A rant about car alarms

Ah, car alarms. Useless for deterring car theft, they do however provide wonderful new ways to annoy people. I was recently – and unavoidably – on a BC Ferry from Vancouver to Victoria and as usual decided not to do battle with the surging crowds of tourists on the passenger decks, preferring instead to stay in my car and read or nap. But as usual the relative peace of the car deck was shattered by car alarms going off every few minutes. There are only four possible reasons for this to occur: first, the car owner may not have realized that ferries move around a lot and will almost always set off their alarm. Hard to believe someone could be that stupid, but no, on second thought, it isn’t. Second, they may have enabled the alarm automatically, without thinking at all, as we do with so many of the repeated tasks in our lives. This is actually almost forgivable, if not for… Third, they don’t realize that their alarm probably has a silent alert option. Fourth, they know damn well it will go off, but don’t care, because they are a jerk.

After enduring this symphony of idiocy for a few minutes, I gave up and started making my way to the upper decks. On my way, I encountered a BC Ferries employee and made a joking reference to idiots and their car alarms. I should point out that I had often wondered why there are no signs on ferries telling people to disable their alarms. Anyway, he admitted that there is a strict BC Ferries policy against telling people not to enable their car alarms. That’s right, staff are not allowed to tell these idiots to stop being so incredibly annoying. Apparently their crack legal staff decided that BC Ferries might be liable if someone with a disabled car alarm had their car stolen on a ferry. Scratch that: where would the thief go with the car? So it must be that BC Ferries doesn’t want to be liable for theft of items from within cars with disabled alarms. And hey, they may be right. Still, I very much doubt a small-time crook would pay $60 for the privilege of working a two hour ferry ride, running around as fast as he can, cracking open cars, avoiding numerous travelers and staff, then dragging his loot back to his car and stuffing it in his trunk. And of course, unless he pays another $60 to wait in line for a couple more hours and ride again, he’ll be in the wrong town. Sorry, I just don’t buy it. Sure, corporate lawyers have to come up with something to make themselves appear useful, but is this the best they can do?

Years ago I lived in Toronto in an apartment building. My windows faced away from the major streets, so it was relatively quiet at night. Except for the idiot who came home from the night shift every night and – at 4am – enabled his car alarm with that loud, oh-so-familiar squawking sound, thereby waking up hundreds of people in the vicinity – including me of course. What this idiot failed to realize is that most car alarms can be enabled silently. Or possibly he knew damn well that this was possible but was just a huge asshat. Or he knew, but was sure everyone who heard it was actually impressed with his toy and secretly jealous of it. None of these options speaks well for this turd.

Now, a quick survey: when was the last time you heard a car alarm and did anything besides a) ignore it or b) groan and cover your head with your pillow? Never, right? What does this say about the efficacy of car alarms? I mean for the purposes of dealing with car-related theft, not for annoying people. So why are people still using the wretched things?

Now, for those interested (and for those of you for whom much of this is news), here are some links to car alarm information that may help you avoid being beaten to death after you smarmily enable your car alarm in the middle of the night – for the last time:
Steering you right: Car alarms
Wikipedia: car alarms
Alarmingly Useless: The Case for Banning Car Alarms in New York City

A senseless death

Last week a member of my extended family was hit by a car while driving his motorcycle. He sustained serious injuries to one leg and several ribs. His prognosis was good, but died a few days later. The person in the car that hit him had been drinking, and ran the light in the intersection where this occurred. The light was red. This driver of the car has taken full responsibility.

Now, I’m not saying it’s okay to drive when you’ve been drinking. Or that it’s okay to run a red light. But most people hearing this story would focus on one or both of those things as being the causes of this tragedy. I disagree. The cause was lack of attention. If you read this blog long enough, you’ll find that this is a running theme. In fact, I feel so strongly about it that I believe we could get rid of most driving-related offenses, keeping only two: dangerous driving and careless driving. Because when you really look at it, these are the root causes of all motor vehicle accidents.

Take the driver of the car in this case. Drinking tends to dull one’s senses, so she was at a disadvantage right away. However, I maintain that if she had recognized her disability, she could have compensated by driving with extreme care and focus. And even if, by some stretch of the imagination, she still felt that she needed to run a red light when she knew she was impaired, if she had at least paid proper attention while approaching and moving through the intersection, she could have easily avoided the accident. You may insist that without knowing the details this is purely speculation, but put yourself in her place and go through it. Leaving aside her poor decisions, if she had at least been paying due attention, two lives (and possibly more) would not have been destroyed.

Idiots all around me

I’m back. Moved to Vancouver and goofing off between jobs. Which means I’m not driving much, so I didn’t think I would have much to say here. WRONG. Almost every time I do drive, someone does something around me that is just retarded. I’m posting this because today I was driving home after doing some shopping, and witnessed something so ridiculous that I could hold my tongue no longer.

Here’s the setup: I was approaching an intersection between two major roads (four lanes all ’round) and wanted to turn left. To get to the left turn lane, I had to first change from the curb lane to the center lane, so I signaled and slid in behind Mr. I. OwnTheRoad and his wife. I sized up Mr. O. immediately: slow-moving, hesitant; yes – elderly. He was driving significantly slower than the limit, but I wasn’t concerned, since the turn lane started in a few car lengths and he would no longer be able to annoy me (hopefully forever). Still, I sensed something in his wobbly movements that caused me to wonder if he intended to turn left as well.

The entrance to the left turn lane arrived, but no signal and no positive movement to the left by Mr. O. For safety, I allowed a couple more car lengths of the left turn lane to pass, then concluded I had been wrong (it does happen) and Mr. O was not planning to turn after all.

I signaled left, moved into the left turn lane, and – hoping to get to the intersection soon enough to trigger the advanced left turn signal, I moved promptly past Mr. O. to the sensors before the light changed. I patted myself on the back: nice job!

But what’s this? I hear a loud honk. I look around, trying to determine its source. I check the rear view mirror. Could it be? Yes! It’s Mr. O! He’s vigourously wagging his head and pointing at me, clearly indicating “yes, it was me that honked, and I honked at you!”

Lately, when something idiotic happens on the road, I try not to get enraged and instead work on figuring out what, exactly, the idiot involved was thinking that led to the event. But in this case, I’m stumped. What did Mr. O. think I had done wrong? The only way my actions could have led to any danger would be if Mr. O. had failed to notice my signal or my movement into the turn lane and crashed into me when he moved left. By the way, he never signaled, at least not in my view. I can only assume that Mr. O. feels that he should be able to do anything he wants on the road, no matter how stupid, but that this right does not apply to anyone else.

As the advance turn light flashed, I pulled away from Mr. O., shaking my head slowly in disbelief. I glanced back to see him gesticulating to his wife, apparently explaining why he was so upset. I can understand her confusion.

P.S. My sister wants me to mount a camera in my car to record these idiotic events. She says every time she’s with me, someone does something idiotic in front of me (indeed they do) but that she’s never seen anyone do these things in her previous experience on the road. I guess she’s saying I’m somehow cursed. Oh joy. Well, at least I’ll have something to blog about.

P.P.S. It just occurred to me that perhaps Mr. O.’s rear left turn light may be burned out, which still wouldn’t exactly make him look like a great driver, but at least it could explain his anger. Ah, but I doubt it, since he also failed to use his signal at the intersection. The mystery remains.

Beyond oblivious

It’s bad enough that people do stupid things while driving. It’s much worse when they don’t even realize they’re doing it. But the really amazing thing is when drivers do stupid things and somehow feel that the fault was not theirs, but yours.

I encountered someone like this today. Picture an empty road, with Mr. Idiot a hundred feet ahead of me. He’s not going particularly fast, so I’m catching up. At this point, the single lane becomes two, and there’s a big sign saying “SLOWER TRAFFIC KEEP RIGHT.” Since by now I’ve caught up, I start to wonder which lane Mr. Idiot will choose, as I want to get past him. In this town, there’s no way to predict this, even though the law, the sign, safety and common sense dictate that Mr. Idiot should move into the right-hand lane.

Mr. Idiot makes his move. He drifts partially into the right-hand lane, then drives along in both lanes for a while. Since he’s more in the left lane than the right, I signal and move to pass him on the right. Now Mr. Idiot’s brain swings into full action: he moves into the right lane in front of me – without signaling – and cuts me off. I hit the brakes, signal left and move back into the left lane to try passing him – again. This time Mr. Idiot decides to stay in his lane and carry on.

At the next light, I look over at Mr. Idiot, curious as to his gender and wondering if he might make some apologetic gesture. Yes, he did gesture, but not apologetically. Clearly Mr. Idiot thought that someone had done something wrong, and that someone was ME.

There’s just so much wrong with this. I was tempted to follow Mr. Idiot and ask him what he thought just happened. Perhaps he knows some quirk of the law with which I’m unfamiliar. But I didn’t, and now I’ll never know.

Sounds pretty bad doesn’t it? Well, in Victoria, BC, this is an everyday occurrence. Several times a day, in fact. Which is why I’ve given up completely. Soon I’ll be moving much closer to work, so that I won’t have to deal with people like Mr. Idiot on a daily basis. What a relief!

Worst engines ever?

Why is it that 99 times out of 100 the car in front of me that’s making all that smoke is a Volkswagen diesel? I know diesel engines tend to make smoke, but not like this. I’m talking about smoke so thick, barfing out of these cars when they accelerate, that it’s difficult to see through at all. Never mind trying to breathe; if I don’t shut off my fan and close my windows fast enough, it’s coughing/gasping/headache city.

A knowledgeable friend of mine refers to diesel engines as “Doctor Diesel’s Little Smokers” – a reference to the inventor, Rudolf Diesel. According to the reference material, diesel engines spew black smoke, which is mostly particulate carbon, when one or more of the following is true:

  • the air cleaner is plugged;
  • one or more of the fuel injectors is malfunctioning;
  • the engine timing is incorrect; or
  • one or more cylinders has poor compression (bad rings, valves or guides).

Okay, so the drivers of these vehicles need to get them serviced. But why mostly Volkswagens? Is it just that there are so many diesel Volkswagens on the road? Are VW owners less likely to service their vehicle? To notice the problem? To realize it can be fixed? Or are VW diesel engines just crap?

I really wonder if these people notice all that smoke. Maybe they look at the back of their car and wonder why they can’t read the license plate for all the soot. I know I’m not helping by shaking my fist at them as I floor it to get in front of them. They probably just think I’m nuts.

In my opinion, diesel cars are stupid. I understand the fuel economy issue when it comes to trucks and buses, but for a basic commuter car? Is the marginal cost saving worth giving the world emphysema? Folks, if you’re going to drive a diesel car, at least be aware of the smoke potential and find a mechanic that knows how to fix it. And use decent diesel fuel, please.

Can you see me now?

I’m always amazed when I see someone driving with fogged-up windows. Driving is dangerous enough when you can see, don’t you think? I wonder if their heater works? Do they have several large dogs in the car? I’ll never know.

This happens much more often when it’s raining. When it rains, people roll up their windows (fair enough). The air inside the car becomes warmer than outside because there are warm bodies inside, and the already humid air gets even wetter. Foggy windows are the result.

How can we avoid this? Turn on your fan. It may seem like common sense, but the fact that I see people driving around in a fog seems to argue otherwise. Possibly these people simply aren’t familiar with their vehicle’s heating system. Perhaps they don’t realize that you can turn on the fan without turning up the heat. Can it be that they don’t even notice the problem?

I never have this problem. That’s because I leave my fan running on low all the time. When it’s raining, I make sure to shoot the air onto the windshield by turning on “defrost” mode. Keeping the air moving like this eliminates foggy windows. Simple, huh?

Oh, and you know that “recirculate” button/knob? Make sure that stays off. Recirculating the air will fog up your windows quicker than you can say, “Was that a red light?” You may not be familiar with this control as it’s often labeled obscurely. Look for a two position switch: one position shows an arrow coming into the car and the other shows air moving around in circles inside the car. You want the position where air comes into the car. The other position is only useful if it’s really cold outside and you want to warm up the air inside the car quickly. Just remember to switch it back when you start driving.

Okay, so I hear complaints from people who wear contacts: “Leaving the fan on all the time dries out my eyes!” Sorry, I haven’t got an answer for that.

The “Big Picture?”

I took Driver’s Ed in about 1976, and I’ll never regret it. Run by the local Board of Education, the program was comprehensive and moderately tough. I know it helped to form my good driving habits. When I see bad driving behaviour in others, I often wonder if they would be better if they had been trained properly.

Forming part of the curriculum was a series of driving-related films. One was the classic “Signal 30,” which was designed to scare young drivers toward safe driving habits. It showed the gruesome results of several terrible auto accidents.

Another film, the title of which might have been “The Big Picture,” followed a guy in a convertible as he drove around a city. A narrator provided the play-by-play. One part in particular stuck in my mind: the driver is at a stop light and there is another car in front of him. The light turns green and the car in front starts moving. The narrator says, “Don’t pull out immediately; wait a few seconds to allow for some space between you and the car in front.”

When this film was made (judging from the cars, probably the 1950’s), the narrator might have been giving good advice. Certainly there were very few other cars on the road in that film. The reality, even in 1976, was that roads were already congested. Fast-forward to 2004, and if everyone took the narrator’s advice, nobody would ever get anywhere, and deaths by road rage would be common. The reality of 2004 is that the old guidelines for vehicle spacing are now useless. For example, there are several intersections in my home town where the advance green light lasts only a few seconds. If everyone moves smartly and keeps it tight, six to ten cars can get through. Following the advice of “The Big Picture” would allow one, perhaps two cars to get through. The result would be disastrous.

Lucky for us, cars are better than they were in the 50’s. Brakes are better, tires are better, handling is much better and we have anti-skid brakes. Cars are able to slow and stop safely in much less space. So reducing inter-vehicle spacing isn’t as dangerous as it would have been back then. But it’s not what we really want. We’d all love to go back to the traffic levels of the 50’s, right? Well, that’s not going to happen any time soon. Some day, fuel prices will reduce traffic to 1950’s levels again, and only the wealthy will drive. Until that happens, we have no alternative but to drive closer together than we would prefer.

What can we do to reduce the danger of driving close together? The first, and in many ways the most important rule is to pay attention. I’ll have more to say about that later. For now, just remember that when the car ahead of you is closer, you have less time to react if they stop suddenly. Second, when you’re close to the traffic in front of you, your vision can be significantly reduced. If you’re unlucky enough to be stuck behind an SUV, you might not be able to see much of anything. You’re increasingly dependent on the driver immediately in front of you for clues as to the traffic ahead. If he’s late on the brakes, your task is much more difficult. New cars are now all equipped with raised brake lights, which sometimes allow you to see what’s happening a couple of cars farther ahead. But you can’t count on that; you just have to be that much more aware.

Driving closer together also creates some particularly dangerous situations, which I’ll discuss in more detail next post.

Check your lights!

Assume, for the moment, that you are one of those rare drivers who actually uses their turn signals (I’ll have more to say about that later). There’s not much point using them if they aren’t working, right? But how will you ever know if your lights are malfunctioning? You can’t see them from inside the car. Or can you?

In fact, most drivers have plenty of opportunities to check their lights, if they could be bothered to notice. Next time you park, pull up close to whatever is in front of you and check your headlights. Even if it’s daylight, you should be able to see clearly if they’re both working. Then do the same thing for your turn signals.

Checking your rear lights is a bit trickier, but still doable. Next time you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, take the car out of gear and tap the brake pedal a few times. You should be able to see them in the rear view mirror, lighting up (or reflecting off) the vehicle behind you. Your results will vary, depending on the positioning of your lights and the type and colour of the vehicle behind you. Do the same thing for the rear signal lights, but be careful: you don’t want to give the impression that you want to change lanes.

It’s best to do these checks in your driveway or in stopped traffic. Don’t fiddle with your signal lights in moving traffic. That’s dangerous.