ll wager a bet the biggest problem isn’t how fast people are travelling, it’s what they’re doing while driving. Stop texting. Stop turning to look at your passengers. Stop trying to broker a deal over your Bluetooth. Stop punching the buttons on your GPS.

Better yet, stop speeding on local streets so neighbourhood petitions and grandstanding politicians don’t have the ammunition they need to lower them to a crawl.

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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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