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September 20, 2010

Keeping the Old Car Running


My constant harangue against traffic and in favor of trains aside, I do own a car: a used ’97 Honda Accord with 130,000 miles on it. It’s a great car (the interior infused with cigar smoke notwithstanding), and I hope to run it into the ground.

Used cars are hot these days. Prices have climbed 10% in a year as more drivers decide to hold onto their cars longer. And why not?

We don’t have to be suckers to Detroit’s game of staking our egos on each year’s new model, which immediately loses 20% of its value the day we drive it home. Used cars can prove perfectly reliable, if you keep them in good shape.

So when I saw a TV infomercial for CarMD, a device that promised a simple way to keep my jalopy going, I was jazzed. I love car tech and this sounded great!

Rather than popping the $99 for the gizmo myself, I suggested to the Darien Library that they purchase one. Yes, I am truly blessed to live in a town with a tech-savvy library that offers patrons any number of gizmos on loan… GPS devices, digital cameras and Kill-A-Watt readers. But now I’m feeling a bit guilty.

Here’s how Car MD is supposed to work.

You take the remote unit, about the size of a fat TV remote, and plug it into your car’s computer output. There’s the first challenge: finding that plug. But the www.carmd.com website has a simple guide by make and model. My plug was behind the ashtray of my ’97 Honda Accord. In my wife’s ’96 Volvo, it was under the coin holder.

Once you’ve turned on and plugged in the CarMD gizmo, you turn on the ignition but you do NOT start the car. The handheld device talks to your car’s computer, downloads the information, beeps four times and you’re done. Well, sort of.

If the handheld device shows a green light (as on my trusty Honda), you’re OK. Your car’s computer has found no problems. But if it’s a yellow light, as I saw on the Volvo, the fun begins.

Next you have to copy down your car’s VIN (vehicle identification number). Good luck reading that, if you can find it.

You then load the CarMD software onto your computer, register online with name and address (no, I did not read their Privacy Policy!) and open the software. Type in the VIN and the system should identify your car by year, make and model. You can register three cars per device and they don’t all have to belong to you.

But here’s where I was disappointed. When I clicked the “check health status” button, the software displayed umpteen TSB’s (Technical Service Bulletins) for the Volvo going back to 1992 (even though the car is a ’96) but to read the full details it’s $1.99 per report or $19.95 a year to read them all.

Worse yet, the software told me nothing about why the yellow light was showing on the handheld device. A call to CarMD’s Customer Service (friendly and knowledgeable) got to the root of the problem: the Volvo’s “check engine” light wasn’t on.

In other words, unless your car’s computer has already found a problem and turned on that ominous dashboard display, CarMD isn’t going to tell you much of anything. But it will ask you for money.

CarMD is nothing but a big thumb drive, no smarter than your car’s computer.

Now, had my check engine light been on, Car MD would, in theory, have told me what’s wrong with the car and given me an estimate of how much it would cost to fix it: valuable info to arm myself with before heading to the service station.

But until the “check engine” light shows up on your dashboard, save your money. CarMD isn’t going to do more than frustrate you. Save your dough… maybe to buy a new used car.

September 06, 2010

"Why Hartford Hates The Gold Coast"

I was watching CT-N the other night (my favorite reality TV channel) as the members of the CPTC (Citizens Public Transportation Commission) were meeting for an incredibly boring discussion the state’s transit woes. But toward the end of the meeting, my ears perked up as one of the 80+ year old members started on a rant.

“Our next Governor is going to be ‘gold plated,’” he said. “He’ll come from Fairfield County, the Gold Coast, so heaven help us!”

Not even the lone member of the Commission from Fairfield County dared challenge this crazy assumption that a Governor from the ultra-affluent downstate region would do anything but spend to help Fairfield County while ignoring the rest of the state.

Which got me thinking: Why does everyone upstate mistrust us, we who live on the Gold Coast?

Years ago, when I used to journey to Hartford for my annual appeal to the legislature’s Transportation Committee to invest in new rail cars for Metro-North, I could feel and hear the resentment. Then-Committee Chairman, Senator Billy Ciotto ( D – Wethersfield) would excoriate my testimony, once saying “You people on the Gold Coast can buy your own damn trains!”

Even the CT Rail Commuter Council’s long-time member from Guilford (Shore Line East territory), an otherwise learned and reasonable man, says that Fairfield County isn’t the “real Connecticut.” Oh, really?

Consider the facts:

WE PAY THE TAXES: Forty-plus percent of all the taxes collected in this state come from Fairfield County. Something like 15% of the state’s total collections come from Greenwich, New Canaan and Darien alone. Without Fairfield County taxes, upstate residents’ tax rates would soar.

BUT WE DON’T GET THE BENEFITS: Though we pay most of the taxes, we get almost nothing back in return. Towns like Darien get back 1 cent for every dollar sent to Hartford. One cent! Who’s gold plating the roads in Wethersfield? We are.

WE’RE NOT ALL MILLIONAIRES: Sure, there are some affluent families living along the Gold Coast? But our state’s most populous and poorest city, Bridgeport, is here too. I’d guess there are far more people living in poverty in Norwalk, Stamford and Greenwich than in West Hartford or Farmington.

WE’RE THE VICTIMS OF TRANSIT NEGLECT: Who suffers more from traffic congestion than those who drive I-95 through Fairfield County? And who pays the highest commuter rail fares in the US, but Metro-North riders? Our rail cars are older than most passengers and our highways show the scars of decades of neglect.

So for those people who live north of the Merritt Parkway (the Mason – Dixon line of state politics), get over yourselves and stop portraying us as free-spending fat cats living not in Connecticut but some annex of New York City.

Connecticut’s next Governor will come from Fairfield County. And that’s a good thing. Who knows more about what happens when you don’t invest in your highways and trains?

Maybe the shiny new commuter rail from New Haven to Springfield (which we’ll all be heavily subsidizing) can learn from Metro-North’s mistakes. Maybe a new Governor can extend Shore Line East from Old Saybrook beyond New London to Mystic, Stonington and even Rhode Island, turning local rail critics into passengers.

To her credit, Brookfield’s Jodi Rell has served our entire state’s interests as Governor, especially in funding improved mass transit state-wide, not just in her own home town. And I have every confidence that Dan Malloy or Tom Foley will be Governor of all of Connecticut, upstate and down, from the Quiet Corner to, yes, even the Gold Coast.