Wobbly wheels. Missing wiper blades. Broken windows. Worn-out brakes. Defective lights. Rusted-out bodies. Ontario Provincial Police officers see it all when they conduct their automobile safety blitzes on major highways each holiday weekend during the summer.
During a typical 72-hour blitz, they stop hundreds of motorists for road-side inspections and, on average, 200 of them lose their plates because their vehicles are deemed a safety hazard.
But for all their efforts, such policing programs hardly put a dent in the number of clunkers on the road. The fact is a significant number of Canadian motorists tend to drive their vehicles into the ground, according to Dennis DesRosiers, one of the country's leading auto industry consultants. In a recent report on automobile longevity, DesRosiers observes that Canadians own more than two million vehicles that are at least 15 years old and nearly seven million that are more than 10 years old.
Those kind of numbers make Canada sound like Cuba, or some other less-developed country. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. DesRosiers says the manufacturers are actually producing much better vehicles today than they did just a few years ago. With proper maintenance, newer model minivans, light trucks and sport utility vehicles can last 20 or even 25 years. Passenger cars should be good for 15 to 20 years.
Most manufacturers have switched from carbon steel to galvanized steel in the bodies, and the latter is much more resistant to rust. As well, once the body has been welded together, it is usually dipped in a solution that provides a protective coating against the accumulation of moisture and hence corrosion.
The economics of living in Canada are also a factor in automobile longevity. "We're an overtaxed nation," says DesRosiers. "Consumers look for ways to keep their transportation costs down and a lot of clunkers don't cost much. People would rather spend $1,500 a year maintaining them than $500 a month on car payments."
The problem is that a lot of the older cars on the roads today were built prior to innovations such as galvanized steel and they start to become unreliable after seven to nine years. And many motorists do not maintain their vehicles properly.
Natural wear and tear leads to deterioration of parts and components and causes safety problems.
There are also environmental concerns. Older vehicles came with less effective emission controls and, once that technology starts to age, clunkers start spewing fumes.
Ontario has a Drive Clean program in which motorists must have bi-annual emissions tests on their vehicles at certified outlets before they can buy new licence stickers.
DesRosiers thinks governments should be doing more. "They would be wise to try to get some of this old stuff off the road," says DesRosiers, who adds that politicians could use either the carrot or the stick.
They could offer motorists scrappage payments of $1,000 to $2,000 per vehicle (the carrot) or they could adopt more rigorous inspection programs (the stick). The manufacturers, not to mention used-car dealers, would be delighted, but the general public would probably be outraged.
Many motorists would rightly complain that they couldn't afford to buy another vehicle, new or used. Then there are the conscientious drivers who would argue that they were being penalized for the bad habits of others.
"You can always find individuals who have kept their vehicles meticulously and would be terribly upset if governments forced them to give up an old automobile," he says.
Nevertheless, Canadians are becoming more concerned about the environment and politicians have taken note. But they're not likely to pressure individual motorists to change their driving habits in order to protect the quality of the nation's air. DesRosiers says they'll lean on the car companies instead.
"They want to force the manufacturers to put expensive emissions technology in new vehicles," he points out. "Then it's the companies who are making you buy more technology and pay more for your vehicle."
Until that happens, Canadians will continue to drive their clunkers despite the safety risks and the damage done to the environment.
(D'Arcy Jenish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)