Feds target texting drivers

Distracted drivers are on a trajectory to top drunk drivers in the major U.S. Stupid Road Hazard category, and may turn out to be even harder to combat. But efforts, at least, are being made.

The Department of Transportation on Thursday stepped up its campaign against distracted driving, announcing its first pilot program to study whether increased law enforcement would reduce distracted driving in two East Coast cities.

“Law enforcement will be out on the roads in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., with one simple message,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “If a driver is caught with a cellphone in one hand, they’ll end up with a ticket in the other.”

The $600,000 program, modeled on previous safe-driving programs to curb drunk driving and improve seat belt usage, also involves a paid advertising campaign aimed at men and women up to age 49.

The campaign using radio, TV and print ads began April 1 and will continue until April 16 in the Hartford and Syracuse metropolitan areas.

The first wave of high-visibility enforcement began Thursday and will last nine days in Syracuse; in Hartford it will begin Saturday and run through April 16. Subsequent enforcement waves in both cities will take place throughout the year.

As a California driver, and frequent pedestrian, I can certify that vast numbers of drivers are still more concerned with talking or texting than with the threat of a ticket; whether or not enforcement and large fines can wrench folks away from the addiction to constant communication remains to be seen.

Connecticut and New York are among only eight U.S. states and territories, including California, to ban the use of all hand-held devices, including cellphones, while driving.

Twenty states and territories, including California, as well as Washington, D.C., have a ban on texting while driving, while six states have laws that prohibit local jurisdictions from enacting restrictions, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The federal government also introduced new regulations in January that would subject truck and bus drivers who text while driving commercial vehicles to civil or criminal penalties of up to $2,750.

The Transportation Department said results from the pilot study would serve as a model nationwide for employing high-visibility enforcement, education and outreach to reduce distracted-driving behaviors.

In 2008, 5,870 people were killed and an estimated 515,000 people were injured in police-reported crashes in which at least one form of driver distraction was reported, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

On behalf of those half-million victims, and the many of us who fear becoming a similar statistic just because somebody can’t hang up and drive, this space hereby sides with the Department of Transportation on this one.

Law enforcement keeping an eye out for distracted drivers – chicagotribune.com.

ADHD: A sometimes welcome diagnosis

“It’s ADHD, that’s what I have,” my friend Ann told me some years ago. She made the announcement with a combination of enthusiasm and relief, as if getting diagnosed with ADHD were the beginning of the end of years of anxiety and frustration — which, in fact, it was.

I had never heard of such a thing. I did know Ann was remarkably creative, that she often jumped from one idea to another, lost her house keys with regularity, frequently left things undone,  pushed herself to achieve and was famous for juggling three or four projects at once. By now, almost everyone in the country knows someone (or is someone) with a similar combination of traits, and almost everyone has heard of ADHD.

The symptoms of adult attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder seem to describe half the people in New York City (and elsewhere): restlessness, impatience, impulsivity, procrastination, chronic lateness, and difficulty getting organized, focusing and finishing tasks.

How do you know you have ADHD, which experts compare to having a mind like a pinball, with thoughts flitting in multiple directions. Maybe you’re just overcaffeinated and overworked? And if you do have it, will there be a stigma? Should you try medication? Will it work?

Parents of children with suspected ADHD face a myriad of similar questions. But the concerns can be just as troubling for adults, whose ADHD often goes unrecognized.

An estimated 8% of U.S. children have ADHD, which is also known as ADD, for attention-deficit disorder, and some 50% of them outgrow it, according to government data. About 4.4% of U.S. adults—some 10 million people—also have ADHD and less than one-quarter of them are aware of it.

That’s because while ADHD always starts in childhood, according to official diagnostic criteria, many adults with the disorder went unnoticed when they were young. And it’s only been since the 1980s that therapists even recognized the disorder could persist in adults.

Even now, getting an accurate diagnosis is tricky. Some experts think that too many adults—and children—are being put on medications for ADHD, often by doctors with little experience with the disorder. Others think that many more people could benefit from ADHD drugs and behavioral therapy.

Ann considers herself one of the lucky ones. She was diagnosed relatively early (although the disorder undoubtedly caused a long list of problems that might well have been avoided) and settled into a drug regimen that has made life greatly more livable for decades. It does not appear she had other problems that often accompany ADHD, as Wall Street Journal health writer Melinda Beck explains in an informative ‘Personal Journal’ article this week.

Complicating the picture further, ADHD frequently goes hand in hand with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, and it can be difficult to untangle which came first. “It’s very common for someone to be treated for depression or anxiety for years, and have the therapist not notice the ADHD,” says Mary Solanto, director of the AD/HD Center at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. But adults whose ADHD is left untreated face a high incidence of substance abuse, automobile accidents, difficultly staying employed and maintaining relationships.

That said, some adults with ADHD are highly intelligent, energetic, charismatic and creative, and are able to focus intently on a narrow range of topics that interest them. David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue Airways, and Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s, have spoken out about how the disorder helped them come up with innovative ideas for their corporations, despite their having done poorly in school.

“It’s amazing how successful some people are able to be despite these symptoms, and some people are totally paralyzed—there’s a whole spectrum of outcomes,” says Ivan K. Goldberg, a psychiatrist in New York City who co-developed a commonly used screening test.

Generally, ADHD can make life very difficult. It’s thought to be an imbalance in neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that relay signals in the brain, particularly in the frontal cortex that governs planning and impulse control. Children with the disorder, particularly boys, are likely to be hyperactive, with an intense need to move constantly, which can interfere with learning. (Girls tend to be talkative and dreamy, but they are often overlooked because they aren’t as disruptive.)

Adults more typically have trouble with paying attention, focusing and prioritizing. Managing time and money are particularly difficult.

“What it really is is a disturbance of the executive functions of the brain — it’s the inability to plan things, to initiate them at the appropriate time, not to skip any of the steps and to terminate them at the appropriate time,” says Dr. Goldberg. “An awful lot of these people are very bright but they can’t keep it together. They keep screwing things up.”

It’s that last line that gets the attention of us all. Some of us screw things up more often than others — and wonder if we could blame it on ADHD. Identifying, and treating, those who can is a bright-spot possibility of the future.

ADHD: Why More Adults Are Being Diagnosed – WSJ.com.

Will fatherhood change Rev. Billy?

It’s true. The 50-something Reverend is a new father. Rev. Billy and his gorgeous wife  Savitri, today welcomed Lena Nightstar Talen into the world. If you Facebook friend him you can see her photos.

You may not have encountered Rev. Billy. He is, however, worth encountering. Minister of the Church of Stop Shopping, occasionally the Church of Stop the Bombing or most recently the Church of Life After Shopping, Reverend Billy got out of jail in time for his daughter’s arrival. He was incarcerated (something that happens with some regularity) for creating a mountain of toxic waste from Appalachia and dumping it in the NY lobby of JP Morgan Chase in protest against their financing of mountaintop mining.

Rev. Billy, a performance artist AKA Bill Talen, puts his energies where his beliefs are in ways most of us couldn’t imagine — and certainly couldn’t pull off. He ran unsuccessfully but with gusto for Mayor of New York in the last election. Long before the gun folks targeted Starbucks the Rev was targeting them for driving out the mom and pop stores. (That particular campaign, which included preaching a one-minute anti-Starbucks sermon in every Starbucks in Manhattan, got Starbucks’ attention, prompted a memo to their outlets and resulted in a book titled after that memo, What Should I Do If Reverend Billy Is In My Store.)

The Rev supports equality, gay rights and everyday folks; he laments consumerism, corporate culture, destruction of the environment and other popular evils. His laments, though, are considerably more activist than most. This is partly because he’s gifted and funny, and mostly because he truly believes that one should stand up for principles that matter. Check him out. You may not agree with his passions or his methods, but you won’t be bored.

About those passions, what Rev. Billy wants most is a better world for newcomers like Lena Nightstar. He’s entertaining, but he’s dead serious.

So no, I doubt that fatherhood will slow him down. Congratulations, Savitri & Bill.

Guns as art and in the world

At my granddaughter’s art school, student work features what struck me as an awful lot of weapons: handguns, automatic rifles, daggers. “Well, Gran,” she replied to my comment on this high degree of angst, “we are teenagers.”

OK, I know it’s been two generations and at least 70 light years since I was a freshman art student myself, but I do miss the landscapes, still lifes and quiet figure studies. And I lament the angst.

I draw NO parallel, absolutely NO parallel between the excellent training and remarkable students at today’s art schools and the angst-level of terrorism. It is still both unsettling and heart-wrenching to pick up today’s New York Times and be greeted by a front page photo of a pretty,  baby-faced, all-innocence young girl pointing a gun upwards behind her head while in the casual embrace of her boyfriend, who is holding a larger handgun.

The boyfriend, as it happens, is a handsome young Russian who was killed by government forces a few months ago. The young woman, hardly more than a child, blew herself up in a Moscow subway on Monday, killing a lot of other innocent human beings. What is striking, among all the other ironies and tragedies of this picture, is the wealth of warmth and promise that seems to shine out of those two faces… if you cover up the guns. But those faces, and the bodies to which they were attached, are now dead.

I am holding onto my Brady Campaign membership.

How not to get Alzheimer's

Of all the Big Fears, for aging parents or our aging selves, Alzheimer’s probably ranks #1. So what if we could stave it off?

A new project, the Cognitive Fitness and Innovative Therapies, or CFIT, is trying to keep people at risk for Alzheimer’s intellectually and physically fit with quizzes and other cognitive challenges to see if onset of the disease can be delayed, perhaps indefinitely. The program, which is being advised by many famous names in Alzheimer’s research and treatment, also promotes diet changes and maintaining a social life to try to slow cognitive decline and lower the risk for Alzheimer’s.

Try some problems some people practice to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

The Wall Street Journal’s invitation to try a few of these Alzheimer’s-prevention exercises seemed tempting for this reporter, so I clicked on over. It should be noted here that although I hold undergraduate and graduate degrees from reputable institutions, they are in Art and Short Fiction. These exercises are not for the faint-hearted, or the right-brained. (Actually, after following a few more links and trying another quiz it was determined that my right brain/left brain dominance is split 16 to 16; this may be the problem.) Maybe they are for the MIT alumni.

Kenneth S. Kosik, co-director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, launched CFIT with a center in Santa Barbara last year. Dr. Kosik recommends that individuals start efforts to prevent the disease in their 50s.

“By the time someone walks in my door with symptoms of the disease, it’s too late” to stop it, says Dr. Kosik, who plans to open four CFIT centers in New York and California. The idea behind the new research is that lifestyle interventions may delay or prevent the disease before symptoms appear—or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s once they do manifest.

The CFIT exercises seem to go a step — or perhaps a leap — farther than the SharpBrain exercises, which are also recommended by all sorts of people who understand brain function. (And seem, I have to say, a lot more like fun and less like Alzheimer’s prevention.) Any of them will keep you awake, and quite possibly stave off dementia.

The shift in thinking has been bolstered by public health efforts to prevent cognitive decline and delay or prevent Alzheimer’s disease, which affects some 5.3 million Americans. A 2007 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alzheimer’s Association, a nonprofit group that funds research and supports advocacy and education, called for implementing findings on exercise and diet into actions people can do to maintain cognitive health. A CDC review of the scientific literature is expected to be released this year. The groups have been working together to gather data from individual states on the extent of cognitive impairment and meeting with state health officials to develop public campaigns to promote brain health.

Scientists don’t know exactly what causes Alzheimer’s, a progressive brain disorder that accounts for the majority of dementia cases, although genetics and age likely play a role. There are only four drugs approved for the disease, but these just treat individual symptoms and don’t stop the relentless course of the illness. New medicines are in testing but are likely to take years before they reach medical clinics.

This space highly recommends that you get started right away. We all want to believe it’s not too late.

Ways You Can Stave Off Alzheimer’s – WSJ.com.

Abortion foes invade NY Metro

A new attack on reproductive rights is underway, this time on New York City subways. As if the Georgia anti-choice campaign linking abortion rights to Black genocide or the Polish campaign linking abortion to Hitler weren’t enough, now we have a soft sell campaign complete with well-dressed women ostensibly traumatized by a past abortion and downcast men who  yearn to be good fathers.  Come on, folks. Is it possible that (often poor, often desperate) women choosing to have an abortion have perfectly good brains, and not many of them have the man in question offering support?

The 2,000 ads, which straphangers (are now seeing) in nearly every subway station, depict either a woman saying, “I thought life would be the way it was before,” or a man saying, “I often wonder if there was something I could have done to help her.”

Many people, certainly including this writer, will have reservations about all this.

“The campaign suggests that feelings of sadness and self-harm are the universal experiences for someone who had an abortion,” said Samantha Levine of NARAL Pro-Choice New York. “And there’s no evidence to suggest that that’s true.”

“The organization behind these ads has an agenda,” continued Levine. “They aren’t seeking to help women — they’re seeking to get abortion banned.”

But Michaelene Fredenburg, who started San Diego-based Abortion Changes You (25 years) after her own abortion, says her ads are more about helping people than politics.

“I had an abortion when I was 18,” said Fredenburg, 44. “I had a hard time … I wanted to reach out and say you’re not alone.”

Fredenburg’s agenda could be broader than Levine suggests, or narrower, depending on your degree of cynicism. She has, surprise, a book. You can purchase it on her website at a 20% discount, for $19.95. Plus “outreach materials” that include cards ($20 for 250), posters (set of three, $50.) A disclaimer at the bottom of most pages says it is “not a professional counseling site” or meant to replace such, but you are offered ‘Healing Pathways’ to follow or other readers’ stories to read.

Fredenburg was 8 when Roe v Wade paved the way for her to choose a safe, legal abortion 10 years later. Had that not been the case, she might well have joined the uncounted thousands who died at the hands of back alley butchers rather than lived to create an organization. Contributions are invited, and purportedly tax deductible, although there is no mention of 501(c)3 status. Miscellaneous retreats (and the phone number of a suicide prevention hotline) are listed under the ‘Find Help’ button. Planned Parenthood is notably not listed, although they often help, and they do not force anyone to have an abortion.

I have no reason, other than it seems a great way to sell stuff and make a few bucks, to question Fredenburg’s altruistic intentions in founding Abortion Changes You. (PS, so does an unwanted pregnancy.) But if she is not in cahoots with those who seek to eliminate a woman’s right to control her own body, she is their tool. Should they succeed, women will return to a dark age that today’s 44-year-olds cannot begin to imagine.

When Fredenburg agrees to fight for all women’s right to control their own bodies, and to have access to the safe, sterile, legal abortion she presumably chose for herself, as well as to console others who have long-afterward regrets, I’ll buy her book.

Metro – Don’t look now: You may not like the ads you see.

Texting/phoning drivers meet ghostly end

Call it unfair if you want, but those of us wishing we could get texting/phoning drivers off the road are pulling for Car #1453.

POLICE car No. 1453 drifted along with the afternoon rush, unnoticed and unhurried. Even, perhaps, unfinished.

Car 1453 looks as if it rolled off the assembly line a few minutes too soon, before arriving at the machine that puts the siren on the roof and the colors on the door decals. But this look is the whole point of No. 1453, which is known throughout the Westchester County police department by its catchier nickname: the ghost car.

“Can you see it?” an officer joked, standing in front of the car in the department’s parking lot.

The police hope that the answer among drivers texting or chatting on cellphones, or speeding or driving drunk, is no.

The car, a 2009 Crown Victoria, joined the fleet two months ago. It is not an unmarked police car, but rather a barely visibly marked police car. It bears all the same decals as a regular police car, but they are white, colorless, like the car itself. The markings really are noticeable only upon close inspection — and hardly noticeable at all, the thinking goes, to a driver who is calling in his pizza order.

“You’re seeing more of what the common man sees,” Officer Brian Tierney, 32, said about the advantage the car bestows. “Everyone’s on their best behavior when the teacher’s in the room.”

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, six states plus the District of Columbia and Virgin Islands currently ban handheld cell phone use while driving, and 19 states plus D.C. and Guam ban texting while driving. Kansas and Alaska are among states currently considering a ban on one or the other. But catching violators, and proving the violation, is another matter.

“It’s really, really, really difficult to enforce that,” said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. “You can’t have a law that the public doesn’t support.

“It’s a lot like drunk driving. Twenty years ago, it was hard to do anything about it because it was being done in such wide numbers.”

The goal of the ghost car is to make enforcement less difficult. The department did not want a fully unmarked car, because motorists can become spooked by what may seem to be a fake police officer pulling them over.

The idea came from Officer James O’Meara, 27, who holds a bachelor’s degree in graphic arts and computer design. “I heard about it,” Officer O’Meara said of the car’s white-on-white design, although he could not recall which department was involved. While “low profile” police cars — with no light rack on the roof — are widely used, it is unclear how common ghost cars are.

Uniformed officers drive Westchester’s ghost car, which, while intended to look like a taxi, down to its livery license plate, is clearly a police car when seen close up. “I thought you were a taxi” is commonly heard from drivers.

In case you think texting while driving is just fine, and you yourself are perfectly able to drive safely while doing so, you are invited to try the little game below:

Game: Gauging Your Distraction

This space welcomes your comments on how you did. I’m also open to hearing how you should be entitled to drive while texting or phoning or committing other ridiculous automotive crimes against civility. I’ll just continue to hope you’re not doing them in my ‘hood. We don’t have the ghost car, but maybe we can get one.

In Westchester County, a ‘Ghost’ Police Car Is on Patrol – NYTimes.com.

A Random Act of Kindness

“He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, ‘Here you go,'” the victim recalls. The mugger was a teenager, the victim a 31-year-old social worker named Julio Diaz. As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”

So goes a story that my daughter Sandy somehow discovered and posted on her Facebook page recently. It was on NPR’s “Morning Edition” in May, 2008.

Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.

But one night last month, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn. He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.

So Diaz gave him his wallet and his warm coat, invited him to dinner, and… well, you’ll have to read the story for yourself.

Sandy’s post evoked a long list of responses. Her husband, a hard-nosed newsguy T/S contributor who will remain nameless here, had the audacity to wonder aloud if the story might have been invented. (His wife and son threw something at him.)

I dug up the story, but surely didn’t ask NPR if it had been fact-checked. I mean, if you can’t believe NPR, who can you believe? Plus, with the relentlessness of today’s bad news, is a little good news welcome, or what?

Without giving it all away, we can report that the piece concludes,

“I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”

This space argues that we can use all the news we can get about people treating people right. If you Google Julio Diaz, may he live long and prosper, you discover multiple pages of people who were inspired by, or even skeptical of, that story when it first appeared. But unless it’s wayyy down the scroll, no one has discredited it. If you should do so, by some cruel twist of historical revisionism, please don’t tell Sandy or me.

A Victim Treats His Mugger Right : NPR.