Alcohol fee = 'cause for harm' money: A funding idea whose time has come

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Image by Bright Meadow via Flickr

Booze, it seems, causes some people to do drunken things, get in trouble (i.e., do harm, at times), go off to the E.R., occasionally in an ambulance. So why not tax the booze to pay for the E.R. and ambulances? This is being proposed by San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos in one of a bunch of efforts to fill the gaping budget hole that this city, like virtually every city in the nation, is facing.

It is called a “cause for harm” fee. A fee, explains San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius, differs from a tax because it can only be spent for the specified purpose for which it was collected. We don’t like the word Tax these days.

No fair! say the bar and restaurant owners; five cents more per martini will kill the business! I doubt that. Having put in my time as a martini (among other things) drinker, I can absolutely certify that if you want a$6 cocktail you’re not going to pass it up at $6.05.

“Cause for harm” fees, in fact, seem like a pretty good idea:

  • Oil company digging fees (say, five cents a quart) for spills, etc.
  • Leaf-blower fees to mitigate noise, air and clogging-the-storm-drain pollution
  • A dead cell phone fee to ship dead cell phones to another planet if there’s one that wouldn’t really mind
  • Pigeon fees… well, just because

You can create your own list. Fees of this “cause for harm” type are collected in other states, though more often used to pay for things like treatment and education rather than transportation to the ER. In any event, they clearly make sense. And somehow the cause/effect principle seems like one that should pick up wider support.

Maybe Mr. Karzai could impose a few fees of his own, and use them to send all those troops back home.

Supervisor’s fee on alcohol a terrific idea.

Cell phone radiation danger: true or false?

from Grandview Park in San Francisco
Image via Wikipedia

Head-zaps, otherwise known as cell phone radiation levels, messing with your brain? Nobody knows. What we do know is that cell phones emit radiation, just as radio and TV stations do at somewhat higher levels. What we also know is that nobody cares much. The back-and-forth going on between legislators and cell phone industry lobbyists suggests that a few people do care… but it’s a long road from caring to understanding to any kind of meaningful action.

In California, where local and state efforts to increase information made available to consumers have met with mixed results, an explanation in the Letters section of today’s San Francisco Chronicle offers some interesting perspectives. To understand them, it helps to know about the city’s Sutro Tower (above), a looming structure completed in 1973 and now furnishing transmissions for 11 TV stations, 4 FM radio stations and about 20 wireless communication services.

Local electrical engineer Bill Choisser has this to say:

The power of radio waves falls off as the square of the distance. This means one watt an inch from your head (typical for a cell phone) has the same effect as 1 million watts 1,000 inches from your head. The strongest TV signals on Sutro Tower run i million watts. A thousand inches is about 83 feet. Whether putting your head 83 feet from Sutro Tower every time you talk on the phone bothers you, is up to you.

San Francisco’s board of supervisor’s voted last week to require disclosure of the measure of cell phone radiation next to sales displays, something unlikely to make the tiniest bit of difference to sellers, buyers or anyone else. The FCC has a similar requirement likely to make even less difference.

CNET’s Christina Jewett, on her California Watch blog, summed up some of the action at the state level, where Sen. Mark Leno‘s bill to make radiation level information more accessible recently died. Leno emphasizes, in a statement on his website that there’s no definitive evidence that cell phone radiation causes cancer or other illnesses. Supporters argue that there are potential health effects dangerous enough to warrant making more information available, Jewett explains, while opponents termed the whole business expensive and unnecessary.

When the bill was a going concern, it did little to slow the never-ending party that lobbyists for AT&T Inc., one of its chief opponents, tend to host at Arco Arena. The firm spent about $535,000 on lobbying during the first quarter of this year. From Kings games to Disney Stars on Ice to a Valentine’s Super Love Jam, legislative staffers continued to enjoy the hospitality. (Details below).

Whether the lobbying effort led to the bill’s demise may never be known. But the debate at least is bringing out more information on the issue, one that regulators and scientists pledge to keep watching.

Given the number of Americans walking around (or sitting, or standing in place) with cell phones plastered to their ears, I for one am happy that somebody is watching… and that Bill Choisser is explaining.

State hangs up on expansion of San Francisco phone law | California Watch.

Dr Oz worries about cell phones too

More on cell phones and brain tumors: a reader yesterday sent along a link to an earlier commentary by Mehmet Oz, the cardiac surgeon/author/media guru who has also weighed in with advice that links between cell phone use and cancer are indicated.

We rely on them to connect us to the people we love, to help us stay organized, and, in an emergency, to keep us safe. But more and more experts are saying that cell phones may pose a very serious health risk – increasing your chance of developing a brain tumor.

That means that over 270 million Americans may be playing Russian roulette with their cell phones every day. Each year, more than 21,000 adults and 1,500 children are diagnosed with brain tumors, and researchers believe some of them may have been caused by talking on a mobile phone.

A new study examined a decade’s worth of research and concluded that people who use cell phones for more than 10 years are up to 30% more likely to develop brain tumors than people who rarely use them.

Nothing has shown proof — yet — that if you use a cell phone often enough, long enough, you’re going to get brain cancer. Dr. Oz lists ways to improve your chances — keep your phone in your pocket, use it on speaker (and Lord help us all when everyone’s not just on cell but on speaker…), use wired rather than wireless when possible. And however much some of us vow we’ll resist texting to the bitter end, atrophied thumbs might still be preferable to brain cancer.

Still, the cell phone industry is not going to issue credible warnings. The FCC should do so.

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.

Can geezer drivers get safer? How about texters & cellphoners?

Just how risky are distracted drivers? Texters, geezers, cellphone users? Recently, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has cranked up the heat on a major campaign to end distracted driving. Well, more power to him… except LaHood’s dsitracted campaign seems to equate driving while talking on a cell phone with driving while tripping on LSD. LaHood’s overkill has raised the ire of The Weekly Standard’s senior editor Andrew Ferguson, who rather eloquently protests what Ferguson (and a lot of others) see as one more good example of government’s overreaching foolishness.

Over the last several months LaHood has mobilized his vast and lavishly funded ($70 billion) department behind a high-minded goal: “to put an end to distracted driving.” Those are his words—not curtail, not discourage, not even reduce by 50 percent. No: Put an end to. In its ambition and method, LaHood’s initiative is a kind of textbook example of how government guys create work for themselves, manage to keep themselves busy, and put the rest of us on our guard.

Meanwhile, with LaHood overreaching and manufacturers of front-seat computer equipment over-promoting we will all have to remain on guard. Against cell phone talking drivers, texting drivers, Big Mac eating drivers and…. geezer drivers.

I, a certified geezer driver, am at risk for a crash. This is a daunting discovery when one is the only driver in a household that occasionally needs to be driven somewhere. My preference — being a resident of the beautiful, walkable city of San Francisco — is always either to walk or take the Muni, but let’s face it, there are times I need to be behind the wheel. And I hate to put you at risk. Or myself, or my passenger either, for that matter.

So you and I are about to get safer. With no help from Ray LaHood.

This all started with a recent post about geezer drivers, texting drivers and other hazards. Steven Aldrich, CEO of PositScience, commented on that post. PositScience makes brain-training software and I am not on their payroll. But I did take the “What’s my crash risk” test which you are also hereby invited to take. I whizzed through the tutorial with a whole bunch of “That’s right!” responses, then set about taking the Evaluation and promptly flunked. After a phone conversation with Aldrich and one of his software experts I am conceding that the problem is not with their software but with my geezer brain. (Try it yourself. Let me know if you fail, please, I would appreciate some company.) Here’s the deal with the test:

The Crash Risk Evaluation measures your “useful field of view”—how much your brain notices in your peripheral vision in a brief glance. Studies show that the size of a person’s useful field of view is closely correlated with car crash risk.

Useful field of view tends to shrink with age because the brain takes longer to process what it sees. As a result, in a single glance it only has time to take in what’s in the middle of a scene—not what’s in the periphery. A smaller useful field of view makes it less likely that you’ll notice potential dangers—like a car swerving into your lane or a dog running into the street—in time to avoid them.

Having had my performance on the Crash Risk Evaluation indicate that my useful field of view is smaller than average, I am deemed risky. I reserve the right to at least some suspicion about tricky tests — there is a product for sale here and clearly it wouldn’t sell if everyone passed with flying colors — but I do have a geezer brain.

Therefore, thanks to the generosity of PositScience, I am now in possession of the DriveSharp program which I’m starting tomorrow. It’s 10 hours, for heaven’s sake, so don’t look for safer roads in San Francisco this week.

This space will report on your improved road safety as my DriveSharpness progresses. Got any ideas about texting drivers?

Birds, Bees and Cell phones

Richard Fagerlund is a man you can trust. Politicians, bankers, automotive industry executives… you can’t always be sure; but you ask a question of Richard Fagerlund and you’re going to get a straightforward answer. He gets a lot of questions. Fagerlund, AKA The Bugman, is a syndicated columnist, author and entomologist who has been involved with pests and pesticides for about four decades. He fields questions, in a column (Ask The Bugman) with a large and trusting audience, about pesky flies and persistent termites and uninvited bedbugs and more. He will tell you how to get rid of them, but you still get the feeling he would never squash one with malice, or consider one less worthy than humankind. He opposes cruelty in any form, to animals of any size.

Thus, when the issue of honey bees (good) v electromagnetic radiation (potentially evil) was raised, it was no surprise that The Bugman would come down firmly on the side of the bees. Turns out, this might be an issue with broad implications for us all. A reader asked The Bugman, several days ago, about a report that cell phones are a cause of colony collapse disorder in honeybees. (Honeybees do more than make honey. Think oranges, lemons and blackberries for starters.)

It is my contention that the main cause of colony collapse disorder in honeybees is from pesticides. Another reason for the population decline in honeybees is believed to be electromagnetic radiation that is emitted from cell phones and wireless towers. According to an article published in the Times of India, a study in Kerala found that cell phone towers caused a rapid decline in their honeybee population and that they could cause a complete collapse of the bee population in 10 years. Dr. Sainuddin Pattazhy, who conducted the study, concluded that the electromagnetic waves from the towers shorted out the navigational abilities of the worker bees so they couldn’t find their way back to their hive after collecting pollen.

A study conducted at Landau University in Germany showed that when cell phones were placed near hives, the bees wouldn’t return to them. Scientists believe the radiation generated by the cell phones was enough to interfere with the bees’ communication system, which are movement patterns, with their hives.

I doubted the contention that cell phones were detrimental to bees when I first heard it. But studies have shown that the electromagnetic fields have an impact on other species as well, including migratory birds that lose their orientation in the radiation.

If the electromagnetic radiation can affect birds, then there is no doubt in my mind it can affect insects as well, including honeybees. We also need to be concerned about our own species. At one time we were convinced that cigarette smoking was harmless. We were wrong with cigarettes, and we need to look carefully at electromagnetic radiation.

The writer of this space, a chain smoker for 20+ years (thankfully long past) and currently a city walker regularly threatened with sudden death by cell phone wielding drivers, comes down firmly on the side of The Bugman and the bees.

Cell phones’ waves found to disorient honeybees.

Jail time for texting driver

At the risk of invoking the wrath of some readers who disagreed with my proposal to jail texting truck drivers a few weeks ago, I hereby applaud the British Crown Court for sending a texting young driver off to jail where, presumably, cell phones are unavailable. I am sad for her and her family, far sadder for the victim and her family and still angry that such stupidity is tolerated in the U.S.  Here’s the story from Oxford via the New York Times November 2:

Inside the imposing British Crown Court here, Phillipa Curtis, 22, and her parents cried as she was remanded for 21 months to a high-security women’s prison, for killing someone much like herself. The victim was Victoria McBryde, an up-and-coming university-trained fashion designer.

Ms. McBryde was killed when her car was struck while stopped beside the road.

Ms. Curtis had plowed her Peugeot into the rear end of Ms. McBryde’s neon yellow Fiat, which had broken down on the A40 Motorway, killing Ms. McBryde, 24, instantly. The crash might once have been written off as a tragic accident. Ms. Curtis’s alcohol level was zero. But her phone, which had flown onto the road and was handed to the police by a witness, told a story that — under new British sentencing guidelines — would send its owner to jail.

In the hour before the crash, she had exchanged nearly two dozen messages with at least five friends, most concerning her encounter with a celebrity singer she had served at the restaurant where she worked.

They are filled with the mangled spellings and abbreviations that typify the new lingua franca of the young. “LOL did you sing to her?” a friend asks. Ms. Curtis replies by typing in an expletive and adding, “I sang the wrong song.” A last incoming message, never opened, came in seconds before the accident.

With that as evidence, Ms. Curtis was sentenced in February under 2008 British government directives that regard prolonged texting as a serious aggravating factor in “death by dangerous driving” — just like drinking — and generally recommend four to seven years in prison.

There are no winners in this story, only losers and sadder losers. But there could be a small win if it served as a wake-up call anywhere about the fact that driving a car requires two hands and an engaged brain. It is not possible to engage the brain in watchful, decent driving when pieces of it are off somewhere in cyberspace. The only reason why there are not literally thousands of additional casualties every day from the callous stupidity of texting/cellphoning drivers is that other, saner drivers — and cautious pedestrians, who know they are at constant risk — have noticed and managed to avoid them. But texting/cellphoning drivers are outnumbering other, saner drivers at an increasingly alarming rate. They should face jail time.

Victoria McBryde had, herself, been texting her friends before her car broke down. From the side of the road she called her mother, Jennifer Ford, to say she was frightened and worried because the car service company had not appeared.

Ms. Ford told her daughter to make sure the flashers were on and that she was pulled off the road. “She was like, ‘Mom, of course I did these things,’ ” Ms. Ford recalled in an interview.

When she called her daughter back 20 minutes later, no one answered. By that time Victoria McBryde was dead.

Driven to Distraction – Britain Sets Tough New Laws for Texting While Driving – Series – NYTimes.com.