Cool tools for drivers


toy car on an interstate map

Are you planning a summer road trip? Does your work take you on the road for frequent state-to-state travel? Do you regularly visit family that live in another part of the country? If so, you might find this tool handy: The AAA Digest of Motor Laws. It’s an online compendium of laws and rules related to driving and owning a motor vehicle in the 50 U.S. states, territories, and the provinces of Canada. AAA began producing this digest in paper form in 1930. In 2011, it eliminated the paper version and brought it online.

The online version allows you to search by location or by law. You can view laws by specific topics, such as accident reporting, distracted driving, window tinting, “move over” laws, headlight use, impaired driving, licensing requirements, seat belt use and much more.

AAA says that it sources its content by compiling statutes and regulations and submissions from local and state jurisdictions. The digest principally covers general interest subjects on private passenger vehicles, but some limited coverage of laws governing commercial vehicles is included, as are some special laws relating to motorcycles, mopeds, and trailers. AAA also offers a note of caution: “The state laws reflected on this website do not necessarily reflect traffic safety best practices.”

If you’ll be living in another state for a period of time or you have an out-of-state student on your auto policy, you might want to talk insurance implications over with your independent insurance agent.

More useful driver tools

AAA has other handy tools for drivers such as Gas Prices, which monitors pricing nationally and by state, and offers a gas cost calculator to help you gauge the cost of a planned trip. They also sponsor the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which offers information, research and tools on a variety of road safety issues. Here are three that we think are very useful:

  • Keys2Drive – tools to help parents and teens throughout the whole learning-to-drive process.
  • Senior Driver Licensing Policies and Practices – “one stop shopping” for information on state driver licensing policies and practices affecting older and medically-at-risk drivers.
  • RoadwiseRx – a tool for understanding how medications may affect you and your driving. Type a name of a prescribed or over-the-counter medication you are taking to learn about any potential driver warnings.

Get rid of that junk: where and how to recycle your stuff


couch loaded with junk

Maybe you’ve recently jumped on the Marie Kondo bandwagon and decided to get rid of all your stuff. Or maybe your closets, cellars and attics are bursting at the seams and you are afraid you’ll be anonymously reported to your local fire department as a hoarder. Having a build-up of unwanted stuff is not only unsightly, it can also be a fire hazard – particularly with chemicals, cleaners and paints.

Sometimes we hang on to junk for sentimental reasons or because we think we may someday find a use for the article again. News flash: You may never fit in that beloved college sweater again. If you haven’t used it or worn in in the last few years, why not give it a second life somewhere?

Often, it’s simply because we don’t know how to get rid of it. We hang on to old phones and computers because we don’t know where to get rid of them or how to clean them of our personal data.

Consumer Reports to the rescue: They have a very useful article about How to Get Rid of Practically Anything – from bicycles and books to tools and appliances. They offer ideas for how to recycle, sell or donate your goods, along with handy links.

It’s great when you can give something a second life. Here are a few of our favorite “get rid of stuff” links, which might duplicate a few in the above article:

Earth911.com – Learn where to recycle and how to recycle. Look up almost anything, from hazardous waste to electronics, enter your zip code and find out where and how to recycle or dispose at a location near you. Very handy!

call2recycle.com – recycling batteries and cell phones. Also see state battery recycling laws and safety information.

Electronics Donation and Recycling – The EPA lists 17 retailers where you can donate or recycle TVs, mobile devices and PCs.

7 Retailers with impressive recycling programs for consumers

Free recycling programs

It’s a win-win when your old stuff can actually be repurposed for someone in need. Many people need help getting back on their feet and setting up a new home: victims of fires or natural disasters, people fleeing domestic abuse, immigrants, homeless veterans or the disabled, for example. Research to see if there are charities or organizations near you that accept donations. Household Goods (Acton MA) and Habitat for Humanity ReStore (nationwide) are great examples. See charities that will pick up various household goods from your house.

If all else fails and you just need to get rid of your stuff expeditiously, you can always use Bagster – Buy the Bagster bag at your local home improvement retailer. Fill it. Bags are strong enough to hold up to 3,300 lb of debris or waste. Schedule your collection online or by phone, and it’s gone!

An alternative that we haven’t tried yet but intent to is Grunts Move Junk – this service is owned and staffed by vets to haul your junk. They do everything from from removing all unwanted junk – big and small – to loading it on trailers, cleaning your vacant spaces, and disposing of goods. They also offer moving services.

Bicycling safety: new bike helmet rating system from IIHS


man and woman riding bikes, wearing bike helmets

Remember learning to ride a bike? That sense of freedom, of speed, of the world suddenly opening up for you to explore with your pedaling feet? It’s a childhood milestone that most of us remember fondly, and with good reason: bicycles are just about the most efficient means of transportation we humans have yet devised. Two slim wheels attached to a tubular frame and driven by a clever set of gears that turn our churning legs into a brisk means of locomotion, bicycles are fun to ride, good exercise, great for the environment, and easy on the budget. Choosing to commute by bicycle instead of by car can save you money while burning calories. Brightly colored body-hugging Spandex bike shorts are, of course, optional. (Thank goodness.)

If you are new to commuting by bike, you’ll want to do your homework first. Will you be biking before sunup or after sundown? You’ll need lights and reflective clothing. Is your area hilly or flat? This could determine how your bike should be geared. What are the road conditions you’ll encounter? Are there dedicated bike lanes? Will you need to traverse uneven, unpaved terrain? That will affect which tires you choose for your bike. Will you be using your bike for shopping? Maybe panniers and a basket makes sense for you.

Bikes are simple machines, but they can and do break down. Do you know how to perform basic bicycle maintenance, like adjusting the seat, oiling the chain, inflating the tires, and setting the right height of the handlebars? Most of these questions are best answered by the expert at your local bike shop. He or she can walk you through all these decisions and get you on the bike that’s right for you and your commuting and recreational needs.

New bike helmet rating system

One of the first big decisions you’ll have to make regards safety equipment; specifically, choosing a bike helmet. Recent advances in materials technology and safety studies have led to a profusion of bicycle helmet styles and choices. New bicycle helmets are made of lightweight woven polymers designed with padding to absorb impact from all angles. They vary significantly in price, and cost isn’t necessarily the best predictor of performance.

To that end, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in conjunction with the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) and Virginia Tech have created a ranking system to allow bicyclists to see for themselves which helmet is best for them. According to David Zuby, the chief research officer at IIHS:

“As more people choose the bicycle as a mode of transportation, better helmet design is one of the tools that can be used to address the increasing number of cycling injuries.”

While there are federal standards that all bicycle helmets sold in the US must meet, the new standards advance the field by offering a closer analysis of more realistic accident data, gathered by researchers with experience testing other forms of protective headgear, such as hockey, football, and soccer equipment.

Steve Rowson, associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics and director of the Virginia Tech Helmet Labs says:

“Our goal with these ratings is to give cyclists an evidence-based tool for making informed decisions about how to reduce their risk of injury. We also hope manufacturers will use the information to make improvements.”

Their research found important differences in the levels of protection offered by “urban” and “road” -style helmets. They also found that helmets incorporating a Multi-Directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) (which works by reducing friction inside the helmet, alleviating the rotational forces that cause concussion in many common bike accidents) were safer than models lacking the MIPS system.

The team tested 30 popular bicycle helmets to start with and plans to add many more to their rankings, including helmets intended for off-road (BMX) biking. Check out their methodology and see their list of bike helmet ratings.

So strap on your shiny new helmet and get to pedaling! Just, please, not on the sidewalk. Some of us are still walking.

 

Keep on top of vehicle recalls


illustration of cars in a car lot

Do you ever worry that you might have missed notice of an important vehicle recall for your car or truck? Who can keep up! Experts say that going into 2018, there are open, unfixed recalls on more than one out of every five cars. Thanks to the US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there’s an easy way to check if your vehicle has a recall notice.

First find your ride’s vehicle identification number( VIN). It’s unique to your car, and it’s located on the inside of the driver’s side door and on your sales documents. Snap a pic of it with your smartphone and save it with your important documents for quick retrieval. Then visit this handy NHTSA website and type in that VIN. Voila! Any recall notices you might have missed will pop up.

“Be sure that you are keeping yourself and your family safe, check your vehicle for important safety recalls today,” said Heidi King, NHTSA Deputy Administrator. “Did you know that you don’t have to pay to fix safety recalls? Please visit NHTSA.gov/recalls to find out if your car or truck has an outstanding recall, and call your dealership for your free repair.”

For another source to check, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Association of Global Automakers and Carfax recently announced a partnership to offer a free service to check on vehicle recalls. You can check by VIN number or enroll for alerts.  According to current Carfax research, more than 57 million vehicles on U.S. roads have unfixed recalls, despite the fact that voluntary recall remedies are completed free of charge to the consumer.

Recall notices can be issued long after a vehicle’s manufacturing date, so it’s important to check regularly (twice a year is good). It just takes a moment, the repairs are free, and it ensures you and your family are riding in safety!

 

Useful and fun: Free app roundup


illustration of phone with apps

Smartphones are cool. These little slabs of glass and circuitry have rapidly made themselves the most useful of tech toys (and the most pernicious of time-sinks, as anyone who’s ever nursed a Candy Crush habit will testify). But a smartphone is only as good as the software it’s running, and most of that software comes in bite-sized chunks called apps. Some apps duplicate functions found on our tablets, laptops, and desktop computers, doing everything from word processing to photo manipulation to web design. Other apps are for fun and for friends, like texting, multi-player games, and popular social apps like Twitter and Snapchat. (Snapchat is still cool, right?)

While many apps are free and supported by in-app advertising, some of the more useful apps cost real money. In general, the more productive an app makes you, the more likely you are to have to pay for it. But there are exceptions! Many government agencies and non-profits offer apps that are both useful and free, so let’s take a look at some of those.

We’ll start with the motherlode, the official app repository of Uncle Sam himself: USA.gov! From finding housing to staying in touch with astronauts, the US government is now in your back pocket (and not just to get at your wallet). Check out the list of available apps freshly updated for 2018. The CDC also has health-related apps worth checking out. There’s quite a few, ranging from a child development Milestone Tracker to a “Can I eat this?” app for travelers to foreign lands.

Not to be outdone by the Feds, many states offer free helpful apps, too. They range from tourist guides to public transit and everything in between! Here’s New York  and California. Other states don’t have their apps so well-organized. You’ll have to get your google on to find them. For you policy wonks, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has a few state-specific apps to help you keep track of pending legislation.

The American Red Cross has quite a few useful apps as well. They range from instructions in first aid (including first aid for pets!) to emergency bulletins to scheduling blood donations. Find all the Red Cross apps listed in one place.

Speaking of pets, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has an app to help you in pet emergencies, locate lost pets, and maintain your pet’s health records..

Now that you’ve got the doggos and fluffsters squared away, how about the birds? There’s a gaggle of birding apps out there, but one of the best happens also to be free! Merlin Bird ID is from the Cornell University Department Of Ornithology. It helps you identify and track birds by appearance, call, habitat, and season. It’s a great app for new birders, walking you through a five-step process of simple questions to identify the bird you’ve sighted. Or snap a photo of a mystery bird and Merlin will identify it! Listen to bird calls, get acquainted with the birds in your area, and learn which migratory visitors are just passing through. All for free! Plus, using Merlin sends birding data back to the ornithologists at Cornell, helping them track migratory patterns and changes in habitat. It’s available for iPhone and Android.

But don’t get lost in the woods while you’re out there chasing down yellow-bellied sap-suckers! The clever app What3Words has divided the planet (yes, the whole planet) into 9’x9’ squares and assigned each individual square a three-word name. Once you know your three-word identifier you can use it to direct anyone to your location to within 9 feet away! Anywhere on the globe! It’s compatible with Google Maps, Apple Maps, Navmii, and Citymapper, and is increasingly being built in to many car navigation systems. Useful in developing countries without fixed postal addresses, What3Words is also great for having pinpointing your tent at a festival, connecting with your kids at a local festival, finding your friends at an arena, or arranging a group meetup in any big, crowded space. It’s available for Android and iPhone.

We’ll end with an app that you should have on your phone just for emergencies. FireChat is texting app that communicates peer-to-peer via WiFi or Bluetooth. That means no internet connection or mobile phone connection is required. If there’s another device in range, FireChat will leapfrog your message (and any other FireChat messages that have used your device as a node) to that next device, and so forth, propagating messages outward like ripples in a pond, device-to-device. It’s called mesh networking, and in emergencies it can save your bacon. Of course, it only works if other devices are using FireChat (and on iPhones it requires AirDrop, so it’ll only work with iPhones 5 and up). Plus, it’s not exactly what you’d describe as “secure,” though that’s getting better as the app develops. But in a pinch, you never know when it might come in handy, and it doesn’t take up much space. Grab it for Android or iPhone from developer Open Garden. 

Finally, don’t forget to check with your local insurance agent or your insurance company to see if they have an app. If you have an emergency, you want to be able to report your claim quickly!

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