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

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

Originally published July 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Picking up strangers in a McLaren is harder than you think

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

Originally published July 4, 2016 with video

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

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

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

mclaren-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The best car inventions for normal people

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

Originally published June 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published June 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted June 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted June 6, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Texting in cars won’t go away with sneaky police photos

Texting in cars won’t go away with sneaky police photos

Originally published May 30, 2016

Over the May long weekend, RCMP in British Columbia were setting up DSLR cameras with super-long lenses to snap drivers mucking with their phones and doing other distracted things. The resulting tickets will be backed up with photographic evidence, goes the thinking, because most of us suspend the belligerence when caught red handed.

With the ability to catch you in the act from over a kilometre away, I admit my initial thought was, “Finally, cops will start busting all those morons I see glued to their phones,” because I swear, every third car I pass has a driver texting. When people see a cop, they drop their phone. But this snoopy thing? Well, now we might be getting somewhere. Right?

Texting drivers are 23 times more likely to be involved in a collision. We know that, and yet, even as people wag a finger at drivers who use their cells, many are still doing it. Hands-free is legal, but not as safe as we pretend. Your eyes may be on the road, but your mind is not. Everywhere, fines and demerits are being raised and yet the problem persists, just like the fact that too many still drink and drive.

Decades of educating and legislating have seen the number of drunks behind the wheel fall, though even that seems to be just hammered down to a stubborn threshold; it seems we will never end a core group determined to drive after drinking, unless they are physically removed from the driver’s seat. Drunks get behind the wheel because drunks make that decision while they’re impaired; it’s why the campaigns all highlight making the decision before you’ve started imbibing, rather than after.

Seatbelt legislation is often used as a model of success for behavioural change. Most of us buckle up, and most of us know that seatbelts work in conjunction with those airbags. Not buckling up may be your idea of going rogue, but car manufacturers can only save you if you use the features as intended. A body repair shop worker I know tells me he can’t believe the condition of some of the cars that come into his shop after a major crash, and that the occupants were not severely injured. He says even a decade ago those same occupants would have been dead. Call me cynical, but I think a lot of those tumbling fatality statistics have far more to do with automotive safety advances than improved driver behaviour.

But cellphones are proving to be their own kind of hell on our roads. Cellphones and their connective counterparts – Twitter, texting, Facebook, email – can be addictive. They ping the same part of your brain that gets ramped up when you gamble or have sex, and give it a hit of dopamine. You’re not imagining that pull you feel when your phone rings, or a message lands. Your brain wants that rush. You’re supposed to enjoy things to feel that chemical release; it’s our hardwired reward system.

The problem arises when we combine these interactive exercises with driving – driving that needs to be not just our primary focus, but our only one. Car manufacturers have loaded a ton of distractions into today’s vehicles, and most have had to dial back what works as you’re rolling along; jamming away at a navigation system at speed is deadly, though so is trying to scroll through a bunch of touchscreens to turn down the heat. Manufacturers have a lot to answer for in their quest to let us entertain ourselves (sometimes to death), but handheld devices are on us, even when mated to the vehicle’s in-house systems.

If you watch AMC’s Better Call Saul (and why wouldn’t you?), you’ll know that one of the top lawyers on the show believes he has electromagnetic hypersensitivity; on the rare occasions he gets into the office, everyone must toss their cellphones into a bin and go electronic commando. If you’ve ever been somewhere and been told to shut your phone down, you’ll know it’s almost impossible for some people to do so. Watch someone’s phone vibrate and watch their hand twitch to reach for it. The only way to ignore it is to bin it and remove it from the room. It’s startling, if you think about it, how fast we got here. Remember waiting until the end of the day to play back messages? Remember waiting for a letter in the mail?

Which is why the threat of fines does little to get cellphones out of drivers’ hands. It’s a deeper rooted Pavlovian response.

It’s also why, after ruminating for a few days on the RCMP’s quest for long-range photo surveillance, I did an about-face. The loss of privacy, even in a public place, will do nothing but generate fines while failing to address the core problem: getting drivers to remove the phone from their reach, to remove the temptation that is too great for too many to overcome. They admit they have to get a photo with the phone clearly in sight, meaning anyone holding it beneath the dash can’t be caught this way.

Surreptitiously snapping pictures of people is gross. I’m on board for red-light cameras, as those intersections are clearly marked. But this long-range photo snipering is too Big Brother for me; I much prefer the campaigns here and in the U.S. a few years ago, where cops posed as homeless people or squeegee kids at intersections and busted those texting.

That was ingenious, and no more invasive than the driver beside you glancing over.

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Car-sharing a leased vehicle? You’re playing with fire

This is a get-rich scheme that’s bound to fail

Originally published: May 23, 2016

“In December 2015, it was possible to lease a Chevy Cruze for $18/month with $0 down. There was no catch – it was real and I added multiple Chevy Cruzes to my ‘fleet.’ ” – from a website instructing people how to get rich by sharing their cars.

This would be awesome advice, except you can’t drive for programs like Uber or rent out your car with services like Turo if you have a leased car.

Turo, a car-share program that launched here in Canada a few weeks ago (formerly known as Relayrides), has been working its way through the U.S. much like Uber, though it provides a different service. Uber lets you summon a ride with a tap on your phone; it cuts out taxis and airport limos. Turo lets you rent a private car for a day or a week and drive yourself; it cuts out car rental agencies. Both services thrive on the whole “who-needs-rules?” policy to celebrate and support the “new” economy that so many are embracing. Foolishly.

I’ve used this space in the past to draw attention to the fact that many Uber drivers have been operating without insurance; your normal personal auto policy does not permit you to drive commercially. Taking money – and failure to inform your insurer that you are doing this – will retroactively void that policy in most instances. The problem? Commercial policies are incredibly expensive in comparison to personal ones; it’s why a cab ride costs more. Uber doesn’t care, because Uber’s guidelines for drivers are full of words like “make sure you notify your insurer.” Your insurance is not their problem. They have a policy that covers their ass. Aviva Canada recently introduced a bridge policy to allow its customers to drive up to 20 hours per week for a ride-share program and be covered, for a bump in their rates. Several brokers I’ve spoken to have not been inundated with calls.

“The proper insurance … will show only on the actual policy, not the ‎pink slip,” explains Debbie Arnold of Sound Insurance. That bump might be as little as $500 additionally per year, or as much as … well, that depends on your driving record. Colour me skeptical, but if someone is already paying a premium for being a, shall we say spirited driver, I’m sure the accompanying rise will be far more than five hundred bucks, though admittedly less than the quote of $17,000 one driver received before the introduction of Aviva’s new hybrid policy.

Canadian jurisdictions are struggling with how to adapt to a new world order; do they demolish their existing rules because companies like Uber don’t care anyway? Some are trying to do a stepchild version, like Toronto letting the traditional cab industry do “surge” pricing while requiring Uber drivers to submit to the city a copy of their driver’s licence, vehicle inspection and proof of appropriate insurance. Alberta has gone one step further and requires car-share drivers to have a professional Class 4 licence, as well as a police check. Mississauga recently outlawed Uber, period. I’m not against change, and these business models have certainly been embraced by users. I am against lawless, unregulated, undocumented and no doubt tax-evading schemes masquerading as the wave of the future.

I am mostly against commercial interests – Uber, Turo – dodging and weaving around the law. I’m against fuzzily worded instructions to those eager to make a few bucks. Turo does better than Uber on insurance – they have a commercial policy in place for their car owners that covers their vehicles while they are being driven by others. But as that opening quote demonstrates, they’re sitting on their hands while their “agents” throw themselves into legal jeopardy. When I spoke with Turo CEO Andre Haddad, I asked about people assembling fleets of cars to keep the money rolling in. He told me he was proud of their entrepreneurship but failed to mention how using leased vehicles in that fleet was breaking their lease agreements virtually every time.

“Most lease agreements forbid commercial use; you can’t sublet a lease,” explains J.P. Ostiguy, senior manager with the Alta Group, the country’s largest Nissan and Infiniti dealer group and part of Zanchin Automotive. He has seen a leased vehicle seized, when it was brought in for service covered in Uber signage. “The agreements say you can’t use it for commercial purposes without written permission; and that’s just not going to happen,” he says.

It stands to reason. When you lease a car, you don’t own it. The owner is the leasing company and you are essentially paying to borrow the car. Car forums are full of people saying things like, “Just don’t tell your insurance company, just don’t tell your leasing company.” Nice. Vehicles that have been used as rentals are identified and classified as such for a reason. Our laws protect consumers by informing them of their history. Do you want to buy a car that’s been used like a taxi without knowing it? Before you say “not my problem,” trust me: It will eventually be your problem, whether you buy one or your kid does. People who demand consumer protection in the vehicle world have a role to play; you can’t suck and blow at the same time.

Those seeking to make money on ride-share and car-share services are soon discovering that the prettiest girls get asked to prom. Users want upscale vehicles and will pay more. They’re answering by assembling upscale cars, basing their budgets on the waterfall of cash they will soon be hauling in. The Turo site in the U.S. features a lot of high-end stock, such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Do posters own these cars? Perhaps. But I don’t know a single owner of a really great car who hands the keys over to a stranger, which leads me to believe we have a whole new set of people prepared to say, “What could possibly go wrong?”

Dunno about you, but I’ve been around long enough to know plenty can, and will, go wrong.

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Where are all the female crash test dummies?

Car safety has come a long way — particularly if you’re a male driver

Originally published: May 16, 2016

You may not know it ladies, but there is a good chance that car you just purchased for its excellent crash rating won’t do as well to protect you as it will your husband or father. After decades of using only male crash test dummies, agencies who perform the crash testing – including Transport Canada, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – finally use a female form. But that doesn’t mean they’re using her to base the bulk of their research on.

According to a 2013 report by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, the likelihood you would die from car crash related injuries back in 1970 was 27.6 out of 100,000. By 2010, that number had tumbled to 11.1/100,000. While car manufacturers have always known consumers would be taking safety seriously, the only way they can create and refine safety technology is with input from the medical community; they need to know how human bodies react in crashes.

For decades, this was achieved using cadavers. We don’t like to think about it, though Spain admitted it had gone back to using cadavers in 2013 because it was just too expensive to purchase the technical marvels years of research have created: those anthropomorphised crash test dummies.

Crash test dummies became so popular in the late 1980s after they debuted in a series of public service announcements (what better way to say “we’re no longer using live animals and dead people!” then to show us the dummies?), they even had their own line of toys. They proved too successful, and soon had to disassociate themselves from the original campaign because people found it off-putting that a child’s toy featured bodies blowing apart. Guess they’d never met a kid.

Crash testing has been around since the early 1930s, when car manufacturers realized they would have to start protecting occupants as more and more vehicles flooded the roads. Manufacturers, government and insurance companies have all played important roles in those falling fatality rates. It was Mercedes-Benz engineer Bela Barenyi who introduced crumple zones, used beginning in 1959, allowing a vehicle to systemically fold in on impact to absorb the brunt of a collision. Until then, the thinking had been more tank-like: big and heavy will protect occupants, when in fact a car maintaining its rigid shape simply left its occupants to be hurtled about at full force. Crumple zones mean the vehicle now absorbs more of the force, making it safer for those inside.

Those who specialize in the science of protecting drivers and passengers face an onerous task. “Do not underestimate the complexity of the human body,” laughs Suzanne Tylko, chief of Crashworthiness Research for Transport Canada. I had initially contacted her to ask why females are so sadly underrepresented in her industry – literally. Overwhelmingly, crash test data are centred on the use of a typical male crash test dummy. Female dummies existed in a limited way, though it wasn’t until the 1980s that GM incorporated them into its testing, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration only started using them in 2003.

Tylko acknowledges there are pronounced differences between the sexes that impact the outcome of a crash; she also doesn’t see it changing much. “There are so many factors, that we really have to get a representative dummy, an average,” she notes. Things like age, bone density, organ size and fitness – a population steadily gaining weight has presented manufacturers with issues ranging from seatbelt accommodations to actual seat size. From a safety perspective, it would be impossible to replicate every factor.

And yet, parsing information on what is the safest ride for a woman soon becomes near impossible. While Tylko’s lab looks at every configuration within a car regarding driver, passenger and rear seat occupants, the fact remains that the female crash test dummy — yes, the female crash test dummy (there is only one model) — is 4-foot-11 and weighs less than 50 kilograms. I could practically put her in my pocket. As heartening as it is to see more institutions recognizing that women deserve to be included in the ongoing research, it’s hard not to scratch your head at the wisdom of creating a single representation of half the population that is the size of Thumbelina. The manufacturer, a Detroit company called Humanetics, has several variations of male dummies, and Transport Canada is soon to take delivery of THOR, the newest and best version. Price tag? Between $650,000 and $800,000.

A young, fit male is going to have the best odds of surviving a crash. That makes sense, as the auto industry has spent decades finding out what is safest for a dummy version of him. A Carnegie Mellon University study from 2007 found that men have a 77 per cent higher risk of dying in a collision than women; I can see why the industry is taking pains to protect the most vulnerable. But the same study points out an 18-year-old male has the same driving risk as an 80-year-old female, which tells me we’re looking at something even the most sophisticated crash test dummy can’t factor in: behaviour.

The advanced work by people like Suzanne Tylko and her colleagues in countries around the world has helped us arrive at a generation of the safest vehicles, ever. Companies such as Humanetics have banished, for those who can afford it, the grisly use of cadavers, though researchers are quick to point out the invaluable contribution they made to the field of biomechanics. “We are predicting risk,” says Tylko. She notes that every test puts forth incremental increases in safety, and allows researchers to build relative comparisons that can be ranked. Seatbelts are designed to be used in conjunction with airbags; always have your seat in the proper position.

When you go to buy a car, keep in mind the crash test ratings, but also keep in mind who they were based on. From the Washington Post: “A 2011 study by the University of Virginia’s Center for Applied Biomechanics found that seatbelted female drivers in actual crashes had a 47 per cent higher chance of serious injuries than belted male drivers in comparable collisions. For moderate injuries, that difference rose to 71 per cent.”

A Swedish researcher, Astrid Linder of the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, has developed a female crash test dummy that better represents the distaff side of things. It’s still a rough prototype, but Volvo is involved.

Which means I can look forward to seeing it.

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Boneheaded drivers, stunt driving is not all about speed

Blocking a driver from changing lanes? Bolting off a light to make a left turn? Congratulations, you could be charged with stunt driving

Originally published: May 9, 2016

You might remember when Ontario introduced its infamous stunt driving laws in September 2007. There was a lot of outcry in some sectors that the law essentially made a cop the judge, jury and executioner, right there by the side of the road. I may (cough) have been one of them. Do 50 km/h over the speed limit, and you get automatic impoundment of your car for seven days, a $2,000 fine and a week-long suspension of your licence. And that was just the start of the fun. By the time you added in demerits (six) and other circumstances, you could be up to $10,000 in fines and jail time.

The “50 over” part was of course what grabbed easy headlines; there was always more to the law than that, and it’s why variations of it have been picked up in other parts of Canada like Quebec, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Manitoba. There are differences within the respective laws, but the spirit is similar. Alberta continues to monitor according to speeding and careless driving laws, though tiny Prince Edward Island has a section on what qualifies as stunt practices.

Call it whatever you like; speeding, street racing, aggressive driving, stunt driving, dangerous or reckless driving – critics are correct that existing laws cover most of what is included under many stunt wordings; some, like reckless driving, fall under the criminal code. But the intent was to give officers a tool that addressed an increasing practice on our roads: people using them as racetracks. It’s hardly new; Jim Stark and Danny Zuko were sending up sparks on screen long before The Fast and the Furious made its debut. What has changed is increasingly sophisticated cars, and a lot of unsophisticated drivers trying to replicate their onscreen heroes.

The stunt law wasn’t about using a hammer to kill a flea; it was about using a hammer to pound in a very large, stupid nail. The charge covers things like weaving at high rates of speed, crossing into oncoming traffic for longer than it takes to complete a pass (playing chicken), blocking someone from changing lanes, and more. In Ontario, if you bolt off a light and make a left ahead of oncoming traffic, that’s stunting. Someone in your trunk? That, too. The speed is the instigator of the charge in most cases, but it is surrounding behaviour that backs it up. I agree with critics of the law that speed alone shouldn’t merit the roadside hook; according to Greg Schweiler at Trafficstop.ca, people charged with stunt driving are gambling so much on pleading not guilty they will gladly plea out to 49 over and have the charge reduced to Section 128 of the Ontario HTA – speeding. He acknowledges that courts rightfully view 50 km/h over in the city far more harshly than they do on the highway. Don’t look for much leeway there.

My initial concerns back in 2007 were that cops would be gleeful at the chance to get any car doing 151 km/h on our highways onto a tow hook. They’d be making the call for kicks. Actually, the wording of the law (and cops don’t make the laws) says they “shall” seize the car for impound if it’s doing 50 km/h over the speed limit. Not “may.” Shall. Because those speeds are often accompanied by the characteristics inherent in street racing – weaving, blocking, lifting and squealing tires – I’m okay with getting them off the street and letting them have their day in court. Toronto Police Services Constable Clint Stibbe tells me virtually every ticket is fought in court, too, with varying results. He clocked a woman doing 101 km/h in a 50 zone; she was late getting her kid to school, who was in the back seat. The bigger concern here isn’t being played out on the highways; it’s the idiots who are using your local streets as racetracks.

I profile other drivers as surely as airport security profiles fliers. I’ve taught my sons to pay attention to signs drivers give off if they’re about to get aggressive: creeping at crosswalks, eyes clapped only on the traffic signal, ready to blast out of the blocks like some Olympic sprinter. Yes, you get to be first – but too bad you didn’t notice a pedestrian step off the curb. I don’t trust polite drivers who wave others through stop signs, long after they legally should have gone themselves, or if you’re looking at your passenger as you talk to them, or if your driver’s seat is reclined so far back you look like you’re sitting in your La-Z-Boy after eating too much dinner at grandma’s.

You’re not in control if you have your dog on your lap. Actually in some jurisdictions this falls under the stunt laws, like in PEI where it is not permissible for “any person or thing to occupy the front seat of a motor vehicle in such a manner so as to impede the driver in the free and uninterrupted access to and use of the steering wheel, brakes and other equipment required to be used for the safe operation of the motor vehicle.” This means you can’t have Fifi on your lap, or a watermelon, or your date.

Do laws like this really change anything? I knew a man who viewed those speeding billboards much as he did menus; it was the cost of driving as fast as he wanted, and he had the wallet to do so. The extended fear of the punishment being so much more than a speeding ticket – stranded by the side of the road, impound fees, insane insurance rates – has provincial police saying it is definitely making a measurable impact. Some argued it was not constitutional, including a judge. But back in 2010, the Court of Appeal for Ontario in R v. Raham upheld the constitutionality of Ontario’s stunt driving provisions. This decision was not appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, according to the Ministry of the Attorney General’s Office.

There will always be some, like the 18-year-old from Kleinberg, Ont., who two years ago was busted doing 240 km/h on Highway 407. Hard to think the law meant much to him, when he’d posted a picture of his Nissan GT-R on Twitter the week before under the caption, “bring on the tickets.”

He forgot about the bus pass.

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