Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

Kearney Hub. Jan. 11, 2014.

Seat belts, cellphones each factor into safety

This week’s edition of AAA’s Nebraska Highway Safety Issues carries a photo of what appears to be a brand-new red pickup with its driver’s side door swung wide open. The caption says the pickup drifted off a Nebraska highway, went airborne when it struck a culvert, and by the time the pickup came to a rest, the driver had been inflicted with fatal injuries.

Unrestricted by a seat-belt, he was flung about the cab violently and died of his injuries.

The accident photo is unusual because unrestricted drivers usually are tossed outside their vehicle, which then rolls over them and crushes them.

The lesson: Drivers and passengers who are buckled up are much more likely to survive crashes than those who don’t use seat belts. As much sense as it makes to buckle up, Nebraska statute doesn’t actually require seat belt usage. Refusing to use them only becomes a crime when motorists break other traffic laws.

This year, state lawmakers aim to change that and really mandate seat belts. Just as motorcyclists and their passengers are required to wear helmets, motorists and their passengers would be required to wear seat belts under the Nebraska Roadway Safety Act.

Other features of the Safety Act deal with cellphone usage, including calling and texting by motorists and bus drivers. Today using cellphones for calls or texts while driving is a secondary offense, but the Safety Act would make such usage a primary offense. Motorists could use their phones if their vehicles are stopped, but not when they’re in motion.

While the calling and texting measures are meant to prevent accidents, the seat belt measure is aimed to boost survivability in the event of accidents.

Thirty-three states — including Kansas and Iowa — deem seat belt use as a primary law.

Today, voluntary usage among Nebraskans is about 80 percent, but even with that high rate, during the past decade more than 1,400 unbelted vehicle occupants have lost their lives on Nebraska highways. Of the 1,400 people who were killed, seat belts would have saved about 600 of them, according to safety experts.

Nebraska lawmakers will be wise to seriously consider the Nebraska Roadway Safety Act. If the act is passed and seat belt use becomes mandatory, it is estimated that usage will increase by 12 percent to 15 percent. That increase translates into 50-60 fewer deaths annually, along with fewer serious injuries and reduced health care costs.

Drivers and passengers, don’t wait for Nebraska’s lawmakers to act. If you’re not in the habit of buckling up, get in the habit and insist that all of your passengers also buckle up.

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McCook Daily Gazette. Jan. 8, 2014.

Guns are poor insurance policy for schools

Imagine, if you will, a car insurance policy that would cover you, your passengers and those in other vehicles in case of an accident.

So far, so good?

Now suppose that same insurance policy had a rider that allowed a computer to run an algorithm, on a rare, random basis, to take control of your car and cause it to swerve into the ditch, or allow a wheel to fall off, or let the engine seize up.

Not such great insurance, right?

But you have a right to buy such a policy, you insist, despite admonitions from your friends. You heard of someone, somewhere, who had their expenses covered by a policy just like yours.

Proponents of allowing teachers to carry guns in school see it as a form of insurance.

“Most people don’t want to go where they know people are going to shoot back at them,” said Sen. Mark Christensen, who plans to introduce such a bill during this, his last legislative session.

Christensen tried unsuccessfully to pass a similar measure three years ago, but after the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings claimed 20 children and six adults, six states, including South Dakota and Kansas, passed bills to allow teachers to be armed.

But there hasn’t been a rush to arm teachers in Kansas, in part because of questions about liability insurance, a question that could derail a similar law in Nebraska.

Gov. Dave Heineman is a supporter of gun rights, but sees guns in schools as “an accident waiting to happen.”

The Nebraska State Education Association, and most school officials — even some whose schools have been the scene of shootings — oppose the idea.

Christensen expected opposition from large school districts to his bill, which would also apply to colleges and universities.

But, it can take too long for law enforcement to respond to a school shooting situation, Christensen says, especially in the rural district he represents.

His bill would require a teacher who wants to carry a gun to get 24 hours of training from a Nebraska State Patrol-certified instructor, in addition to the eight hours already required for a concealed gun permit.

Only teachers approved by the school board would be allowed to carry concealed weapons, and identities of armed teachers would also be concealed.

It’s true that response times might be slow in small, rural schools, where rifles and shotguns hanging in the rear windows of pickup trucks were common until federal laws forced young hunters to leave their weapons at home.

Guns, if they are deemed necessary, are best handled by professionals.

Unnecessarily adding romanticized, lethal weapons to the chaotic environment that sometimes exists in even the most well-ordered school, is asking for trouble.

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Lincoln Journal Star. Jan. 12, 2014.

Implement changes in corrections

The state Ombudsman’s Office released a disturbing report last week examining the case of Nikko Jenkins, a former inmate accused of killing four people within three weeks of being released from prison.

The report’s conclusion: Nebraska Department of Corrections officials were “grievously wrong” to have failed to provide mental health services to Jenkins, who confessed to the Omaha slayings saying voices and commands from an Egyptian god told him to kill them.

Jenkins didn’t receive mental health services during his decade in prison because he was kept in segregation, considered a danger to other inmates and staff. That, the ombudsman wrote, was wrong — for both Jenkins and the public.

“Our corrections administrators have a responsibility not just to make their institutions safer, but to make our streets safer as well,” the report states. “And this means that they have a duty to see to it that the inmates assigned to segregation, who are often our most seriously troubled and dangerous individuals, are not thereby isolated from the programming and mental health treatment that might make them into better citizens on the outside . in our communities and our neighborhoods.”

The Journal Star editorial board concurs and supports the report’s offerings for changes in corrections department operations and policies. Those changes are:

— That the department’s mental health staff place a high priority on identifying inmates who are or may be dangerous so they can be given special attention for treatment and therapy and be re-evaluated as their discharge date approaches so a decision can be made as to whether the inmates should be referred to civil commitment.

— That the mental health component place a high priority on finding ways to develop a positive rapport and sense of trust with the patients it serves to get more inmate participation in therapy/treatment.

— That the department seriously consider privatizing its entire mental health component to guarantee independence in the program.

— That the department establish a comprehensive process for identifying inmates who should be referred for a possible civil commitment, with the final decision in the hands of a high-ranking layperson in the department, not a mental health professional.

Had those policies been in effect earlier this year, Jenkins may well have been referred to civil commitment, would now be in the Lincoln Regional Center and four people would be alive. That, obviously, is speculation.

But the Jenkins case has revealed a deep flaw in the way the corrections department deals with possibly dangerous inmates who have mental health issues. The ombudsman’s suggestions, or something like them, should be implemented to fix that flaw, protecting the inmates and the public.

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Scottsbluff Star-Herald. Jan. 12, 2014.

Food stamps: Government shouldn’t subsidize unhealthy food options

In a new twist in the debate over the farm bill, a lobbying group for doctors is warning that if Congress cuts food stamp funding, the federal government could be hit with higher health care bills.

It’s a claim that requires some explaining.

About 80 percent of the cost of federal farm policy designed to help keep American farmers productive and profitable is actually spent on the Supple mental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. An update of the bill has been held up by election-year politicking as progress gridlocked over a demand by the Republican-controlled House to cut $40 billion from the SNAP program and a counter-offer by the Democratic-led Senate to cut $4 billion.

According to the Agriculture Department, a family of four receiving food stamps is now getting an average of about $270 a month. About half of food stamp recipients are children, and 10 percent are elderly. Food stamps feed 1 in 7 Americans and cost almost $80 billion a year, twice what it cost five years ago. Conservatives say the program spiraled out of control as the economy struggled, and those inflated costs are no longer necessary or sustainable. Reports last week said a compromise deal has been reached to cut about $9 billion over 10 years.

The health and financial risks of hunger have rarely been part of the debate. But last year, research from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts estimated that a cut of $2 billion a year in food stamps could trigger in an increase of $15 billion in medical costs for diabetes over the next decade. Now a medical lobbying group argues that savings in the food program will be offset by the cost of malnutrition among the poor.

“If you’re interested in saving health care costs, the dumbest thing you can do is cut nutrition,” said Dr. Deborah Frank of Boston Medical Center, who founded the Children’s HealthWatch pediatric research institute. “People don’t make the hunger-health connection.”

Unfortunately, neither the government nor some recipients make the nutrition-health connection. Nothing in the food stamp program requires anyone to purchase healthy foods.

Dr. Thomas McInerny, past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said too often, poor families buy cheap, high-calorie junk food because it’s filling, but it lacks nutrients needed for proper child development. The main consequences are later-in-life diabetes and iron deficiency among toddlers that can damage a developing brain so that children have trouble learning in school.

“The children may not look malnourished the way children in Third World countries look,” he said, “but they are malnourished.”

That’s not a problem that extra chips, frozen pizza and soft drinks are going to solve.

Feeding America, a network of food banks, reports that since recent cuts in the food stamp program went into effect, food banks are seeing more demand for food assistance. We’ve seen it in our own community. Interestingly, Feeding America is responding to the concern about health by providing extra, diabetes-appropriate foods, including fresh produce and whole-grain cereals and pastas. A pound of that sort of food is inexpensive, more filling and certainly more nutritious. But efforts to narrow the range of selection of foods eligible for the program are met with resistance from food processors on the right and claims of unfair stereotyping of recipients from the left.

Junk food manufacturers shouldn’t be setting federal nutrition policy. If politicians would pay attention to nutritionists, the program could favor fresh fruits and vegetables, dry beans, whole nuts, lean meats and minimally processed foods and would rule out expensive, over-processed foods that consist of little more than starches, salt, processed sweeteners and the wrong kinds of fats. Food processors striving to meet sensible standards would make better choices. Food stamps would stretch farther, and recipients would eat a more healthy diet.

“Food is medicine,” says Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, who has led the Democrats’ defense of the food stamp program. “Critics focus almost exclusively on how much we spend, and I wish they understood that if we did this better, we could save a lot more money in health care costs.”

Agreed. But that only works if people make healthy choices. More food stamp spending won’t help low-income people avoid obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and other epidemic ailments linked to poor nutrition if it subsidizes the purchase of convenience products that are appealing and easy to serve but devoid of real nutrition. Children’s HealthWatch would do America a favor if it focused more attention on that.

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