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Texan Government and Legal Professionals Offer Tips for Safe and Happy Driving This Holiday Season

Year after year, Texas leads the nation in traffic fatalities due to drunk driving. Add to that the still-growing spike in fatal crashes due to the energy boom, and Texans have good reason to think carefully about staying safe on the road this holiday season.

Auto accidents can be financially, emotionally and physically devastating, especially during the holidays. Fortunately, it is easy to reduce the risk of being involved in a crash.

  • Stay off the road after 1:00 a.m. Most drunk driving accidents occur between 1:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. Even if most people drive sober, inevitably, some will not. Keep loved ones off the roads in the early morning hours as much as possible.
  • Get some sleep. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has found that cutting sleep short by even two or three hours can make an accident up to four times more likely. Anyone who is hung over or sleepy should stay out of the driver’s seat on New Year’s Day or the day after Christmas.
  • Talk to young people. According to the CDC, a staggering 32 percent of fatal alcohol-related crashes involve a driver between the ages of 21 and 24. Know a young person coming home for the holidays? Let them know how much they are loved, and warn them about the risks of impaired driving.
  • Get the car checked. Around the holidays, the National Safety Council recommends a full inspection and tune up to ensure optimal brake and acceleration response times. Temperature changes and extreme temperatures can cause mechanical problems. In addition, make sure the car has a spare tire, jumper cables and a first aid kit.
    Remember that no-refusal DWI checkpoints may be in effect. The Dallas police have made a habit of setting up mandatory sobriety checkpoints around the holidays. Anyone who refuses to take a breathalyzer or blood test may be arrested and taken to jail for a forced sample collection. Avoid the drama and make sure your driver has had absolutely nothing to drink.

Stunning Breakthrough Offers Hope for Paralyzed Spinal Cord Injury Patients

An electrical stimulation implant has helped four paralyzed men regain the ability to move their legs. 

The device, called an epidural spine stimulator, was implanted in the men as part of a study undertaken by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Louisville.

One of the patients in the study, Kent Stephenson, is from Mount Pleasant, Texas. At 21, he was involved in a motocross accident that left him without sensation or motor control from the chest down. Today, he can move his legs, stand on his own and distinguish between types of touch. In addition, he has regained sexual function, bowel control and bladder control.

In a video documenting his progress, Stephenson told the camera, “I feel like we’ve conquered a lot of things people thought were impossible.”

Only four men were involved in this study — meaning that so far, the success rate is 100 percent. A researcher told USA Today that it was too early to determine how effective the treatment would be for the general population.

Still, all four of the men had complete spinal cord injuries, and today all four are able to move their legs. One of the researchers behind the project was quoted as saying, “The belief that no recovery is possible and complete paralysis is permanent has been challenged.”

An article from CNN emphasized that the recovery of sexual function and bowel and bladder control are especially significant for many people who are paralyzed. According to the CNN report, a survey showed that regaining these functions was more important to most paralyzed people than regaining the ability to walk.

According to a news release from UCLA, nearly 1.3 million Americans suffer some form of paralysis associated with a spinal cord injury.  

The study was funded in part by Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, named for the deceased Superman actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed nearly 20 years ago after an equestrian accident.

Expert Links Football Players’ Concussions to Behavioral Problems, Slams NFL Settlement Deal

A brain injury expert from Boston University is speaking out for players he feels have been unfairly excluded from a settlement deal in the class action lawsuit against the NFL over the health effects of play-related brain injury.

Robert Stern filed an affidavit with the court and then took his story to the press, telling The Associated Press (AP) that the compensation in the settlement may be going to the wrong people.

Stern told AP reporters that behavioral problems, including domestic violence, drug addiction and suicide, can all be caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy — also known as CTE — a condition caused by repetitive head trauma.

Right now, doctors cannot physically diagnose CTE until after a patient has died. As such, it has been difficult to link football and CTE.

But a recent report on that link is causing a stir. PBS Frontline recently went in-depth on a new report from Boston University and the Department of Veterans Affairs, who collaborate within a center that studies CTE. The center studied the brains of 79 deceased NFL players and found evidence of CTE in 76 of them.

In addition, the center studied a range of other football players — high school, college and semi-professional. All told, more than 80 percent of all football players studied showed signs of CTE.

In light of the findings, which suggest a very strong link between football and CTE, Stern was troubled by the settlement deal in the NFL concussion case. He told the AP that repetitive head trauma does not lead to Alzheimer’s disease — a condition covered by the settlement. But serious mood and behavior disorders, which are linked to repetitive head trauma and CTE, are not covered. As such, many players who suffer the symptoms of significant neurological damage from football could be left out of the settlement.

Some NFL players have already opted out of the class-action case in order to file individual lawsuits against the NFL, according to ABC News.

The class action lawsuit against the NFL was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and is case number 2:12-md-02323-AB.

More Controversy Appears in Case Questioning Highway Guardrail Safety

A mistrial has been declared in a federal lawsuit which alleges that some highway guardrails across the country pose a deadly risk to drivers.

The lawsuit was filed by a whistleblower alleging that guardrails produced by Trinity Industries, a Texas-based guardrail manufacturer, are malfunctioning and killing drivers. The lawsuit further charges that the guardrail defect is the result of a product change that the company hid from the government and safety inspectors.

The judge dismissed the case over what he found to be “inappropriate conduct” on both sides, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal. The judge suggested that representatives from Trinity Industries may have tampered with witnesses. Further, the judge found that the whistleblower and plaintiff, Joshua Harman, may have destroyed evidence.

Since Harman has come forward with the charge of a product defect, numerous accident victims have claimed that guardrails malfunctioned, causing injury or death. A recent article by Bloomberg News noted that at least nine lawsuits have been filed by victims claiming personal injury or wrongful death caused by the guardrail malfunction.

The danger, according to Harman, is the end-cap on some of the guard rails. Allegedly, an impact plate that is meant to absorb energy and move along with the car can instead malfunction and pierce through the car, grievously injuring those inside.

Trinity Industries denies that any secret change was made to the guardrails. The company acknowledges that a change was made, but it insists that all regulatory bodies were appropriately informed and that all necessary safety testing was performed. The company also insists that the guardrails function properly, and it has not recalled any of the hundreds of thousands of implicated guardrails that currently line highways across the United States.

The case in question is Harman v. Trinity Industries, 2:12-cv-00089, in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District TX.

Troubling News Emerges from 2013’s West Fertilizer Plant Explosion

Although it has been over a year since the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company killed 15, new reports on the tragedy are still surfacing.

In the first official public health report, county officials have indicated that injuries were more severe than previously known. The report also suggests that many injuries may have been missed in the initial chaos following the explosion.

This new report, issued by the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District, finds that more than one in five of those injured by the explosion experienced traumatic brain injury (TBI) or concussion.

The report also states “some injuries, particularly ear injuries as well as traumatic brain injury, may not have been identified at the time of medical treatment immediately after the explosion,” indicating that many of the injured may have left the hospital without proper treatment or instructions.

Ear injuries affected more than 10 percent of the injured.

Reese Dunklin of the Dallas Morning News has been reporting on a second issue: the latest moves by the Texas Department of State Health Services to keep basic information about chemical storage facilities away from the public.

In early July, the office of the Texas Attorney General informed reporters at the Dallas Morning News that the Department of State Health Services would no longer release information about chemical inventories to the public.

In a letter, the Attorney General stated that the decision was based on Texas Homeland Security statutes. Several federal agencies have spoken out against the withholding of information about potential chemical hazards.

In April of 2014, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board concluded that a lack of community awareness of the chemical hazard at the West facility contributed to the disaster. No emergency response plan was in place at the time of the explosion. 

In the last few weeks, a new federal task force has publicly called for increased release of information about large chemical inventories. Such information would make it possible for local citizens and businesses to make effective emergency response plans based on real knowledge of the risks that surround them.

Studies Show Plastic Gas Cans Pose Risk of Explosion

They are as ubiquitous in American garages and gas stations as automobiles. Unfortunately, they may also be, in at least one respect, just as susceptible to unfortunate accidents. Scientists say that the common plastic gas can sold throughout the United States carries the potential for fiery explosion — and most Americans are probably unaware that the portable vessels could even pose such a hazard.

In tests conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), scientists found that, under certain circumstances, gas vapor blends can ignite within portable cans and cause significant injury to those in the vicinity of the explosion.

CPSC has documented 11 deaths and 1,200 emergency room visits linked to gas can explosions during the pouring of gasoline since 1998.

Additional tests conducted at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s combustion laboratory demonstrated that, under limited conditions, a so-called “flashback” explosion can occur inside plastic gas cans.

A flashback explosion can be triggered even when a very small amount of gasoline is left in the can. Gas vapor can escape the container and meet a ignition source, such as a flame or a spark. The igniting vapor outside the can then “flashes back” inside the container, which ignites the mixture within it and causes a large burst of flames.

There have been at least 80 lawsuits filed in the last 20 years on behalf of plaintiffs injured in gas can explosions. The primary argument has been that the portable cans are “dangerous” and “unsafe” because they are “susceptible” to these flashback explosions. The bulk of the lawsuits have targeted Blitz USA, the biggest maker of plastic gas cans, as defendants, as well as Wal-Mart, the leading purveyor of the cans.

Central to the argument is the fact that the can’s design does not include a flame arrester. Lawsuits against Blitz have contended that they, if included, would prevent flashback explosions. Flame arresters, which are pieces or mesh or disks with holes designed to disrupt flames, are present in “safety” gas cans made of metal and in storage vessels of other flammable liquids.

CPSC has called on the gas can industry to manufacture gas cans with flame arresters within them. “CPSC believes that this technology also should be included in gasoline containers,” said the agency in a statement. “CPSC is calling on the industry to regain the momentum that was lost in years past by designing their products to include this safety technology. In addition, CPSC is asking voluntary standards organizations to incorporate a flame arrestor system into applicable safety standards for gas cans.”

At Some Texas Schools, Student Athletes Lack Crucial Catastrophic Care Insurance

High school sports, especially football, are a hallowed tradition in Texas. School districts in the state regularly set aside significant portions of their budgets for athletic programs.

Government purse strings may be loose for the sports programs themselves, but spending on medical insurance for student athletes is checkered at best in some of Texas’ metropolitan regions.

The risk of injury, including catastrophic injury, always hangs over high school sports events, particularly the rougher contact sports (including football). Many school districts provide catastrophic care insurance for students who experience serious accidents or illnesses while competing in school-sponsored sports. Policies typically carry high coverage ceilings in the millions of dollars to cover such life-changing events as brain or spinal cord injuries.

But catastrophic care insurance is not mandatory in Texas. Within the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan region, there are five school districts that do not provide coverage for catastrophic injury: Birdville, Burleson, Cedar Hill, Mansfield and Richardson.

When students do not have catastrophic coverage through their family insurance policies, the lack of a school district’s safety net can prove financially ruinous. Medical costs for the families of student athletes who suffer major injuries while competing can be staggering. With some school athletic program officials estimating that up to 65 percent of Dallas’ student athletes lack family health insurance, the ability to fall back on school-district-provided insurance can be crucial.

In the United States, there have been 468 nonfatal injuries that resulted in permanent, severe functional disability of high school athletes between 1982 and 2011. While catastrophic high school sports injuries are uncommon, the costs associated with them are enormous.

As an example, it has been estimated that the first-year cost of care for a patient with partial or total loss of the use of all limbs stands at $1,044,197. The cost of care for subsequent years rises by $181,328 annually.

By comparison, the cost of catastrophic care coverage is extremely small. Some insurance agents peg the cost of a policy at no more than $2,000 per year for the average school district.

“It’s incredible how many Texas kids have no insurance,” said Kent Holbert, an insurance agent for Texas Student Resources. “I certainly think [catastrophic care insurance] is a minute cost compared to some of the other budgetary items they have.”

Texas Tops Nation in Traffic Fatalities for 2012

Federal officials have finalized traffic fatality statistics for 2012. The official data confirms that roadway deaths in Texas have increased at over three times the nationwide rate.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,398 traffic fatalities occurred in Texas in 2012, an increase of 11 percent from the previous year. Nationally, 33,561 died on 2012 roadways in total, representing an increase of 3.3 percent since 2011. Previously, automobile death rates were on their sixth year of decline in a row.

According to officials, a number of factors contributed to the increase. Officials noted that even when overall traffic fatalities were decreasing in recent years, motorcycle and pedestrian deaths were following an upward trend. That pattern continued in 2012: fatalities of motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians rose 7.1 percent, 6.5 percent and 6.4 percent respectively.

One factor that may have played a role is warm winter weather. Much of the increase can be attributed to the first quarter of 2012, the warmest first quarter in history. Although snowy, icy conditions are associated with traffic accidents, there are actually more car crashes during warmer winters when more people are on the road.

In addition to the increase in the raw number of fatalities, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) also increased. That rate climbed to 1.14 (an increase of 3.6 percent). The injury rate rose to 80 injuries per 100 million VMT (a 6.7 percent increase).

Also in 2012, alcohol-impaired-driving deaths rose by 4.6 percent, accounting for 31 percent of the total number of highway fatalities. Alcohol-impaired-driving deaths are defined as the fatalities in a crash involving a driver found to have a blood alcohol content of .08 g/dL or greater.

Young drivers, traditionally thought to pose major risks, were actually involved in fewer highway deaths last year, continuing a decline that began in 2005.

The 11 percent increase in Texan traffic deaths represents 344 more fatalities than were suffered in 2011. Texas’s increase was the largest in the nation. Texas also saw the largest number of highway deaths (3,398) among states. California faced only 2,857 highway fatalities and is home to 12 million more people than Texas is.

The 344-person Texan increase in traffic fatalities totaled more than the increases in California, New York, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina combined.

Elderly Drivers More Likely to Be Riskier Drivers

Age does not necessarily make one a bad driver, but statistics show that older drivers are involved in more fatal car crashes than any age group other than teens. How to keep unsafe drivers off the road without infringing on the rights of safe drivers is a question faced by both legislators and family members of older drivers.

There are no federal laws or laws in any state that set a maximum driving age. Instead, the focus is on driver’s license renewal requirements for older drivers.

In Texas, “Katie’s Law” went into effect on September 1, 2007, requiring drivers age 79 and older to renew their driver’s licenses in person and pass a vision test. In addition, if the examiner questions the driver’s ability, a written test or driving test may be required.

The law is named for Katie Bolka, a Dallas high school student who died in 2006 after she was hit by an elderly driver who ran a red light. The morning of the crash, the driver had backed across her lawn and over two curbs when leaving her driveway.

In-person driving tests result in fewer unsafe drivers, but the tests cannot catch every potentially risky driver. For instance, the state does not test for diminished cognitive awareness or physical capacity, conditions that are experienced by many older people and that can have a significant effect on driving ability.

Family members should be aware of when it is time for an older person’s driving to be restricted or to stop entirely. If a senior’s vision, hearing, motor skills or cognition are significantly diminished, then the person may not be safe to drive. If a family member suspects that a senior is no longer a safe driver, the best way to find out is to perform a casual “test” of one’s own, by asking for a ride somewhere. Important things to take note of are whether the older person drives at a reasonable speed, observes traffic signals, and is able to keep track of location and directions. If one balks at the idea of even taking such a ride, then it may be time for the person to stop driving altogether.

Talking with an elderly parent about not driving can be difficult, as elders may see the move as a threat to their independence. However, the conversation is best framed in terms of future transportation alternatives, with other options being offered. These options are important to avoid having seniors feel isolated, while still doing the right thing for everyone’s safety.

Compounding Pharmacy In Texas Recalls Medication

A Texas-based compounding pharmacy is the latest facing a nationwide recall in what is quickly becoming a growing public health concern: tainted medications.

It is alleged that patients have become ill after taking products manufactured at Specialty Compounding, LLC, based in Cedar Park, Texas. Specialty Compounding is in the process of recalling all of the medicines manufactured in that facility dispensed since May 9, 2013 after at least 15 people developed bacterial infections traced back to the medicines.

Patients who received intravenous infusions of calcium gluconate, a drug to treat too much potassium or to correct calcium deficiencies, have reported issues after their treatment at Corpus Christi Medical Center Bay Area and Corpus Christi Medical Center Doctors Regional. It is suspected that the medication was not sterile, which caused bloodstream infections; Rhodococcus bacteria was detected, which typically causes symptoms including fever and pain.

The now-recalled batches of calcium gluconate were distributed directly to medical offices and hospitals throughout Texas, and also nationwide to patients, with the exception of North Carolina. Specialty Compounding has announced that is has contacted all customers to notify them of the recall; anyone who is in possession of the product should contact Specialty Compounding at (512) 219-0724 Monday through Friday, between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. CDT, to find out how to return it.

A spokesperson for Specialty Compounding has announced that the company is voluntarily recalling all sterile products at this time out of concern for patient safety. The Federal Drug Administration inspected the facility in March 2013 and reported “questionable testing practices” and a lack of some procedures to establish drug sterility. Some drug processors were seen wearing improper clothing (i.e., not sterile), according to the findings, and it was noted that there was inadequate drug testing to ensure a lack of unwanted microorganisms.

This April, a new Senate bill was proposed which calls for much tighter regulations for the drug compounding industry. The FDA has called for an increase in its regulatory powers for compounding facilities; the regulatory powers typically fall under state regulations.

In 2012, a compounding facility in Framingham, Mass., The New England Compounding Center, was the center of an investigation after people in 20 states were affected; 750 were sickened, including 63 deaths. Contaminated drugs made at the facility caused an outbreak of fungal infections, including meningitis. More than 17,600 doses of methylprednisolone acetate steroid injections were affected. An investigation by FDA investigators discovered mold and fungal contamination in numerous vials of the drugs, and in areas where the drugs were made.