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Is Your Car Winter-Ready?

Lake Mountain Road, Vic.

It might not quite be winter yet, but we have passed the autumn Equinox, which means that the time when the sun is up is shorter than the time when it’s down. This means that it’s time to think ahead and get your car ready for winter. Because there’s no point in getting ready for something if it’s already come and too late, right?

One thing we can be thankful for is that we don’t have to go through quite so extensive preparations for winter as they do in, say, Sweden or Canada… especially if you live in the northern bits of Australia when winter comes as welcome relief from the intense summer heat. However, the southern states and territories can get problems with frost and snow from time to time, and everybody gets things wetter and rainier (except in the very far north in places like Darwin, who have their rainy monsoon period during the summer).

As things are going to get wetter, the most important thing you need to do to get your car winter-ready is to check your tyres.  First of all, they need to have plenty of tread on them, as it’s the tread that channels out the water so you still get plenty of grip.  When it comes to tyre styles, there’s a bit of a trade-off, as having lots and lots of channels means that you can pump lots of water out – and a tyre needs to shift about 6 litres per second in average rainfall at open road speeds – but the problem is that lots of little raised bits wear out more quickly when it’s dry… and nobody wants the hassle of changing tyres every time the weather goes from wet to dry and back again.  The best tyres for driving in the wet are the ones with the directional treads (lots of stacked V shapes) and asymmetrical tyres, although you can’t rotate asymmetrical tyres like you can with the directional ones.  Directional ones look nicer, too!

Tyre pressure is also important to check when the weather goes from hot to cold. This is because air temperature affects tyre pressure, so when the mercury goes down, a tyre that was just right may now be underinflated.  If you remember your high school physics, the hotter a gas gets, the more it expands and the greater the pressure. When the gas cools, then the gas contracts and the pressure decreases.  It’s important to check your tyre pressure at all times, but if the temperature’s changed (or if we’ve had a cold snap), then it pays to check.

The next thing that’s important to deal with is to check the windscreen wipers.  Winter means more rain for everybody except the far north folk, and this means that your wipers are going to see a lot of action. They won’t shift the water and keep your visibility decent if they are in bad condition.  New wiper blades don’t cost the earth and changing them is a job that you can easily do yourself, so there’s no excuses.

While you’re looking at the windscreen and the wipers, this might be a good time to ensure that your windscreen is nice and clean. The angle of the sun will be that little bit lower in the evenings and the mornings, especially the further south you go, so sunstrike and glare can be a problem, especially if your windscreen is filthy. Give it a good clean and top up the fluid for your window wiper fluid.

The next thing is your lights. It’s going to be darker, especially if your state does the Daylight Savings thing (and consider yourself lucky if it doesn’t because it’s a pain). Make sure that all of your lights are working well, including the fog lights. Check that the angles of your headlights on dip and on full beam are angled correctly.

The last thing to get the car mechanically ready for winter is to check the battery.  Your battery is going to get more of a workout, what with the extra demands of heating and lighting.  Top it up with distilled water if needed (tap water is often chlorinated or have other minerals that don’t play nicely with battery acid, so don’t use this).  Check the terminals for corrosion and clean off any greenish bits around the terminals caused by the acid. The best way to do this is with baking soda (which neutralises the acid and will fizz), an old toothbrush and rubber gloves to protect your hands, followed by a good rinse with warm water.  If your battery is getting on the ancient side, then change it. Few things are as miserable as waiting in a freezing cold car on a nasty day for the breakdown guys to come and jump-start your battery.

These steps will help keep your car winter-ready, but don’t forget you and your passengers when preparing your car for winter.  Having the right items stashed away can make a real difference, especially if you have to wait in a parked car for ages for any reason on a nasty cold day, or if some idiot who DIDN’T check their tyre condition skids into your rear end, meaning you have to wait for the breakdown team.  Most modern cars have plenty of useful storage space for all sorts of odds and ends – one particularly useful one is found on the Skoda Superb , which has a special compartment for an umbrella that allows it to drain when wet.  If you own one of these sedans, make the most of this feature!

Here’s the list of things that I’d have in my car to make sure that I can cope, even when the weather swings wildly or gets nasty and cold (on top of other staples like hand sanitiser, snacks and a first aid kit).

  • A chamois leather or microfibre cloth for wiping down the inside of the windscreen. Sometimes, the demister just doesn’t work fast enough or there’s grime on the inside of the windscreen that is causing visibility problems with the lower angle of the sun. Rather than using your sleeve and getting wet (which I have done in emergencies), use a nice soft cloth kept for the purpose.
  • Something to keep the rain off. This could be an umbrella or a raincoat – you can get some nice little compact ones that tuck away in a little bag. This stops you getting all soggy if a downpour decides to descend just as you’re pulling up at the petrol pump and there’s no shelter between your car, the pump and/or where you have to pay (been there, done that).
  • It can take the heaters a while to get going on a cold morning, as they use excess engine heat to heat the cabin. Cold fingers are stiffer and less responsive, so keep your little pinkies warm until the heater sorts its life out.  The obvious place to keep them is… the glovebox.
  • A polar fleece or jumper. It was a nice day when you started out but a southerly buster has roared in.  Or you have to turn the heaters off thanks to that flat battery (or to avoid flattening it).  Keeping half your wardrobe in your car like my husband did when I first met him probably isn’t ideal, but having something to pull on often comes in handy.
  • A blanket or throw. If you have to take kids or passengers who have to wear thinner clothes (formal gowns, dance gear) or who are a bit damp (after sports practice) and cranking up the heater would make things far too hot for you even with a dual-zone climate control, then having a blanket handy for bare knees or off-the-shoulder tops is a nice touch.  A blanket is also more easily washed than your car upholstery in the case of muddy people.  Plus you can use it for impromptu picnics.

Safe and happy driving, no matter what the weather is!

 

Driverless Car Causes Fatal Accident In Arizona

Photo courtesy of Reuters

On 18th March – that’s just over a week ago – driverless car technology received a major blow.  The horrible truth is that the blow struck to the technology by this particular vehicle being road-tested by the Uber taxi service wasn’t as nasty as the blow it delivered to a 49-year-old Arizona woman named Elaine Herzberg who was crossing the road one evening, like you do.  The car hit her and killed her.  Dashcam on the autonomous car captured the moment before the car ran her down.  I’ve decided not to embed it in this post in case you’ve got autoplay or something on, because it’s decidedly disturbing.  Find it online yourself if you must, but personally, I’d rather not watch the tragic and completely avoidable death of a woman about my age who probably has a partner and children and friends who thought she was great fun – someone just like me and you.

The reaction has been exactly what you would expect: Arizona has called a halt to on-road real-life testing of autonomous cars, Uber and a few other companies like Toyota have stopped all testing in North America, and shares in companies that have been investing heavily into driverless car technology such as Tesla have dropped.  In addition, Ms Herzberg’s family have been coping with the shock and loss of losing a mother, daughter, sister, wife, cousin…  There’s also one Uber driver who trusted the technology to take care of things the way they told her it would who is going to live with a lifetime of questions and guilt, and who is probably in the hands of a good therapist right now – or at least ought to be.

We can ask the same questions as that Uber driver and the Herzberg family are probably asking over and over again: why did this happen? What went wrong? Aren’t driverless cars supposed to get rid of the human error factor that is responsible for the majority of fatal accidents?

Without actually looking at the chilling dashcam footage personally and based on other people’s reports, it appears that what happened was this.  The Uber vehicle was cruising along a road on a normal spring night in Tempe, Arizona, on a Sunday night.  It was dark and the driver, who was probably on a tight schedule and having to manage half a billion things at once – like you do – looked away from the road for about five seconds.  The car was in autonomous mode and it had the full fleet of sensors that are available in even regular cars that aren’t driverless cars, such as automatic braking, pedestrian detection, cross-traffic detection and collision avoidance mode.  The driver thought that all would be well – after all, the car was supposed to take care of itself most of the time, wasn’t it?

Then along came Ms Herzberg, wheeling her bicycle.  Probably she was a bit too careless and didn’t pick a big enough gap in the traffic to cross in – but haven’t we all done that when trying to cross a busy road when there’s no pedestrian crossing or traffic lights in sight?  Most of us take it for granted that the humans behind the wheels don’t want to hit us and they’ll slow down a fraction if we’re cutting it a bit fine (this is something that I don’t assume – call me paranoid but maybe it’s an assumption we need to start questioning).  To make matters worse, Ms Herzberg was wearing black at night, which would have made her hard to see even if the driver hadn’t looked away.

The sensors and the system didn’t see or recognize Ms Herzberg, so the collision avoidance systems weren’t triggered.  The vehicle kept going straight ahead at normal road speeds.  The driver, trusting the autonomous system, didn’t see her either until the last moment when the car ploughed full-speed into her and there was no time for the human driver to do anything to stop it.  Ms Herzberg died later that night in hospital.

This is the first time that a driverless car has been involved in a fatal accident involving a pedestrian – hang on, let’s call a spade a spade.  The car wasn’t just “involved”: it knocked her down and killed her.

Naturally, all the tech companies and car manufacturers involved are properly horrified and are wondering what on earth went wrong.  The sensors were supposed to work without being “distracted” like a human driver could be.  They were supposed to be able to see in the dark, so to speak, and therefore be better than a human driver would be.  Autonomous systems are supposed to be so much safer because they don’t get drunk, tired or distracted, but stay focussed and on the job all the time. So what went wrong?  Why didn’t the car see Ms. Herzberg and brake in time?

Naturally, as the questions are still being answered and the accident only happened about a week ago, they don’t have answers yet.  A few fingers are being pointed, especially as different companies make different bits of the tech.  Did the Lidar sensor plus artificial intelligence system fail to distinguish the pedestrian with a bicycle from a power pole or a bush? (These systems do have trouble with this – in Australia, they have real trouble recognizing how close kangaroos on the road actually are, because the jumping motion of a roo fools the sensor into thinking that there’s more road between the car and the roo than there really is.)  Robotic systems and computers follow the rules and keep to the rules no matter what – and something unexpected that’s out of the box and not included in the rules really throws them.  Possibly, someone crossing the road with a bike without looking properly or allowing a big enough gap is a novel concept for them.

I guess that at this early stage, there are a few lessons that all of us can learn from this tragedy:

  • Driver assistance packages and sensors are there to help you be a better driver, not do it all for you. As a driver, you need to stay alert and do the job of driving at all times, whether you’ve got a back-to-basics trade vehicle like a Great Wall , or a luxury sedan or SUV with all the safety gadgets like a Mercedes  or Volvo .
  • A lot can happen in a few seconds, so keep your eyes on the road as much as possible. No checking texts, changing the radio station or fiddling with the air con.
  • Be careful when crossing the road. These days, you can’t assume that drivers are looking ahead of them because there are idiots who insist on checking their phones while driving, and in the future, you might not even be able to assume that there’s a human with a heart in control of the wheel.  The stop, look and listen rule still applies – so take those headphones out of your ear.
  • Wearing black at night when crossing the road always has been and still is a dumb idea.
  • People are unpredictable, so keep your eyes open for them when you’re driving.

And I hope we do learn these lessons.  After all, nobody really grieves for a car that gets written off.  However, real live humans have friends and families who will always miss them if they die – and that’s something that a computer or robot system can’t fully understand or experience.

The Pros and Cons of Driverless Cars

In any discussion of road safety and keeping crash-related deaths down, you’re always going to come back to the human factor. Most times, people doing silly things are what cause crashes, whether the silly thing is misjudging the speed to take a corner at in the wet, reading a text message while driving and not noticing that the car is drifting, or getting behind the wheel when a bit tiddly. Is the answer then to eliminate the human factor altogether and adopt driverless cars, much in the same way that aircraft have adopted autopilot systems?

What Google’s driverless car looks like.

There are tons of reasons why driverless cars (aka autonomous cars, self-driving cars and autonomous cars) could be a good idea, and just as many reasons why they’re not.

Arguments in favour of driverless cars include the following:

  • Robots and computer systems don’t get tired, drunk or distracted.
  • Computer systems can calculate the perfect speed to negotiate corners.
  • Autonomous cars automatically detect if they’re drifting out of a lane and correct it instantly (some cars do this already even if they’re driven by a real live human being).
  • In theory, computer systems don’t make mistakes, slip or get careless.

What we hoped driverless cars would look like.

In short, a driverless car eliminates the human factor.  After all, the proverb “to err is human” has been around since before cars were invented.  Computerised systems aren’t subject to the limitations of being human and fallible.

However, a modern twist on the old proverb says that although to err may be human, to really mess things up, use a computer. This brings us neatly to the arguments against driverless cars:

  • All new software systems are prone to teething troubles, glitches and bugs when first released. This is mildly annoying on your office computer but could be fatal at worst and expensive at best in a car.
  • We all know that electronics seem to develop a mind of their own and do weird things that we don’t expect them to unless we’re super-geeks.
  • Artificial intelligence can’t cope with really busy situations. Busy car parks and places where pedestrians and cars share the road are particularly confusing for autonomous car systems. Just think of all the ways that people indicate “After you,” in these situations – a wave of the hand(s) that can be big or small or just about any direction, a quick jerk of the head, a smile, mouthing the words… Then you’ve got all those “You idiot!” gestures. A human recognises these instantly; computers often struggle.
  • Weather can affect the sensors, especially extreme weather such as snow or heavy rain where you really need to take care.
  • Autonomous systems need very detailed up-to-date maps so they “know” the right speed for corners and the best routes. This means continual updates are needed – hello, big data bills! And what happens when something’s changed unexpectedly on the road surface, such as oil spills, debris from a crash or gravel?
  • Computers can be hacked and jammed, sometimes remotely. Anybody seen Fast and Furious 8 where this happens? (Yes, I know it’s fiction but who hasn’t had problems with viruses or experienced remote access in a desktop.  It’s plausible!)

  • People may come to rely on automatic systems so much that they might not know how to react properly if the computer systems fail (and we all know that computers crash now and again).
  • Avoiding collisions with large animals on rural roads is harder than you think. Take the example of Volvo : their system worked fine on Swedish wildlife like caribou and elk, but when they tried it out Down Under, the system didn’t recognise kangaroos as large animals to be avoided.
  • Autonomous systems probably can’t tell the difference between a dead hedgehog in the middle of the road (which you don’t mind hitting) and Mother Duck waiting for ducklings (which you want to stop for).
  • Taxi drivers and chauffeurs would be out of a job.

There are also a ton of ethical and moral issues involved with driverless cars.  If a driverless car does crash and kill someone, who’s responsible? The “driver” or the manufacturer of the computer systems and software?  How will a computer make decisions in the case of an unavoidable crash.  For example, if the algorithm is set to minimise the amount of harm or damage caused and kill the fewest people, and it detects that it’s going to hit a bus on a bridge, will it decide that the “best” option is to go off the bridge, because that will only kill the occupants of the driverless car rather than possibly all the occupants of the bus (just stop and imagine what that would be like for the driver for a moment… and what if that bus is actually empty?).

What’s more, we all know that horrible things like car bombings and jerks ramming crowds on purpose are bad enough, but at least the driver puts him/herself at some risk.  What’s to stop a terrorist loading up a driverless car up with explosives and setting the vehicle to go all by itself?

On a lighter note, a lot of people simply enjoy driving. If we want a system that allows us to sit back and relax while we get to work that also cuts down on the need for parking spaces and reduces congestion, this already exists and it’s called “public transport” or at least “car pooling”. But that still includes the human factor…

At the moment, fully driverless cars where the person in the front seat can more or less go to sleep or bury his/her head in the daily news aren’t allowed on our roads.  At the moment, even the most automated systems still require a driver who’s alert and ready to take over if things get hairy, much like what happens in aircraft.  But who knows which way things will go in the future?

Driven To Distraction

OK, so they’re cracking down on people using cellphones in cars as well as cracking down on high speeds and breaking the speed limit.  Here, you’ve got to admit that there’s some justification for doing this.  After all, if someone’s got their eyes and fingers all over the phone, he or she is paying less attention to the road ahead and what their vehicle’s doing.

On the surface, it seems so simple.  The thinking works something like this: although vehicles and roads are being designed to be safer, crash rates aren’t improving and we’re still seeing heaps of fatal and serious accidents on our roads.  At the same time, mobile phones – to say nothing of smartphones – have stopped being the plaything of rich businesspeople and are now essentials for everybody over the age of 13 or so.  People can’t seem to leave their phones alone and we’ve all seen people driving badly while talking on the phone. (Mr Grey Toyota  who didn’t give way to me while coming out of the supermarket carpark, forcing me to jam on the brakes to avoid hitting you when I had the right of way, I’m thinking about you!  I saw you with your phone on your ear the whole time.)

However, maybe it’s not quite so simple as merely having people trying to do two things at once and pay attention to a conversation while driving.  After all, people have talked to other people while driving without having accidents for ages.  Receiving messages from the dispatchers and other patrol cars via radio has never made the police bad drivers – just think of all the telecommunication gadgetry they’ve had in their vehicles for decades.  Truckies and bus drivers have also had a long history of using CB radios to chat while driving – I’m sure we’ve all got memories of riding in a bus where the driver spent most of the time talking into a handset and somehow making sense of what sounded like “worple smooshle burble wop ha ha ha” from the passenger seats.  When you stop to think about it, there isn’t really any difference between someone talking on a mobile phone and someone talking on a CB radio handset.  So why weren’t/aren’t they considered to be safety hazards?

“Oh, it’s younger drivers and those young people on their phones.” Not necessarily.  If you look around you, you can see as many older folk chatting on the phone while driving, so it’s not just a case of Kids These Days.  (Mr Grey Toyota, I’m still thinking about you.)

“But modern smartphones make you take your eyes off the road.” This is certainly true.  Anything that gets your eyes off the road is going to make you less aware of what’s going on around you.  However, even this isn’t anything new.  Before we all had navigation systems built into our cars or Google Maps on our phones, we had paper-based maps.  In fact, I’ve still got them, and it can be fun to see who gets there first: the navigator with the paper map or the other navigator in the back seat with the phone.  Paper maps, whether they came in the form of specially printed books or a scribble on the back of an envelope with a few landmarks and road names noted, were often read or glanced at by drivers while in transit.  This usually involved spreading said map out on the steering wheel, glancing down, looking up again and so on.  Nobody really blamed them for crashes the way they blame cellphones.

Even real live people called passengers having a conversation can be distracting.  One of the things that most of us parents have had to teach our kids is that Mummy/Daddy can’t look at the picture you did at school right now because he/she is driving.  It can be a hard concept for a kid to grasp but they do get it – eventually.

If you listen hard enough to the safety gurus, if you do anything other than keep your mind on your driving, keep both hands on the wheel and keep your eyes on the road ahead, you’re guaranteed to crash.  Now, they do have a point.  We do need to focus on what we’re doing and concentrate on driving.  However, we all know that continually concentrating on one thing and one thing only for long periods is extremely draining and increases fatigue.  And we’re all human and notice things in and outside the car.  This, dear friends, is why advertising companies spend heaps on roadside billboards.  They know that you’ll read them while driving.

On the topic of losing concentration and advertising billboards, there have been a few studies into the effect of billboards on road safety.  It seems that yes, those advertising hoardings are distracting drivers and contributing to advertisements.  The worst offenders, it seems, are big billboards, digital billboards that display different messages every few seconds, and billboards featuring sexy models.  There have been a number of cases from around the world, mostly to do with lingerie ads, where big billboards featuring airbrushed models in lacy knickers and bras have had to be taken down because of a noticeable increase in traffic accidents happening after the billboard goes up.  This is another argument, alongside public decency, sexualisation and objectification of women, for not having sexy billboards all over the show.  But we don’t seem to have people complaining about that as much as they do about cellphones in cars.

Now that you’ve all pulled your minds out of the gutter and stopped feeling disappointed that I didn’t provide an example (I actually want you to read this article and I’m against sexploitation)… back to the debate over whether cellphones contribute to accidents.

There is a side to cellphones, smartphones, mobile phones – whatever you want to call them – that you didn’t get with other forms of distraction, which is an argument in favour of switching them off when you’re driving and being tough on them.  This is the effect of conditioning.  Like Pavlov’s dog, we’re trained to respond instantly, almost without thinking, when we hear our ringtones or alerts or notifications going off.  It rings – we reach for it.  Trying to ignore it sometimes makes us feel anxious – it could be important!  It could be a message from my son/daughter/mum/dad/wife/husband etc. saying they’re in trouble and need help now.  Nine times out of ten, it isn’t urgent, but we still react instantly just in case.  And it’s a hard habit to break.  We just HAVE to see who’s calling or texting.  And that’s where the problem for road safety kicks in.  We reach for the phone (distraction #1) and see who it is (distraction #2) then read the text (distraction #3).  By the time we’ve done all that, anything could have happened on the road.  It’s this sort of distraction that seems to be the only explanation behind a nasty accident I witnessed recently, when a Mini crossed the centre line on a perfectly straight open road and went into a campervan.

It’s this last factor that makes the difference, in my opinion.  You can ignore the paper map (or pull over to memorize it, then focus on the road), you can use the CB radio with one hand while keeping eyes fully on the road and you can tell insensitively talkative passengers to shut up.  But because we’ve become conditioned to respond instantly to ringing phones, they’re harder to ignore.  Responding has become something of an instinct.

But you can break that habit.  It is possible.  You can even train yourself when you’re not driving.  Try counting to ten or twenty before picking up if you hear a notification go off.  Nobody’s going to die if you want a few seconds.  You won’t get fired and you won’t miss out.  In fact, if we refuse to do things Right Now Instantly, we’d probably make steps towards reducing stress levels as well as helping make the roads a safer place.

Come on – do your bit and put the phone down when you’re driving – including you, Mr Grey Toyota!

Is The Speed Limit Outdated?

It’s been argued that because today’s cars and today’s roads are better and safer than they used to be, the old speed limits ought to be raised to reflect this.  After all, they’ve got a limit of 130 km/h in some bits of Northern Territory (which, incidentally, came in about 10 years ago after having no speed restriction at all – road safety was cited as the reason for introducing limits).  Why shouldn’t the rest of the country get a higher speed limit?

We’ve probably all experienced the situation when road signs seem hopelessly out of date when approaching a corner that has one of those advisory speed limits.  You know the ones – those yellow signs with a number that usually accompany a curvy arrow indicating a bend in the road ahead.  The number is supposed to be the speed at which you can safely go around the corner.  However, in practice, we know that you don’t really actually HAVE to go at 55 km/h around a corner that’s marked 55.  If your tires are in good nick and if there isn’t anything nasty on the roads (oil, water, gravel, ice, etc.) and if your car has reasonably good handling, then you can go around the corner at a somewhat higher speed.  Not the full open road limit, of course – if you kept sailing around the corner at 100 km/h, you probably would come to grief and end up in the ditch.  But you don’t need to slow down to 55 km/h.

A lot of us treat those advisory speed signs as a sort of index giving an idea of how tight the corner coming up, kind of like a stationary rally navigator. A recommendation of 65 or 55 (on the open road where the speed limit’s 100 km/h) means that it’s a reasonably gentle bend, 45 means it’s a bit sharper, and so on all the way down to advisory signs reading 25 or even 15, which means you need to get ready for a hairpin turn and certainly need to slow down to negotiate it (but probably not all the way to 15 km/h).  After all, the camber of the road and the car features like stability control, traction control and the like all help to keep the car on the road.  Cars and roads are designed better these days.

We all know the recommended speeds for corners with advisory signs (known as “design speeds”) are well below the actual speed you can get around said corners comfortably and safely.  Are the open road speeds similarly outdated?

We’ve come a long way since these days – but do we need to go further?

The only trouble with the proposal to increase the open road speed limit to reflect the capabilities of new cars is that not every car on the road is a nice shiny new Mercedes  or Volvo  with all the latest safety features.  There are plenty of people driving beloved old classics, people driving ancient old bangers for budget reasons and those driving cars that aren’t in the category of old bangers but are still over 10 years old and don’t have all the latest whizz-but-not-bang active safety features.  The open road speed limit still applies to these drivers as well as to those with new cars.  And these older cars may not be able to handle the corners the way that newer ones can.

What’s more, some road users aren’t cars.  Trucks, bikes, motorbikes, farm tractors and horses are legitimate road users that one encounters out in the countryside.  You’re not going to find a pushbike, a horse or a farm tractor going anywhere near even the existing road speed limit, and the greater the mismatch between the speed of your car and the (lack of) speed of what’s in front of you leads to greater frustration, increased impatience and an increased likelihood of taking stupid risks.  And we know that although higher speeds are fine when everybody does what they’re supposed to, if things go wrong, they make the consequences worse.

We also need to remember that the cornering design speeds and the like are often designed with heavy trucks (including road trains) in mind.  These need more space and a lower speed to negotiate corners for obvious reasons.  Because these vehicles are very important for trade and the economy, all the government-funded researchers into road design, etc. spend quite a lot of time considering the needs of trucks.

The other thing is that even with a higher speed limit, you still need to slow down to go around a corner.  If they do decide to put up the speed limit, I doubt they’ll go and fix all the advisory signs to reflect the new speed limits for cost reasons.  They probably won’t add new ones either.  (Possibly it’s this cost factor (plus the fact that they could lose out on some speeding fines) that stops The Powers That Be from raising the speed limit.)  This means that if you’re cruising along at 130 km/h and spot a sign telling you that there’s a bend with a rating of 55 (OK, a design speed of 55 km/h), you’ve got less time to slow down to the right speed, which means that you have to brake harder… and that’s probably going to be tougher on your car and/or create a few extra risks.  You do know that you’re supposed to brake on the straight approaching the corner, don’t you?

The other issue is that the speed limit (and the speed at which we all go around corners) is safe when conditions are good, i.e. when the light, road surface, traffic conditions, vehicle conditions and road surface.  If it’s rainy, if it’s dark, if the sun’s at a horrible angle shining right in your eyes, if there’s gravel on the road, if bitumen has bled onto the road surface thanks to a bout of extra hot weather, if there’s ice on the road… it’s not safe to go full speed.  To paraphrase The Stig, if the road surface is shiny for any reason, slow down.

There’s one other argument against raising the speed limit: what I’ll have to call the larrikin factor.  No matter what the speed limit is, having any limit whatsoever will irritate a certain type of driver who doesn’t want to be told what to do.  She/he (I’m going to stick my neck out here and make the generalization that it’s more likely to be “he”) doesn’t want their freedom curtailed at all, and any speed limit – even if it was 150 km/h – feels like an imposition.  There will always be those who push the limits, no matter what those limits are.  It’s a bit like the drinking age or age limits at night clubs: no matter what the age barrier is, we all know that there will be people sneaking in underage… and nobody really wants 13-year-olds in the nightclub, so it’s best to keep the age limit at 18 so the underage sneakers-in are going to be 16 or 17.  The same goes for the speed limit.  Some speeds really are stupid on public roads and places where the unexpected can happen, and if you raise the speed limit, there will still be idiots who go at these ludicrous speeds.  And if you raised the limit to 120 km/h, there would be people who whinged about this being too slow and how it ought to be 140…  Where are you going to stop?

So what’s the answer?  Should we raise the speed limit?  Here’s my personal take on the topic:

  • Definitely raise the speed limit on long straight stretches of open road. I’ve driven along these being good and going at the legal limit, and it felt like crawling.
  • Keep the limit on the rest of the open roads where it is. However, there should be tolerance so the cops don’t jump all over you if you stray 5–10 km/h over the limit.  After all, we don’t all have cruise control, and we are supposed to keep our eyes on the road rather than glued to the speedo.
  • Remember that the speed limit is a limit, not a target. If the conditions don’t permit it, don’t try to go at the full limit.

As for roads around town – well, that’s another story!

Speed Doesn’t Kill People; People Kill People (aka There Are No Bad Speeds, Just Bad Driving)

In the past fortnight, I’ve seen the results of two smashes on the open road, one at least of which left a driver with serious injuries.  In one, a late-model SUV had been driving in a downpour and had rolled completely onto its side, collecting another vehicle in the process.  In another – the more serious of the two, where I and my family were some of the first people on the scene and hung around with a bunch of others to help before the emergency services arrived – a fairly new Mini (probably a JCW Clubman ) had drifted across the centre line on the open road and gone straight into an older Mitsubishi campervan.  Both cars were a real mess, although the driver of the campervan was in better shape and was able to walk away from the accident, albeit with a nasty bruise on the leg that made her limp and a few cuts from broken glass (I know this because I was the one who did the first aid check on her).  The driver of the Mini was trapped under a caved-in windscreen and was screaming her head off (we found out later she had a badly broken arm and possibly some internal injuries).  The campervan was in pieces and there was diesel (thank heavens it wasn’t the more inflammable petrol!) all over the road.  It was traumatic enough for me and my family, who had been setting off for a quiet weekend away.  It was worse for the two drivers concerned and their passengers.

How do we get the road toll down?  Is the answer to reduce the speed limit?

It’s a tough and controversial question.  On the one hand, we’ve got all the cops and the safety experts telling us to keep our speed down, and spending tons of taxpayer money to get the message out there (as if we haven’t heard it since goodness knows when). On the other hand, we have better roads and cars with better safely systems, so is it really realistic to insist on a speed limit that was set back when you were lucky if a car had seatbelts in the rear seat?

Of course, the more cynical type of driver is going to note that the speed of a vehicle is something that is very easily detected by speed cameras and radar traps, and fining drivers in the name of safety is an easy way for the government to pick up a bit of extra money… which they will spend on marketing campaigns to tell us to slow down, etc. Of course they’re not going to change the speed limit when keeping us to it is such a good cash cow.

However, let’s leave the issue of fines and money aside and look at the actual issue.

The main reason why the powers that be focus on speed is not just because it’s something that’s easy to measure. It’s because of the physics.  Anything travelling at a high speed will have a lot of kinetic energy that requires a lot of force to maintain in the face of friction, and when that object travelling at high speed stops, that energy has to go somewhere. In the case of a deliberate slow-down, friction will take up a lot of the energy (and, in the case of regenerative braking, turn it into electrical potential energy). In the case of a fast and unintended stop (i.e. a crash), all that energy is transferred all at once into not just the vehicle itself, what it’s hit and the road, but also what’s inside that vehicle.

If all is going well, the raw speed of a car is not a problem.  If it were speed per se that killed, you’d expect that the German authorities would have noticed this by now and changed the rules about the limitless autobahns.  According to a news report from last year, fatal accidents on German roads had reached an all-time low since it kicked itself back into gear after the war in the late 1950s.  The number of accidents, however, has increased.  The rate of fatal accidents has dropped dramatically since the 1970s in Germany, and they say that it’s thanks to better car safety design (the rivalry between German makers like Mercedes and Swedish companies like Volvo as to who’s got the best safety systems seems pretty intense), as well as things like insisting on seatbelts and motorbike helmets.  A lower legal limit for blood alcohol also helped curb road deaths.  The fact that cars have got faster and more powerful over this time and roared along the autobahns at 250 km/h as often as possible doesn’t seem to have played a role.

If things do go wrong, however, then the speed of a vehicle makes the consequences a lot worse.  It’s a situation like you get with guns and pitbulls.  A gun used responsibly in the right way by the right people is fun and is a useful device for removing pests or putting meat on the table.  However, if someone loses their temper and goes on the rampage, a gun will do worse damage in the hands of a maniac than, say, a knife, chainsaw or wooden club.  Pitbulls, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and Rottweilers can be soppy, affectionate and obedient animals when well trained, but if you mistrain or mistreat one (or make the mistake of attacking its owner), then they’ll do a lot more damage than a Chihuahua or a Labrador (which, in fact, are a lot more likely to bite people – they just don’t make headlines when they do, as they don’t cause much carnage).  The same goes for speed.  Staying in your lane and going along a deserted bit of open road at 120 km/hr or even higher is not going to be a problem.  However, if you go around the corner way too fast for the conditions, try to do this sort of speed in heavy traffic, drift out of your lane into an oncoming vehicle, go over a patch of gravel or ice, or hit a roo (or any combination of the above), then the results are going to be a lot worse than if you had been going at, say, 50 km/h.

Those protesting gun control will argue that it’s not guns that kill people; it’s people who kill people.  Similarly, owners of Rotties, Pibbles and Staffies will protest breed-related legislation by arguing that there are no bad dogs; there are only bad owners.  It’s just the same with speed limits.  It’s not speed that kills; it’s bad driving that kills. Bad driving, notice, not bad drivers.  Even The Stig, Mario Andretti, Peter Brock and Mark Skaife have off moments, as they’re only human.

So what’s the answer to the problem of getting the road toll down?  How are we going to prevent people getting injured the way that Mini driver was injured?  There are no easy answers – it’s definitely not as simple as just saying that we need to keep the speed down.  In fact, I’m going to have to devote more than one post to this topic and analysing all the factors.  With the help of your comments, perhaps we’ll find the answers.

2018 Suzuki Swift Sport Readies For Release.

It’s been hotly anticipated since Suzuki updated its iconic Swift range for 2017 and now it’s here. The 2018 Suzuki Swift Sport, complete with 1.4L turbocharged petrol engine and six speed manual or auto, is sharply priced at $25490 or $27490.

The BOOSTERJET engine produces 103 kilowatts and 230 Nm of torque, with a quoted fuel consumption of 6.1L/100 km for a combined cycle thanks partly to a weight reduction of eighty kilos compared to the previous model. The auto will come with paddle shifts.

Ride and handling is improved, with a lower and wider stance in the chassis. The Sport will roll on 17 inch polished alloys and will turn night time to day time with LED head lights. There’s also LED daytime running lights, twin chrome tipped exhausts, and a sports body kit comprising rear diffuser, side skirts, and black honeycomb grille.

Inside there’s Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Suzuki’s user friendly seven inch touchscreen with satnav, climate control, Bluetooth and USB sounds connectivity, keyless Start/Stop, and red stitched semi-bucket seats.

The chassis has new safety engineering with TECT, Total Effective Control Technology for greater energy dissipation in the event of an impact. A five star safety rating comes courtesy of six airbags (no driver’s kneebag), stability control, autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning, and adaptive cruise control.

Outside there’s a choice of five colour choices: Pure White Pearl, Champion Yellow, Super Black Pearl, Mineral Grey and Speedy Blue.

There’s Capped Price Servicing for five years and should a customer ensure their Swift Sport is serviced under that plan, the warranty gets extended from three to five years.

The 2018 Suzuki Swift Sport is available for test drive and orders from your local Suzuki dealership or enquire through here: 2018 Suzuki Swift Sport

Auto Industry News – Q4 2017

We review some of the major news events in the automotive industry from the fourth quarter of 2017.

 

Sales and Manufacturing

The war of words in the autonomous vehicle sector began to heat up, with General Motors singling out Tesla. A director for the long established auto manufacturer suggested that Tesla’s claim it has already developed ‘Level Five’ self-driving technology is “full of crap” and “irresponsible”.

Locally, Holden drew the curtains on its local manufacturing operations, with doors closing at the Elizabeth plant in South Australia.

Drive announced their ‘Car of the Year’ for 2017, with the Hyundai i30 SR taking out the top spot.

 

Safety and Environment

As the Takata airbag saga continues to drag on, and with a recall in effect following a local death, industry stakeholders have raised the possibility of cancelling vehicle registrations of motorists who have ignored recall notices. The ACCC will provide the Federal Government with a recommendation, although the consumer watchdog is still engaging with manufacturers to work on the issue.

Elsewhere, counterfeit oil filters have been discovered by Toyota and Hyundai after months of investigating. The incident continues a persistent and worrying trend, as unscrupulous rackets take advantage of independent workshops and motorists.

In Europe, the EU has sought to tackle emissions, unveiling proposals which would cut the 95g/km fleet average in 2021, to 66g/km by 2030. At the same time, governments in Holland and France (Paris) are looking at different measures to ban petrol and diesel sales by 2030 and 2040 respectively.

 

Technology

The NRMA and Electric Vehicle Council have been calling on the government to push the adoption of electric vehicles. Together, the bodies have prepared an action plan, highlighting the fact there are currently no incentives on electric vehicles.

Uniform standards for EV charging are also in focus within Australia, which could pave the way for a national approach. The measures have been proposed by the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries.

At a global level, Toyota has wider plans to transform its vehicle lineup to an all-electric offering by 2025. The company will partner with Mazda and Denso to work on structural technology for electric cars. The move comes as competing auto makers in China receive the hurry up from their government to boost EV production in 2019 – and as China also plans to invest heavily into autonomous driving infrastructure.

While several companies shift away from diesel engines, Mazda reaffirmed its support for the fuel technology despite governments around the world setting plans to phase out diesel powered vehicles.

Looking at the issue of emerging fuels, and Toyota is tipped to release a hydrogen fuel cell car in Australia during 2019. The news comes as tech developments leave the door open to the possibility that hydrogen powered vehicles may one day source energy from the sea.

In separate news, Mercedes has been testing autonomous tech within Australia between Sydney and Melbourne. Overseas, and the UK is aiming to have driverless cars on the road by 2021.

 

Legal and Regulatory Issues

The Australian National Transport Commission opened a can of worms, suggesting occupants of fully autonomous vehicles shouldn’t be subject to existing alcohol and drug laws. Any mooted amendments would require a change in current legislation to account for the arrival of self-driving cars within 2 years.

Following the Takata airbag saga referenced earlier, Toyota and Lexus have been nominated in a local class action among other potential defendants alleging the companies breached their consumer law obligations.

The ACCC’s final report into the new car industry has called for better protection of buyers, nominating multiple reforms and taking aim at dealers.

Finally, legislative changes led by the government include a suite of draft amendments which would see an impact on ‘grey’ and low volume import cars.

Safety and Propaganda.

The NSW government’s road safety office has saved a squidzillion on PR spin doctors over the last decade as they continue to repeat the same mind dangerous mantra of “slow down, speed kills” and have added “distractions aren’t the problem”.

Not once though has any statistical analysis shown anything more than 43% of crashes being related to excess velocity for the conditions.  According to the NSW Centre for Road Safety it was 40% in 2017. Let’s face it folks, that’s really what speeding is. Too many roads and areas are limited to what really should be a higher velocity over distance. But of course it’s due to a spurt of fatal crashes in a the space of a week or so late in 2017 that drives (no pun intended) the monotonous drone from the pollies and certain police PR people.Let’s go simple for a moment: speed doesn’t kill. If it was the underlying reason then deaths on Australian roads would be in the thousands per day. Here’s what killed people: Crash causes NSW 2017 What’s disturbingly noticeable is how high a proportion of fatalities were country roads based and on a non-straight road, followed by head on impacts.

What does kill are drivers that Simply Don’t Care. They don’t care if they pull out in front of you. They don’t care if they stop in a merging lane. They don’t care if they’re on a motorbike and will travel at twenty below a posted limit whilst shaking their head at the driver behind them. They don’t care about amber and red lights. They don’t care about having headlights on when they should. They don’t care about indicators. They don’t care about you, themselves, and they certainly don’t care about road rules. The link above shows that speed may be factor but it’s nowhere near as big as the real reason: bad driving.

Don’t laugh at this seemingly innocuous statement. You’ll hear of “cars losing control” and unless the car is fully autonomous and has a does of the HAL 9000s, it’s utterly wrong. Any decent driver training organisation will tell you, without smiling, that it’s the failure of the organic component of a car that causes crashes. Not accident. Crashes.
This is why people die on the roads. It’s stuff-all to do with excess velocity. It’s got plenty to do with attitude. It’s got plenty to do with the tunnel visioned focus of governments and road bodies that are in it to promote ONLY their way of doing things.
Speed doesn’t kill. Government refusal to see past speeding and acknowledge they’re wrong, and people that don’t care, kill.

What’s needed is a complete and utter wholesale change to how the government sees road safety. A massive rethink is needed, and, as hard as it may appear to see, a reversal of the “speed kills” policy. Back to basics. Check the standards of driver educators. Educate and inform people that the basics that are being overlooked are why higher levels of driving standards that should be followed. Mandatory driver training sessions with properly accredited groups should be paired with a minimum of ten hours.

Driving a car at any speed isn’t hard. Driving appropriately isn’t hard either. But speed doesn’t kill. Bad drivers do.

Be Coming Home After Christmas

It’s just five days until Christmas 2017 at the time of writing. It’s a time where we relax, maybe have a break from work, and we go driving just that little bit more. However we’re also told that this is a dangerous time of year to be on the roads and perhaps there’s some validity in that. Here’s some things you can do to help make our roads just that little bit safer.

Indicate.
This is constantly seen as the number one irritant to drivers in just about every survey about what annoys drivers. But why then are so many cars seen to have “broken indicators” or, as some cynically put it, “have run out of indicator fluid”? Cars are designed and engineered so the basics of driving are a fingertip away, and indicator stalks, be they on the left or right hand side of the steering column, are such.
Indicators are not optionable extras, nor are they difficult to use. If you’re changing lanes, indicate. If you’re merging, indicate. If you’re in a roundabout, indicate. And this doesn’t mean just a cursory flicker or two. Current laws state that “sufficient indication must be given”. Far too many drivers think one/two/three is enough. You should be indicating before leaving your lane and finishing indicating once the whole of your vehicle is the new lane. “NSW Roundabout indication rules” and “Top 10 misunderstood road rules
Roundabouts require you to to indicate as well, especially with three lane roundabouts. Let’s say the roundabout is a Y shape and you’re going left; it’s simple, you indicate left. If you’re going right, you indicate right to go in and then indicate left when exiting. That’s the law.

Headlights.
If you’re out and about and cars are coming toward you with headlights on, there’s a fair bet there’s a good reason why. Most cars today are built with either an auto headlight on function or with LED DRLs fitted. DRL stands for Daytime Running Lights and are in no way intended to be a replacement for headlights. When your car starts and these come on, it also doesn’t mean the lights at the back come on either. When you activate your headlights, then your taillights will come on, and it’s a great idea to do so if you have a dark metallic or silver car and the weather is rainy or clouded over. It REALLY does make your car so much more visible and so much more safer.

Passing the vehicle ahead.
Planning for a lane change isn’t hard. As a driver you should be looking ahead more than to the rear, and too often vehicles are seen almost touching the rear of the car ahead before they suddenly swoop left or right, and again generally without indicating. A well prepared driver should be able to judge the of the traffic and be able to switch lanes smoothly. One simple yet safety improving reason is: what happens if the vehicle you’re getting close to suddenly brakes hard? Bang, you’re in their rear.

Looking ahead also helps with vehicle behaviour; if one car only swerves, well, maybe it’s a tired driver, but if a succession of cars suddenly do it’s a possible indicator there’s something untoward on the road, like a pothole or something that’s fallen off a vehicle. Keep an eye out and be in no doubt.

Red lights/amber lights/green lights.
Cynics would say there’s a lot of colour blind people on our roads, thinking amber means speed up and jump the red. MOST intersections are researched and have their traffic light timing adjusted for traffic flow, with the change from green to amber to red set and a predetermined interval. There’s a set distance that is allowed for along with time in order for drivers to utilise the amber light for its intended use: to slow down and stop safely.

Distractions.
It seems unbelievable that having earphones in whilst driving is still not illegal as it isolates you from an important part of driving; the aural connection to what’s happening outside the car. Sure we can up the volume of the audio system but by having earphones in you’re actually locking out more of the ambient sound.
Kids are always a “good” distraction and we’re certainly not about to tell you how to deal with your children but it’s worth reminding you.
Also, bugs, cigarettes, drinks, and the like need to be considered. And please! if you have bluetooth in your vehicle for calls and audio streaming, use that rather than using your hands.

Car Maintenance.
Tyre pressures and tread depth, windscreen wiper fluid and radiator fluid levels, oil levels, all of these are easily checked before taking your car out. Tyre pressures are marked on the sidewall or on a sticker mounted somewhere inside your vehicle. Tread depth is easily identified visually and a bald tyre is simply no good on a wet road. If the tread looks more worn on one side than the other then a visit to your local tyre shop is recommended. Windscreen wiper fluid is specially formulated so good old Windex as a replacement is not recommended. Oils too are specific to certain types of car (petrol v diesel generally) but an older engine may also need a different oil compared to the new Mustang your Lotto winnings have bought you.

How does the dash look? Is it dusty? Does the touchscreen have fingerprints all over it? Give these a clean before heading out as these can sometimes catch the eye at the wrong moment.

Don’t. Drive. Tired.
It’s far too easy to misjudge your own endurance levels when it comes to long distance driving. Sure, we can sit inside our car for an hour plus in peak hour traffic but we don’t cover the same distance as Sydney to Canberra, Perth to Geraldton, Melbourne to Albury. Sometimes long drives are taken on Boxing day or New Year’s Day, and the body hasn’t recovered from a belly full, be it alcohol or a good roast. Studies show that Microsleeps are a major contributor to crashes, so keep fluid levels, like a sports drink or water, available.

BA.
That’s Bad Attitude. And it sucks. Road rage incidents are full of bad attitude and generally because someone can’t be bothered following the road rules because they don’t they the law applies to them. Tailgating, lane hogging, pulling in front of someone and suddenly braking, and so on are fine examples of BA. If you have BA, stay away.

Speeding.
Finally, the big one. Speeding in and of itself is not dangerous, otherwsie our roads would be populated by ghosts. It’s when combined with tiredness, alcohol, inattention, a bad attitude, mistiming the traffic lights, worn tyres, that excess velocity over distance causes the heartbreak it does.

Use your mirrors, look at the traffic ahead, look for the one or two vehicles that seem to be travelling a whole lot quicker than they should be and do your safest change of lane to get out of the way. Because unless you think WW2 was a fantastic comedy, you don’t want to be that person to answer a knock on the door and see two sombre looking members of the constabulary about to tell you a loved one has died at the hands (wheels?) of someone else driving badly.

Please, do have a safe Christmas for 2017, a wonderful New Year’s as we move to 2018 so we can all be coming home after Christmas.