Mastering the not-so-festive dance of Christmas mall parking

No one likes to be there, but these tips can make finding a spot a bit more tolerable for everyone

Originally published December 5, 2016

Decorations are up and Christmas music is playing in almost every store you visit; yup, it’s that festive time when when you’d give your kingdom for a parking spot and people consider causing bodily harm to others to celebrate the season. When you do have to make the inevitable trips to the mall for gifts (or even just deodorant and toothpaste), just make sure you don’t give away your self-respect, your health and your ethical centre while you’re at it. Here are a few tips to navigate parking lots in the festive season.

Never take a handicapped parking spot unless the person the tag belongs to is shopping. Never, ever, ever. You will go to hell if you do this. Do not leave a person with mobility challenges in the car like a placeholder while you take advantage of that sticker. When you get to hell, the waiting room will be full of people who have done this. Their number will never be called, so they will essentially spend their eternity in a waiting room in hell.

Stay out of the electric car charging spots if you’re not charging your EV. I don’t care if you think EVs are some communist plot against the eternal combustion engine; there will come a time when those charging stations will be a little further out from the main doors and not seem like such a perq. Flipside, if you’re charging your Leaf and you’re shopping for a long time, go take it off its umbilical cord and give someone a shot at those limited spaces.

The pregnant/little kids spots are up for grabs. I don’t take them, but I don’t care much if the unpregnant/child unencumbered do. Your level of festiveness may vary with how many times you’ve circled the lot.

If you are retired or have a flexible schedule (like say, a freelance writer) stay out of the malls after 6 pm and on weekends, if you can. This is the only time those with rigidly structured days can get there, so take pity and clear the runway. And, to be honest, if you don’t have to be there at those times, who would want to be?

Enter that parking lot with an open mind. Be relaxed. Assume you will be here for a long time, not a good time. Head to the back of the lot, no, farther, nope, a little more, there. It’s a nice night for a brisk walk.

Every time you shrug off that someone stole “your” spot, an angel gets its wings. Every time you honk your horn, an angel has its wings plucked off.

Back into your spots. I don’t do this at grocery stores because I need to access my trunk with a shopping cart. But it’s a safer option and you can probably get your bags in your car, and minimize the risk of hitting someone or something as you pull out. People are stupid in parking lots, in the dark, in a hurry, at Christmas. You still don’t get to hit them, and you’d feel really bad if you did.

Use your signals.

Appreciate that others actually don’t have any idea how long you’ve been waiting for a spot, and aren’t zipping into one that opens up to spite you. At a deli we all have a number; in a parking lot, it’s law of the jungle.

If you’re heading to your car and you notice you have a parking stalker, creeping along in their car and waiting for your soon-to-be vacant spot, let them know you’re about to weave through six lanes of parked cars and they’re free to follow you. Also let them know if you’re just dropping things off and are going back in for Round Two.

Some places have concierge parking services. Use it if you can afford it and consider it the gift you give yourself. Because they used dedicated lots, it also takes one more car from the general bedlam of the main lots.

If you have to make a call or a text, please, please do it in the mall before you leave. The passive aggressive parking spot squatters are worse than parking spot thieves. Getting in your car and having a twenty minute conversation at this time of year is, of course, your right. It is also rude. There are actual studies that show people take longer to exit a spot if they know someone is waiting for it. The studies were done before cell phones, so I wish someone would update them because I guarantee it’s gotten worse. We’re better than this. Aren’t we?

If your blood pressure is climbing, pull away. Seriously. Extricate yourself, even if you’re “right” from anything contentious. Another loop of the lot is better than confrontation. Several people were shot over parking spots in the U.S. during Black Friday sales. I never thought I would live long enough to write that sentence. Then again, there are many sentences I thought I’d never write regarding the U.S.

Or, do what I do. Stay home and order online.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Planning for your retirement – from driving

With our skills diminishing as we get older, being proactive will put the decision in your hands, not those of someone else

Originally published November 28, 2016

Have you planned for your retirement from driving?

Not as crazy as it sounds, and yet, something few of us consider as we age. “We think about RRSPs and pensions and living arrangements, yet few people plan for their retirement from driving,” explains Tim Danter, a driving expert from Oakville, Ontario. As owner of a Drivewise school and head instructor on TV’s Canada’s Worst Driver, he’s seen it all.

The result of that lack of planning can be devastating to individuals, stressful on families and have catastrophic results on our roads. The law can stipulate ages or incidents that will trigger a retesting. In Ontario, if you have an at-fault collision after age 70, you could be required to take the G2 exit test – the one with highways. If you’ve never done a road test since the one you did at perhaps 16, this is hugely stressful.

At 80, you will be required to do a written test that looks for cognitive lapses. In addition to a vision test and watching a 45-minute video to update general information and new traffic laws, you draw a clock face and you cross out all the “H”s in a block of print. You can see these tests in advance online. They are not testing your ability to cram for an exam; these are scientifically vetted ways to test cognitive function. It’s like measuring your height: You are what you are, and you can’t fudge it.

Draw the clock face, cross out all the “H”s, and you’re good. Fail to do so, and the Ministry could be requiring further medical information from your doctor and could require a G1 exit road test – the one that doesn’t have highways.

An Ottawa reader, Des Gurnett, contacted me in the summer, understandably upset. He was 90 years of age, had a perfect driving record, was active and involved in his community and family, and had somehow, on the required written test, missed an entire row of “H”s. He was upset with himself but angry at the system. Now he had to go through all the hassle of a road test.

I asked him to consider it an opportunity rather than a punishment. I told him we all have lapses as we age, and our bad driving habits become ingrained long before 80, or 90. An independent assessment can do a number of things:

  • Tell you in an unbiased way those things you need to improve.
  • Remind you that driving is a privilege, not a right.
  • Show you many tiny changes you can make to be a better driver, such as seating positions and mirror settings.
  • Remove the burden from your family, where this discussion often becomes adversarial and emotional.
  • Let you know if it’s time to hang up the keys.

We’re not going to see regularly mandated retesting of drivers in any province anytime soon. It takes political will, and seniors vote. Virtually everybody considers it insulting being told they need to be retested for that which they consider themselves to be competent (or excellent). No politician is going to put him- or herself in that particular line of fire. The fact that the medical community notes 10 per cent of the population experience mild dementia by age 65 means a 15-year gap until any testing is done here in Ontario, with similar timelines in other provinces. That’s a huge gap.

The American Automobile Association is even more pointed: “Seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of seven to 10 years.”

Which brings us back to Danter’s central point: How are you planning for your driving retirement? Many of those seniors continue to drive into that seven- to 10-year gap because they have made no plans to not be driving. This is a family and community issue, not simply a personal one. We need support in place to keep seniors driving safely for as long as possible. What does he recommend?

  • Plan ahead. Don’t wait for a government-mandated age to assess your skills.
    Make an appointment with an approved instructor (check your provincial website, such as the MTO).
  • The cost for an hour should be around $75. A written report will cost a little more, and you might need a few lessons. They’re worth it.
  • Keep in mind if this sort of evaluation is ordered by the Ministry, the costs to you could be considerably more, in the $500-600 range.
  • If you do fail the written test as my reader did, you can take the road test as many times as you want, and there is no cost. But to do this without some outside assistance would be a bad idea.

Des from Ottawa is a convert now. I recommended professional assistance to him, he sought it out and ultimately passed his test with no problems: “I would do the same thing again. Seniors should always get professional help as it points out many areas that you imagined you knew. As we grow older our skills diminish without us really being aware.” Keep your mind open, like Des did.

Plan your driving future so you can control it.

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Teaching (and learning) the art of the manual gearbox

Patience is the key, no matter what seat you’re in

Originally published November 21, 2016 (with video)

There has been a steady, notable decline in young people bothering to get driver’s licences. That’s a fact bolstered by insurance surveys as well as manufacturer’s own studies. And while there has also been a large drop in the availability of manual transmissions for several decades now, I have anecdotally noticed one thing: many of the kids who do have and want their licences also want to learn to drive a stick shift.

Like most things in life, being able to do it doesn’t necessarily make you able to teach it, and this is very much a two part equation: learning to drive a manual, and teaching to drive a manual. I believe anyone can learn the skill, with enough practice, but I’ve heard too many horror stories to believe that just anyone can teach it.

For the student

There are some great graphics you can find on line that show exactly how a clutch works. It’s not about making sure someone could pass a mechanic’s exam, it’s about envisioning what is actually taking place as you depress a clutch and select a gear.

Seating position is always important, but it now becomes critical. Your left foot has to be able to fully engage the clutch without reaching. You also can’t be sitting so close you’re tempted to ride the clutch. Spend a few minutes getting into the right seating position.

The type of vehicle you learn on matters. Stiff clutches are difficult for those mastering the skill, and slushy shift patterns lead to panic when you can’t find a gear. The 2017 Honda Civic Hatchback we were using for this piece is great for teaching, with its light clutch and precise shifter; a rumbling muscle car can simply be overwhelming. A note on that Honda: the company reckons about 10 per cent of its sales go to manual transmissions, which is more than double the industry average. And for anyone who thinks learning is of little use, figure that if you rent a car in most European countries, it will nearly always have a stick.

No radio, and throw out the phone. Even if you’ve been driving for years, learning a manual requires concentration and focus. I like a window open so you can hear as well as feel the engine. After a while, that tactile connection with the car is second nature.

You need a closed course, or as close to one as you can get. I learned going round and round a cul de sac, but a near empty parking lot will do.

Be cool. Seriously. Take a deep breath, acknowledge that this is going to take some time, and accept that everybody – everybody – stalls. Everybody. The fact you want to know how to do this means you have an interest in being a better driver, a more engaged driver. You can get the basics down in a couple of hours one afternoon, but the magic beans point of engagement is driving a car with a stick shift for one week, every day, before it starts to feel like a logical extension of yourself. That, you can’t do in a few hours, and mastering any new skill takes time. Give yourself time to improve, and get back on the horse every time you stall.

For the teacher

Remember what you’re asking learners to do: start using their left foot in synchronicity with their right hand, while still maintaining the throttle and brake, steering and being in command of all that is going on around them. You’re adding a lot of things to the existing act of driving that so many of us do reflexively.

Isolate those movements at the start. Have the student first work through the gear pattern on the stick shift. Start the engine. Keep their right foot off the throttle. Tell them to engage the clutch and put the car in first. Slowly release the clutch so they can feel the car start to move forward. At a few kilometres per hour, have them put the clutch back in and shift to second. Again, no throttle. As the transmission reaches for its base RPM, the speed will pick up. You can work through all the gears this way, at low speeds what don’t require the fuel pedal but won’t stall. Let your student get a feel for the clutch and shift movement without worrying about the throttle.

As you add in the throttle, admit that getting it into first is the toughest. Have them stall on purpose so they get used to that shuddering halt. Face their fears with them.

Never raise your voice. Seriously. If you’re a yeller, don’t try to teach someone stick. You will rattle them for a long time, and may even keep them away from the skill forever. And it is a skill, and it does take practice. Nervous drivers are dangerous drivers, so you are teaching confidence along with the mechanics. Admit if this isn’t you, and find someone to teach in your stead who is.

When a student is ready to venture out onto a (quiet) roadway, remind them where their hazard lights are. In the event of a freakout, better they warn the cars around them. Explain repeatedly: when in doubt, clutch down, or in. Everybody is terrified of stalling. Tell them with the clutch in, this likely won’t happen.

When you’ve successfully taught someone to drive a stick, remind them to tap the brakes even if they’re gearing down to warn those behind them that they are braking.

The first thing my most recent student said to me was, “I’m so busy, I could never be eating or have my phone on.” She’s right. We may be chasing the manuals to extinction but it’s at the same time that texting drivers are killing actual people off. Too bad, that.

For anyone who has been scared away from learning because of an impatient teacher or an onslaught of nerves, just remember: your failure to learn is my failure to teach.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Don’t persecute the tinkerers, celebrate them

Do they make your neighbourhood ugly? Maybe, but they also make everything work again

Originally published November 14, 2016

Sometimes people work from home. Maybe you have no idea this is so, if it’s someone like me who quietly types in my kitchen and is only handy for receiving must-be-signed-for packages when you’re out. But maybe it’s something a little more visual, more in-your-face. Maybe someone has a few cars scattered around the yard, and maybe this is against local bylaws. Or maybe they just have one old car that hasn’t moved since Winston Churchill was in power, and you would like it gone.

I’ve been following the legal unfolding of such a case in Harbeson, Delaware (population: 973), where a local man has built an admittedly large (over 1,900 square feet, or 178 square metres) four-car garage, complete with lifts. The owner is a gearhead who now uses a wheelchair, and he lets his friends wrench in the space and he also does work for others – and doesn’t charge them. So of course his neighbours are suing him, and a judge just batted that out of the sky like an anti-aircraft missile.

This little story from a little town is actually much bigger than some bickering neighbours putting their snouts into another’s business, and it’s bigger than whether your idea of neighbour beautification involves more tulips than steel. This is about the contributions we make to our communities, and the respect we hold for those who aren’t just like us.

If you’re lucky, you have someone in your loop, either socially or geographically, who can fix things. I had Geoff Penney, one street over, who no doubt would have ended up facing down the lawyers of those Harbeson, Delaware, crankyfaces if they’d been his neighbours. The Penney house is on a beautiful street, a real estate hot spot, and his drive usually sported several vehicles in various states of repair. His garage was a catacomb of many eras, a maze of the unknown to the untrained eye but a bonanza of riches to Geoff.

Geoff Penney

As housing prices started to climb, we’d often wondered who would start the ball rolling to get all lawyered up to strip Geoff down. But time and again, nothing happened. I’d heard there had been rumbling years before my time, but nothing came of them. Because it wasn’t just that Geoff could fix old cars, it was that Geoff could make a house call and fix your fridge, that he could get you going on that snowy morning when no way was CAA gonna get you to work on time, and Geoff could unbreak the lawnmower your kid broke by running over something that to this day he won’t admit what – the kid, not Geoff.

Geoff was never without a rag in one hand and a wrench in the other, and conversations moved with the grace of an expert juggler. He could add in one, then two, then three people, all while fiddling with a chainsaw or peering into the back of a clock that had mysteriously stopped ticking off the moments.

He was fascinated by machinery, and it spoke to him. With Geoff, you didn’t have to “just go buy a new one,” anathema to anyone who has respect for quality craftsmanship, a hard-earned dollar or endless landfills. We need the tinkerers, the fixers, the engineers, the craftsmen and the mechanics. And we need these people so we can learn, or at least respect that which is growing scarcer every year.

We diagnose our cars with computers now, or perhaps more aptly, we diagnose our computers with computers. We’ve lost at least a generation of handing down the tools and the knowledge that did far more than change oil filters and swap out winter tires. We’ve lost the time and the stories and the bonding, between parents and children and between neighbours, which went with the territory of that guy who could fix everything and took as much delight as the doubting owner when something dead sprang back to life.

There is a middle ground between rusted out hulks littering the landscape and a landscape for learning and fixing those things that are broken. Just like all that glitters is not gold, all that waits patiently for repair is not rot.

Geoff Penney died suddenly just over three years ago. I knew then it would be a tremendous blow for his family and friends, but the loss to our little community continues. So here’s to the fixers and the engine whisperers who live among us and support their communities in ways we sometimes forget to value in our rush to scrub this up and wash that down.

As for that judge in Harbeson, Delaware, somewhere Geoff Penney just pulled the cap off a beer for you, sir. Thank you.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Saving lives is more important than blaming “petextrians”

Instead of buying into the blame game, we all need to take responsibility for each other’s safety – and, of course, our own

Originally published November 4, 2016

This week, Lorraine Sommerfeld and David Booth found themselves at odds concerning the announcement about a new system by Ford, which can detect and warn a driver of pedestrians distracted by their phones – or, “petextrians.” Lorraine gives her argument “for” here, and you can follow the link at the end for David’s alternate viewpoint.

“I believe he was actually on that damn phone, because that’s all he had in his face was that damn phone,” he said. “I believe he was looking at it and tragically walked in front of a vehicle.”

This sentence is breaking my heart. Not because I knew the family of a young man killed as he crossed a busy undivided highway near my city, but because his father painfully, but immediately, sought to lay blame not on a motorist, but on his own obviously beloved son. Sometimes people we love do dumb things. And sometimes it ends tragically.

Many collisions between cars and pedestrians or cyclists go unreported, including those that happen on private property, such as parking lots; that skews statistics. Most of us see dozens of people texting and walking every day, which makes our anecdotal knowledge feel stronger than the fact that the majority of pedestrians in Toronto (Pedestrian and Cycle Safety Report) – in fact, 67 per cent – had the right of way at the time they were hit; the vehicle had the right of way only 19 per cent of the time.

When cars meet pedestrians, regardless of who is at fault, it is the pedestrian who pays the biggest price. Always. Same with cyclists. Yet it remains a loaded conversation to have, as if ascertaining blame could somehow change physics. With drivers being increasingly distracted, pedestrians have to remain more vigilant; instead, campaigns to increase pedestrian and cyclist safety end up with one side blaming the other, and injury and fatality rates that remain stubbornly unacceptable.

Available statistics about car/pedestrian collisions can be twisted and folded a thousand ways, but most fail to recognize the fact that we do not have roadways, nor a car culture: We have a transportation system, and that transportation system encompasses those who walk, cycle, use mobility devices, drive, ride motorcycles or jog. That’s a lot of demands to place on a system, but no one life in that system is worth more nor less than another.

Inattentive pedestrians are a problem; jaywalking pedestrians are also a problem. But if 67 per cent had the right of way when hit, it’s wrong to keep solely blaming pedestrians. The weather is a huge factor, too, as witnessed by a recent dark, rainy October day when 18 pedestrians were hit on Toronto streets – one fatally. I shudder when I realize someone completely shrouded in black is crossing a street in front of me at night, and I have no indication they are even there. Sure, reflective vests look dorky, but looking dead isn’t a good look for many, either.

We know the slower cars are going, the far greater the safety of pedestrians. Last year a Toronto Board of Health study announced a person hit by a car going 50 km/h has an 85 per cent chance of dying; a car going 30 km/h cuts the risk to five per cent – so many jurisdictions are dropping speed limits to 30 km/h. That Toronto report also shows that the majority of collisions (54 per cent) take place on major arterial roads, those with 60 km/h posted limits. The next largest group is the minor arterials, at 34 per cent, with posted limits of 50 km/h. I am not a fan of artificially slow speed limits, including the recent rush to drop most inner speed limits to 30 km/h. Pedestrians are at their highest risk (69 per cent) in an intersection; we need to address crossing behaviour on both sides of the equation. And while the highest incident of collision occurs in intersections, the highest rate of fatality occurs mid-artery: jaywalking. Cars have gathered some speed, and these are not the streets that are already at 40 km/h (now 30 km/h).

It’s easy to blame young people for texting and walking, though studies now show that drivers who text and drive cut across many age groups. And pedestrians over 65 are over-represented in fatality rates, comprising just 14 per cent of the population yet showing up as half the deaths. Seniors are more likely to have cognitive issues, to move more slowly and to have a harder time recovering from injuries. Our population is aging, and pedestrian injury and death has to focus not just on school zones, but all our residents.

Toronto Police Traffic Services recently did an education blitz warning pedestrians that they aren’t to enter a crosswalk when the countdown indicator has begun. I read a lot of yipping about that, but I’ve been totally unable to turn at a light countless times because the crosswalk is always full of pedestrians regardless of the light cycle. Some cities are removing turns – both right and left – from their major downtown arteries to prevent the constipated results of cars unable to make safe turns.

Ford recently announced its newest people saving technology, Pre-Collision Assist with Pedestrian Detection, which will no doubt bring the Darwinists in swinging. It will detect people walking with their nose in a phone and warn the drivers with literal bells and whistles, and if that driver doesn’t respond, the car will brake itself to avoid the collision. Frankly, after Ford announced its intent to move to fully automated vehicles by 2021, announcements like these will be coming forward faster and faster; they’re simply part of the mechanisms that will be in place when there is no driver at all, not necessarily as a must-have feature to help you kill fewer people. This kind of tech is about not needing a driver rather than needing to warn one.

People on foot and on bicycles or any other device are part of our transportation system, as surely as any motorist. We have to do a better job at preventing metal from meeting flesh, but it’s going to take solutions and respect from all players. Drivers can’t rely on their car to warn them, people on foot need to be visible and aware and everyone has to know the rules aren’t just for everyone else.

See David’s opposing viewpoint at “Petextrians” proving Darwin right

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

A few things that need to change in cars

These problems are either annoying or dangerous – and in many cases, both

Originally published October 31, 2016

How do I hate thee, let me count the ways ….

Maybe hate is too strong a word. But if you watch new car ads, you’d be right to think every new invention, every new breakthrough, will be making your car life extraordinary. Instead, there are simply a lot of things that are just downright annoying.

Navigational systems are great. They’ve come so far over the past decade, it’s hard to believe anyone ever trusted them, before, ever. Most have overcome the delay that left you never knowing which way your little “you are here” arrow was really pointing. They’ve cleaned up directions to make them more user friendly, and the screens themselves are more responsive. So why do so many still insist on asking me if I’m sure I want to cancel a route? Cancel route, says the button. You press it. Are you sure you want to cancel route? Yes, Mom, I’m sure. And I’ve now had to take my eyes from the road twice rather than once. Navigation systems with trust issues.

As we descend into winter hell, the joy of heated seats, even on many entry-level cars, makes me wonder how I ever lived without them. Not just for rich bums anymore. But why do some manufacturers insist on making me activate them through a touchscreen? Why should I have to wade through two or even three levels of screens to turn them on? As surely you need a knob for volume control, you need separate buttons for heated seats. Stop making it difficult.

Speaking of that radio, a colleague recently brought a Subaru bugaboo to my attention. Subaru is now your raunchy radio censor. If Howard Stern and other adultish talk radio is your groove, rest assured that each time you turn the car off, it will helpfully reset the radio to the preview station to protect any youngsters that may be joining you on your next outing. That’s right: The manufacturer has hardwired a non-overridable command into its Legacy and Outback models that protects you from all the bad words. Talk about annoying.

While Subaru is thinking about the toddlers, other manufacturers are more concerned about the teens. Teen nanny systems – preset radio levels, no radio until seatbelts are done up, speed governors, software to trace where your kid has driven – are all big selling points to owners of teens. My sons have aged out of this sector but I spent years being targeted by carmakers who thought I would love these ideas. I don’t. If I don’t trust my kids, I don’t give them the keys. To monitor their every move is not beneficial, and merely delays people (and yes, teens are people) taking responsibility for their actions. Am I the only one who feels manipulated by auto manufacturers who raced to include ridiculous amounts of distracting technology in cars, only to have them turn around and propose yet more systems that will now protect me from what they introduced in the first place?

Many cars refuse to alert the driver that they are running with just daytime running lights on, and not their full system – including their rear running lights. Either engage the full system, or stop lighting up the dashboard and fooling too many drivers. When daytime running lights were mandated into law in Canada 25 years ago, it should have been mandatory that rear lights be connected to the system. So, I blame manufacturers for providing a half-assed solution and the government for allowing it.

Electronic gear shifters are more than an annoyance factor – it’s a safety one. Because you are adjusting the shifter so subtly, it’s easy to misjudge where you’ve set it. Without the definitive clunk of a regular shifter, you have to be more vigilant to make up for the fact that there is nothing intuitive about this design. Fiat Chrysler is heading to court over it, but they’re not the only ones using the design. I’m no fan of the fat dials that are being used in some Fords and Jaguars, among others, but I’ll take the argument that they’re being used to free up console space. Electronic gear shifters? You’re already using a shifter. Gimme something I can feel confident is in place.

Keep it simple, keep it intuitive, and keep the driver’s attention where it should be. And stop telling me I can’t listen to George Carlin.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Insurance changes make fine print more important than ever

After a near-fatal accident, Adam Bari discovered his insurance coverage had shrunk, just 12 hours previously, from $2 million to $86,000

Originally published October 24, 2016

I use this space right here to nag readers, on occasion. I also use my perch in front of a TV camera sometimes. Much of it is not riveting stuff, to be honest, but my, how important it can turn out to be.

You were told earlier this year of big new changes to Ontario’s auto insurance policies coming into effect in June. It was all over the media and your insurance company would have contacted you. We are inundated with information proclaiming to be the “most important” and “don’t miss this,” and I really have no idea how to cut through the clatter and clutter, only that we must find a way.

Insurance is administered by companies, but signed off on by the province. Changes can happen across the country, and there is no way to stress how critical it is to be aware of those changes. Adam Bari, a 34-year-old father of twins, found out in truly dreadful fashion what a difference a day can make. Or even just 12 hours.

Bari was t-boned on his motorcycle on June 1st, 2016, just outside of Hamilton, Ontario. As the CBC reported at the time, he was deemed not at fault, though his injuries included “brain trauma, multiple broken bones in his right arm, leg and hand, as well as internal organ damage.” Mistakenly pronounced dead at the scene, he awoke from a coma a month later; he also awoke to the news that he will face a long rehab, mounting medical costs and his insurance coverage to compensate had shrunk, just 12 hours previously, from $2 million to $86,000.

This is a brutal, brutal example of what can happen if you ignore the fine print or miss the warnings. The changes are in the metric of how injuries are classified, and thereby covered. As Deb Arnold, a broker with Sound Insurance Services points out, the changes were to rectify and clarify a system that was becoming burdened by lawsuits:

“The definition of ‘catastrophic injury’ prior to June 1 was extremely broad and left too much to interpretation, which led to far too many lawsuits for individuals not catastrophically impaired by injury. The new definition is tighter and more comprehensive. The purpose of the change was to clarify what would be eligible for a tort liability suit and what would not. However, there will forever be grey areas within the law itself and within the courts. The new definition only applies to accidents occurring on or after June 1, so the new definition has not yet been tested in court.”

All insurance policies have standard coverages and limits and deductibles. Consumers can change or augment them like an à la carte menu. Back in June, Ontario changed the wordings and limits in some of those coverages, and drivers should no longer just assume what’s now on offer is good enough or indeed, in some situations, even close to adequate.

The most substantive changes effective on June 1, 2016, are: Instead of $50,000 for medical and rehab plus $36,000 for attendant care for non-catastrophic injuries, the policy change drops to a total of $65,000, a 25 per cent decrease. For catastrophic injuries, instead of $1 million for medical and rehab and $1 million attendant care, the total for both is now $1 million.

Adam Bari appears to be caught between those changes on both diagnosis and definitions, and benefit schedules. Arnold believes “their only recourse is to sue the responsible driver,” something the family is planning to do. The problem, of course, is the years a suit can take to wend its way through the system.

“Since June 1, I’ve urged all my clients to purchase the maximum amount of coverage available for medical, rehabilitation and attendant care for both non-catastrophic and catastrophic injury,” says Arnold. “For a good driver, the average additional premium is $120 per vehicle, in some cases it’s only charged per policy. It is well worth this additional premium.”

Every Ontario policyholder should be having a discussion with their insurance provider to review their requirements for Accident Benefit buy-up options. There are seven components to consider, not just medical, rehabilitation and attendant care: income replacement, caregiver housekeeping and home maintenance, dependant care, funeral and death benefit, indexation and tort liability deductible.

The changes are part of a government promise to bring insurance costs down. While fraud must be identified and stopped, consumers need to understand the impact of what they are actually paying for. Get out your policy and do a “what if” scenario; consider if you couldn’t do all the things you usually do while you recover, consider if your income replacement would be adequate (it probably isn’t if you make more than $30,000 a year) and how a long recovery would impact your household. Many of us drive every day; collisions don’t have to be your fault for you to bear the fallout.

We’re inundated with fine print that many of us ignore or don’t understand. Your insurance renewals will come with announcements of these changes and schedules delineating standards and options. But as Arnold points out, “You can amend coverage at any time. Even if your policy isn’t subject to the new benefit schedule, you can request that it be cancelled and reissued with the new benefits and any optional buy-ups at any time without incurring a cancellation charge.”

Set aside some time and go over the fine print.

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Are safer cars making drivers more dangerous?

As cars take over more duties, drivers are getting lazy and assume they’ll be protected

Originally published October 17, 2016

The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) recently concluded a seatbelt blitz; they do it every fall. Between September 21st and October 7th they laid 4,252 charges. According to OPP spokesperson Sergeant Kerry Schmidt, that was down from last year by 1,243 charges. Fatalities to date are at 45, down slightly from 49 last year at this time. The same trend is holding true in Alberta, where Staff Sergeant Paul Stacey reports a 20 per cent drop in charges from last year in that province.

The true mind boggle is why they are still laying any charges at all. How stupid are people?

Schmidt says there is a consistent representation of who refuses to buckle up: overwhelmingly (three-quarters) male, between the ages of 24–35.

“The seatbelt law went into effect 40 years ago. This is not a generation who has ever known anything else,” he says. While Alberta has a more rural component to take into consideration, Stacey echoes the overrepresentation of males in the mix, both urban and rural.

“Of greater concern right now is the rising rates of fatalities due to distraction,” says Stacey. “We’re seeing increases in the U.S. and the U.K. and we’re trying to stop it, but it’s a tough battle. One of our members was hit while on a motorcycle; the motorist’s response? ‘But my lane departure light didn’t go off.’ We’re seeing a decrease in things like shoulder checking.”

Both officers make note of distracted driving as being a huge, and growing, concern, with the cocoon-like comfort of our cars, and the levels of distraction and entertainment too often removing the focus from the task at hand: driving. And as cars take over more and more of a driver’s duties, prepare for that skillset to fade, and for people to assume that the car will take care of things.

We’re at that time of year when we start to notice people who cruise around with only their daytime running lights on at night. I do fault manufacturers for not rectifying this deadly situation (DRLs in front, no lighting in the back; please pull on your full lighting harness if you’re not set in auto), but add things like lane departure warning systems that are falsely allowing drivers to think they no longer have to shoulder check. And it’s going to get worse. Backup cameras are great, but you still have to check behind you; front collision avoidance is handy, but you still can’t text. If drivers think their cars can do more and more, then drivers are going to do less and less. Fatalities and injuries are falling because cars are becoming so much safer, not because drivers are acquiring more skill.

Seatbelts are part of those technological advancements that are making some drivers take their safety for granted. Seatbelts aren’t just straps that bolt you in; ongoing research has made them engineering marvels that work in conjunction with your airbags to minimize injury to the occupants. The belt holds you a very precise and predictable position throughout the crash so the airbag can be effective without being deadly while the crumple zone absorbs the hit. Remove that restraint, and risk being flung clear of all those safety features that would otherwise greatly reduce injury and probably safe your life.

In Ontario, there are times when it is legal not to buckle up. If you have a medical certificate saying you can’t; your work means you’re getting in and out of the vehicle at frequent intervals, route not going over 40 km/h; rural Canada Posties; ambulance and firefighters while responding or working; cab drivers with a passenger, though they have to wear it when alone in the car (this differentiation makes no sense to me); someone in police custody, as well as the officers transporting them; and, when you’re going in reverse.

Those are your workable excuses. Schmidt has heard everything, including the classic, “My friend only escaped a fiery death because they were not buckled in and could crawl to safety.” I’ve been hearing that my whole life, one more urban legend that seems to have endless legs.

“There’s nothing worse than being a first responder and finding someone has been ejected,” continues Schmidt. “The safety cage is intact, the car did its job, all those safety features someone probably bought that car for, fatally negated.”

I’ve seen people slip the shoulder harness behind them. Please don’t do this. If you’re too big or too small for the factory installed belt, you can purchase extenders and resizers that will safely augment it to protect you. Some manufacturers will even let you order them when you buy the car.

Another journo related to me once that the 2015 Ford F-150 manual tells you how to disconnect the seatbelt chime. If you don’t have this Ford, don’t worry. The internet is teeming with workarounds to get rid of that annoying lifesaving chime in almost any vehicle.

Darwin for the win.

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Can we solve traffic problems with autonomous cars?

Taking humans out of the driving equation might be just what we need

Originally published October 11, 2016

You know who can’t wait for autonomous cars? Traffic engineers.

If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic jams, especially repeatedly, you’re already aware of one of the most confounding, annoying things: kilometre after kilometre of bumpers and brake lights, and then it finally just frees up. No huge crash, no debris on the road, no four-car police takedown of an escaping bank robber. Nothing.

Radio announcers will tell you, “It’s just volume, folks,” when in actuality, they should be telling you, “It’s just humans being human, folks.” Traffic engineers define and anticipate how our vehicles should travel to achieve optimum results, and drivers themselves throw wrench after wrench into the works.

Traffic engineers may just be the happiest people on earth when you talk about autonomous vehicles (able to function without a driver) and connected ones (communicate with other vehicles and their surroundings).

“We factor perception and reaction into things like traffic signals,” explains Jen Malzer, president of the Canadian Institute of Transportation Engineers (CITE). “For instance, a delay on a light might be two and a half seconds for ‘time to see, time to decide.’ An automated car won’t need that much time. Our goal is always to create the right mix in the right places.” Malzer lives and works in Calgary, but was in Toronto recently and noted the ongoing construction we’ve been choking on for years.

“Cities change, and we follow the trends of time. A lot of travel choices have to be met.” She notes that repairing ailing infrastructure is a time to meet those changes, with things like the addition of bike lanes and the lowering of speed limits.

There is an awesome little video you can watch that explains exactly how traffic does flow, and how it should flow. It ultimately offers up the best solution: automated cars. Automation will remove the human factor, a point in the win column for those champing at the bit for it to get here as well as for those of us who still have reservations.

It depicts cars basically acting like those on a rollercoaster, ultrasonic sensors determining a set distance that eliminates the chance for some car to perform a bolting lane change or constant bumper sniffing, the interpretative dance moves of driving.

The best drivers are predictable drivers. You can’t get much more predictable than a perfectly functioning, ego-less computer. I buy into the modelling, but I will forever have trust issues with computers, from performance to security. Traffic engineers are tasked with handling it all: geography, technology, climate, human behaviour and financial constraints.

Part of the problem is that previously, roads were engineered to be travelled at a speed usually higher than what was posted. We all know the result: drivers drive the speed that feels the most natural and safest, which, surprise, is the one it was engineered to be. Malzer says traffic engineers, especially in residential areas, are altering the way they calculate roads now.

“We know lower limits are safer,” she notes, and that traffic calming built into the original plan is more effective than aftermarket attempts to bring down the speed.

I’ve seen the improvements that governments and media try to implement to steer traffic in the right direction around congestion. I’ve seen warnings of road closures months in advance. I’ve seen the birth of radio station traffic watches every five minutes. I’ve seen the invention of overhead signage that can be changed as new information becomes available. I’ve seen in-car navigational systems that reroute you around impending logjams. I’ve seen phone apps that do the same. And for every single one of these solutions, I’ve continued to watch people think those warnings do not apply to them. Hell, I’ve been one of those people.

It’s human nature. I don’t trust governments who put those signs up that mean nothing (shovels never hit the dirt in time, completion dates are pulled out of a leprechaun’s butt); I’ve seen overhead warnings of dangers that often never materialize, and the endless line of brake lights that materialize over … nothing. Malzer calls them shockwaves. I’ve heard them called phantoms. Either way, it’s human to respond in a human way to conditions, real or perceived.

Traffic engineers are giddy with anticipation about autonomous cars. The human factor is probably the toughest part of their job, and removing it would allow them to deliver a safer, more livable experience. Malzer quotes New York City’s former Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, saying streets are a great public asset hiding in plain sight.

In spite of the increasing stress on our most crowded highways, there are scores of engineers and planners fiercely working to make your commute, your neighbourhood and your transportation experience not just an integral part of your life, but a good one. Their excitement about connected and autonomous cars reveals the best way to do that.

Taking us out of the equation.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Uber’s reach is growing – and here’s why I’m worried

Remember, here’s the bottom line: Uber plans to be fully automated and ditch their drivers

Originally published October 3, 2016

I’ve never made a secret of the pox that I believe Uber to be. Uber and all the other “sharing economy” exploits – AirBnB, Lyft – try to disguise a world that eschews regulation, oversight, consumer protection and workers’ rights. It’s like getting a stone chip in your windshield and then watching it grow into a spider’s web when even a little pressure is applied.

That spider web has reach, though. And whether you’re a big fan of Uber and use it all the time, or if you’re like me and avoid it like, well, like a pox, the company’s penchant for flouting laws can have implications for us all.

Don’t use it because you drive everywhere? Consider this in your next purchase of a used car. Constable Clint Stibbe with Toronto Police Services notes there are currently laws in place that let consumers know if they are buying a vehicle that was once a rental, a police car or a taxi. It’s called disclosure. At this point, no such thing applies to cars used for Uber. I’ve been calling attention to this since July 2015, and nothing has changed. That great deal you just found on Kijiji could have been driven just as hard as a cab or a rental. You might be buying a pig in a poke.

If you’re selling your car next to it, you’re now in an unbalanced situation. If my private car is up against a rental, a buyer will probably choose mine, depending on condition. But that buyer has no way of knowing unless the information is offered up by the seller, and frankly, that seller is hardly going to volunteer that information.

The Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council (OMVIC) regulates car sellers. It’s a layer of consumer protection in Ontario. They have a checklist of requirements for sellers, and one is that full disclosure must be made of material facts. “Is this fact material to the purchase of this vehicle?” In other words, would not knowing this make me reconsider or cancel my purchase? Many things are considered material, and their omission could result in OMVIC getting involved; they can charge sellers and assess fines. Previous collision, extensive repairs and daily rentals are all considered material. I’d like to add using your vehicle in a ride share program is material, as well.

And if you do use Uber on a regular basis, I’m aware there will be little to talk you out of it. Sometimes we forget that there is more than one currency in our lives, and the monetary cost has little to do with the societal impact of racing an economy to the bottom.

Uber has a $5,000,000 insurance policy in place to protect passengers, and it finally, after years of silence, extended insurance coverage for its drivers. They continue to operate in jurisdictions that don’t have laws to adequately cover them, and as local governments struggle to keep up – some are requiring professional licencing, most are now requiring criminal background checks for drivers, and adequate commercial insurance – Uber just rolls along, unperturbed by rules and regulations.

So maybe this autonomous car project Uber has going in Pittsburgh might solve this whole issue, right? You might want to read what Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told The Guardian:

“Nobody has set up software that can reliably drive a car safely without a human.”

Pretty eye-popping quote from the guy who is inviting you to catch a ride with his service. He said that in August, even though the launch of the service was earlier this summer. Granted, they still have techs behind the wheel, but make no mistake: Uber plans to be at the forefront of the blistering pace to be fully automated and ditch their drivers. Others (most notably Tesla) are eclipsing them, but the race is real.

In the pilot part of the program, according to another report in The Guardian, friends and family of Uber employees were invited to try out the service. First, they had to sign waivers that were very succinct. They release Uber from anything pertaining to “[r]isks associated with riding in an AV may include, without limitation, those caused by equipment failure, development vehicle operators or other safety drivers, actions of other motorists, weather, temperature, road conditions, negligence or human error,” according to acquired documents. These are the same cars now being used in public trials.

I understand if I choose to get in one of these cars and waive my right to, well, anything, but what about my rights as someone who hasn’t done this? Autonomous cars are great at some things, but there is still work to be done before they stop killing their occupants on occasion. You don’t have to be inside the car to be in danger; I’d prefer not to be a cyclist or a pedestrian around one. I know from self-parking exercises in several makes that this is not a completely reliable thing just yet.

But there are no regulations, and that’s the way Uber likes it. Even if you don’t use ride sharing programs, there are still ways they could be using you.

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