How Slow Can You Go?

When you’re out for a typical drive, how fast do you travel? Under the speed limit? At the speed limit? Or over the speed limit? I’d venture to guess that most Ontarians would choose the latter, especially for those who drive on the provincial and 400 series highways.

So, if most of us are already driving over the speed limit, why doesn’t the government recognize that fact and increase the maximums? Crazy talk, you say? Not at all.

According to an editorial in the July 21st edition of Maclean’s magazine, that’s exactly what’s happening in British Columbia. The story explains that the province’s Transportation and Infrastructure Minister recently announced a wide range of changes to B.C.’s highways, including raising the speed limit on dozens of them.

Maximums are being bumped up by as much as 20 km/h on certain highways, with some limits jumping to 120 km/h, the highest in Canada. The article notes that the increases have been opposed by several groups, including the RCMP, the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and environmental agencies. Their reasons include everything from safety issues to environmental concerns.

However, according to the article, “In truth, there should be no appreciable impact on safety or the environment. The changes will simply allow people to get where they’re going in a lawful and timely manner.”

Maclean’s says there is plenty of evidence showing that most people’s speed is a reflection of driving conditions and road characteristics, not posted limits. As well, contrary to what you might think, “Raising limits doesn’t produce faster average speeds; it merely makes lawful what is already common behaviour.”

The article goes on to say that it isn’t the speed itself that causes accidents – it’s the difference between the fastest and slowest drivers. “A large gap between drivers’ speeds is most often found in situations with artificially low speed limits and this can lead to dangerous passing attempts, unpredictable behaviour and driver frustration: all of which most certainly cause collisions.”

As proof, the story notes that the last time B.C. raised its speed limits in 1997 serious collisions dropped by 18 percent over the next five years, despite traffic volumes increasing by about one-third during the same period.

In deciding to raise the limits again this year, the B.C. government used a background report that states, “Speed limits should be set so that they include the behaviour of the majority of drivers and provide an appropriate maximum speed.”

The guideline used to determine the new limits is the typical speed travelled by 85% of those using the highway. By that measure, it’s pretty obvious that speed limits in Ontario are completely out of whack.

In fact, transport trucks in this province are mechanically limited to a maximum speed of 110 km/h – ten clicks over the actual speed limit on the 400 series highways. And, unless I’m totally oblivious to everyone around me on the 401 or 402, most of the passenger vehicles are already driving faster than those transports.        So, what is the province accomplishing by keeping the limits artificially low?

The Maclean’s article says the changes in B.C. will allow law enforcers to put their efforts into combatting the truly reckless drivers amongst us and, thereby, making the roads safer for everyone: “The moves should free police to focus their efforts on stopping the 15 percent of drivers who exceed accepted norms and behave in ways that are obviously dangerous to themselves and others: driving drunk, distracted driving, racing, etc.”

British Columbia and Maclean’s magazine are certainly not the only two proponents of an increased speed limit. A website called http://www.stop100.ca advocates increasing maximums to between 120 and 130 km/h on Ontario’s 400 series highways. More than 28,000 people have signed a petition on the website supporting the increase.

The Stop100 site includes editorials from several sources to back up their fight, including The Globe and Mail and The National Post, along with lots of information on various studies that support an increase in speed limits.

The website also notes that 120-130 km/h speed limits exist in more than 60 countries and states worldwide – and that many countries with higher speed limits have lower or similar fatality rates to Ontario.

What are your thoughts? Do you routinely exceed the speed limit, especially on 400 series highways? If so, do you believe you’re guilty of breaking the law and should be punished for doing so – along with the large percentage of other drivers who also typically exceed the maximum? Or do you think it’s time Ontario re-examines a policy that is constantly ignored by most of its drivers? Equally important, how do we drive home that point with our provincial government?

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Warm Thoughts In The Dead Of Winter

It’s hard to find much good to say about last week’s extreme frigidity. Offhand, the only thing that lightens my mood when it’s -25 C out is the reappearance of the anti-climate change Luddites. I’m talking about the diehard few who cling to the completely debunked idea that global temperatures aren’t continuing to climb at an alarming rate.

Nothing brings these folks out of hiding like a record-setting cold snap. Refrains of “Whatever happened to your global warming?” were all the rage last week, rising meteorically in equal proportion to the plummeting temperatures outside.

I appreciate the fact that many of these people are just joking. It’s their winter equivalent of “Hot enough for you?” in the dog days of summer – and, just like that popular slogan, it gets tired mighty fast.

Like ostriches with their heads buried in the sand, these “denialists” claim glaciers aren’t melting, snow cover isn’t disappearing, spring isn’t coming earlier, humidity isn’t rising, temperatures over lands and oceans aren’t increasing, sea levels aren’t rising, sea ice and ice sheets aren’t disappearing, oceans aren’t warming, species aren’t migrating and tree-lines aren’t moving poleward and upward.

Thankfully, the number of misinformed individuals continues to decline – and worldwide acceptance of manmade climate change continues to grow. Apparently, all it took was a series of epic extreme weather incidents to make a large chunk of the few remaining naysayers change their opinions.

That’s especially true with Americans, a nation that often seems to thrive on dismissing everything that’s happening around them. After a series of cataclysmic events, including Hurricane Katrina (over 1,800 dead, $81 billion in damage, according to Wikipedia), Hurricane Sandy (nearly 300 dead, $68 billion in damage and massive flooding), drought (the current one is called the largest natural disaster in American history) and record-setting heat waves, the number of climate change deniers in that country may soon drop to less than 10%. Hallelujah.

It’s always nice to see Americans catching up to the rest of the world, considering the untold destruction and loss of human life that’s already occurred in other parts of the planet, directly or indirectly caused by climate change.

Personally, I knew the tide was turning when one of the last bastions of global warming denial crumbled last year. In my case, I’d be talking about my 86-year old father who I always assumed would drown underneath a melting polar ice cap while holding a placard that said, “Climate Change Is A Hoax.” I nearly fell off my soapbox when he informed me that, “There might be something to this global warming after all.” Miracles never cease.

Like many popular hoaxes, the anti-climate change folks still cling to the junk science that exists on the Internet, although the remaining websites that promote this crud are starting to look like projects some college pranksters might have designed when they were both extremely wasted – and terminally bored.

It was priceless to see right-wing broadcaster Rush Limbaugh hit the crackpot jackpot last week after he claimed scientists had made up the idea of a “polar vortex” to explain the frigid temperatures. In Limbaugh’s words, “They’re relying on their total dominance of the media to lie to you each and every day about climate change and global warming.”

When the anti-climate change contingent is forced to rely on someone like Limbaugh to make its case, you know they’re in trouble. This is the same clown who regularly rants against women, African Americans, Latin Americans, Native Americans, any religion except Christianity, homosexuals, immigrants and anyone who’s not a member of the Republican Party. This is someone you want on your side? Why not hire Krusty the Clown? At least that clown’s got a sense of humour.

Thankfully for Limbaugh, he probably won’t be around in 20 years or so when the world starts to get really nasty. As if it isn’t already insufferable enough in many tropical countries where temperatures are making life nearly unlivable for much of the year, it’s going to get a whole lot worse. According to a study in the respected journal Nature, tropical countries like Indonesia will start experiencing regular, unprecedented heat waves just five years from now.

An article in USA Today from last October 10th, says these heat waves will start to affect much of the U.S. just 20 years later and will create a tipping point after which the temperatures will rise every year. The figures will break every record set in the last 150 years if climate conditions continue to change at their current pace. The study’s lead author says, “Whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past.” Scary stuff.

It’s fun to make jokes about global warming – but man-made climate change will soon be anything except a laughing matter. Living in Canada, we may end up being insulated from some of the most radical changes for a few extra years. Right now, it’s rather enjoyable to have spring arrive earlier, winters pass faster, less snowfall and rainfall, and some of the other benefits we’re becoming accustomed to.

But, ask people in tropical countries what their lives are like today compared to what they grew up with – or talk to Americans in the drought-stricken regions – and you’ll gain a different appreciation for why climate change is something none of us should be looking forward to.

“Hot enough for you?” will no longer be a tired, summer catchphrase. Instead, it will be an inescapable reality. As the number of those opposed to the idea of manmade climate change dwindles and the temperatures skyrocket, it will be more than hot enough for everyone. And clowns like Rush Limbaugh will, no doubt, find someone else to blame for it.

 

Slip Slidin’ Away

If you’re searching for some sure signs that the official start of winter is near, you don’t have to look far. Cars in the ditch. Fender benders. Rolled over transport trucks on the 402. And repeated warnings from the OPP to “Slow Down!” Every year it’s like déjà vu all over again. Is there something about humans that immediately erases our memories at the end of every previous winter, causing us to have to re-learn the most basic rules of winter driving?

If you’re looking for another sure sign that snowy weather is here for another year, it’s the sudden appearance of all those lists of safe driving tips. You know what I’m talking about: “15 Ways To Beat Old Man Winter,” “Top Secrets Of Being An Awesomely Amazing Snow Driver,” and “Everything You Need To Know To Survive Winter Roads.”

They’re all the things you routinely ignore because you’ve heard them all before. Trust me – that’s what I do. I’ve been driving in winter for more years than I care to remember, so who’s going to tell me how to improve my driving skills? Not you – Mr. Listy McListmaker!

Having said that, a couple of days ago I saw a message from the Ontario government about a two-minute YouTube video they posted a few weeks ago called, “Top 10 Tips to Prep for Winter Driving”. Yawn. So, preparing to be bored out of my skull and scoff at all the things I already know, I watched.

And, you know, a funny thing happened. Even though most of the information was pretty basic and something I’ve likely learned at some point in my life, I also realized that, over the years, I’ve managed to abandon almost all the things they mention in the video. And I bet that many of you have, as well. (If you’d like to watch it yourself, type the above name for the video into the YouTube search bar and VOILA!).

For instance, they tell you to clear all the snow from your windows, mirrors, lights and roof. Like me, I imagine you routinely forget to do at least one of those (probably your lights) and, by doing so, you add risk to your own driving and everyone else on the road. Or, how about starting your car and waiting for your windows to clear before you start driving?

Here’s one I bet nobody does: “Wear comfortable clothing that doesn’t restrict your movement when you’re behind the wheel.” I usually get to that about half an hour into my trip and, typically, I don’t even pull over to take my coat off – I’ll just do it while I’m driving. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.

The video also includes two places to get provincial highway conditions before you leave for your trip: Ontario.ca/trip on the web or “511” on your phone. As well, it also gives you a non-emergency number for the OPP Provincial Communications Centre (1-888-310-1122) that you can call anytime to get assistance when you’re travelling.

The video also urges you to pack a winter survival kit (yep, I don’t have one of those either!) that includes items such as a flashlight, small shovel, blankets, extra clothing, winter boots, non-perishable energy foods, a candle (for heat) and matches.

If you become stranded, don’t panic. Check to make sure your exhaust pipe is clear of drifting snow before running your engine and open your window slightly for fresh air. And stay in your vehicle for safety and warmth.

Gas up before you go. Not only will you have plenty of fuel to get you to your destination if the driving is slow and allow you to run the vehicle longer should you be stranded, the extra weight will also give you more stability on bad roads and prevent moisture problems in your fuel system.

Finally, keep your cool. As the video cautions, “Shortcuts in winter weather ultimately won’t get you there any faster.” Perhaps that’s the best advice of all – and something that so many of us fail to heed.

We rush to leave for our destination without checking ahead or properly clearing our vehicle. We don’t allow ourselves the extra time we need to get where we’re going – so we drive faster than we should. We don’t consider the best way to get where we’re going – just the fastest. And we don’t plan ahead – which is the entire message the video is trying to deliver.

So, for those of you who’ve made it this far in your reading, congratulations! Even if you know about and practice everything I’ve written above, it never hurts to be reminded one more time. I’m off to prepare my winter survival kit right now and, if you haven’t got one of your own, I hope you’ll do the same. Stay safe and, like the video says, keep your cool.

 

All About Autumn

“Autumn…the year’s last, loveliest smile.” – William Cullen Bryant

It’s the season so nice, they named it twice. Some call it fall. Some call it autumn. I call it awesome. What a glorious time of year it is. Nature’s harvest in its full majesty. Gorgeous sunsets. Crisp, cool mornings. A rainbow of fall colours. Thanksgiving. Halloween. Bundled up school kids. Hearty meals prepared with the season’s bounty. Falling leaves. More falling leaves. Taking off the crops. Cozying up under a blanket. Craft sales. Hot apple cider spiced just right. Leisurely fall walks. Pumpkins, squashes and gourds, oh my. The World Series (aka The Fall Classic).

It’s an autumn extravaganza of dazzling pleasures, just waiting to be enjoyed. As George Eliot once said, “Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”

Ms. Eliot had that right. Unlike other seasons, where you’re anxious for the next one to arrive, most of us would be perfectly happy if fall stayed around a little while longer. Even in the bleakest days of November, you’re still hoping for one more of those lingering autumn afternoons where you put on a fall jacket, take a hearty deep breath, stroll through a forest of changing colours, and reminisce about the year that’s slowly fading into the horizon.

Everyone has the season they enjoy most, one that often reflects your personality. For me, it’s always been autumn. Writer Lauren DeStefano feels the same way: “Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale.” Author and journalist Jim Bishop agrees: “Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.”

To me, the other three seasons seem so showy, so full of themselves. Autumn is a time of peace, of contemplation, of reflection, of giving thanks. Yoko Ono said, “Spring passes and one remembers one’s innocence. Summer passes and one remembers one’s exuberance. Autumn passes and one remembers one’s reverence. Winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance.”

Reverence. That’s a good word for it. “A feeling or attitude of deep respect, tinged with awe.” What a perfect description of this wonderful season. It’s a time when the farmers’ labour is repaid with the bountiful harvest. When we settle back into a warm, welcome routine following the vagaries of summer. When we give thanks for the warm memories that have come and gone throughout the year. And when we prepare for the long winter ahead and enjoy those remaining moments of sunshine and warmth.

It’s sad and happy and toasty and frigid and melancholy and joyous and light and dark and new and old and romantic and heartbreaking and so much more – all rolled into one magnificent, meandering collection of moments. It’s autumn. Enjoy every second of its transcendent beauty before it’s gone.

 

 

Does Anyone Hate Winter More Than Me?

Okay, let’s get this out of the way right off the top: I hate winter. Honestly, I never used to have a problem with this season until my family moved up to Northwestern Ontario right before I started Grade 11. After that, it was straight downhill in the winter-loving department. For me, there are four defining moments in my life that made me realize how winter and I share totally different philosophies of life.

The first occurred in high school when I had to walk to a hockey game one evening. Here’s something you should probably not recommend to your children: trudging several miles at night carrying a duffel bag loaded with goalie equipment in -47 Celsius (-53 F) weather. Imagine adding cold on top of cold on top of cold. Got it? Good, because that’s still nothing close to what I felt like that night.

But, that’s just the tip of iceberg. And I’m not using that cliché figuratively. A few years later, a buddy of mine offered to take me out ice fishing. Well, gosh, that sounds like it might be a lot of fun, doesn’t it? If it’s anything like the grand old time those characters had ice fishing in the animated version of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, I bet it will be a blast. But, only if you’re referring to a blast of Arctic air.

I must have missed the memo on why ice fishing is fun. Does it include spending two hours auguring a hole through ice that seems to be a metre thick? How about sitting on a metal stool on a windswept lake waiting for something interesting to happen while every other creature is hibernating? Or perhaps packing up to leave ten hours later after catching absolutely nothing – except the worst cold of my life? Somehow, they must have left those details off the sales brochure.

The last two instances happened when I worked on the ‘utility crew’ at the local paper mill after high school. Put ‘paper mill’ and ‘winter’ in the same sentence and you know you’ve got good material right there. Add in the words ‘utility crew’ and you have the bonus of not knowing exactly what job you’re going to be assigned when you show up for work each day.

In the first case, I was working in the area called the ‘wood room.’ This is where frozen logs come up from the frozen river along a frozen trough and into a wet, frozen building where frozen workers use frozen hooks to move those frozen logs into the next area of the mill. Part of the ‘fun’ of being on the utility crew was not being able to dress properly for the yet-to-be-assigned job you’re doing on a particular day. In this case, it would have been positively splendid if I’d known that wood room workers wear insulated rubber boots (not winter boots), wet suits (not winter parkas) and waterproof gloves (not winter gloves). Long story short, 18 seconds into my 12-hour shift every part of my body was soaked and, for the next half-day, was constantly re-soaked and re-frozen. You know the expression, “It sends shivers down my spine?” Yeah, that.

Finally, there was one other night that will live on forever in my winter memories. It involves the last evening before a Christmas holiday shutdown at the very same mill. Remember when I mentioned that I never knew what I was doing when I showed up for the start of a shift? How about not knowing what you’re doing for the first 11 hours of your 12 hour shift?

On the night in question, I reported for duty and was told to “sit in the lunchroom and wait.” So, wait I did. Several hours later, the supervisor I was working with showed up to make sure I was still there and assure me that he’d be coming to get me soon. Did I mention that he was already blind stinking drunk at this point? Or that I was starting to worry just a bit about what job I’d actually be doing?

Several more hours later, he showed up again to let me know we were almost ready to go. Did I mention that he was now about eight sheets to the wind and could barely stand up? At this point, I definitely started worrying a lot. Exactly what type of job would require almost no time to complete but would be worth bringing me in for a full 12 hour shift? I was about to find out.

About an hour before the shift was over, my fine inebriated friend stumbled in the door, bellowing, “It’s time.” Time for what? When I asked that question, he said, “You’ll find out.” And I did. Apparently, when they shut down the mill for the holiday break, one of the jobs that had to be done was to close off all the fan vents. On the roof. Of a several storey high tower. In the middle of winter. On one of the windiest, blizzardiest (it’s not a word, so don’t bother looking it up) nights I’ll ever remember in my life.

I’d always heard that alcohol tricks the body into ignoring the elements, but I’d never had any concrete proof until I saw my supervisor stumbling around blindly and obliviously that winter evening on the roof of some godforsaken paper mill in Northwestern Ontario. Somehow, all the vents managed to get closed that evening, but I’ll never know how. And, somehow, my drunken friend and I survived the night to tell the tale. Well, at least I did.

So, that’s my chilling story and I’m sticking to it. It’s also why I hate winter so much. Some memories can’t be unfrozen no matter how much time passes. And these are just a few of them. Therefore, I ask this question one more time: Does anyone hate winter more than me?