States passing laws to save kids, pets trapped in cars


via States pass laws to save kids, pets trapped in hot cars,

PDF: Kids and Pets in Cars

Every year, with the hot weather comes tragic stories of how someone left a child in a hot vehicle, leading to death or serious injuries. Especially here in the Sun Belt, where we’re used to long, hot summers, cars can be a death trap if a child is left inside.

In the past three decades, nationally more than 800 children have died after being left in hot vehicles, and the organization has documented 23 cases so far this year.

In one of the latest cases, a Tennessee couple was charged with murder after their 2-year-old son died. The couple allegedly left the child in a vehicle overnight and into the next day in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Cases abound, as an internet search will attest.

While the outside temperature can be tolerable, inside a vehicle it’s a different story. An enclosed vehicle acts as a greenhouse, with the sun’s rays warming the interior as their energy is trapped inside. The website reports that, even on a mild 70-degree day, temperatures inside a car can easily reach 104 degrees in 30 minutes. And at 90 degrees (we’ve seen those temperatures in the last week in central Mississippi), temperatures inside the car can soar to 109 degrees in 10 minutes, and after a half-hour to 124 degrees. Some studies have reported temperatures as high as 172 degrees when it’s 100 degrees outside.

Even at the lower end of that scale, heat-related deaths can easily occur. And although many people continue to believe that cracking the window for your pet helps, most experts disagree. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a study in 2005 that opening a window a few inches does little to alleviate the temperature rise.

The spate of child deaths has rightly led to increased calls for action, as well as additional laws and demands for new technologies to keep these tragedies from occurring. According to, about half of the states have laws specifically making it a crime to leave a child or pet in a hot vehicle (Mississippi, regrettably, does not.) Hopefully, as states around the nation take legislative action, these laws will also include language to protect pets.

Frequently, an endangered pet is discovered by passersby. Bystanders who see a potentially deadly situation have a decision to make. While many courageous people have risked lawsuits and even personal harm by breaking into an unattended vehicle to rescue a trapped pet, others might fear the repercussions of taking action.

Recently, several states have passed laws to protect people who must break into a vehicle to save a pet trapped inside. For example, in Colorado and other states, would-be rescuers must take a number of other steps before they start breaking windows, including making “every reasonable effort” to locate the vehicle’s owner and call law enforcement. They must also be able to demonstrate the pet is clearly in danger of suffocation or extreme heat or cold. Many state laws specifically limit the term “animal” or “pet” to cats and dogs and specifically prohibit the law from referring to livestock.

Most state laws, according to a study earlier this year by Michigan State University, require that the rescuer be a first-responder (such as a police officer, EMT or firefighter), or a representative of a humane society. Ordinary citizens in most states are not offered any protection or immunity. Of course, many pet lovers will take action anyway, disregarding the potential risk of a nasty confrontation or being charged with destruction of property.

But until we have better laws protecting kids — and pets — left in vehicles, perhaps the best response is to leave your pets at home if possible. And if you see an animal in obvious distress in a vehicle, the Humane Society of the United States suggests you try to locate the owner, and if that fails, call the non-emergency number for the police to report the situation.


Drivers say automated car systems prevented crashes


via Drivers say automated car systems prevented crashes,

PDF: Automation1Automation2

A few months ago, I wrote in this column about how pedestrian deaths are becoming increasingly common on our roadways, with some of the alarming increases blamed on our being distracted by the ever-present devices we have with us constantly. While reading through on the findings of a study of the phenomenon, one statement, in particular, caught my eye: The number of pedestrian deaths might be higher still, if not for the installation of automated collision-avoidance systems now on many vehicles.

Our cars and trucks are steadily becoming self-thinking robots. Today’s cars can automatically apply the brakes if the vehicle in front of you suddenly slows or stops; sound an alarm if you’re nodding off at the wheel; alert you if you’re about to hit a vehicle in your blind spot; keep you from backing into an object, animal or person behind you; enable your vehicle to parallel-park itself and many others.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of the 35,092 people who died in vehicle crashes on American roads in 2015, the vast majority (94 percent) were at least partially caused by human error or poor decisions.

All these technologies are paving the way toward a future in which the vehicles will be doing much — if not all — of the driving. Depending on your point of view, that could be comforting or alarming. It’s an established fact that humans are just not very good at making decisions all the time, and we can suffer from fatigue, distraction, poor judgment and lack of impulse control. On the other hand, we know computerized systems are subject to security flaws, equipment failure, and poor programming.

But in labs and research facilities around the world, engineers are working towards a more automated future, and are watching as these features are tested on a massive scale on today’s roads. The results, Consumer Reports noted recently, can be found in saved lives and happier drivers. Consumer Reports asked its subscribers to report on their experiences with some of these technologies and found most of them reported they were not only satisfied with these systems but also, in some cases, credited those systems with avoiding crashes.

More than 57,000 vehicle owners responded to the magazine’s request to provide information, reporting that their vehicles included such features as automated emergency braking, forward-collision warning, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic warning and lane-departure warning. Consumer Reports noted that drivers were most appreciative of blind-spot warnings and rear cross-traffic warnings (although these systems have been panned in the past; the American Automobile Association in 2015 cited high error rates for RCTA systems).

In particular, for vehicle owners who said these features had saved them from accidents, blind-spot warnings were cited for preventing 35 percent of potential crashes. Even experienced drivers can fail to see a car that’s in their own vehicle’s blind spot and sideswipe neighboring vehicles when changing lanes. A blind-spot warning system sounds an alarm when it senses you’re about to change lanes into another vehicle.

While many of these features simply give you a visual, auditory or even tactile warning that a collision is imminent, others actually take control of the vehicle if the system senses a dangerous situation. For example, lane-keeping systems use cameras to detect lane markings and will steer your vehicle back to its lane if you’re drifting out of the lane. AEB will automatically apply the brakes if it senses you’re about to rear-end the vehicle in front of you.

Of course, with all of these technologies comes the potential for errors, which can annoy drivers and cause them to lose faith in the technology. For example, owners of vehicles equipped with forward-collision warning reported the highest number of false alerts. About 45 percent of these drivers reported getting at least one false alert.

Still, Consumer Reports (and many consumer advocates and regulatory bodies) think these technologies are a great idea (even with the occasional error) and recommend more of these technologies become standard equipment in the future. “Consumer Reports believes that FCW and AEB should be standard equipment, even with occasional false alerts,” noted the survey authors. “The latest study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety supports this: Rear-end crashes are cut by 27 percent when a vehicle has FCW and by 50 percent when it’s also equipped with AEB.”

To read Consumer Reports’ full article, which includes more results about each of the technologies covered, visit For more on each type of feature and videos to explain them, visit the NHTSA’s site at

Getting the most from your car’s A/C

edmunds ac

via How to get the most out of your vehicle’s AC,

PDF: ACTips1ACTips2

If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember the old “4/40” system for keeping cool while driving in the summer months. Driving around at around 40 miles per hour with all four windows down got the air moving in the torrid heat of a Southern summer, and provided a welcome escape for generations of Mississippians.

While most of us consider air conditioning to be a necessity in our vehicles, it wasn’t always so. Early automobiles were uncooled, even as the new air-conditioning systems (if you could afford them) made homes and businesses feel like a crisp March morning even in the dog days of August. In 1933, Popular Science reported that a New York company had installed an air conditioning unit in a commercially available vehicle for the first time.

Although not commercially successful at first because of the unwieldy equipment required, cost and danger of carbon monoxide poisoning, the idea took off, and the technology made steady improvements. In the years after, Packard and Cadillac experimented with various technologies. But in 1953, the new Chrysler Imperial featured an optional air conditioning that would be recognizable as a modern system.

Since then, many more innovations have made air conditioning a staple on most vehicles. But many drivers still are probably not getting the most effective use of it. Recently, Consumer Reports’ Patrick Olsen wrote a great column with five tips:

Don’t pre-cool. Olsen explains that your car’s air conditioning works much better when you’re actually driving, because the faster the engine turns, the faster the compressor runs, which lets the system cool more effectively. Don’t waste time and gas by letting your car run before you go.

“If the interior is really hot, crank up the fan when you start driving, and open just the rear windows for 10 to 20 seconds,” Olsen advises. “This forces all the hot air out of the cabin. Don’t open the front windows — that only moves the heat out of the front of the car, and it will leave the air in the back of the cabin hot and stagnant.”

Go low. Since most vehicle air-conditioning systems cool the air to about 38 degrees, if you set the temperature higher, you can be making the system work harder since it must re-heat the air. Olsen advises setting the temp to the lowest setting, then using the fans to adjust the temperature.

Don’t recirculate. Most cars have a “recirculate” button, which takes air from the front of the cabin and pulls it back through the system. But while using this feature might make the driver and front-seat passengers comfortable, it can make rear-seat passengers hotter.

Turn off stop/start mode. Some newer vehicles have a system that stops the engine when idling, to cut down on fuel use and emissions. Olsen suggests turning it off, because it can make the compressor stop running, making your car hotter when stopped or in stop-and-go traffic.

Clean the filter. A dirty cabin air filter (just like the one in your house) can reduce the efficiency of your system and make it work harder. If your filter is easily accessible, clean it often.

And as for the age-old debate about whether using the air conditioner uses more gas than riding with the windows open, most expert sites I consulted noted, “it depends.”

Conventional wisdom says the air conditioner uses more gas, and that’s usually true. Car and Driver did a study in 2008 in which they tested this theory and recommended turning the air conditioner off and opening the windows (at lower speeds) to save a few miles per gallon. But at higher speeds, the engine is running faster, making the air-conditioning system use less fuel. Automotive site notes, “in our experience, it’s not worth the argument because you won’t save a lot of gas either way. So just do what’s comfortable.”

Auto Repair Task Force releases guide for consumers

via Auto Repair Task Force releases guide for consumers,

PDF: Auto Repair Task Force

March 18, 2013, was a date many Mississippians are unlikely to forget. That day, a cold front rolled through the state, bringing with it severe thunderstorms and hail as large as baseballs.

Roofs throughout the region sustained heavy damage, and vehicles parked outside faced a merciless pummeling which resulted in shattered windshields and severe body damage. The Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers Training Academy in Pearl reported that 87 vehicles were destroyed in its parking lot, with many buildings heavily damaged as well. Auto dealers across the region reported catastrophic damage to their inventories. Within a couple of weeks, Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney noted at the time, vehicle owners had filed more than 31,000 insurance claims. Local body shops found themselves inundated with repair jobs, with consumers often facing long backlogs for repairs.

The crisis illustrated the often-complex landscape of the auto repair industry, often the subject of myths and miscommunications resulting in frustration for all involved.

Over the past several years, the auto repair and insurance providers have been taking a look at ways the two industries can make the process better. Last August, Attorney General Jim Hood convened the Mississippi Auto Repair Task Force, bringing together representatives from the Mississippi Insurance Department, body shops, insurers, auto manufacturers, aftermarket parts manufacturers and others to “find common ground on best practices for the future and discuss concerns and desires to better meet the needs of consumers.”

Their work has resulted in a publication called the Consumer’s Guide to Insurance and Auto Body Repair. Hood released the publication last week, noting that new technologies have made getting your car repaired more complicated than ever.

“Our Consumer Protection Division receives complaints from consumers about disputes between insurance companies and collision repair shops,” Hood noted. “Our goal is to help consumers be aware of issues and understand their rights in the repair process.”

“To say this is a monumental day would be an understatement,” noted the Mississippi Collision Repair Association on its Facebook page following the release of the guide and urging its members to download and distribute it. “…This is a testament to the good that can come when shops, insurance companies, parts makers, and regulators come to the table for the good of consumers.”

To place a vehicle back in its pre-accident condition, some body shops must buy expensive machines or tools and have their technicians trained and certified on the repair procedures for certain makes of vehicles, Hood noted. “Some collision repair shops which do not obtain these certifications and tools,” Hood said, “may offer to do a repair cheaper.”

The tug-of-war among consumers who want top-notch repairs, body shops trying to keep costs low and insurance companies in the middle can result in conflict.

The guide covers a wide variety of topics, including what consumers should know when selecting a body repair shop; understanding the difference between original equipment and other types of parts and the implications of that choice; and what to do after the repairs are completed.

Although the guide’s publication received general support from the industry, some dissented. In a statement on its website, the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America said it could potentially cause confusion and “mislead” consumers.

“Because of the likelihood of confusion for consumers, PCI cannot sign on to or otherwise support the Guide,” said the statement, attributed to Joe Woods, PCI vice president for state government relations. “While PCI generally appreciates all efforts to educate consumers on auto body repairs, we are disappointed with the Consumer Guide to Auto Body Repair recently issued by Attorney General Hood. Principally, PCI is concerned that the Guide may confuse and mislead consumers and body shops because it differs significantly from repair requirements proscribed by Mississippi law and from directives issued by the Mississippi Department of Insurance.”

To download a copy of the guide, visit

Watch where you’re going! Pedestrian deaths reach 20-year high

the-traffic-light-2157162_960_720Source: Watch where you’re going! Pedestrian deaths reach 20-year high

PDF: The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20170403_A004_2

Recently, as my son and I were walking across the grocery store parking lot to get some groceries, we were nearly hit by a car whose driver seemed oblivious to our presence as she turned the corner. Luckily, we were paying attention and had time to get out of the way. As we continued into the store, a store employee who was collecting shopping carts and saw the incident shook his head sympathetically and said, “it happens all the time.” It’s actually the second time in a year we’ve been nearly mowed down in the grocery store parking lot.

It’s a dangerous time to be a pedestrian in the United States. The Governors Highway Safety Administration just released its annual study of pedestrian deaths, which examines the problem of people getting killed after being struck by vehicles. The grim statistic: nearly 6,000 pedestrians died in 2016, the highest in 20 years.

That’s a 25 percent increase from 2010, making pedestrians the largest portion of all traffic deaths recorded in the past 25 years. And the 2016 spike marks an 11 percent increase from 2015 (the previous record-holder). The GHSA, a nonprofit made up of state highway safety offices, notes that the numbers could be higher, owing to the under-reporting of incidents. All told, 34 states had increases, and Mississippi ranked 20th in the nation for deaths as a percentage of total population for the first six months of 2016 (that’s actually an improvement from the previous year, but the second-half 2016 statistics haven’t come in yet.)

So, what’s causing all this mayhem? The authors of the study note the rapid increase in the use of smartphones could help explain at least part of the phenomenon because these devices present a “significant source of distraction for both pedestrians and motorists.”

We’ve all seen them, and maybe you’ve been one of them: people whose attention is focused on their smartphone while walking carelessly. Videos abound of people falling headlong into fountains, disappearing into open manholes or tripping on the curb while checking their email, posting to Facebook or looking for that elusive “Pokemon Go” character. Others fail to pay attention to oncoming traffic while crossing the street, leading to their being struck and often killed.

Drivers, too, are distracted. It’s been well-established that phone use while driving can present a serious attention deficit for drivers, becoming more serious the faster they drive. Unsurprisingly, alcohol also plays a role here, as it does in auto crashes in general. Thirty-four percent of pedestrians and 15 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes were intoxicated at the time of the crash, noted the study.

And although vehicles are getting better about avoiding crashing into things through collision-avoidance technologies, and local cities and states are taking measures to make things safer, the numbers continue to rise. It could be, the study’s authors note, more people are walking for fitness and economic reasons at the same time the numbers of vehicles on the road has risen because of the improving economy.

“This latest data shows that the U.S. isn’t meeting the mark on keeping pedestrians safe on our roadways,” Jonathan Adkins, GHSA executive director, told PBS Newshour. “Every one of these lives represents a loved one not coming home tonight, which is absolutely unacceptable.”

The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center ( has some helpful tips to make your walk or run safer. Here are a few:

  • Wear brightly colored clothing and reflective tape at night. These can help increase your visibility to motorists.
  • Always walk on the sidewalk if one is available; if not, walk facing traffic so you can see approaching vehicles.
  • Don’t assume drivers will stop. Try to make eye contact with the driver and be prepared to move if he or she doesn’t appear to notice you.
  • Cross streets only at crosswalks, if possible.
  • Don’t wear earbuds or use your phone while walking.

And finally, if you’re a driver in the grocery store parking lot, please … slow down, put down your phone and pay attention. You might save a life.

Millennials differ from parents on car choices


Source: Millennials differ from parents on car choices,

PDF: millennialcars

Remember back to when you were just starting out and considered getting your first car? While most of us probably had a vehicle in high school and college, and a lucky few were presented with a new vehicle upon graduation, the vast majority of us started out with a banged-up beater that had seen better days.

For me, it was a 1972 Ford Gran Torino. My mom and dad had bought the car used; by the time I got it, the car was 8 years old and had high mileage. But that didn’t stop me from falling in love with it. I took great care of it all through high school, until I said a wistful goodbye a few years — and many miles — later.

There is a special relationship between young people and their first car, and when they finally get the chance to buy a vehicle on their own, they usually know what they want. But a new study from indicates car-shopping millennials (loosely defined as those born from the early 1980s through the late 1990s, or ages 25-34), have wildly different preferences than their parents (Generation Xers) when it comes to buying those first vehicles.

Millennials appear to be thinking more about the environmental impacts of their vehicles and care somewhat more about features, according to the survey. However, they care less about price, reliability and brand than the previous generation. And about half of millennials said they planned to hold on to their vehicles for five years or less, contrasting sharply with their parents’ generation, most of whom said they planned to keep their vehicles much longer.
The generations also differed somewhat in what they considered their favorite makes and models. The Ford Mustang was the only favorite make and model both groups named (when asked what they’d consider their favorite performance car model). For trucks, millennials preferred the Chevrolet Silverado 1500, while Gen Xers preferred Ford F-150s. For a small car, millennials tended to choose the Honda Civic, while Generation X preferred the Honda Accord. When asked about their SUV preferences, millennials chose the Honda CR-V, while the older generation chose the Toyota RAV4.

The study is just the latest in the mixed bag of news for the auto industry. While some of those trends portend well for automakers, others could spell trouble down the road. Last year, the University of Michigan found that just 60 percent of today’s 18-year-olds have driver’s licenses, compared with 80 percent in the 1980s. Many millennials have come to view cars less as a status symbol and more like just a way to get from Point A to Point B. As a result, services like ride-sharing and personal transportation options — such as scooters and electric bikes — are becoming more attractive to millennials. Those trends, however, are more pronounced in densely packed urban areas; preferences of millennials in a largely rural state like Mississippi are probably more like their parents’.

Still, it’s obvious things are changing. Whether all this data mean millennials are truly different from past generations remains to be seen; it could be that they’re just hitting life’s milestones later. However, it’s also possible that how Americans view, purchase and use automobiles is undergoing a major shift. The age of the autonomous vehicle is about to dawn, and together with a generation with changed expectations, the automotive landscape will likely be unrecognizable in just a few years.

Uber settles charges with feds

Source: Drivers taken for a ride: The dark side of Uber

The ride-sharing phenomenon has hit the nation by storm in the past few years. Coming from what was virtually unknown a decade ago, companies like Uber and Lyft have carved a business worth an estimated $40 billion worldwide, according to Reuters.

Ride-sharing companies, though, must depend on the availability of privately owned vehicles and drivers willing to transport passengers. That means being able to convince vehicle owners their efforts will reap financial rewards for driving, and in some cases, enticing drivers to lease a vehicle to be used for ride-sharing services.

But last week, the Federal Trade Commission presented San Francisco-based Uber Technologies with a $20 million invoice to settle charges that the company exaggerated how much money drivers could make, and that the company made false promises to potential vehicle owners. With almost unprecedented speed, Uber paid the FTC on the same day the settlement was announced.

“Many consumers sign up to drive for Uber, but they shouldn’t be taken for a ride about their earnings potential or the cost of financing a car through Uber,” Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a news release Thursday. “This settlement will put millions of dollars back in Uber drivers’ pockets.”

Specifically, the FTC alleged Uber “exaggerated the yearly and hourly income drivers could make in certain cities and misled prospective drivers about the terms of its vehicle financing options.”

For example, the agency alleged that Uber promised drivers they could average more than $90,000 in New York and more than $74,000 in San Francisco, while the actual median income was closer to $61,000 in New York and $53,000 in San Francisco. “In all, less than 10 percent of all drivers in those cities earned the yearly income Uber touted.” In addition, the FTC alleged that Uber repeated this pattern in a number of cities.

Uber also agreed to settle FTC charges that its Vehicle Solutions Program (through which Uber drivers could purchase vehicles) would provide drivers with the “best financing options available,” regardless of the driver’s credit history, and told consumers they could “own a car for as little as $20/day” ($140/week) or lease a car with “payments as low as $17 per day” ($119/week), and “starting at $119/week.” The agency alleged the actual lease payments exceeded $160 and $200, respectively, well over what consumers with similar credit scores would have to pay.

For its part, Uber admitted no wrongdoing, but in a statement emailed to the Chicago Tribune, a spokesman acknowledged the settlement. “We’re pleased to have reached an agreement with the FTC,” said Uber spokesman Matt Kallman. “We’ve made many improvements to the driver experience over the last year and will continue to focus on ensuring that Uber is the best option for anyone looking to earn money on their own schedule.”

MDOT: Be careful around log trucks


Log Truck Graphic.png

Mississippi Department of Transportation (


via MDOT: Be careful around log trucks

If you live in Mississippi, you are familiar with log trucks. These rigs ply Mississippi roads, with their valuable cargo of newly harvested logs. Logging is a vital part of the state’s economy, with a growing impact. Most of those logs travel by truck to mills for processing. Last year, according to the MSU Extension Service, loggers harvested about $1.67 billion worth of trees.

But it can be a dangerous occupation. Those who drive log trucks may be combining two of the most dangerous occupations (as listed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics): Timber cutting and truck driving. While the vast majority of loads get to their destinations without incident, other drivers may not keep a proper distance from the truck, especially when approaching from the rear. The Mississippi Department of Transportation this week issued a reminder for drivers to keep a safe distance between their vehicles and log trucks.

The warning is especially timely, as many of us are still adjusting to the fallback for Daylight Saving Time, combined with the shorter daylight hours of late fall. “To help reduce potential crashes, we want to ensure the traveling public is aware of these log trucks and alert for them, especially during early evening and morning hours,” said Chief Willie Huff, director of the MDOT Office of Enforcement.

Most drivers learn to gauge distances pretty well, using the brain’s remarkable ability to learn and adapt. We use a combination of experience, visual cues and depth perception to figure out just how far away an object is so we can adjust our speed and distance accordingly. Most of the time, it serves us well. But when a vehicle is traveling at highway speed, complicated by low visibility, the task becomes much harder.

To help avoid crashes, state law requires log trucks to follow certain regulations. For example, log truck drivers must have a permit to be on the road two hours before sunrise and two hours after sunset. Log trucks may let their cargo “overhang” 12 feet from the back of the truck, and the longest log must be marked with a red flag during the day and an amber or red flashing light at night. This is so drivers behind the truck can have a fixed point by which to gauge distance.

To help illustrate, MDOT has produced a video to demonstrate the visibility of a log truck at 90 feet, 20 feet and at 10 feet. It would be a good idea to review it, and (especially for less-experienced drivers) to understand that you need to give log trucks (or any truck) a wide berth.

To report safety concerns on Mississippi highways, visit For current travel information, visit, dial 511 or download the free MS Traffic app from the App Store or Google Play.

Silencing cellphones for safety goal


via Silencing cellphones for safety goal

At some point in the not-too-distant future, using a cellphone in a vehicle could be as unacceptable as lighting up a cigarette in a no-smoking zone is today. The alarming rise of texting-related deaths and injuries has fueled a national discussion about the dangers of using phones and other devices in vehicles. Device providers and manufacturers are facing increasing pressure from safety advocates and others, who warn the problem is only getting worse.

Government agencies and private companies and organizations have spent millions on campaigns to make people aware of the dangers and change their habits. But it many such messages are going unheeded.

According to the U.S. government website, 3,179 Americans died in 2014 due to a variety of distractions, but cellphone use led the list. Young drivers appear particularly susceptible to distracted driving, constituting four in 10 (38 percent) of drivers in fatal crashes who had been using their phones.

MOAK: Get off the phone and #justdrive

Of course, distraction takes many forms; who hasn’t seen people putting on makeup, shaving, reading newspapers or fiddling with the radio while behind the wheel? But of all the things that can distract us, perhaps none is so dangerous as using a mobile device.

The attention required to take your eyes off the road and focus on your device’s screen can be costly. An often-cited example says that looking at your screen for even four to five seconds at 55 mph can mean your car travels the length of a football field without anyone watching. That’s pretty scary when you consider that a lot can happen in that short time: a neighboring vehicle can swerve into your lane; you can swerve because you’re not paying attention; a pedestrian or animal can cross into your path; the driver of the car in front of you can slam on his brakes.

Even the act of talking on a phone can distract our attention. While you might think that getting drivers to stop texting is priority No. 1, many advocates are aiming for a bigger prize; they want to ban mobile device use in vehicles altogether, whether used by drivers or passengers. Some advocates note the mere presence of a phone in the vehicle is distracting enough to pull a driver’s attention away from the task of driving. Few people can truly ignore a ringing phone or a ping letting you know you’ve gotten a text message.

A Ridgeland-based company called VRM Telematics has brought to market what some might consider a radical solution: a device called Sentinel, a small black box that connects directly to the vehicle’s electrical system. You buy the device for $199, then pay $19.99 a month for the service.

The device hides inconspicuously under the dash but constantly monitoring for the presence of cellular signals in the car. If signals are detected, the Sentinel device will send a warning to the driver to turn off the phone, or switch it to airplane mode. If others in the car use their devices, they’ll set off the Sentinel as well.

The device also tracks the vehicle’s location and speed and can send a text message or email to a parent or guardian if it detects cellphones, if the driver is speeding, if the vehicle strays from a certain predetermined geographic radius or drives past a certain time of day. Parents can check the vehicle’s location at any time. It’s a lot of control but promises to give anxious parents a little reassurance about their teen’s driving behavior.

VRM Telematics offered to let me use a Sentinel device for a couple of weeks during the summer. The device was quickly and easily installed, and as I drove out of the parking lot, it immediately warned me with a loud beep and recorded message to put my phone on airplane mode. Over the next several days, I learned to immediately switch to airplane mode and to watch my speed unless I wanted to hear the grating alarm and voice. However, I began to understand the power of such a device to regulate behavior most of us have come to accept as normal.

I noticed on the Sentinel site that my friend Pepper Carter had earlier been asked to be part of a test group. Carter, the mother of teenage boys, was interested because she wanted to help her sons learn good driving habits from the start. She was so impressed that she went on to record a promotional video about the Sentinel program, telling about her son Spencer’s experiences.

“I was very open to the idea because Spencer was an emerging driver,” she said. “The results were great! The reporting that I got allowed us to have great conversations about driving behaviors (good and bad) before they became habits. It helped Spencer to not text and drive, keep his speed down and all in all practice safe driving skills that are now habits.”

Besides marketing the Sentinel device, VRM has also become involved in efforts to get cellphone companies to change a basic feature of their phones: They want manufacturers to change “Airplane” mode to “Airplane/Drive” mode.

The company recently partnered with nonprofit consumer advocacy group We Save Lives to petition cellphone companies to make the change. We Save Lives is led by Candace Lightner, well-known for her previous founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Launched on Oct. 13, “Margay’s Petition” honors Margay Schee, a 13-year-old honors student who died in 2008 when a truck slammed into the back of her stopped school bus near Ocala, Florida. The driver reportedly told police he had been distracted by his cellphone.

Regardless of where we come down on the issue of using mobile devices while driving, it’s likely we’ll see more laws and regulations that will take away our right to make those choices. Until that happens, though, we still can choose. Making our cars “phone-free” zones, pulling over if we need to make a call or check messages, and training our kids to do the same can go a long way toward changing behaviors and saving lives.

For more about Sentinel, visit To sign Margay’s Petition, visit

Stop before pumping premium gas

via Moak: Stop before pumping premium gas


Many Americans are “wasting” more than $2.1 billion each year by choosing premium gasoline over regular gas at the pump, the American Automobile Association announced last week. According to a research report issued by the organization, many Americans are making the choice to buy more expensive premium gasoline, when their vehicles are designed to do just fine with regular gas.

“After using industry-standard test protocols designed to evaluate vehicle performance, fuel economy and emissions,” the organization said in a news release, “AAA found no benefit to using premium gasoline in a vehicle that only requires regular-grade fuel.”

In a partnership with the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center, AAA reported that it tested 87-octane (regular) and 93-octane (premium) gasoline in vehicles equipped with a V-8, V-6 or I4 engine designed to operate on regular-grade fuel. The test involved using a dynamometer, which places cars on a treadmill, and running them while hooked up to a variety of sensors. According to a news release about the findings, there was no significant increase in efficiency in any category.

“AAA’s tests reveal that there is no benefit to using premium gasoline in a vehicle that requires regular fuel,” said Megan McKernan, manager of the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center. “Premium gasoline is specifically formulated to be compatible with specific types of engine designs and most vehicles cannot take advantage of the higher octane rating.”

This news may be welcome for many drivers, who grew up thinking that premium gas was better for their cars than regular. There can be significant price differences between the two grades of fuel, and drivers might think the term “premium” means “better.” That’s not necessarily the case.

Of course, once upon a time, it was true. Our dads taught us that premium was better on some types of engines, and they were right. Splurging on premium every now and then was a good idea because it contained additives to help clean the engine, and many of us got into that habit. But today, according to many experts, most grades of fuel have additives to protect engines and cut pollution. In addition, today’s engines are “smarter,” equipped with technology that can make adjustments for lower-grade fuels and reduce the “knock” or “ping” older engines might produce when using lower grades of gas.

“In the old days, engines could not adjust to fuels with varying octane ratings. Use the wrong fuel and the engine would knock or “ping” audibly because the gas exploded prematurely,” noted the automotive site “This knocking damaged internal engine components over time.”

But Edmunds notes that today’s systems “can compensate for low octane by monitoring knock activity and adjusting ignition advance to avoid knocking. This sophisticated electronic capability effectively tunes the engine on the fly and gives drivers more flexibility in the grade of fuels that they can safely use.”

“Drivers see the ‘premium’ name at the pump and may assume the fuel is better for their vehicle,” said John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of Automotive Engineering and Repair. “AAA cautions drivers that premium gasoline is higher octane, not higher quality, and urges drivers to follow the owner’s manual recommendations for their vehicle’s fuel.”

There are, of course, some exceptions. Some higher-performance engines are built to use higher grades of gas. While using regular gas every now and then in these engines is not likely to do harm, sticking with the manufacturer’s recommendation can avoid problems later. And many older vehicles will perform better using higher-octane gasoline. If you’re unsure, check with your mechanic.

If you’re still not convinced, or want to see if there’s a difference in your vehicle in which premium is recommended, Edmunds recommends you conduct your own study.

Monitor your fuel economy and performance over at least two tanks of premium gas. “Record the trip mileage, gallons used, fuel price and octane rating in a notebook or in an app,” Edmunds suggests. “If your car has an onboard fuel economy meter, make sure you reset it when filling up. Then, fill up on the same number of tanks of regular gasoline and record all the same data. Finally, compare the results. You’re looking for a drop-off in fuel economy or a sense that the car is slower or hesitant under strong acceleration.”