Things you should do now to survive winter’s wrath

There are things you can, and should, do yourself to get your vehicle prepared for winter

Originally published: November 25, 2015 (includes video)

I have this terrific way of getting my tires changed. I drop my car off to my mechanic and then I pick it up. Though my father made me learn how to change a flat a billion years ago, I’ve officially entered the world of don’t ask, don’t tell: do these things I am able to do myself and we will speak no more of it.

In the spirit of digging into more of the dirty jobs we take for granted, I decided it was high time I revisited my rusty tire changing ways. The timing was perfect; the temperature has been staying low and it was time to haul out the winter tires. What did I mostly learn? It’s more about the tools than the determination. I don’t own a torque wrench, and I’d prefer my tires were installed with one. So what else is your mechanic doing behind closed garage doors this time of year?

  • Start with those tires if you’re in one of Canada’s many snowbelts. Remember: it’s about temperature as much as snow and the more flexible compound of winter tires will keep you better adhered to the road.
  • A mechanic will also check all fluid levels, including antifreeze. You can do this yourself, but never release a hot radiator cap. A mechanic will also let you know if you should change to different weight oil for the cold weather.
  • Check your battery. A display will tell them not only if your battery is good or not, but how much life it has left. If you’ve always leased or turned cars over every few years, you may not know you’ll be replacing a battery around the four- or five-year point. Get it tested before you get stranded and remember – deep temperatures can still tax even a good battery.

If you do get stranded, you might have a tougher time getting a boost. Many manufacturers warn owners against boosting another battery; touchy electronic systems can be adversely affected and most don’t want to take a chance. Instead, consider a self-contained booster. A check on Amazon reveals prices that are all over the place, so do some homework and be sure you’re comparing apples to apples.

I really like the Noco Genius Boost lithium 12V charger; it’s advertised as Lorraine-proof – err, goof-proof – and it really is. You can use it to charge your electronic devices as well, extending its use far beyond a dead car battery. It retails for about $160, but watch for sales from now until Christmas at retailers and other websites; stick with reputable places if you’re ordering similar devices, as prices fluctuate wildly.

There are things you can – and should – do yourself.

  • Have a good snow brush. Make sure it’s long enough to let you clear the roof of your vehicle, because driving with that muffin on top of your car is not only dangerous, you look ridiculous. Make sure you clear off all your lights, too.
  • Swap out your wiper blades for winter ones. These will be a solid or encased design, so snow and ice doesn’t collect in the crevices of the blade. They should also be made of a compound similar to winter tires – they stay more flexible in cold temperatures. Follow the package instructions; they can be a little tricky at first, but usually just snap in place in a minute once you have it figured out.
  • Change to low temperature windshield washer fluid. Always carry an extra one (bungee it in your trunk so it doesn’t fly around) because being unable to see clearly in bad conditions can be deadly.
  • Have a first aid kit for emergencies. Retailers have kits ranging from about $15 and up, but once you pass $100, you’re probably in Never Gonna Use It territory. Several at Canadian Tire, for instance, come with a one-year road side assistance program, though I still prefer CAA. These make great Christmas gifts in any price range, but you can also make your own kit up. Last winter saw more motorists stranded due to inclement weather than in recent memory. It might not happen, but if it does, make sure you could live in your car for a few hours. If you typically go from house to underground parking, keep a pair of boots in the car. I have a pair that one of the kid’s outgrew; they look ridiculous but I’ve hauled them out more than once.

That’s the hardware, but also consider these reminders:

  • Determine if your car is operating with only daytime running lights if you don’t have your full headlight system on. There’s much more to talk about in this area, but especially in winter weather, you want to be visible the whole time you’re on the road.
  • Your smartest bet in maintaining your automobile all-year round is to read your owner’s manual. Yep. That book might still be wrapped in cellophane in the glove box. Bring it in and put it in the bathroom if you’ve been ignoring it. Everything about your warranty starts here, so you should learn it. Remember that we’re considered an extreme climate zone in Canada. That means every direction and recommendation for extreme climate zones means you.

Even if you do everything right, you still might find yourself in a collision. Most people are familiar with sharing insurance info and snapping pictures. But do yourself a favour and have a list of dealers or repair shops you could have your vehicle towed to should this happen.

Most of us follow a standard commute, and could know the most likely places. If not, you’re at the mercy of tow truck operators who may have their own ideas about where to take your vehicle. Police clearing a chaotic crash scene aren’t going to wait for you to make up your mind.

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Driver, how do I judge thee? Let me count the ways

It’s high time we call out some so-called “drivers.” You know, the ones endangering us all

Originally published: November 16, 2015

I know it’s not very politically correct to judge people these days, but when you’re sharing the road with too many people doing too many things that run the gamut from irritating you to killing you, I think you get to profile them.

Grilles gone wild: Stop dressing up your car like a kid in a preschool pageant. When I see reindeer antlers, noses, eyelashes and Christmas wreathes (I saw my first Thanksgiving wreath this year … oh my), I sigh inwardly for two reasons: I think your car is embarrassed, and that junk can all fly off and, at best, be litter and, at worst, cause another driver trouble.

Can you really see clearly now? I judge when you have so obscured your view through either windshield, I wonder why we bother having laws. I’m not talking about navigational systems (though I’ve seen them suctioned right in a driver’s eye line) but about collections of bobbleheads across a rear dash and dreamcatchers as big as my head swinging from the rearview mirror. Clear the clutter; it’s a car, not your bedside table.

Do you know the muffin man? You know this driver. He or she has cleared out a peephole after last night’s snowfall and is peering out like a groundhog. Atop the car sits a wedge of snow and, if you happen to be behind, you’ll be treated to your own private snowstorm as the driver takes part in that most time-honoured snow clearing method: letting the wind do it. I judge you if you don’t clear the snow from your car – all of it – because it makes you a menace.

Beam me up: Or down. Or not at all. You would never drive with your eyes shut, but because too many manufacturers are still too ignorant or lazy to fix the problem, we have far too many drivers cruising around with only their daytime running lights on. THE REAR OF YOUR CAR IS BLACK IF YOUR HEADLIGHTS ARE NOT ON OR IN AUTO. We are not encouraged to yell like that. I apologize. The fact your dash is lit up is not proof that your headlights are on; it is only proof that car makers refuse to make one of the most simple, least costly fixes that could save lives.

Your car gives “pit” stop a whole new meaning: If your car is a rolling fast food bag or gym locker, I judge. I don’t judge you for eating while you drive (though when I recently wrote that I eat apples behind the wheel, I had a reader apoplectic at my admission), or for grabbing your morning coffee. I judge when you can no longer see the floormats or the whole car smells like a dumpster. I get that it’s your car and we live in a free country. But having a cabin full of unsecured junk turns everything into a missile in the event of a crash, and while you won’t be impaled by a Whopper wrapper, you just might be hurt by that metal thermos you keep forgetting to return to your mom.

Autofocus is for cameras: Thank you for ditching the phone and yanking out the earbuds. Thank you for understanding that taking your eyes from the road for even a fraction of a second can be deadly. Thank you for noting other clueless drivers glued to their phones, and saving their lives even as they threaten everyone else’s. I judge them, but I also judge you for having the smarts to treat driving as a skill.

Reading comprehension: What a beautiful thing a full stop is. Too many think “stop” means “stoptional,” and endanger pedestrians – those kids we teach to cross safely, those who might need a little more time – and throw the choreography of a four-way stop totally out of sync. Flip side, I judge the stop sign wavers, those do-gooders who think they’re in line at a buffet and muck with traffic laws, creating more danger than goodwill.
A stop sign on Amy Croft Drive in Lakeshore is pictured on Thursday, May 12, 2011. Of all the 37 all-way stop intersections in Lakeshore, none of them meet provincial guidelines.

The Fear Factor contestant: Those swirling lights and earsplitting sirens? That big red truck covered in ladders and people who can knock down a fire, revive a heart attack victim or get your kid out of a well faster than Lassie? They get to use the whole road. Right now. I judge you when you keep driving along or, worse, plant your car in the middle of the road, white knuckled and nerve wracked. Move. Pull as far to the right as you can; pull into a driveway; even if they’re coming the other way, they get the whole road. Think it’ll only take them a few extra seconds to find their way around you? Pretend that call came from your house.

I depend on the kindness of strangers: Thank you for letting someone merge smoothly. Thank you for waving your thanks if I let you in. Thank you for not parking in fire lanes, “just for a moment.” Thank you for not taking handicapped parking spots. Thank you for being patient with new drivers. Thank you for acknowledging if we all play well with others, we all get home safe.

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Road tolls may be inevitable, but they won’t solve much

Before drivers can get off the road, there must be a viable alternative

Originally published: November 9, 2015

If you charge them, will they still come?

The newest four letter word is, of course, toll. I discussed the use around British Columbia’s tolled bridge system earlier this year, but a new study is again threatening – I mean considering – the use of tolls in the country’s most tightly congested areas as an answer to gridlock, rising pollution, lost productivity and probably the location of Jimmy Hoffa’s body.

The report from Canada’s think-tank Ecofiscal Commission knows its recommendations are walking a tightrope as it fights to find harmony between what we want and what we need. It also recognizes an uphill battle of starting to charge for something citizens have always considered to be free. Can I ask in all seriousness what Canadians who pay their taxes on everything but the air they breathe think is free? When headlines scream about our “free” healthcare, I just want to scream back: Our healthcare and our roads are not free! Sausages on toothpicks at Costco are free; roads are not free.

Remember when people used to put bumper stickers on their cars all the time? Back when slapping on a sticker meant a gluey commitment and not just a magnetic mood swing? There was one ubiquitous slogan that was more omniscient than it knew: As a Matter of Fact, I Do Own the Road! Remember that one? They still make them, decades on. I remember that exclamation point because people who would sport one of these did so emphatically.

This line of thought is where the problem starts. Well, it’s at least where it lingers for an inordinate amount of time. The problem actually begins with politicians who lack the stones to make tough decisions in a timely manner. The problem is as layered as an onion, and slapping on tolls is like dissecting it with a hammer.

About that bumper sticker: Yes, you do own the road. We all do. Most of us pay enough in various levels of taxes to make me think we should be driving down roads paved with gold instead of littered with potholes. But those tasked with allocating funds – regardless of political stripe – soon find they’re playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. Drivers paying so much deserve better roads, but those roads are becoming increasingly crowded and more expensive to maintain.

Here in Toronto, we’re perched on infrastructure that William Lyon Mackenzie King strolled above. Fixing pipes one sinkhole at a time is costly, but “Let’s fix sewers!” is not a very sexy campaign slogan.

Those who willingly take mass transit find out it is neither mass nor reliable. Try to encourage more people onto bicycles and watch the Car is King tribe start bitching. We can compare road sharing success stories with other countries, but Canada has a nifty thing called winter that presents a giant asterisk beside most numbers. Nobody wins, everybody loses.

Tolls are an obvious solution: make those choosing to be in their cars pay for the right. That immediately targets those actually causing congestion, and it’s been shown to work in other heavy urban centres like London, England and Stockholm, Sweden. A major difference? Those places have excellent transit; they have options. Even Calgary has figured into the report, its wide open spaces now becoming congested as planners look to HOV lanes before it gets worse.

Living in the suburbs of a busy core is always a choice, but skyrocketing housing prices in some places have put the pressure on many who need access to that job market. Daily tolls added to the cost of operating a vehicle can seem punitive. I will cop to the fact I don’t commute into a major city each day; I usually only head in once a week. A toll on that trek is unlikely to make or break me, nor change my habits. But for people who have no choice on where they work, or the hours they work, adding tolls will further stretch tender budgets. Whether you toll entire roadways or select lanes on some, you are punishing those who might have no other realistic way of getting to a job.

Ontarians are notably angry at our example of a magic toll highway. The 407 ETR was introduced as a fabulous congestion buster and revenue generator when it was unveiled. And then it was sold to private interests, prices are jacked every few months, and once again, the only viable choice around our gridlock is for those who can spend 40 bucks to travel 120 km – and that 40 bucks doesn’t go into government coffers to tackle congestion.

Some might shrug at the suggestion of tolls, arguing they don’t drive, or drive enough, for it to affect them. But take a look at all those trucks – nearly all of our consumer goods are stashed inside. Because nobody wants to pay to warehouse goods in expensive urban cores, deliveries are made just in time. Add to that our consumer demand for goods from all over the world all the time, and watch the prices of everything you consume climb. It doesn’t matter if you’re not on the road to be tolled; many parts of your life are.

I actually believe that tolled roads are inevitable. We’ve seen HOV lanes in many U.S. states become tolled lanes, and it’ll be done like the frog heating up in a pot; first, they’ll nudge up passenger levels in high occupancy lanes, then they’ll just co-opt them outright for singletons with fatter wallets. No existing HOV lanes? Nothing a little paint can’t fix. Voilà – HOV lanes.

Tolls won’t solve gridlock; transit won’t solve gridlock; gas taxes won’t solve gridlock; carpoolers won’t solve gridlock; more pavement won’t solve gridlock. It’s been said a mediation has been successful when nobody is happy.

That’s definitely possible.

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A message to left-lane slowpokes: Stop being so selfish

Your dawdling in the passing lane, whether intentional or not, affects everyone else on the road

Originally published: November 2, 2015

Let’s play chicken or the egg for a moment: Which comes first, passing-lane slowpokes or tailgaters?

While there is a cornucopia of driving habits to get all kerfuffled about – some illegal and some simply bad – there is nothing quite as outrageous as those who refuse to stay right except to pass. Nothing provokes as much literal rage or commentary. To watch online discussions erupt about the problem, you’d think left-lane bandits were selling meth to toddlers.

I almost believe we’re being trolled, actually, when someone wades in saying, “The speed limit is the speed limit, I will drive the speed limit in the left lane because that is the law” – because who is actually that dense? Does something really have to be mandated into law – keep right except to pass – to tell you it is not only the correct option, but the best one? British Columbia thinks so, and recently enacted legislation requiring just that: On high-speed roadways, you are permitted to use the left – passing lane – only for overtaking, shifting to allow someone to merge, prepping for a left hand turn or passing emergency vehicles on the roadside. You know, all those things that should be self-evident.

Here’s the deal: Breaking the speed limit will indeed warrant a ticket if you’re caught. But extend your interpretation of the law one step further and put your law-abiding butt in the right-hand lane. Cops end up dancing on the head of a pin with this one, obligated to state they will ticket speeders, but unable to ignore the fact studies repeatedly reveal that left-lane hogs are dangerous and cause crashes. Everybody moving at similar speeds is the safest scenario.

I admit there is some tricky wordplay going on in many of our legal tomes. “Flow of traffic” can mean so many things, though mostly it means “flow of traffic.” If congestion has reduced safe speeds to a fraction of the posted limit, it means that reduced speed is the flow of traffic. If everyone is singing along on a sparsely populated highway even at a number above the posted limit, that is the flow of traffic. If that makes you uncomfortable or you’re not the gambling sort, well, there is an answer just for you: Move to the right.

A recent AutoTrader survey revealed that Canadians rank texting and talking while driving as their number one pet peeve (30 per cent). Driving speed ranked second (25 per cent), followed closely (!) by tailgating (20 per cent). I think if you tweaked the survey to account just for abhorred highway behaviour, you’d find the driving speed issue climb. I would wager most tailgating is fallout from that driving speed, meaning the number climbs even higher. We could always go for the hat trick, of course – idiots on their phones parked in the passing lane with a string of tailgaters on their arse. So many tickets, so little time.

There are two distinct categories of left-lane hogs – those who are oblivious to all that is going on around them, and those who are “teaching you a lesson.” Oblivious drivers do annoying things that can prove dangerous, but road teachers are passive-aggressive fools. Acknowledging anecdotes aren’t evidence, I was raised by a man who, though a pretty great driver in every other regard, considered it a threat to his masculinity if someone tried to pass him. He wasn’t a left-lane hog, but he’d have that station wagon whipped into an eight-cylinder froth to make sure nobody was going faster than he was. It was through my dad I learned that driving is a combative sport for some, and while I’ve seen a lot of females do some really dangerous things, 34 years behind the wheel has taught me much of the worst road aggression sits atop a Y chromosome.

Most dangerous of all, however, is when a passive-aggressive fool – a left-lane hog deciding to demonstrate the speed limit – meets up with a purely aggressive fool – the tailgater. There’s that chicken or the egg question: Do people only tailgate when ”forced” to? I’ve driven with enough morons to know that someone can’t make you drive aggressively or stupidly; that’s all on you. But upping the stakes by provoking people is ridiculous, and I’d like to see the rest of the country adopt B.C.’s new law.

People will abide by laws they think are reasonable. And people are pretty reasonable, believe it or not. If they weren’t, we’d have total anarchy instead of endless lineups at Timmies as people patiently wait for their double-double. But many of our speed limits are artificially low (argue away, that’s my opinion), leading to many drivers in many places driving over the limit – not stunt driving levels of stupid, just speeds the roads were engineered to facilitate when conditions are good.

Enforcement has always been focused on the speed bandits, as it should be. But let’s go after the other outliers – those who are too dim or too obstinate to realize driving is a team sport with repercussions far beyond their four-wheeled fiefdom.

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A 100-acre auto junkyard reveals the circle of (car) life

Whether you think it’s heaven or hell, one thing’s for sure – this is where cars come to die

Originally published: October 26, 2015 – with video

As a teen, I remember limping a friend’s old winter beater to a nearby wrecker’s yard because we heard they’d give you 20 bucks for the heap if the battery was good. As the thing had finally kicked it with a nearly new battery, we realized this was as good as it was likely to get. And it was true; the only catch was they told us we had to remove the battery, and the acid burned several holes in my jeans, which were worth twice as much as we were getting for the battery.

Much has changed in the auto recycling industry – including that name. You can still find some old-school yards, but to be profitable, the business had to change. A visit to Plazek Auto Recyclers in Caistor Centre, Ont., taught me just how much.

Plazek’s is one of the largest in Canada, 100 acres of sheer bliss for any auto hound, but also for the wholesalers and restorers who have a seemingly endless supply to choose from. Started in 1965 by Ed Plazek, it’s now run by his son, Joe. Keeping it all in the family, Joe’s five kids work here, too. Plazek Senior began with one car, initially bought as a project and parked in a field. When he was offered what he paid for the car by someone who only wanted the fenders, a business was born.

Car parts are harvested in a highly organized manner at Plazek’s. As the designated receiver for several insurance companies, cars are dropped off in the front yard. They are categorized according to damage, mileage and make, model and year. Vehicles can be held for insurance adjusters and some might be claimed for repair; those destined to be written off enter into a networked bidding system that happens at noon every day. Based on the results and Joe’s bids, some cars stay and some will go. Recyclers know what they have demand for, and scour their sources accordingly.

Winter months are peak for destroyed cars. Up to 10 a day can find their way to the yard, and Plazek’s typically processes about 80 to 100 cars a month for dismantle. Varying prices for scrap also impact the entire industry. When scrap metal prices were at $300/tonne, Plazek would see more runners: people buying up junkers on Kijiji and hoping to turn them over for a fast buck. Today, with scrap prices hovering around $135 a tonne, the runners have disappeared.

Real estate may be all about location, but car recycling is all about the car. Before heading into the garage manned by up to six mechanics, the vehicle is assessed for its value. Newer high-end cars, those in demand and those with a lot of harvestable options take priority. It can take as little as three hours to break a car apart, or as much as a day for one of those more valuable finds. Don’t show up with your own crowbar, however; if you insist on picking your own part in the yard, you’ll be accompanied and there is a $25 minimum fee.

Some cars will become rebuilds. Many will be stripped and every part categorized into a vast computer system manned from the front office. All fluids are drained into a separate holding area via drain tables, and bolts are collected for scrap. Engines and transmissions are removed to be stored in a huge warehouse. The yard – those 100 acres – is set up in rows as uniform as any cornfield. Those rows are tagged by letter, and cars are deposited with pertinent information lettered on the windshields. A phone call comes into the front, inventory is scanned by computer, and pricing is established according to condition and availability.

A massive warehouse, 930 square metres (10,000 sq.-ft.), stores meticulously tagged engine blocks. “Really good engines can be here forever,” says Plazek, “and some have a huge turnover rate.” I ask what they run through the most of, and he doesn’t hesitate. “Ford 5.4-litre truck engines,” he laughs. He also admits to having a 1979 Pinto block way in the back, after selling the seat to a B.C. collector for 200 bucks.

When a car has been broken down and parted out, it eventually ends up stacked high in the rear of the yard, awaiting the compactor. Here the final components will again be sorted and recycled, ready to start a new life from the ashes of the old.

It’s his oldest son, Mark, ushering in the new era at age 30 along with his three brothers and sister. Where Joe Plazek took over and updated from his own father, he is now proud to see his own kids moving the business in new directions. He notes the industry is commodity-based and basically recession proof; if they can meet supply, there will always be demand. Those new advancements include mastering the changing landscape of the auto industry, with hybrids and electrics being introduced and the new skill set involved in processing them into pieces.

Staring out at the vast expanse of row upon endless row of carcasses, it’s hard not to imagine some of the trauma many of them have gone through. Car graveyards have always held their own special feeling (well, for me they have), and I ask Joe Plazek if he hasn’t heard some stories, or if he has some ghosts.

“Oh, we have ghosts all right,” he chuckles. “The ghosts hop our fences at night and steal parts.” It seems no matter how much security you put on a yard, covering this much area in such a rural location is never a sure bet.

Even the scavengers are part of the circle of car life.

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What modern cars can learn from the ugly AMC Gremlin

Say what you will about AMC’s infamous Gremlin, it’s now a revered collectible – and that says a lot about the bland state of cars today, doesn’t it?

Originally published: October 19, 2015

gremlin-2Can something be so weird it finally becomes wonderful?

When the AMC Gremlin was introduced in 1970, it was ugly. It was also under $2,000. It looked exactly like what it was: someone took a hacksaw to a Hornet, pushed it to the front of the production line and crossed their fingers that the American public wouldn’t notice the gas guzzling rust bucket for what it actually was. Rumour has it the Gremlin was designed by designer Richard Teague on an airplane, sketching on the back of an air sickness bag. I’ll buy that.

The thing is, 45 years after it was introduced and panned and slammed, it is now collected and revered in clubs all over. Same with its stable mate, the Pacer. AMC is now R.I.P., but you have to admit, they had balls.

From Car and Driver in 1970: “All of AMC’s surveys indi­cated that distinctive styling is the single most important feature to the imported car buyer and it is hoped that the Grem­lin’s unique silhouette will become as fashionable in the public eye as that of the Beetle.”

Unique it was, though the Beetle it wasn’t. But look at that phrase: “distinctive styling is the single most important feature”. Show me a limb and I’ll show you almost nobody producing affordable cars willing to go out on it today. Exceptions to the rule offer up things like the Plymouth Prowler or the Hummer or the PT Cruiser, which all look like the walk of shame after a regrettable night of too much booze. How can I slam the ones willing to try? Because they’re overwhelmed by the onslaught of four-door sedans and SUVs whose badges are more like Hello My Name Is stickers.

Some out there designs are very much on purpose, like the Nissan Cube, which must have known it would never conquer North American taste buds. Right? While car buyers still seek a triumvirate of good, available and cheap, most know sacrifices will be in order in at least one department.

Cars all look the same and I’d like to be able to say, “Well, at least they’re not blowing up like Pintos anymore,” but GM and Toyota showed us we haven’t exactly come that far on that front, either. Okay, that’s not fair. Cars are infinitely safer and better made than they once were, but corporations are still doing what I call Death Accounting and figure paying out to cover up a problem is cheaper than paying out to fix it.

I remember the Chevettes and the Novas and the Mavericks and the Cutlasses from my high school years. They littered the parking lot like candy wrappers and nobody could have known they’d one day have their own car shows and meetings and Facebook pages.

Ever-tightening fuel efficiency requirements have taken the play out of most designers’ hands. Today, new car launches stress a slight bend in the metal or a reconfiguration of daytime running lights as a design overhaul. Manufacturers always have their halo cars, but hey, what’s a Viper when you could have had a Gremlin?

Even Hollywood gets on board, knowing a car is worth a thousand words. It’s usually the ugliest vehicles that become the character actors. Justified featured not one but two Gremlins, both owned by sad sacks as shorthand for their sad sackedness. Breaking Bad might have been the best at this; a meth-cooking chemistry teacher with little left to live for (another sad sack) having a Pontiac Aztek as his chariot. Yes, there are Aztek fan clubs. No, the vehicle has not become any less sad with the passing of time. While every car on the show packs a truckload of symbolism, giving your kid a Challenger and having his mom swap it for a PT Cruiser is perhaps the nastiest bait and switch of all.

Ranchero clubs and El Camino clubs perhaps prove that 1970 AMC quote about distinctive styling once being all-important. I’ve owned too many ugly minivans to ever dispute that. The difference is today, that distinctive styling will translate into flat sales at a time when, to be cost effective, lines must pump out as many similar cars as possible. We have more cars to choose from, but in a parking lot covered in snow, most of us couldn’t tell one from another. Will any of the look-a-likes end up being collectibles? Some.

Just don’t be looking for any beige Corolla clubs any time soon.

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It’s never too late to learn how to drive

If you’re an adult who’s late to the wheel, be aware that you face a steeper learning curve

Originally published: October 12, 2015

If you’ve been on the planet a handful of decades or more, the chances are good you were once-upon-a-time champing at the bit to get your driver’s licence. Over the past 20 years, however, there has been a noticeable shift in attitude regarding driving among teens. More of them can’t be bothered to learn.

While the reasons behind the drift are myriad – better public transportation, more accommodating parents, rising costs – the result is more adults arriving at the door of teachers like Tim Danter, owner of Drivewise in Oakville, Ont.

“I’m definitely seeing more adults in my classrooms full of teens. That’s the part they don’t like, but they know it’s one of the hoops they have to go through for the certificate, regardless of age,” he says.

That certificate is the one that qualifies a new driver for a break on their insurance, and discomfort isn’t the only challenge when learning to drive as an adult. A cultural change has altered the dynamic. In my parents’ generation, many of the women didn’t drive because their husbands did. I can’t imagine how my mom would have coped without her licence, but for many of her cohort, especially those without children or a job outside the home, it just didn’t seem like an overriding concern. Unfortunately, for so many who outlived or remained healthier than their husbands, that driver’s licence belatedly became a symbol of what many teens have always wanted: independence.

Young Drivers has launched a web-based driver training program to give Canadian drivers easy access to affordable and life-saving driving lessons. How to Drive Online will benefit drivers of all ages as well as parents planning to teach their new driver proper Ryan McIntyre is a 35-year-old from Calgary who is embarking on the process after a lifetime of believing it would never happen. An eye condition diagnosed at age 5 left his sight impaired; successful surgery earlier this year finally cleared the path for learning to drive.

differently when you’re older, and you’re out of ‘school mode,’” he admits. McIntyre’s right; whether you remember it or not, at 16 you were still very much in a study-then-test mode, a skill that gets rusty for many of us. Although he failed his first written attempt, a lot of licensed drivers would flunk it if they took it now. It’s deliberately nit-picky and laws change. For instance, most of us know how far to park from a fire hydrant by eyeballing it, fewer remember the exact distance when measured, especially if you learned in imperial and must respond in metric.

Danter notes the biggest challenge facing adults late to the wheel is confidence. “There is definitely more anxiety. Sixteen-year-olds think they’re bulletproof; they have little fear. Adults are more mature, but they’ve also got more life experience and therefore understand that driving a car takes a lot of responsibility and a lot of care. That can make them more hesitant.”

Another trade-off for that maturity is sometimes physical; reflexes and coordination are at their peak in youth. As an adult you may be less active, and you may be calling on muscles – especially in your neck and upper torso – that you haven’t taxed in a while.

McIntyre brings up another factor that comes into play: “I don’t have access to a car. As a teen, you can usually use your parents’ car to practice.” The only way to get better is to get wheel time, meaning this isn’t a solo effort at any stage in life.Is getting a driver’s licence simply less necessary these days? Danter sees an increasing number of teens in his classes who are there at a parent’s behest. “More and more kind of shrug, and admit they’re being told to do it.” Technology has changed the way people interact and closed the gap once previously bridged by a car. Cellphones have replaced cars as the must-have device to connect with friends.

What kicks the process into gear for later learners is often need over want. McIntyre needs a licence to secure many of the jobs in his field of child and youth advocacy. “You have to be able to drive kids, and much of your work is in the field,” he explains, adding some jobs even require the ability to drive a bus.

For others, it’s a move from an urban centre with reliable transit or walkable neighbourhoods to one of the many parts of this country modeled around the car; visit any suburb to see the vision of the 1960s in full swing. For others, it’s a change in family configuration, either through adding children or losing the household driver.

New teen drivers aged 16 to 25 generally pay the highest insurance rates due to inexperience; as a new adult driver, expect higher rates than your similarly aged peers, but your age will count a little in your favour. Some insurance companies will credit you with a year or more of experience if you take an accredited driver’s education course – check before you sign up with your insurance company.

Be prepared to face a steeper learning curve than the youngsters, and allow yourself extra lessons and practice time. Consider an advanced training course as well; they’re run on closed courses, and you can usually request an instructor who specializes in building confidence while you master skills.

As for the teens who are able but giving it a pass? It might be a lot easier to learn while you’re younger, and you can at least start building up a clean driving record. Your work, your family and where you live can all change in an instant.

Knowing how to drive is never a bad thing.

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Fixing even the tiniest paint scratch is painstaking work

Behind the scenes in one of Canada’s top bodyshops, a newbie quickly learns the importance of prep work and sanding – a whole lot of sanding

Originally published: October 5, 2015 (with video)

It isn’t about the paint; it’s about the prep.

I’ve written before about the moral logistics of parking lot dents and scrapes, but what is really involved in reversing the damage? Why does something that looks so slight – a scratch, a nudge – seemingly end up costing more than a Superbowl ad?

I decided the best way to find out was to get some hands-on experience. Pfaff Autoworks in Vaughan was kind enough to let me get in the way, get dirty and learn something. It was eye-opening.

The Honda Civic we hoisted in the air was displaying a common sight: its silver paint torn down to primer and plastic, a little ragged but not cracked or terribly bent. Only the bumper was affected, the higher fender spared by only a centimetre. I figure that should make it a quick fix, right?

Not if you do it right.

I was working with Pfaff’s Mike Browne, who by the end of the day I was calling Michelangelo. He’s one of those guys who has been doing it so long, he has customers who will let only him touch their cars. Surrounded as we were by, among others, top-end Porsches and Audis (and a McLaren with the front end viciously torn off), that’s saying something.

Before it gets to a Mike, however, the damaged car goes to an estimator. At Pfaff, there is a formula to this, contrary to what some people believe and others have experienced. The estimate takes into consideration if the part has to come off (the Civic’s bumper did), if there is repair work, how many hours to allot to the repair, and then the prep.

“Don’t be fooled by the size or shape of a scratch,” Browne says. “More important is the depth, and how many components are affected.” They can opt to just repair and prep the affected area, or they can prep and paint the entire panel. Both are options; you know which one looks best.

When it’s an insurance claim, there is often a “bargaining” point; the shop knows how many hours the work usually takes, the adjuster may have a different number, and they end up splitting the difference.

Most of us have painted a room. You know it’s the prep work – the sanding, the filling, the sanding, the cleaning, and more sanding – that takes the most time, but makes all the difference. The painting is easy, but if you’ve skipped the first steps, you’re slapping a wig on a pig; a lovely paint job will highlight every flaw and scar, not hide it. So it is with a car.

The bumper had been pushed out of alignment, creating a noticeable bulge. I presumed this would be a costly worry. Not really. After removing the bumper (attached with a handful of clips and bolts), a heat gun held on a few spots for a few moments made the plastic malleable enough to be worked back into shape. And then we started sanding.

And sanding. And sanding. Beginning with a 120-grit aluminum oxide paper, you sand the entire bumper to remove the shine and even out the damaged areas. Using a hand sander, you work until your hand is numb from the vibration. Well, my hand, anyway. Then you start working by hand into all the nooks. There are a lot of nooks. Every time you say, “Is this good enough?” you are told no. Even when Mike says it’s good enough, he goes over it all again himself. I think he’s being a little picky, really.

When the entire bumper is clear – you’re working by feel as much as by sight – it’s time for primer. After a wash, we tape untargeted areas, The piece will be sprayed with three layers of paint and two types of primer; about 10 minutes to dry in between hits, but 45 minutes at the end. We skip lunch, because I’m starting to understand just how much time this is going to take.

Back in the bay, we take to the sanders again. The primer has dried to a marbled pattern; using a 240-grit, we’re now taking off that top layer. The idea is, the three layers of primer have built the plastic back up in the damaged areas so we can bring them level to the undamaged areas. Any warp or dip, while seemingly slight in this matte finish, will be pronounced under the gloss of the final paint. If you settle for “good enough” at this point, you’ll fall far short of good in the final reveal.

More hand sanding (both of us), more complaining (me). Mike’s apprentice, Jordan Singer, is cheering me on, mostly because I’m doing some of his grunt work.

After what feels like a lunch-less eternity, it is finally deemed ready for the next phase. Using a 600 grit, the final sanding is a wet one. The piece is sponged clean, thoroughly dried and taped again for the final painting. We’ve been at this nearly six hours, though I know I’ve slowed things down a little.

Just like at Home Depot, there are levels of paint quality and limitless colours. Pfaff offers a lifetime warranty on their work and uses top-of-the-line paints.

Cheaper paints and improper prep work can lead to peeling and fading. It’s an awful lot of work to have to do it again, and even getting it cheap is costly if it looks like hell.

The paint booth is set between 90 and 100 degrees F. When we chose the paint colour, Mike held up a raft of silver chips that all looked to me like they matched. Dozens of them. He noted that while there is a Honda silver that corresponds to the year and model of the car, paint colours differ by factory. From a $50,000 rack of customizable BASF paint, there is nothing they can’t match.

Eight different tints are added to the base (even – pink?) and Mike suits up like an astronaut before disappearing into the paint booth. Two coats of colour ends up providing great coverage; dry time in between is about 20 minutes, and then comes the final clear coat. Most paints are water based, so this clear coat is in fact the biggest line of defence between your car and the elements.

We spent about eight hours using top-quality materials to do a job that would be estimated around $500 to $700. The car is a 2013, has been well-cared for, and those repaired bumpers are the best looking thing on it. Even taking into account my interference, the only gouging on that car took place in the parking lot when it was hit.

What’s remarkable is the amount of work that goes into this fix that you don’t see; but if it isn’t done properly, it’s the only thing you will see. That’s why Mike is so picky.

With thanks to Pfaff Autoworks for their help.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

I was fooled by Volkswagen’s diesel hype – and I’m sorry

Like most car buyers and industry experts, Lorraine Sommerfeld believed VW’s “clean diesel” mantra

Originally published: September 28, 2015

I’m sorry.

The Volkswagen emission scandal is going to last for many news cycles; there’s no dodging the fact that it’s going to grow, not lessen, and the implications will start becoming more clear every day. This quote from the Guardian is stunning:

“A Guardian analysis found those U.S. vehicles would have spewed between 10,392 and 41,571 tonnes of toxic gas into the air each year, if they had covered the average annual U.S. mileage. If they had complied with EPA standards, they would have emitted just 1,039 tonnes of NOx (nitrogen oxide) each year in total.

“The company admitted the device may have been fitted to 11m of its vehicles worldwide. If that proves correct, VW’s defective vehicles could be responsible for between 237,161 and 948,691 tonnes of NOx emissions each year, 10 to 40 times the pollution standard for new models in the U.S. Western Europe’s biggest power station, Drax in the U.K., emits 39,000 tonnes of NOx each year.”

All eyes are on the corporate disaster unfolding, but mine are on the consumers, those of you who spent much time and more money on making just the right purchase. After sorting through an incredibly crowded midway of new cars, each yelling louder than the next about its reliability, its quality, its value, its “buy me, buy me, buy me.” And you listened to sales people and websites and people in newspapers. You listened to people like me.

We’ve been taught the technological side of these cars. We sit in seminars led by engineers – not all press trips are skittering about the Alps in search of the next luncheon spot – to grasp information we will pass on to our readers. Diesel was initially met with just as much skepticism from the industry as it was from drivers: Grandpa drove a dirty diesel.

We learned from all the big guns – including Mercedes, Porsche and, yes, Volkswagen – about how they’d found a road to “clean” diesel. From urea injectors to scrubbers at the end of the exhaust cycle, and many details in between, we could now confidently understand why, for some buyers, diesel was at last the way to go.

I’ve recommended the cars now in the crossfire, and so have my colleagues. Our high-miler readers and viewers loved the extra torque. Our early adopters would source out a station selling diesel (initially a bit of a scramble in some parts of the country) in order to get 800, 900, even 1,000 kilometres to a tank of fuel. They could figure the math on paying the surcharge up front to invest in a diesel engine and know when they were ahead; it was often in as little as two years, with an engine that could potentially handle much more mileage during its life.

I think of the public relations people who set up the opportunities for us to test these cars; the engineers and company representatives who show us the angles and put up with our cynical questions about everything from selling tactics to technical innovations. They always start with the big sparkly achievements they’ve made, and we always start by asking how.

I’ve driven the whole lineup of Volkswagen diesels through the fabulous Rocky Mountains. It was a press trip, but we were essentially turned loose. It’s the closest I’ve come to matching posted government fuel consumption – you know, those little stickers of paper that tell you how much fuel you can expect your new car to use every 100 kilometres. The figures are always off because they’re carried out in incredibly controlled, perfect-world scenarios, and I’m stuck telling angry buyers why they will virtually never get the posted numbers. We’ve been promised more realistic numbers; I’m eager to test those, too.

But the Volkswagen diesels got closer than anyone else. It was my starting point for comparison shoppers who were using those stats as their starting point. “Your driving style, weather and conditions are going to impact that number, but I’ve always found Volkswagen to be the closest to posted,” I’d repeat, over and over. And it was true. Sometimes the discrepancy has a lot to do with the driver, sometimes it’s the car, but the VWs gave me a ground zero.

I’ve heard that some people just don’t care that their car, which they love, is allegedly spewing out 10 to 40 times the NOx claimed. They should care. It’s a huge deal. I find it hard to think we haven’t evolved past the point where people can play a ridiculous game of air quality no-see-ums: if I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. NOx exists.

But this note is an apology to car buyers who believed what I and many of my colleagues also believed: that we were telling you the truth. I have no idea how far the accusations and admissions will go in the tiers of that company, but I believed what I was taught; I still believe in the people who taught it to me, I believe in the people who put us in those cars so we could bring that information to you, and I believe the people standing in showrooms who took your order.

Two of my closest friends are asking me what will happen with their cars; I have no idea.

I’m sorry.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

As the clocks fall back, don’t be left in the dark

As daylight hours shrink, drivers and pedestrians alike should become ever more vigilant

Originally published: September 21, 2015

Saskatchewan is home to the smartest people in Canada.

As the kids head back to class, the sun is already fading earlier. Just as it becomes tougher and tougher for drivers to see pedestrians and cyclists, the rest of Canada will set their clocks back to make it even darker. Daylight Savings Time is ridiculous. Saskatchewan, I salute you for not caving to peer pressure.

We already have a tenuous-at-best relationship between the various people who share our roads. Pedestrians jaywalk, cyclists ignore laws, skateboarders are just nuts and drivers Donald Trump their way to the front of the line. “I spend the most, I win!”

Before we ascertain blame – and there is plenty to go around – let’s consider one factor: darkness. The latest StatsCan numbers indicate that of pedestrian fatalities, 60 per cent were killed at night or in dim light conditions and were unseen by

Six in 10 pedestrians and three in 10 cyclists killed by a car are killed at night. My Top 10 Blame list splits nicely down the middle:

  1. Pedestrians who have their nose buried in a phone and presume everyone will part like the Red Sea for them
  2. Pedestrians who jaywalk and suddenly hop off a snow bank and land in front of you like Batman
  3. Pedestrians who, while certainly stylish, are clad in black from head to toe
  4. Cyclists who think reflective tape is for sissies
  5. Cyclists who destroy every traffic law in the book
  6. Drivers who ignore red lights, stop signs and right-of-ways
  7. Drivers who don’t turn on their headlights because, hey, I can see my dash, can’t you see my daytime running lights? (I actually blame manufacturers a great deal for this, too.)
  8. Drivers who speed through urban areas; this is where the people are, take it to the track, Ricky Racer
  9. Drivers who refuse to admit they’re getting some night blindness and either need new glasses, or shouldn’t be driving at night
  10. Drivers who refuse to give cyclists the lane they are legally entitled to; it’s about safety

Regardless of fault, a tangle with a car is never going to end well for a pedestrian or a cyclist. Never. That’s the law of physics, not the law of the land. Slap some reflective tape – and better yet, lights – on your kids’ bikes. It’s getting dark when many of them are coming home from school. Many jackets have reflective panels built in; look for them when you’re replacing outerwear. If you’re an adult, I’m presuming you’re smart enough to be wearing the right gear.

We tell drivers to be careful around school zones and on Hallowe’en, but the dark brings a whole other factor to street safety in general. I get cranky about pedestrians who cross a parking lot on a long, endless diagonal, or jab their cart in front of a car like it’s a Kryptonite buggy with a slot for a quarter. I don’t understand drivers who, from the comfort of their vehicular cocoon, can’t wait an extra moment for someone braving the elements to get where they’re going.

We shouldn’t need signs and reminders to be careful in populated areas, no matter the day or time. You should already be cautious in a parking lot because there are drivers who think R stands for ram. Pedestrians do dumb things; you still don’t get to kill them.

Twice a year when the clocks flip, we hear of an uptick in crashes. Some blame the new angle of the sun corresponding to commutes and others cite disturbed sleep cycles of drivers. Personally, I think it’s all the people trying to find a paperclip or pen to jam into those little buttons to reset the clocks in their car. One year, two of us had both reset the clock meaning I drove around for weeks not knowing what the hell time it was.

I blame everyone but Saskatchewan.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments