HETRICK: Playing Pontius Pilate with the public's health

February 25, 2012

Gleeks (fans of the TV show “Glee”) are abuzz this week over a cliffhanger episode that’s left a lead character’s life in jeopardy. The show’s creators, including Indianapolis native Ryan Murphy, have left the faithful hanging until mid-April, at which time new episodes will resume.

The shocker episode involved blond and beautiful Quinn Fabray—cheerleader, show choir singer/dancer, Christian club member and Yale-bound high-school senior. From her trendy wardrobe to her voice-of-reason maturity to her best-of-all-males entourage, Quinn seemed to have it all.

But en route to a friend’s wedding, Quinn messed up. Just for a second. Just to send a text message that said “on my way.”

And because she was texting while driving, Quinn’s about to be hit by a truck driving full speed into her driver’s side door.

Online, the Twitterverse erupted with exclamation-riddled cries of “Oh my God!!!!”

In real life, “Glee” cast members signed a pledge for Oprah Winfrey saying they wouldn’t text and drive.

In political life, because distracted driving has gotten lots of attention from Hollywood stars, news accounts and horror stories about folks next door, legislators across America (including Indiana) have raced to enact laws banning the dangerous practice that puts drivers and everyone around them at risk.

Bravo. It’s government doing one of the things government does best: protecting citizens from themselves and their fellow citizens even when they’re using a legal product.

Meanwhile, a bill advanced in the Indiana Legislature last week that would regulate outdoor stage equipment.

That legislation was prompted by a freak accident at the Indiana State Fair last Aug. 13, when a gust of wind toppled stage rigging, killing seven people and injuring more than 40 others gathered to hear the band Sugarland.

Since that time, attorneys, investigators and officials of the many organizations involved have been trying to sort out who should have done what differently and, most important, how to avoid similar accidents in the future.

On the political front, lawmakers quickly identified a deadly gap in the regulatory process, developed a bill to address the problem, and are moving it through the General Assembly.

Again, it’s government doing one of the things government does best: protecting citizens from the potential human error of their fellow citizens, even when all are involved in a legal undertaking—staging and attending concerts.

But, alas, these reasonable acts of government protecting citizens’ health and safety fall to pieces or crawl into slow motion when it comes to the deadliest legal practice of them all. Not when there are seven lives lost to a single stage collapse. Not when there are, say, 100 lives lost to distracted driving. But when 10,000 lives are lost annually, in Indiana alone, to smoking and secondhand smoke. For that proven risk, lawmakers pile delay upon delay, excuse upon excuse, exception upon exception. And all the while, the death toll continues to rise.

In Indianapolis earlier this month, Mayor Greg Ballard vetoed a bill that would finally have strengthened our city’s smoke-free workplace law. It had passed the City-County Council with a bipartisan vote of 19-9. But the mayor didn’t like a provision under which a private club voting to retain smoking would have to exclude children from its facility.

In other words, the mayor believes private clubs, not government, should get to decide whether their employees and the children who visit should be exposed to the toxins proven to cause or exacerbate sudden infant death syndrome, asthma, cancer, heart disease and other ailments.

As a result of the mayor’s veto and the council’s failure to override it, Indianapolis remains the largest city in America without this basic health protection.

We do not let private clubs or private businesses determine whether they may line their walls with asbestos. We do not let private clubs or private businesses undercook their beef or chicken. We do not let private clubs or private businesses serve food in facilities infested with roaches or rodents. We do not let private clubs or private businesses set separate speed limits for the vehicles they operate. We do not let private clubs or private businesses jam too many people into their facilities or operate without smoke alarms.

The point is, private clubs and private businesses are subject to all kinds of reasonable government measures—health codes, fire codes, building codes, OSHA regulations, speed limits and, yes, texting-while-driving laws—that protect citizens’ health and safety from the unsafe practices of others, even when using legal products.

The notion that otherwise-responsible government officials can pull a Pontius Pilate and wash their hands of the deadliest hazard of them all, especially where children are involved, is cruel and unusual punishment for all who live and breathe in the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana.•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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