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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.

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.

Texas Named Among the 10 Most Dangerous States for Pedestrians

A new report on fatalities from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that Texas is one of the most dangerous states for pedestrians.  

In 2012, the rate of pedestrian fatalities in Texas was 1.83 per 100,000 population — meaning that nearly two out of every 100,000 Texans were struck and killed by a motor vehicle in 2012.

This figure makes Texas the 10th most dangerous state for pedestrians. 

Experts agree that infrastructure is a key element in pedestrian safety, and the American Society of Civil Engineers claims that in 2012, nearly 40 percent of Texas roadways were in poor or mediocre condition.

When asked about the recent data from the NHTSA, officials from the Texas Department of Transportation pointed to unsafe and distracted driving as the key issue. Robert Archuleta, a transportation official with the New Mexico Department of Transportation, also told reporters he believed cell phone use while driving — particularly texting — was a significant factor.

The NHTSA noted that the number of pedestrians killed nationwide has been rising steadily since 2009, even while the number of overall traffic fatalities has generally decreased.

According to the NHTSA data, pedestrians are most likely to be killed or injured by motor vehicles between 3:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. — when children are coming home from school and adults are coming home from work. However, there is also a spike in pedestrian fatalities between midnight and 3:00 a.m. on weekends. Data suggests that this spike could be due to an increase in nightlife coupled with low visibility.

The other states rounding out the top ten most dangerous states are Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, New Mexico and Delaware.

Care Needed: Texas Hospital Safety Fluctuates Dramatically by Institution

Preventable medical complications acquired at the hospital have become all too familiar in American life. In Texas, the truth about complications is, well, even more complicated. 

In Maine, a high-performing state, most hospitals – more than 70 percent – perform at the highest levels of safety. But in Texas, only 28 percent of hospitals perform that well, according to a national panel of hospital safety experts.

A major new study from the Dallas Morning News confirms that in Texas, preventable complication rates vary widely from individual hospital to hospital.

The Texas Patient Safety Check revealed Dallas Regional Medical Center to have the safest record in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the second safest in the state, with a low rate of preventable complications. Conversely, John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth ranked the lowest in the state. There, patients are almost four times as likely to experience a preventable complication than they are at Dallas Regional Medical Center.

The study also reports that when taken as a group, North Texas hospitals perform significantly worse in preventing complications than area hospitals in other parts of the state.

Preventable complications include bedsores, infections and falls.

Patient safety advocates insist that patients and their families can take steps to help prevent complications and medical errors. Initiatives like “Speak Up!” from The Joint Commission encourage patients to pay attention to the medical care that they receive.

Patients are advised to keep track of the dosage of and timing of medication, to ensure that members of the medical staff wash their hands before treatment and to speak up when something does not seem right.

Concerned health care consumers can refer to the Texas Patient Safety Check through the Dallas Morning News. Additionally, the publication offers a Hospital Safety Check, a searchable online tool acclaimed by the Wall Street Journal for its safety ratings of hospitals nationwide.

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.

Medical Malpractice An Epidemic, Yet Doctors Consistently Walk Free

Doctors are practicing across the country in spite of serious errors and misconduct in their professional lives. A majority of those doctors who continue to practice have had their clinical privileges revoked by hospitals or have been strictly restricted in their practice, but the medical boards in their state have not taken actions against them such as revoking their license to practice.

A recent investigation by USA TODAY has found that thousands of medical professionals continue to practice, despite being banned by medical offices and hospitals.
Texas doctor Greggory Phillips was charged in 2011 with prescribing the wrong painkillers to a patient, causing her death. In 2008, another of his patients died from a mix of pain medication and psychiatric medications. He had previously been sanctioned for medication mismanagement, fined thousands of dollars, had his medical license placed on probation, and was known as a drug user himself, but he was allowed to continue practicing medicine. It was not until 2011 that Phillips was barred by the medical board from seeing patients, after years of investigations and negotiations behind closed doors.

The state medical boards across the U.S. continue to face criticism for slow, laborious investigative practices and a perceived reluctance to punish or even confront doctors who are harming patients or otherwise acting unethically. One of the issues may be that the physician oversight systems are typically underfunded and overburdened.

The National Practitioner Data Bank is a national repository which assists medical boards in tracking the license records of physicians as well as their malpractice payouts and any disciplinary actions they have faced by HMOs and hospitals. Reports of misconduct must by law be filed every time a doctor faces an “adverse action.” Those reports are supposed to be reviewed by each state’s medical board.

Between 2001 and 2011, at least 6,000 medical doctors lost their clinical privileges or had them severely curtailed, though more than 50 percent were neither fined nor lost their license to practice. Close to 250 doctors who faced sanctions as an “immediate threat to health and safety” did not have their license restricted or revoked. Additionally, 900 other doctors who were cited for incompetence or negligence did not lose their licenses. And the doctors who had the worst records of malpractice have continued to treat patients: though 100,000 doctors paid out for malpractice claims between 2001 and 2011, less than one doctor out of five had to respond to any licensure action from their state medical board.