Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Volvo pedestrian airbags - just in time for April Fool's?

It began back in 1958 when Volvo engineer Nils Bolhin invented the three-way seat belt, which made Volvo the automotive guardian angel of safe driving. In the 1990s, Volvo went airbag-happy, with the big dusty pillows erupting from every automotive orifice imaginable.

Volvo has riffed on its safety brand for decades, and this year, topped itself with the introduction of a pedestrian airbag. When I first spotted this, I was tempted to think – isn’t it early for April Fool's?

The concept is simple – if a pedestrian happens to foolishly wander into the front of your Volvo, SCHLING! An airbag pops up over the windshield and cushions the blow to both pedestrian and vehicle. There’s even a video demonstrating the methodology with a crash test dummy

The problem here is that this strategy flies in the face of driver legislation as well as driver training, which puts the responsibility for avoiding pedestrian collisions squarely on the driver. Drivers are meant to operate their vehicle to give pedestrians as wide a berth as possible - to expect the unexpected. This is drilled into every student driver all over the planet. Never mind that Volvo also has a pedestrian safety system, which in a recent Australian demo, went horribly wrong.

It begs the question – should pedestrians feel safer if they’re around Volvos? And even more to the point – should drivers feel entitled to slack off if they’re driving a Volvo?

Perhaps this is why “Volvo” has become another word for “bad driver.” Theories and anecdotes abound in all parts of the world about negligent and dangerous Volvo drivers – eerily related to SUV drivers who don’t care about others on the road because in a collision, their vehicle and its occupants will survive. In fact, the image of the bad Volvo driver has become so prevalent that an Australian ad agency created a campaign to combat it. 

While Volvo is to be commended for putting safety first, the reality is that too many drivers depend on passive safety technology. In other words, they assume the car is factory-equipped to avoid collisions and this gives them license to be bad drivers. Not true.

So while we have yet to see if pedestrians will be the beneficiaries of Volvo’s latest safety advances, one thing seems likely – the deer of the world finally stand a fighting chance of not becoming roadkill. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

When a woman's fancy turns to bicycles

Toronto is stuck solidly in March and yet, it feels like we have already sprung into May. When the temps are this warm and sublime, it’s hard not to think about … bicycling.

As a kid, the first warm day of the year meant freedom - the joy of climbing onto a bicycle and tearing down the street, sucking in great gulps of sweet spring air. In those days, my ride was a baby-blue CCM bicycle that my father had bought me at the Canadian Tire at Queensway and Islington. It sat in the veranda of our house at 34 Morgan Avenue in Etobicoke. Nobody worried about squirreling it away in the garage or locking it up.

It was on that blue CCM that I first tasted the heady independence of mobility, free to go wherever I wanted – as long as I didn’t go past Norseman Street and made it home in time for supper. There was something so magical about riding through the neighbourhood – everything looked, sounded and smelled different from my perch on the bicycle. The dandelions pouted at me with their bright yellow faces, my wheels ground away at the asphalt, and the light, musky smell of young grass tickled my nose.

“Where is the wonder that I used to know?” That’s a line from one of my favourite songs by Dion McGregor and Mike Barr. These days, bicycling is a serious matter that is debated in government halls, not the carefree harbinger of spring of my youth. It’s a controversial subject, not kid stuff. Who has the right of way on the road? Do bicycles belong on sidewalks? What kind of lock works best?

But I don’t care. I’ve been cruising the bicycle shops because the itch is in me. I want to rekindle the deep joy of powering along the road on just two wheels instead of four, riding under my own steam, pedalling by a creek where the flowers are just starting to wake up from a winter slumber.

Today, bikes sure cost a lot more than they used to, but the technology has improved by leaps and bounds. I was tickled to see that there are touring bicycles now for women like me that look a LOT like my old CCM. It was hard not to buy the first one I leapt on, it felt so exhilarating to pedal along Queen Street!

Somewhere, there’s a bicycle with my name on it. And even though it’s been a long time since I lived at 34 Morgan Avenue, I know I’ll still relish the delight, the delicious feeling of abandoning myself to two wheels … instead of four …

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dart Girl stole my act

Way back in 1992, when Chrysler introduced the flamboyant Dodge Viper at the Toronto auto show (as it was then called), they had a correspondingly bootylicous Viper Girl. She matched the machine curve for curve, and strutted her blonde buxom stuff all around the Viper podium. It was full-on sex, sizzle and damn the torpedoes.

What fun, I told my friends, with a tinge of jealousy. The only car I could ever hope to represent was my 1973 Dodge Dart Swinger – practical, comfortable, unpretentious and reliable – just like me. If ever there was a casting call for females to schill a sensible vehicle, that would be right up my alley. I could be the Dodge Dart Girl. I was only kinda joking.

Fast forward to the Canadian International Auto Show, 2012. One of the vehicles generating major buzz was the 2013 Dodge Dart. Yes, Chrysler had resurrected the Dart name for its latest model entry, its first compact sedan in seven years, and one that would battle the Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze.

Standing next to the Dart was a curvaceous young lady clad in tight black pleather, tossing her hair, turning this way and that, working her statuesque charms on a phalanx of photographers (see above left). She was no less than … a Dart Girl!

And the new Dart? Hardly my simple, honest and unpretentious model of 1973. It took its styling cues from other resurrected names like Charger and Challenger, and drew more on the muscle variants of the Dart. Which would explain the presence of the shapely Dart Girl, and her multiple “booth babe” counterparts.

I mean, they never even called me for an audition! Well, that’s okay. Would I be comfortable poured into black pleather? More likely, I'd trip over something and do a face plant in the hood. That's the only time anyone would be game to take my photo. And it's pretty unlikely anyone would be buying what I'd be hawking.

But if they ever bring back the Valiant … !            

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What's Vladimir Putin made of?

Vladimir Putin may be the most colourful and scary Russian leader since the cold war. The current prime minister and alleged president-elect, Vlad has come under criticism for rigging elections, strafing small post-Soviet republics and even poisoning journalists. 

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. A former KGB agent, Putin is a self-styled badass. He’ll tackle forest fires head-on, flying a jet into the flames and beating them into submission. He’s shot a rampaging tiger – and then measured its teeth for good measure
Is there anything this crazy Russkie won’t do for macho kicks?

Take a look at what Vlad drives. For starters, he took a bright yellow Renault Formula One racecar out for a spin, apparently reaching speeds of up to 240 clicks.  

A testosterone-stoked Lada Niva 4 x 4 is his daily driver – Vlad’s has a grille guard, winch and snorkel, for off-roading in Siberia. 

In fact, Vlad is such a slamming alpha dog that he drives a Harley trike and hangs out with biker gangsThey’re probably afraid to say “nyet” to the gun-toting black belt karate master.

But sometimes the ride is less than smooth for Russia’s number one son. A Lada Granta sedan refused to co-operate with Vlad in a not-so-carefully staged publicity video. Those Lada engineers were probably sweating with every crank of the key! 

Alpha male Vlad is a prime example of “you are what you drive.” The powerful vehicles he chooses to drive match his bare chest for sheer muscle. They’re as much a part of his image as any political rhetoric and campaigning. Vlad’s brawn and cast-iron biceps have to be reflected in everything he does to maintain his cast-iron leadership. You’ll never see this guy in a Yaris.

Too bad.