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Danger: distracted drivers PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 14 October 2009 15:28

Some distractions that cause highway accidents can’t be restricted; others, like texting, should be banned by laws as stringent as those on drunken driving

The crash on I-43 between Port Washington and Belgium last week that killed two people and injured three others, including one from Ozaukee County who is still hospitalized with grievous injuries, is a horrific example of the menace of distracted drivers. The Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Department says that the driver of the semi that caused the three-vehicle crash took his eyes off the road to reach for a bag of snack food.

Federal and state lawmakers should take note. No, we’re not suggesting laws should be passed to prohibit snacking by drivers. But there are other distractions that should be outlawed, including sending text messages and operating computers and similar devices while driving. Restrictions on cell phone use are also needed.

Federal legislation to prohibit texting by drivers is in the works, as is a similar bill in the Wisconsin Legislature. These efforts need to pick up speed.

That’s not as easy as it should be because lobbies for the most dangerous vehicles on the road, semi-trailer trucks like the one involved in the I-43 crash, are one of the impediments to getting texting bans passed.

Many of these trucks are fitted with computers to give directions and keep drivers in contact with dispatchers. According to an investigation by the New York Times, drivers routinely use the computers to send and receive messages while driving. Just like automobile drivers who thumb messages on their BlackBerrys while underway, they take their eyes off the road to do it.

The Times story reported that while the truck computers usually display an advisory that they are not meant for use while underway they also have a “proceed” button that is well used. A semi driver composing messages on his keyboard while his 60,000 to 80,000-pound rig speeds down the highway is truly a scary thought.

The truck lobby is seeking to have truck computers exempted from any texting ban.

Large trucks are dangerous enough with alert drivers. As much as 25 times heavier than the average car, they represent about 3% of the vehicles on the roads, but account for about 15% of the fatal accidents, more than 5,000 fatalities per year.

The question of whether texting while driving is dangerous has been fully answered. Numerous tests have shown texting drivers to be too distracted to safely operate a vehicle. Several tests have compared driving while texting to driving while drunk and found that the drunken drivers drove better than the texting drivers.

What’s needed to limit these electronic distractions is some of the zeal now evident in Wisconsin in moving to criminalize drunken driving, with in some cases prison-sentence consequences.

Driving while operating a device to send text messages is every bit as irresponsible as driving while impaired by alcohol and should be every bit as criminal.
Although using cell phones while driving is acquiring the veneer of an acceptable behavior because so many people do it—and because of its undeniable appeal as one way to do something useful with the hours spent behind the wheel—it too has been shown to be a significant highway risk factor.

 No one should need a scientific study to know that. Just watch for the vehicle that can’t keep a steady speed or stay between lane lines—odds are the driver is having a cell phone conversation.

A bill in the Wisconsin Legislature would ban cell phone use for drivers 18 and under. That would make a good law in its own right and might pave the way for other needed restrictions on cell phone driving. Many states have them. Wisconsin so far has none.

Capt. Dave Guss of the Sheriff’s Department said the driver of the semi in the crash here “looked down and when he looked up he realized he was rapidly closing on another northbound driver who was slowing.” A couple of seconds with eyes off the road was all it took.

In this case, tragedy was the result of reaching for a snack. Nothing can be done about that—you can’t legislate good sense. But lawmakers can and should deal with other causes of driver distractions.
NOAA and UWM—on the waterfront? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 16 September 2009 22:26

Two exciting initiatives involving the Lake Michigan shore offer Port Washington a chance to make proper use of its beautifully placed coal dock land

It’s too soon to say how good Port Washington’s chances of becoming the home of a joint federal-state marine sanctuary are, but the mere possibility of it happening has already paid a dividend in an improved vision of the future of the lakefront.

 City leaders have suggested the lakeshore land that was once used to store coal for the power plant and will soon come under city control be the site for the headquarters of the project planned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Wisconsin Historical Society.

Call this progress. Earlier this year a years-long community exercise to determine a use for the site ended at about the point where it began—with a disappointing recommendation that it be used for a community center. This splendid piece of land jutting into Lake Michigan at the south edge of the harbor is not a place for an all-purpose building, but rather a place for a building with a purpose related to its setting.

The NOAA headquarters, should it blossom, as is said to be possible, into a maritime heritage center with exhibits, an auditorium, marine artifacts and other features to inform the public about Lake Michigan shipwrecks and their role in marine history, would be such a building.

And so would the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s water research center, for which the coal dock land is also a potential location.

All of this is in an early stage, but the possibilities are exciting to contemplate.

 Every port city with shoreline within the boundaries of the proposed marine sanctuary along the west shore of the lake is in the running for the NOAA headquarters. Two Rivers, Manitowoc and Sheboygan have assets to tout, but none can match what Port Washington has to offer, because it is unique to Port Washington, including:

A harbor and marina in the heart of the city, emblematic of a community whose past, present and future are entwined with Lake Michigan.

to many of the shipwrecks to be protected by the sanctuary and an abiding respect for the seafaring history they represent, exemplified by the lakefront display devoted to the sunken passenger ship Niagara and the fishermen’s memorial citing the sinking of the Linda E., the preservation of the 1860 Light Station, the annual Maritime Heritage Festival featuring recreations of tall ships similar to the shipwrecks and ongoing exploration of the wrecks facilitated by a dive charter service located here.

Location in southeastern Wisconsin near the population centers to which NOAA and the Historical Society would want to appeal to broaden public awareness of the lake’s historical treasures.

First-rate harbor facilities
for docking vessels used in the sanctuary operation.

The coal dock site.

It adds up to a strong case that Port Washington is the right place for the sanctuary headquarters.

As for the water research center, UWM officials and supporters of the project were keen on putting the facility on a Milwaukee waterfront location between the Art Museum’s Calatrava building and Discovery World until the site proved to be controversial. But the belief seems to persist that an institution devoted to the study and protection of freshwater resources should be showcased on the shore of one of the great freshwater bodies on earth. That could happen here.

Perhaps it could happen in concert with the NOAA headquarters, with both in a stunning building on the Port Washington lakefront.

Now there’s a vision.

Make it a law: no workplace smoking PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Friday, 06 March 2009 20:12

Workers need the protection of a state smoking ban; experience shows many restaurant and bar customers would appreciate it as well

After an Ozaukee Press editorial urged state legislators to enact a ban on smoking in workplaces, the owner of a local bar and restaurant that permitted unrestricted smoking angrily accused this newspaper of trying to put him out of business.

That wasn’t our intent, of course, nor, we are quite sure, would that be the result of a state smoking ban. The notion that drinking and dining establishments would lose business if smoking on their premises were prohibited is probably as much a myth as the claim that secondhand smoke is not harmful.

When a Port Washington restaurateur recently declared his restaurant and cocktail lounge smoke free, clearing the air of cigarette smoke for the first time in the long history of the establishment, business didn’t decline—it increased markedly.

And why wouldn’t it? People who don’t smoke—that’s most people, a large majority of the population—don’t want to inhale other people’s smoke at any time and certainly not when they’re out having dinner or drinks.

The restaurant that banned smoking did a favor not only for its customers, but for its employees. Where smoking is allowed, restaurant and bar workers put their health at risk by merely coming to work.

Involuntary exposure of workers to a disease-causing environment should not be tolerated, which is why the smoking ban proposed by Gov. Jim Doyle would outlaw smoking in places of work. Sparing customers the dangerous effects of secondhand smoke would be a bonus.

Doyle included the smoking ban proposal in his state budget. That may seem odd, but it’s the way a lot of legislative work is done in Wisconsin. It’s an attempt in this case to insulate legislators from pressure by the Tavern League of Wisconsin, a powerful lobby that strongly opposes any smoking ban that doesn’t exempt taverns and often gets its way in the Legislature.

It doesn’t matter how a ban is passed, whether as part of the budget or in a stand-alone bill, but failure to pass it would be a black mark on the current legislative session.

The obligation of the state to protect workers, and by extension the general public, from the danger of secondhand smoke, just as it protects them from other workplace hazards, is beyond argument.

Secondhand smoke is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a carcinogen. The surgeon general has reported scientific findings that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke causes disease and premature death in those who don’t smoke. It is estimated that 50,000 deaths a year from lung cancer and heart disease among adult non-smokers are attributable to secondhand smoke.

Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa have enacted workplace smoking bans. Are Wisconsin workers any less entitled to this protection because this state happens to be the home of an exceptionally influential lobby that opposes smoking limits?

For their part, the tavern and restaurant owners who oppose a ban—many of them small-business owners trying to make a go of things in hard times—do so out of the fear that their customers will stay away if they aren’t allowed to smoke.

The experience of the Port Washington restaurant and bar and others that no longer allow their customers and employees to smoke on the premises suggests these fears are exaggerated.

In any case, a statewide ban would put all such establishments on an equal footing—none would have the competitive “advantage” of allowing smoking. This is not true with the patchwork smoking prohibitions enacted by a number of municipalities. Workplace smoking is such a blight that these bans will surely proliferate for as long the Legislature delays a state ban.

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