Saturday, April 28, 2012

Let's Stop Distracted Driving

As I drive around I'm seeing enough distracted drivers that it's got me genuinely concerned.  It's a real safety hazard and I'd like to see some very stringent enforcement before too many more are injured and killed.  Thirty years ago drunk driving was fairly prevalent and more or less accepted by many.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving was formed, public attention was focused, and those attitudes all changed.  Now it's treated as a serious offense.  Distracted driving, especially texting, is the contemporary equivalent: a driver is twenty-three times more likely to cause an accident while texting.

California made talking on handheld phones and sending and receiving text messages while driving illegal in 2008.  A first offense got you a ticket for $20 and subsequent violations dinged you for $50.  The amounts are now up to $159 and $279 respectively.  These are steps in the right direction, but more is needed.

Research shows that driving while texting increases the risk of accident and death equivalent to driving above the legal limit for alcohol.  This is serious stuff.  Statistics from the Transportation Department  found that 5,474 deaths and 448,000 injuries were linked to distracted driving in 2009.  Ominously, they also show that especially among younger drivers, the practice is becoming highly common, perhaps even prevalent. 

survey of 5000 San Diego area college students released this month found that 50% reported texting while driving on the freeway, 60% while in city traffic, and 87% while at red lights.  Only 12% marked that they "never" text while driving.   

As of yet, the penalties do not seem to be having much effect among young people.  The California Highway Patrol issued 168,000 citations in 2011.  The same survey earlier cited found that majorities of the young drivers said they would curtail their proclivities if heavier penalties were imposed, such as a 3-month license revocation, adding a point to one's driving violations record, or exempting insurers from having to cover accidents in which their insured was engaged in distracted driving behavior.

I hope to see more strict enforcement of these rules and much heavier punishments for violating them.  I don't know about you, but I feel quite unsafe when I'm on the road around people who are looking down at their hands rather than paying attention to me and the other cars around them.  I hope soon to see the cops nailing people left and right and the violators seeing their insurance rates go through the roof.  Then it will become "not ok" to text, tweet, or even chat with one hand holding a phone to one's ear while behind the wheel.  Until then, I can report that I have never driven more defensively than I now do.  I hope it's enough.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

BP Spill Two Years Later

We have just passed the two-year anniversary of the BP Deep Horizon oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.  Despite the upbeat "Come on Down!" BP advertising blitz you may have seen recently on television, indications abound that the accident that killed 11 men and introduced an estimated 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf is apparently a long way from being cleaned up.  Recent reports by ABC and CBS News detail alarming abnormalities in fish, shrimp, coral, dolphins and in the mangroves that anchor the Gulf shoreline. 

Fish are being found with strange sores and lesions that have never been seen by fishermen before.  Some have patches of skin missing, others have bizarre skin pigmentations and others have tested positive for concentrations of napthalene in their bile.  As you can read in the linked reports, commercial fishermen say incidences of the deformed and diseased animals increases as one approaches the site of the spill.

Oil that coated barrier islands remains in the sand and shore, killing off reeds and mangroves.  The denuded and unprotected shoreline is thus eroding at four times the normal rate, and whole islands are rapidly disappearing beneath the waves. 

BP has reportedly spent the substantial sum of $14 billion in the cleanup and as compensation for businesses and residents adversely affected by the catastrophe.  Even so, the recent news would seem to indicate many billions more might need be committed to the effort, and even then numerous long-term effects would almost certainly still remain.

These findings, coming in the same month as the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, serve to remind us how quickly and dramatically human hubris can be given its comeuppance.  Assurances about "foolproof" safety precautions or the blithe dismissal of the possibility of serious negative consequences for inherently risky and dangerous activities are time and again humbled by nature, the unforeseen, or simple human error.

A rational policy would be directed toward ending reliance on such an energy source as rapidly as possible.  In many advanced nations, including Israel, with a project underway to go to 100% electric cars, Brazil, converting to running all vehicles on ethanol from sugar cane, and Germany, which is in the process of installing solar panels on every roof in the country, vigorous efforts are in progress.
Yet here, President Obama's measured steps to encourage greener domestic sources are met with furious opposition.  But then, none of the aforementioned nations has a powerful and influential
domestic oil industry to contend with.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Earth Day Cleanup

Yesterday I participated in the Visalia City Earth Day Mill Creek cleanup activity.  For those of you who know Visalia, the meetup was at the corner of Lovers Lane and Mill Creek.  A good turnout of probably 150 people showed up. 

I got to see my good friends Louie Campos, Mary Ann Bringhurst and City Councilman Greg Collins, among others, and work with them for a good cause.  We pulled many tons of detritus out of the creek bed, including mattresses, shopping carts, a satellite dish, bottles, PVC pipe, lumber, a good heavy chain, and lots of tires.  Nearly a mile of the creek was cleared.  Meanwhile, others were busy spreading mulch, clearing out invasive plant species such as bamboo, and going to another location on Riggin St. near the St. Johns River to plant trees and shrubs. 

The city had commemorative green shirts for participants, as well as water, gloves and plenty of tools.  There were even sandwiches, contributed by Subway, for those who stayed until noon.  Click here to read a story on Visalia conservation programs

At one point I remarked to Louie how surprising it was to find so much trash and junk thrown into a natural watercourse.  He said that what amazed him was how quickly a group of concerned citizens could restore a natural setting to attractiveness when they showed up in force with a readiness to work.

It felt good to be a part of this activity.  I felt like I did something wholesome and worthwhile on my Sunday morning after church.  I guess it's representative of life in general.  A lot of people each doing a little can make a difference and the world a better place!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Tulare Councilman Spouts Racism

The following quote comes from Hillary Meeks, the Target Content Editor for the Visalia Times-Delta newspaper.

Tulare City Councilman Skip Barwick: "We up here, we keep our yards watered and mowed, we try to keep our house exteriors looking nice, and a lot of Hispanic people, those are not their priorities, whereas it is ours, because of where we come from and how we’re raised. And sometimes we think, ‘Why would you want to live like that?’ …They don’t want a nice, clean home and no animals in their yard. They want to park their cars in the grass and do what they want to do. They don’t have the same values, and trying to impose those values on them is very difficult. That’s one problem when you have a diverse community.”

It seems the neighborhood in question, Matheny Tract, has bad water, a common problem especially in unincorporated areas of the Central Valley.  They desperately want to get annexed into the city of Tulare to get on its municipal water system.  The city councilman was expressing his views about why he is opposed to their request.

The councilman's statement does rather speak for itself.  It also suggests that those who try to maintain that racism is no longer a problem in our society really aren't paying much attention.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Friend Has a Close Call

About 15 of us celebrated my friend Newell's 70th birthday at Rosa's Italian Ristorante in Visalia last night.  I taught with Newell in the College of the Sequoias Social Science Divison until he retired about 6 years ago.  My wife and I have kept up with Newell and Mary Ann, since we belong to a group that goes to the Tulare County Symphony.  They have some nine concerts a year and the group gets together for dinner on symphony nights.

Last month Newell and Mary Ann didn't show up.  We're lucky to still have Newell with us.  As it turned out, he had a heart attack that day.  He had ignored some signs that we all ought to keep in mind.  He has always kept himself in good shape, walking, running and going to the gym.  But he hadn't had a physical in a long time, about 10 years since his last stress test.  He counsels to keep up with those regular checkups.  And the month before he had been experiencing a lot of tightness in his chest when exercising.  It was really hard to catch his breath after levels of exertion that were usually well within his comfort level.  But he shrugged it off.

So he was out walking the dog and just collapsed into a ditch beside the road.  Here's another tip he passes along: when you go out exercising don't forget to bring your cell phone!  When he came to he didn't have his and had to walk back home.  He drove himself over to his doctor's office, and when the doc learned what had happened and examined Newell he personally drove him right over to the ER for emergency treatment.  As it turned out three stents were needed to reopen coronary arteries that were up to 98% blocked!

So yes, keep up those good diet and exercise habits.  But while you're at it, don't forget to schedule an annual physical, pay attention to changes in your body and feelings, and carry your phone with you wherever you go.  Hopefully we'll enjoy Newell's company for many years to come.  But he knows he was lucky this time and wants his friends to learn from his experience.  I hope I can keep his advice in mind and that readers will also take it "to heart!"