Keeping Teen Brains Safe

Image by Luke Maxwell

I have a disconcerting memory from when I was in my early twenties: I was reading an article in a magazine about how the adolescent brain is still changing and developing longer than most people realize. The article had an example which showed a photo of a woman. According to the article, adolescents saw anger while adults saw fear. I stared and stared at the photo but could not see fear instead of anger—even knowing what it was!

I was startled into realizing that no matter what stage of life I was in at the moment, my brain was not done yet. Was that a relief that any mistakes were the fault of not-full-adulthood? Or should I second guess all my decisions now? I decided not to worry about it, shrugged and put it out of my still-developing mind. Continue reading Keeping Teen Brains Safe

Is It Okay To Turn Amputees Away at Amusement Park Rides?

Photo: Judy Berna Canobie Lake, NH
Canobie Lake, NH. Photo: Judy Berna.

It’s summertime; the time you pack up the kids and head to the amusement park. If it’s hot outside you head to the water park. For most families, the only thing that might be worrisome is whether their youngster is tall enough to ride certain rides. But what if your child was turned away for other reasons—like the fact that they have a prosthetic limb?

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

In recent years, this has been happening more and more at parks around the country. It’s happening to children and adults. Sometimes it makes the local news and many times the article becomes a Facebook favorite. I have watched these stories with interest, since I am an amputee and have frequented many amusement parks without ever having a problem.

You might assume my point of view on this topic would be fully in support of the amputee in the story. Not necessarily.

First, let’s break down the issue. In the 12 years since I had my surgery, society’s acceptance of prosthetic limbs has changed dramatically. Amputees are no longer afraid of wearing shorts in public. In fact, the attitude has changed so much that most of the amputees I know have crazy designs on their legs that they like to show off.

I believe this change is part of the reason we’re seeing these stories about amusement park problems. Those who are missing limbs are no longer afraid of going on adventures with their families. And they are wearing shorts, so it’s very obvious they have bionic limbs. In past years, if an amputee showed up in line for a roller coaster, they most likely were wearing long pants, and the ride operator never knew.

Add to that the fact that amusement parks are more and more terrified of lawsuits. As our society becomes more sue-happy, these parks are having to be vigilant about safety rules and policies. For smaller parks, one major lawsuit could close their doors forever.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

So why would I ever not side with my fellow amputees, you might ask? The short answer is this: Every amputee is different, every prosthetic setup is different, and in some situations, they may not be safe on a ride they really want to try. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been an amputee, how strong the rest of their body is, how far they had to travel to get there, or how badly they want to try this ride. If it’s not safe, it’s not safe.

Let’s use roller coasters as an example to represent the average amusement park ride. Let’s say this particular ride has a bar over your lap and your legs hang down. This ride was designed by engineers who were using a standard body as their subject. The only deviance would be allowing for extreme heights or weights. My six-and-a-half-foot teenager is technically barred from a few amusement park rides because a person of his height is not technically safe in the design of that ride.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

If a body is of average height, but has legs that only go down to mid-thigh, this kind of ride could actually be very dangerous. Much like a child who is too small for a booster seat can slide under the belt and be harmed, an amputee with short limbs can easily slide out from under the safety bar. Even an amputee with one above-the-knee amputation runs a higher risk of sliding out.

Another issue is prosthetic limbs that might fall off. I am actually very surprised I was allowed to ride a roller coaster in NY that allowed the rider’s legs to hang down. I have a below-the-knee prosthetic, made of hard plastic, with a foot made of titanium. I was confident my leg would not come off, because the design I wear allows for me to be pulled across a room by my leg, with my prosthetic never even coming close to coming loose.

But if I didn’t have this system, or if it was a hot day and my leg was looser than normal because of sweating (which happens), there is a real risk that my leg could have come off and been a very dangerous projectile. With as tightly as parks now pack their coasters into the footprint of their property, there is a good chance a leg would hit a human target.

There is no way a ride operator can be trained on all the different kinds of leg systems. There is no way there can be a blanket policy that applies to every kind of prosthetic socket. There are many amputees who can ride specific rides very safely. But how do the teenage park workers decide who is safe and who is not? Herein lies the problem.

Amusement Parks are a fun way to make new family memories.  Photo: Judy Berna
Amusement parks are a fun way to make new family memories. Photo: Judy Berna.

I hate to see my fellow amputees, adults and children, denied a fun day at the park with their families. It breaks my heart to think of an amputee child being told they can “do anything” with their prosthetic limb, then be turned away once they are at a park. This actually happened recently.

And because there is much confusion about what is safe and what isn’t, the result is people who have perfectly safe prosthetic limbs being turned away. This is exactly what happened to the 8-year-old in the link above. She had a below-the-knee prosthetic covered in a gel liner, and was turned away from a water slide because her leg “might scratch the slide.” This is completely ridiculous.

Parks have become over-vigilant to the point of lacking common sense, which results in more and more news stories about amputees being denied access.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

After much thought, I’ve come up with one solution. It might never come to fruition, but we need to start brainstorming to solve this problem.

Since a prosthetist is really the only person who is qualified to determine how stable a limb might be and which rides it would actually be safe on, they need to be involved in the decision. There needs to be a standardized form, which is offered to all amusement parks and water parks. This form would be filled out by an amputee’s prosthetist and presented to the customer service desk at the park. Then a special ID could be issued to the amputee, which demonstrates to the ride operator that the amputee can board.

This form could easily be printed off from a park’s website. Parks could also offer a season “pass,” which allows an amputee to turn the form in once, then every time they visit that park, they can refer back to the original form and get their special ID tag.

Somewhere in the language of the form, there would have to be a disclaimer, so the prosthetist would not be responsible for any injury or accident that might happen. Otherwise, no prosthetist in his right mind would sign a paper like that.

It would take a lot of organizing to make this happen, but it would sure beat the system we have now, where every park decides for themselves what their rules about prosthetic limbs might be. And they usually err on the side of caution, which denies many “safe” amputees a chance to enjoy the park.

GeekMom Judy's nephew, Soul, enjoying an amusement park ice cream cone.  Photo: Judy Berna
GeekMom Judy’s nephew, Soul, enjoying an amusement park ice cream cone. Photo: Judy Berna.

As an amusement park customer, or as a mom or dad to kids who love them, how do you feel about amusement parks turning away amputees, solely because they have a prosthetic limb? I’d love to hear the opinions of you able-bodied folks out there. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section.

Now excuse me as I go load up the car with kids. We are on our way to the zoo. That’s one place I know I’ll be welcome, bionics and all.

New Chevrolet Teen Driver System Keeps Kids Safe

Image: Chevrolet
Image: Chevrolet

Those first 16 years go by in the blink of an eye and suddenly you’re handing over your car keys to your teenager. You do everything you can to keep make sure they’ll be safe, make sure they know what to do, but how do you know if they’re really behaving behind the wheel? New Teen Driver technology from Chevrolet can help.

This snazzy new tech will make its debut in the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu and will help parents monitor their teen’s driving habits so that they can make sure they’re being safe. It starts with muting the car’s audio if the front seat belts aren’t buckled as a little reminder to buckle up.

The volume can also be preset, based on the key fob, so that music can’t be blasting at a ridiculous volume that would cause distraction for your new driver. Additionally, if the vehicle is equipped with active safety features like forward collision alert, stability control, traction control, and rear cross traffic alert, then these features will be automatically turned on and won’t be able to be turned off.

The Teen Driver system can also keep track of how your teen is driving by providing information on how far and how fast your kid is going on the road. Forward collision alerts, forward collision braking events, and antilock brake events can also be monitored to provide parents the opportunity to discuss driving patterns with their teens.

The system is not subscription based and is available as an option on lower trims while being a standard feature on the Premier trim of the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu. Now you’ve got one more tool for keeping your new teen driver safe on the roads.

Lessons Learned From SciFi and Comic Book Conventions

Let’s cosplay! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

I’ve been attending conventions in costume for five years now. I’ve had a lot of fun and I’ve also learned quite a few lessons.

Don’t wait till the night before to plan your costumes.
Some costumes take from a few months to a year to complete. Start planning your costumes way in advance so you have it all done in time with no stress the night before.

Focus on one build at a time. 
Focus on completing one costume before starting on another. If you start looking for next year’s ideas now, you won’t get this year’s build done. Give yourself time after the convention to think about what you want to do next year, and then do it.

Put your entire costume on at least a week before the convention.
Don’t try out a new costume at a convention without wearing it for a few hours first. This allows you to work out any kinks and make any adjustments.

Call your local comic book store and see if they will let you make an appearance in costume for a few hours to get a feel for everything. This will also help you get used to people looking at you and asking for pictures.

Practice makes for perfect pictures.
Every costume has its limits when it comes to mobility and posing. Try your poses out in front of a mirror or with someone taking your picture. This will allow you to become comfortable in the poses and be quick to strike one when a photographer asks for a photo.

Set a budget and bring cash.
Not all the vendors take credit cards because most conventions make them pay to use the internet in the vendor room. Take enough cash to cover what you must have and then use credit for the little things.

Be aware of your surroundings and who is pointing a camera at you.
While cosplaying as Aayla Secura at MegaCon in 2013, a fellow 501st Legion member was helping me to adjust the top half of my costume. In her words, “It looked like I had been punched in the chest.” Where she had her hand would have looked strange if you didn’t know I had a shirt on under where her hand was. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash go off and a photographer with his camera pointed in my direction. I’m not sure if I was the intended subject or not, but either way, I just allowed myself to be photographed in a compromising way. If you need to make costume adjustments, the best place to go is in the bathroom or behind a curtain of a booth. If neither of those are easily accessible, get a group of friends to surround you while you make the adjustment.

Don’t just hang out in the vendor room or at the panels.
Past years I’ve noticed that I don’t have as many pictures of my cosplay circling the internet as I had hoped. This was because I spent 99% of my time in the vendor room and not in the hallways where all the photographers hung out.

At all the conventions I’ve been to, you don’t have to pay to enter the convention center itself. You only need to pay if you’re going to a panel or into the vendor room. A lot of photographers would rather just spend their time walking the halls for cosplayers rather than in a crowded vendor room with limited lighting and space. After a photographer takes your picture, make sure to ask for a business card to find them later.

Do not be afraid to defend yourself or say no!
This is a big one. Last year, I was in my Robyn Hood (Zenescope) cosplay and a guy walked up and not only looked down my shirt the entire time he was talking to me, but also decided it was appropriate to play with my belly button ring, while asking if it was real. You’d think I’d have slapped the stupid look on his face, but instead I was too stunned to do anything. I looked at him as a “special kind of stupid” and moved on, while wondering how I should have handled that situation without overreacting.

If you are not sure you have the voice to tell someone to stop something, have friends that are not afraid to speak up and tell people to back off.

Go with a friend.
Having a friend nearby not only makes the convention that much more fun, but keeps you that much safer if something happens.

True story – I made the mistake of wandering a convention by myself in Aayla Secura and after four hours, my head was hurting so bad, it felt like Iron Man and the Hulk were going at it in my skull. It took me over 45-minutes to walk a 20-minute span of space to my hotel room because I was stopped so many times trying to escape. If I had listened to my friends at the 501st Legion booth and just stayed by them, I would have gotten out of pain much quicker and with less attention.

Have a “non-costumed” day
I love wearing my costumes, but they can get tiring while trying to enjoy the vendors room and going through the massive amount of comics on sale. I give myself one day of the convention to relax in regular clothes and scope out the sales and take pictures of other cosplayers. I usually make this the last day of the convention since most people wear their hardcore costumes on Saturday. I also have an “easy day” costume for Friday’s when I’m getting the layout of the land.

Hydrate the night before and the day of (and I don’t mean with alcohol or sugary drinks).  
Don’t think that just because you’re indoors that you don’t need to hydrate as often. Drink only water the day before you get dressed up and drink only water or the occasional sports drink the day of. This will keep you feeling great while looking awesome in your build.

Have fun and be safe!
Regardless if you bought your costume, are going in casuals, or worked for months to get that perfect look, have fun with it! Take pictures, talk to other convention-goers, and let your geek flag fly.

Remember! It doesn’t matter why you are at the convention or how you got there. The most important part is to have fun and be safe while doing it. Use your common sense when walking to and from your car or hotel and have a meet-up spot in case you get separated from your group. If you have kids with you, write your contact information on their wrist so they can show security if you get lost from them.

Do you have any advice for convention attendees? Let’s hear it in the comments!

Chevy Aims to Educate: Keeping Teen Drivers Safe

GeekDad Matt Blum and GeekMom Nicole Wakelin with a new friend. Image: General Motors

There are a lot of milestones in a child’s life like getting that first tooth and learning to walk, but the one that scares a lot of parents is the day their teenager gets a driver’s license. It’s a rite of passage for teens, but how do we make sure our kids are safe once they drive away?

That was the focus of the #ChevySafety event recently held in Detroit during Teen Driver Safety Week. We heard from a panel of experts on teen driver safety and got a behind-the-scenes look at all that goes into making cars as safe as possible for all of us.

First, the reality of the situation. Car crashes were the leading killer of teens ages 13-19 in 2012. That’s a downright frightening statistic, but don’t go running to take your teen’s keys just yet. There are things we can all do to help ensure that our kids are safe whether they’re the ones behind the wheel or a passenger in a car one of their friends is driving.

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Image: General Motors

You may have a car with the latest safety technology, one that warns of approaching traffic, cars in your blind spot, and even beeps if you drift out of your lane, but all that technology isn’t the thing you need to be focused on for keeping safe. The biggest thing that any of us can do, and it’s one that’s been hammered into our heads for years, is buckle our seat belts.

It’s kind of funny that, given the vast amount of safety technology in cars, something old-school is most likely to save our lives. You’d also think that teens would buckle up all the time since we’ve been strapping them in to within an inch of their lives since the day we brought them home from the hospital, but you’d be wrong.

Learning about safety tech first hand. Image: General Motors

A study by Safe Kids Worldwide, partly funded with a $2 million grant from General Motors, showed that 25% of teens don’t buckle their seat belts. Add to that the fact that nearly half of teens killed in car accidents in 2012 weren’t wearing a seat belt and the problem is even clearer. Wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of death to those sitting in front by 45% so almost half of those lost young lives could have been saved by a seat belt.

You know it’s important and I know it’s important, but how do we impress upon our kids that they need to buckle up every single time? Talk to them.

Studies show the more we talk to our kids, from the time they’re young not just when they’re teens, the more likely they are to heed our advice. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has done studies that show teens are twice as likely to buckle up and 70% more likely not to drink and drive when parents take an active part in the process of educating them about driver safety.

Image: General Motors

We saw the extensive amount of testing that goes into making cars safe, from crash test dummies to high-tech virtual reality labs that can analyze something as minute as the pattern a windshield wiper clears so you can always see clearly. We also got a look at the incredible OnStar Command Center where they can help in an instant if something does go wrong, but it all comes back to parents. We simply need to talk to our kids.

The technology is incredible to experience first hand and it’s easy to see how it can help save lives. The facility where they run all those dummies through their tests is huge and impressive, but it just won’t do the trick if teens don’t buckle up.

There are programs like Countdown2Drive that will help you get started with this important conversation. Talk to your kids early and often about buckling up and not driving distracted and you’ve gone a long way toward making sure they come home to you safe and sound.

General Motors covered all expenses to attend this event.

2015 Toyota Camry: The Family Sedan Gets an Upgrade

2015 Toyota Camry
Image: Toyota

The Toyota Camry is kind of a big deal. It’s been the best-selling car in America for the last 12 years in a row, so when Toyota decided to change it up, they had to do so very carefully. You simply can’t afford to mess up the best-selling car in America and the good news is, they made it even better.

They didn’t just tweak it a little here and there, they completely overhauled it with every single body panel except for the roof getting a new look. Inside, they’ve changed most of the surfaces so that what you touch feels better. This is the Camry you know, but at the same time you’ve never met.

I had the opportunity to drive the 2015 Toyota Camry recently and I was looking forward to seeing what they changed and if it really made any difference. Every time an automaker comes out with a new version of an existing car they claim it’s different, but making it feel that way is a bit of a trick.

2015 Toyota Camry Front
Image: Toyota

Toyota totally pulled it off, making this mild-mannered sedan less mild and a lot sportier and more appealing. It’s offered in no less than nine different variants, so there’s likely one that will fit your budget and your needs.

It sounds a bit complicated, but basically what you’re looking at are changes in trim from the base LE, to the sporty SE, to the more luxurious XLE, and lastly the XSE which combines both sport and luxury features. They’ve also got a hybrid that comes in three different trim levels.

Your last choice is between two different engines with either a 2.5-liter 4 cylinder or a 3.5-liter V6. Most people opt for the smaller engine, but I’m telling you, if you enjoy driving and want a little more pep on the road, you should give the V6 a test drive. There is a big difference between the two so it’s worth checking out.

2015 Toyota Camry Badge
Image: Toyota

I drove not all, but quite a few different variants of the new Camry and got a really good feel for what they changed. The one with the most noticeable new look was the SE, the sporty one, and it has a downright aggressive grille with styling to match. No mild-mannered anything as this thing takes to the road.

The luxurious XLE will make you feel like you’ve taken a seat behind a much pricier car than its $26,150 starting price. Yes, you can get into all but the V6 variants for under $30K, and you get an impressive list of safety and convenience features.

2015 Toyota Camry Interior
Image: Toyota

Driving a sedan this size likely means you’ve got passengers along with you, often kids, and we all want our kids to be safe. Standard features include 10 airbags, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Traction Control (TRAC), Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist as well as Smart Stop Technology brake-override system. That’s all standard on every single Camry that rolls off the line.

You can opt for additional features like a Pre-Collision System, Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Departure Alert with Auto High Beam, and Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert. Safety is a priority for Toyota and it shows in all these safety features.

2015 Toyota Camry Charger
Image: Toyota

Convenience features also abound with a 12v power port, USB port and a wireless charging system for select smartphones. There’s a special space where you just set your phone, a light comes on, and you’re charging. How cool is that?

The Camry looks good, feels good, is packed with safety, and is something of an escape from the world outside the car. Even the sounds of a torrential downpour during my drive were kept at bay. This is thanks to better door and window seals, noise insulating carpet, and exterior tweaks to make the air flow over the car with less turbulence.

If you’ve driven a Camry and think you know the car, think again. Toyota has taken the best parts, made them better, and given everyone a reason to take another look at the 2015 Toyota Camry.

Toyota covered all my expenses to attend this drive.

Cruisin’ Alabama in the 2015 Hyundai Sonata

2015 Hyundai Sonata Profile
Image: Nicole Wakelin

The 2015 Hyundai Sonata is all new this year and the folks at Hyundai invited me down to Montgomery, Alabama to spend some time behind the wheel of their newest vehicle. Why Montgomery, Alabama? Well, it’s home to the plant that makes the #NewSonata so not only did we get to drive the car, we got to tour the factory, take pictures where it’s not normally allowed, and drive a car right off the line and onto the street.

It’s not every day that you get to see first-hand how cars come together, especially not at a place as incredible as the Hyundai plant in Montgomery. It is an expansive place that operates 24/7 without a break in production. It makes over 1000 cars a day during three shifts, and although that’s a lot, the people at Hyundai said they could make more, but choose a slower production rate.

Hyundai Assembly Line
Image: Nicole Wakelin

The reason is simple, and it’s one that, in an age of recalls that roll out daily and have everyone a little on edge about the safety of their car, should make you feel good about driving a Hyundai. Their goal is to have 97% of vehicles roll off the line in perfect, ready-to-ship form. That means that only 3% have to have adjustments made due to a problem.

Those problems might not be very big and could be as minor as paint with a finish that doesn’t pass muster, but Hyundai puts a focus on quality. Quality over quantity means you’re driving a car that was made with care.

Hyundai Plant
Image: Nicole Wakelin

We toured the factory on a tram straight out of a Disney ride and were permitted to take pictures in areas where it’s normally forbidden, and what we saw was wonderful. It’s spotlessly clean, much quieter than you’d expect, and a genuinely happy place. The employees waved and smiled, and even posed for the camera. The guys on the line making your car are a happy lot who take pride in their work and look to really enjoy their jobs.

I drove a shiny red 2015 Hyundai Sonata Turbo right off the line and into the humid Alabama weather for a tour through some beautiful countryside. I partnered up with the wonderful TerriAnn van Gosliga of CookiesAndClogs and DrivingMamas on a drive route that took us on highways and through winding country roads so we got a good feel for the car.

Hyundai Line
Image: TerriAnn van Gosliga of

There are two different engines, one being a turbo with 245 horsepower that, if you love to drive, is going to put a nice wide grin on your face. Even the smaller 185 horsepower engine is powerful and makes merging onto highways and passing other cars easy.

It handles beautifully and feels like a much more expensive sedan than it is—something that Hyundai excels at in all their vehicles. You can get into a Sonata for a starting price of $21,150 or get a totally loaded model for $33,525. That’s a very reasonable price considering the huge number of features in the car.

2015 Hyundai Sonata
Image: Nicole Wakelin

There are seven standard airbags including one for the driver’s knees, a rearview camera, available Forward Collision Warning, Blind Spot Detection, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, and a Lane Departure Warning System to keep you and the family safe. Convenience features are there, too, with heated and ventilated front seats, and even heated seats in the back as well as beautiful leather seats and accents that really add to the luxury vibe.

Driving it for several hours through unfamiliar roads was really quite a test for me since I had back to back plane rides and was pretty tired. Amazingly, it wasn’t tiring at all driving the #NewSonata. It was relaxing, comfortable, and fun from beginning to end.

2015 Hyundai Sonata Front
Image: Nicole Wakelin

Hyundai has really stepped up their game over the last few years and they aren’t the brand they were ten years ago. Their cars are plush, well-equipped with safety and convenience features, and boast prices that are far less than competitors.

If you’re in the market for a mid-size sedan, the 2015 Hyundai Sonata is arriving at dealer showrooms now and is definitely worth taking for a test drive.

Hyundai covered all expenses to attend this drive experience.

Geeking Out Over Tires With Continental Tire

Image: Continental Tire
Image: Continental Tire

As a car geek, I jumped at the chance to spend a few days with Continental Tire learning about tires by driving on their track in Uvalde, Texas. How could I pass up the chance to drive it like I stole it without having to worry about being arrested when I got out of the car?

This trip involved a group of bloggers who, for the most part, don’t know a lot about cars so it wasn’t geared toward gearheads with lots of boring technical specs, but toward real people. People who just need to know what they need to do to keep their families safe on the roads.

After a wonderful dinner in San Antonio where we all had a chance to get to know each other, we got up early the next day to drive out to Continental Tire’s proving grounds. This isn’t just a track or two, but a 5,000 acre facility with paved and dirt tracks designed to mimic every kind of terrain you might tackle. Okay, you probably aren’t going to tackle some of it unless you’re thinking of becoming a professional rally car driver, but it’s there to test the tires that would do the job.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Part of the proving grounds. Image: Nicole Wakelin

There were three different scenarios set up with both Continental Tire TrueContact tires as well as competitive brands. The first test was a wet braking test that had us accelerating to 55 MPH on a wet track then slamming on the brakes to bring the car to a dead stop. The second test had us taking a tight 200 meter circle with a section of wet track on one curve, and the last test was a wet pad set up with cones for an autocross handling test. My drive partner, Jessica, was perfect, because she was as ready to put these cars to the test as I was and had no fear about driving hard.

The wet braking test easily painted us the clearest picture of just what a good set of tires can do to keep you safe. Check out these results with 55-0 MPH times and the distances it took to stop.

  • Nissan Altima Bridgestone Ecopia 422 4 seconds, 145.2 feet
  • Nissan Altima Michelin Defender 3.5 seconds, 135.7 feet
  • Ford Mustang Continental TrueContact 2/32nd front tread 4.7 seconds, 178.9 feet
  • Ford Mustang Continental TrueContact 4/32nd front tread 3.9 seconds, 141.1 feet

The takeaway there is really how much of a difference just 2/32nds of an inch on your tire makes in how quickly you’ll stop and how far you’ll go. I was on a closed track and the worst thing I was at risk of hitting was an orange cone or two. In the real world, those cones are other cars and other people. Your tires matter.

Image: Continental Tire
Image: Continental Tire

It’s also worth noting that they put those tires with the worn treads on the front of the car. This might not be what you’ve heard over the years, but if you can’t replace all your tires, the worn pair should always go on the front. We experienced the difference this makes while on the 200 meter circle. With good tires on the back, it was easy to regain control coming off of the wet track. With the good tires on the front, let’s just say there were not so many orange cones on that track as there were when we started the day and there was a lot of hysterical laughter in our car.

We spend a lot of time in our cars these days, and as moms we’ve often got our kids along for the ride. This experience showed me the importance of having good tires on your vehicle. We all get our tires checked once a year at inspection time, but after seeing how dangerous worn tires can be, I’ll definitely be checking mine more often.

Continental Tire covered all expenses for this trip.

Ford Combats Distracted Driving By Educating Teen Drivers

Ford Driving School For Life, Image: Ford
Ford Driving School For Life, Image: Ford

We all know what distracted driving means and we all know it’s dangerous, but that doesn’t mean we all avoid falling prey to the many distractions that assault us behind the wheel. Kids in the backseat, your phone buzzing, the music playing too loudly, and now there’s the #DrivingSelfie trend. It’s a scary thought, but even more so when it’s possibly your newly licensed teen who’s driving distracted.

April is Distracted Driving month which makes it a good time to remind ourselves, and especially our kids, of how dangerous it can be to not pay attention behind the wheel. There are so many distractions these days that it’s easy to forget that, when you’re driving, everything else can wait.

Auto companies are incorporating more and more technology in cars, but they’re also making it less distracting by disabling certain features when the car is in motion and adding voice-activated technology that lets you keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. The Ford SYNC system has hands-free features that are voice activated, but they’ve gone one step further with their Ford Driving Skills For Life program.

Ford Driving School For Life, Image: Ford
Ford Driving School For Life, Image: Ford

This program, established in 2003, aims to give teen drivers the edge by teaching them more than what they learn in a typical driver’s education course. Much of the program is web-based but there is a hands-on component with instructors travelling the country to give teen drivers instruction behind the wheel in controlled environments. And, of course, there is plenty of discussion about distracted driving.

Selfies are nothing new, but the #DrivingSelfie trend is gaining a lot of momentum, particularly with younger drivers. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data shows that teens and 20-29 year old drivers are over-represented in fatal crashes. Holding up a phone in front of your face to snap a picture while cruising down the highway is not going to help.

You can’t force your kids to be safe, but you can educate them about the dangers of distracted driving. Talk to them about safety, encourage them not to use their phones in the car, and do something that will keep you and your family safe—teach by example. If you’re picking up your phone to send a quick text, you’re telling them it’s okay with your actions no matter what you say.

Ford Driving Skills For Life, Image: Ford
Ford Driving Skills For Life, Image: Ford

It’s also up to kids to help each other stay focused behind the wheel. Encourage your kids to speak up if they’re a passenger in a car with a distracted driver. It might be their friend texting behind the wheel, but that won’t make the passenger any better off in an accident.

You can find out more about the Ford Driving Skills for Life program at their website which has a list of all scheduled classes as well as downloadable materials to help coach your kids. #JustDrive

Learn How to Stay Safe on Wet Roads From a “Tire Nerd”

Image: Michelin North America

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the snowy winter weather is just a memory, but the spring rains pose a driving hazard of their own. It’s easy to think that it’s only the snow that can cause problems, but April showers bring plenty of potential for sliding across the highways, too.

Russell Shepherd is a mechanical engineer for Michelin North America and a self-professed “tire nerd” who has driven over every road surface imaginable in his years working on tires. He has mechanical engineering degrees from both Florida A&M and Georgia Tech so he knows his stuff. With drivers twice as likely to have an accident on wet roads than on dry roads, Shepherd has come up with a set of five tips to help keep you and your family safe.

Image: Michelin North America

Pay attention to how the car steers, especially if steering feels looser than normal, you’re sliding, or you feel the anti-lock brakes activate. These are all signs that your tires are losing their grip, and that you need to slow things down.

Image: Michelin North America

Sometimes your first warning that you’re hydroplaning isn’t sliding out of control, but losing acceleration. If you’re giving the car gas, but it doesn’t seem to be speeding up or feels like it’s slowing down, you might be hydroplaning. Once again, slow things down so you stay in control of your car.

Image: Michelin North America

Just because the roads are barely wet doesn’t mean it’s safer than when they’re drenched. It can actually be exactly the opposite. A thin coating of water can mix with oil and dust on the roads creating a very slick and dangerous surface. Be cautious the second it starts to rain, not just when things are soaking wet.

Image: Michelin North America

Here’s one that should happen before it rains, and on a regular basis. Check your tires visually for wear and make sure you check the whole tire. Turn the wheel so you can see the entire surface, not just the outer edge so that you don’t miss wear that’s hidden from view.

Image: Michelin North America

Tires aren’t cheap, but they need to be replaced when the tread gets down to 2/32nd of an inch. Yes, it’s that old penny trick. Insert a penny into the tread head first and as long as Lincoln’s head is covered, your tread is okay.

If you do need to replace your tires and can only manage two at a time rather than the recommended four, make sure to put the new ones on the back. That’s where traction is most important for keeping the car going in the right direction and not fishtailing.

These are easy tips that everyone can follow and are particularly helpful for teen drivers. If you’ve been driving for years, then you have probably experienced some of these situations and know they could happen and how the wheel will feel in your hands. Teen drivers may have no idea, and not knowing how your car will behave on wet roads can be dangerous.

Take a minute to check your tires, share these tips, and help ensure that you and your family are safe when they hit the road this spring.

The 2015 Chrysler 200 Packs Futuristic Tech To Keep Your Family Safe

2015 Chrysler 200
2015 Chrysler 200, Image: Chrysler

Every time a new car comes out there are new safety features and the 2015 Chrysler 200 is no exception to that rule. But, here’s the thing—what does all of that fancy tech actually do on a day-to-day basis to keep you and your family safe? In this case, it’ll actually take the wheel for a second and make sure you don’t drift off the side of the road and into a tree. The future, you’re soaking in it!

There are lots of safety features in every car and things like antilock brakes and airbags are the norm. We see them on the giant list of features, make a mental note, and move along. But some of the safety tech they’re putting in cars these days is getting downright futuristic like the Lane Departure Warning with Lane Keep Assist on the 2015 Chrysler 200.

I had the opportunity to drive the 200 at the vehicle’s recent launch in Louisville, Kentucky and tried out this feature firsthand and it was amazing. If you start to drift out of your lane, the car knows and it lets you know you’re in trouble by giving the wheel a little nudge and putting you back in your lane. Yup, for just an instant, the car drives itself down the road.

2015 Chrysler 200 Interior
2015 Chrysler 200, Image: Chrysler

There’s a little graphic on the instrument cluster that tells you when the feature is activated so you know it’s on duty and keeping track of what you’re doing. If you turn your signals on, then it has no problem with you going left or right and nothing happens. But, if you don’t signal, and start to drift it will move you back into your lane. You can actually watch the wheel move.

I tried this out and, dang, it was impressive! It knew to move the wheel just the tiniest bit to keep me from going off the road, but it didn’t take the wheel out of my hands. If I’d been doing some emergency maneuver, it wouldn’t have stopped me from steering the car wherever I wanted, but it would have helped if I was drifting. It’s a little scary to think of the car driving for you, but in this case, it was truly reassuring.

In that moment when your mind wanders, or you’re tired, or you’re simply not paying attention like you should be, this little feature could save your life.

You might be wondering how much a car that has something this futuristic costs, and the answer might surprise you. The 2015 Chrysler 200 is not a stripped down sedan but quite a luxurious car. It’s got plenty of standard and available features that can make it even more plush, but you can get behind the wheel of one for a price as low as $21,700. Even fully tricked out it’s $33,400. Not bad at all for a car that packs some impressively futuristic tech that could save your life.

Now, if they can just give it some snarky artificial intelligence like KITT and possibly David Hasselhoff as a co-driver, it’d be perfect.

BRAKES Driving School Aims To Keep Teens Safe

BRAKES Driving School
Image: BRAKES Driving School

The people at BRAKES Driving School are on a mission to make your teen driver safer behind the wheel.

It’s a scary proposition handing over those keys to your son or daughter. No matter how much time you spend coaching them, no matter how many times you tell them what they should and shouldn’t do, there’s just no way to know how they’ll react to situations once you’re out of the car.

BRAKES (Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe) was started by NHRA drag racing star Doug Herbert, who lost his sons Jon and James in a highway accident back in 2008. Since then, Herbert has since made it his mission to keep other parents from suffering his pain.

BRAKES Driving School
Image: BRAKES Driving School

Herbert created BRAKES the very same year that he lost his sons, as a non-profit designed to provide free driver education for teens. The Teen Pro-Active Driving Course is offered at no charge to teens ages 15 to 19, to teach them skills they just don’t learn in a typical driver’s ed class. The class includes…

Accident Avoidance using a slalom course to teach elevated steering control; a Distraction Exercise to teach increased focus and concentration; a Wheel Drop-Off Recovery Exercise to teach the proper method of retaining control when the vehicle drops a wheel off a highway shoulder; a Panic Stop Exercise to give teenagers safer and more controlled responses when braking in an emergency; a Car Control and Recovery Exercise that teaches the skills necessary to maintain or regain control in wet or icy road conditions.

Classes are held monthly at the Zmax Dragway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, with vehicles provided by KIA. Just because you don’t live in the Charlotte area doesn’t mean your teen won’t have the chance to participate.

The BRAKES team travels around the country, offering classes sponsored by local communities who want to get involved, show their support, and help make our roads safer for everyone.

Discovering Detroit And The Wonder Of OnStar

The basement lab at OnStar. Apparently they're in league with Batman! Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
The basement lab at OnStar. Apparently they’re in league with Batman! Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

General Motors flew me out to Detroit last week to learn about OnStar, drive some snazzy new Buicks, and explore the city. Yeah, that last one seemed a little iffy since it has something of a reputation these days, so I was curious to see what they had planned for the trip.

The adventure started off with dinner at the Westin Book Cadillac, our home for the duration of the event. We got to meet the other bloggers on the tour as well as folks from General Motors, Buick, OnStar and a representative from the Michigan Economic Council who talked about their Pure Michigan campaign.

The City of Detroit is, and I think everyone knows this, not at its best right now. We all see the same sad images on the nightly news, but what we don’t see is just how much the city has managed to turn itself around. It’s still a vital and very hopeful community that is making a comeback. We were about to see for ourselves just what the city had to offer.

Detroit and the General Motors Building, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
Detroit and the General Motors Building, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

We spent our first full day in Detroit learning about OnStar. I thought I knew what it was, but really, I didn’t have a clue. Since it’s not on my personal vehicle I’d never used the service. In my mind, it was a service available in GM vehicles that would call for help in a crash and provide directions on occasion, but not be something I’d use everyday.

I underestimated its usefulness by about a million miles. First, touring their command center, you see the scope of it all in a new light. The place looks like something out of a sci-fi flick with huge monitors in a secure room that we were able to look at through a giant glass wall.

There’s a live map with dots that show where people are pressing that OnStar button. The dots are even differentiated between those pressing the button for non-emergency assistance, those using it in an emergency, and those who didn’t press the button at all but had it automatically activate due to an accident.

There were a lot of dots on that map.

It was also interesting to see that there were monitors playing various news channels. The reason is so that they can see what’s happening in the world and be prepared for large emergencies, say an earthquake or tornado, and be ready for the increase in calls for help. No matter what happens when you’re in your car, you are truly #ConnectedbyOnStar in every situation.

The OnStar Command Center, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
The OnStar Command Center, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

And that is the thing about OnStar that completely blew me away. These people, from the executives we spoke with to the call center representatives we got to sit with, don’t see their job as giving directions. They see it as helping people. They see it as saving lives.

Sure, they can point you to the nearest gas station or help you find a hotel on a road trip and are happy to take that call, but they do so much more. They told one story about a hunter who was a doctor and accidentally shot himself. His call wasn’t so much for help as it was to track down his wife so he could say goodbye. He was convinced he was going to die.

OnStar was convinced otherwise and they directed help to where he’d parked his vehicle off in the woods. They saved that man’s life and he surely would have died without their help. They’ve also helped people through delivering babies and even stopped attempted suicides.

There’s also a feature called Stolen Vehicle Slowdown and we got to try it out on a closed road. They said, “Drive it like you stole it!” and I hit the gas. A few seconds later, OnStar got the staged police call, my speed decreased and eventually I had no engine power, just braking and steering. Not only will that mean your car is recovered in one piece, but a thief won’t hurt anyone in a prolonged chase.

My partner in crime, Stephanie McCratic of, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
My partner in crime, Stephanie McCratic of, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

The people that take the emergency calls are all specially trained to handle them just like an operator who takes your call when you dial 911. They know what to do, how to work with local authorities to help you, and how to help save your life. It was amazing.

The last day of our trip we had a ridiculously fun scavenger hunt that took us all around Detroit. The idea was to use OnStar to get directions to various locations that had us seeing what we might not otherwise see. I got to drive the new 2014 Buick Regal which I thoroughly enjoyed. You can read my full review of the Buick Regal here.

We stopped at a Whole Foods that was the first grocery story within the city limits, then purchased canned goods we dropped at a food bank in a less fortunate part of town. We also drove to the beautiful Belle Isle and took a picture of Canada over the water.

A reclaimed abandoned house, part of the Heidelberg Project. Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
A reclaimed abandoned house, part of the Heidelberg Project. Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

Yes, there are areas of Detroit that are as heartbreaking as what you see on television, but our journey around town showed that it’s still a vital city. There are people living and working there who are determined to turn things around and, although it may take awhile, they’re getting it done.

General Motors covered all travel expenses for this trip.

Hands-Free Is Just As Bad! Distracted While Driving

AAAAAAH! Teenagers driving! Image by Rebecca Angel

“People often don’t readily accept science that angers or inconveniences them.”

That is a quote from sociologist Clifford Nass of Stanford University in the August 24th issue of Science News that featured a story on why science is constantly showing that talking on a phone (texting, holding, or hands-free) while driving is dangerous, and why the average person doesn’t want to hear it.  As a parent of a kid learning how to drive this is troubling to me.

According to the article, studies as early as 1997 have shown that we CAN’T multi-task, and this includes having a conversation with a disembodied voice, and paying attention to our own driving. The human brain toggles back and forth between things, and for some reason, having a phone conversation takes a lot of our brain’s attention, regardless if the phone is in your hand or not. Some researchers believe we make a mental picture of the person on the phone, constantly altering this picture as they talk, to recreate a real-life interaction. This takes away from our being fully present as a driver. Talking with someone in the car does not pose the same distraction.

The worst part is that people don’t notice how badly they are driving.

According to the data, people will do stupid things on the road while talking on the phone, but not even notice it. This is called “metacognitive awareness.” They get home and think they were driving just fine, so why change? The only wake-up call is when an accident happens and then it’s too late. Most driving trips are boring and uneventful so people fail to understand how they are upping their risk of hurting themselves and others while talking on the phone.

“Jeffrey Coben, an emergency room physician at West Virginia University in Morgantown, has seen the results of plenty of car accidents. He says injuries seldem occur because of chance events, such as equipment failure or lightning strikes. ‘Vehicle injuries are not accidents. They are predictable and preventable,’ he says. ‘Every crash is an interaction between an individual operation of the vehicle and the environment it’s in.’ The more distractions involved, he says, the greater the risk.”

The article is filled with interesting and eye-opening studies showing how poorly people are attentive while distracted by talking on the phone. My kid can’t even have the radio on while keeping track of everything she needs to on the road. Will she get more comfortable driving to start having more and more distractions in the car? Of course. But she better never talk on the phone. I made her read this article, and you should have your kids do the same. And you too!