Freelining with Mike Freeman: The woes of a careful driver.

It only takes a few seconds to let your guard down while you're driving ...

Just a matter of seconds, that’s all it took, for me to open my eyes ….

… and, it turns out, avert a tragedy.

I saw the car in front of me, and for a second, it looked like that red car on Interstate 4 was moving in reverse, speeding right at me. I thought the driver had accidentally fallen asleep at the wheel and mistakenly shifted his car into reverse. And there it was, the back of his car, zooming right for my front hood.

I slammed on the brakes, and then within seconds … all was fine again.  That red car started moving faster and faster away from me on the highway, as my own car slowed down. Several  cars behind me shifted into the left and right hand lanes to zip around me, because suddenly I was moving too slowly for their taste.

And it hit me, then, that the motorist in front of me hadn’t fallen asleep at the wheel.

I had.

It wasn’t even late at night. It was about 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, the sun was still out, and I was confronting rush hour traffic to get from downtown Orlando to Altamonte Springs. Traffic was slow, but not the worst I’ve ever seen it.  It was at least moving, if not very quickly.

But I was dead tired from a long, exhausting week.  Sitting there in that bumper to bumper, move-then-stop kind of traffic, I allowed myself the luxury of leaning my head back against the seat, taking in a deep breath, and refusing to get annoyed by the road congestion.  I ignored the traffic altogether, in fact, and started thinking about other things.  Outside of feeling very worn out, I was upbeat, in a good mood.  Suddenly the traffic started to pick up again, so I pressed on the gas pedal.  And then, still lost in my thoughts, it happened…

For just a few seconds, I faded.

The only other time in my life that I can remember nodding off while driving was in 2002, when I moved from Massachusetts to Florida.  Stuck in a UHaul truck with six cats — all of them, it seemed, much happier than I was — I had stopped for a quick nap, and then, figuring I was nice and refreshed, decided to make an all-out effort at driving throughout the night from the MidAtlantic into the Deep South. But after a few hours it caught up with me again, and, behind the wheel of that big UHaul, sleep beckoned — rudely, and constantly.  My eyes struggled to stay open, and it was just like being on a couch, when you’re perfectly relaxed and comfy, and you really want to stay awake to see your favorite TV show and — suddenly you’re out. That’s how it was in that UHaul that night. So I gave up and pulled into a rest stop and slept some more. That helped.

This incident was different. I opened my eyes to see that I was moving fast, and heading right for the car in front of me that, well, wasn’t going quite as fast as me.  It’s a good thing I’m not the tailgating type, because the car in front of me would have gotten very intimdately involved with mine if I had.

And the rest of the drive?  Uneventful.  A shocker like that has a good way of waking you up once and for all.  I made it to the Altamonte Mall unscathed.

I thought about this afterwards in part because I kept thinking about Russell Hurd.

I met him on Jan. 3, during a ceremony in Davenport marking the official dedication of the Heather Hurd Memorial Highway along the stretch of U.S. 27 in Northeast Polk County. Heather was his daughter, and in January 2008 she was driving on U.S. 27 near the Berry Town Center shopping plaza when she stopped at a traffic light.  That move turned out to be the last few seconds in her life.  What she didn’t know as she put her foot on the brakes and came to a stop is that the driver of a tractor-trailer right behind her, David Lunger, hadn’t noticed that the light had turned red.  He slammed right into Heather’s car. She was killed at the scene in what turned into a multi-car pileup.

Lunger, who later pleaded no contest to a citation for careless driving and was fined $1,000 — and has since died of cancer — had been distracted by a cell phone text message.

As I stood there talking to Russell Hurd on that brisk January morning, he told me about how that tragedy had changed his life, and made him a tireless advocate for new laws that ban people from texting while driving. He serves on the board of directors for Focus Driven, a group promoting laws that prohibit sending texting messages while operating behind the wheel of a car.  He hopes to model their efforts on the success of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in raising awareness about the dangers of drinking and then getting behind the wheel of a car.

But I also found Russell Hurd to be practical.  He knows passing a law won’t eradicate this kind of behavior altogether.  (Florida is now among the states without a ban on texting while driving.) As he noted, the law bans drinking and driving but some people still do it. The key, he said, is to change the mindset of a culture — a culture where more than a few people feel comfortable reading a text message or even drafting a text response while they’re driving. According to some statistics, that could be as much as 90 percent of the U.S. population.

There’s a lot of truth to what Russell Hurd says. It’s easy to view the problem as being isolated to people who are completely, totally irresponsible. They go to bars, drink too much, and then get behind the wheel of a car, intoxicated.  They pay for that in the lives they claim when they smash into someone, and the prison term they face afterwards, if they even survive the crash.

But as Russell noted, the bigger problem is with those of us who think we’re being safe for precisely the opposite reason: we’re not intoxicated or under the influence of anything. We’re sober, maybe even buzzed from a fresh cup of coffee.  We figure nobody could be better prepared to start driving safely.

I can’t say how many people I’ve seen talking on their cell phone while speeding down I-4 — or how many times I’ve done it, too.

I’ve also seen people texting behind the wheel while on I-4. I’ve read text messages while driving, but only sent out text messages while stopped at a red light.  But just the same, I’ve joined that 90 percent of the public that figures, Hey, I can do this safely. I know what I’m doing.

Do we? What if we’re driving safely, but the people around us are not? Do we lower our guard just long enough to let them smash into us?

When I set out from downtown Orlando to Altamonte Springs on Friday, I felt fine. No reason to think I’d have problems behind the wheel. I was in a good mood, and while I was tired, it was Friday, after all. Who isn’t run down by the end of a long work week?  And it was only 5 o’clock at night.

And as I opened my eyes to see the car in front of me zooming toward me, for a second I thought, oh, no, crazy driver …

I was wrong.  That driver was doing fine.

The problem, I was forced to admit, was me.

Contact Mike Freeman about this column at

In-Cite by John DiDonna: Vitriolic Rhetoric

By now we’ve all read the stories, mourned the losses, gotten slightly (ever so slightly) over the shock, and discovered a new name in the lexicon of hate:  Jared Loughner.  The new assassin on everyone’s lips.

The sad direction of our national political dialogue ....?

On Saturday, with a semi-automatic handgun, he shot and he shot.  And when he finished shooting (and was wrestled to the ground), there were six dead and 14 wounded.  A federal judge – dead.  A nine year old girl – dead.  A congresswoman – Gabrielle Giffords – in critical condition but alive, her doctors optimistic about recovery.

The shooter himself?  The usual expectations.  Loner.  Pot smoker.  Unbalanced.  Previous trouble.  Worried classmates.

The not so usual?  The YouTube and MySpace postings showing a very disturbed man obsessed with “conscience dreaming” (his mistake, not mine) and the “new” currency.

In the face of all this tragedy and barrage of information, what did I also notice as I attempted to make sense of the hopelessly senseless?

One of the things that frustrates me on a daily basis.

It took about 15 minutes (or more likely less) from the last pull of that trigger for finger pointing to start, and it has yet to stop beyond multiple calls for it (including a brilliant one by CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen).

The “left” blamed the “right” which in turn blamed the “left.”  He was a tea partier. . . no,  he was a liberal and a democrat. . . no,  he read the communist manifesto. . .no, he was influenced by Palin. . .no,  it is your fault. . . no, it is yours. . .

Just stop.

The fact is a very crazed man (yes, I used the word crazed) who was disturbed for reasons beyond our current knowledge of him, went on a killing rampage. Was it politically motivated? Possibly. But not in the way you would imagine (one friend pointed out it was a politician who was targeted, not anyone else – and recent findings in the shooter’s house support that clearly he went after Giffords). Was it an organized and agenda driven attack? Not likely – read the man’s writings and you will know there was not much coherence there.

Yet now we have new media sound bites to chew over.  “Vitriolic Rhetoric”.  “Toxic Political Environment” (Gergen’s phrase and one I like).

And while the direct and only blame that is deserved in this particular tragedy must be foisted on the shoulders of Loughner himself, we do have to ask ourselves: when did this savage vitriol start, and does it indeed set out an environment whereby a mentally disturbed man such as this may finally take the tragic action we are all now shocked by.

Every day we see the rhetoric in our papers, on our talk shows, blaring out of our radios and in blogs and our own conversations — from both sides of the political fence.  Just last night I was appalled at the horrifying posts being made on Facebook.  One – which I had to confess I was not sure was even real, it was so parody-like  – involved the effusive use of the words “Right Wing Nuts …. Nazi Propaganda ….” And of course there was the obligatory and oh so charming “Go f__k yourselves.”

As you see, the hate comes from all sides, not just one. Finger point. Finger point.

So how does it stop? None of it is beneficial. Some say “But it is political debate.” No, it is not. It is political division. It exists merely to divide.

Politics certainly contains high passions of both the intellectual and emotional kind.  But when exactly did the hatred start?  When did the vitriol become commonplace and even expected? When did finger pointing become a national pastime?  How and why did we let these individuals who flourish in this come into the equation, and why do we still listen?  When did we become so divided?  And how do we stop it and return to a useful national political dialogue?  And most importantly – why do we always think the “other” side is the one to blame?

What do you think? Looking for your in-cite.

But remember, no finger pointing.  If you decide to point the finger at the “other” side, (whichever “other” that might be), consider that a finger may be squarely pointed right back.

And remember the events of Saturday how dangerous that might be. Sometimes a finger pointing can be as dangerous as a gun.

Let us prove here on In-Cite that we do not have to fall into this dangerous trap and can have a non-partisan, intelligent, and constructive dialogue.

Enjoy the conversation.

Contact John DiDonna at

Freelining with Mike Freeman: The Death of Conservatism

I was touring a local business one evening when I happened to notice them hanging on the wall: state licenses. I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

Now, you’re probably thinking that everything gets licensed these days by the state, so what’s the big deal? Was I in a doctor’s office?  A restaurant?

No, actually, I was in a tattoo parlor.  It was run by a man who designs the tattoos and a woman who does piercings, and just like every business these days, this tattoo shop is required to follow strict health care guidelines set by the state. That means the Florida Department of Health oversees the piercing aspects of this business, requiring the woman to undergo continuing education each year and to obtain a body piercing and biomedical waste license before she could work in the field.

Do we really need the state to protect us from tattoos and piercings?

A body piercing Florida license.  Now I’ve heard it all.

As I stood there looking at those licenses so prominently framed on the wall, I couldn’t help but think about one thing: the sad death of conservatism.

Conservatism, which I don’t think exists much these days, is supposed to be on the rise — even the dominant cultural strain in our society.  The Republicans just won a sweeping victory in last November’s election, including here in Florida.

Conservative talk radio easily crushes its liberal competitors. Conservative Fox News dominates the ratings over liberal alternatives like MSNBC.  Polls suggest far more people, up to 40 percent of the general public, consider themselves conservative, compared to those who view themselves as liberals (20 percent or less, depending on the polls).

Furthermore, the GOP victories were supposed to have been fueled by the rise of the Tea Party movement, which calls for a return to a very strict interpretation of the Constitution: remove powers from the government, and hand them back to the people.  Above all else, value and charish one thing: the free market, the very entity that the Obama administration and the former Democratic majority in Congress were supposed to be savaging with the health care law and other big government initiatives.

And yet … stop for a moment and listen to the speeches made by members of the Tea Party movement.  Listen to what those Fox News and conservative talk radio commenators rail about.  None of them sounds like a dominant movement that controls the government or the social trends in this country.  On the contrary, they almost sound like a tiny minority railing against a society that believes in the exact opposite of what they do — and they sound angry, frustrated, and fed up.

So if conservatism is truly dominant in our society, why do so many of these Tea Party or talk radio conservatives sound like they’re in the minority?

That’s easy.

They are.

The truth is, there’s so little genuine conservatism in our society today.  We abandoned that long ago, and I think the Tea Party folks know it.  Yes, we may rail against high taxes, and we may hate “big spending,” and we may think government does a lousy job at improving a bad economy or fixing the collapsed housing market, and we vote accordingly.  But the majority in this country shows little impatience with government itself.  In fact, we tend to look to it to solve every problem we have.  The free market, it seems, is too scary to contemplate.

Take that little tattoo parlor.

Why does a woman who sticks a needle in your ear or lip or tongue need a state license and continuing education?  Well, the “rational” argument goes, that license is there to protect you. If that woman isn’t licensed, she could run a dirty, unsanitary tattoo shop and unsuspecting customers would go in there, get pierced with a dirty needle, and get sick.

You can see a conservative politician, who just railed against the stimulus bill and health care reform, looking on nervously as his 18-year-old daughter says, “Dad, I’m ready to get pierced.” He wants Suzie to be safe when she visits that piercing shop, so what better way to protect her than to have Florida government regulate it.  And doesn’t a state license and health and safety regulations protect us from anything bad happening?

Uh … well, no. I actually think the free market — the very thing conservatives used to believe in — does a better job here.

Let’s say you have two rival tattoo parlors next door to one another. One is fully licensed and regulated, the other one isn’t. Common sense dictates that the fully licensed one will be clean and sanitary, while the one operating illegally won’t be.

But what if the “illegal” one takes great precautions, but the woman running the licensed one gets sloppy? Or maybe she’s going through a rough time financially or personally, and stops caring about standards.  If you think everyone who is licensed by the state will behave in a proper manner, just ask the lawyers who have stolen money from clients — after going to law school and passing the state bar.  Just ask the doctors who have committed malpractice — after completing medical school and getting licensed by the state.  Just ask any airline pilot at Orlando International Airport who stopped at the bar and had a few drinks before takeoff.  Good or bad behavior comes from responsible or irresponsible individuals — not state regulations.

And yet … how embarrassingly tempting these regulations are, even in a state that’s been dominated by “conservative” Republicans since 1998.  Funny how government always becomes so much more attractive when it serves to protect us, just like mom used to do when she warned us not to touch hot stoves or climb trees that we might fall out of.  How comforting to know that even after we turned 18 and left home, mommy will always be by our side — courtesy of that caring Florida government.

When did we all become such big government-loving woosies?

And why did we abandon the free market so hastily?

What happened in the days before tattoo shops were licensed? Were they all dirty and disgusting?  My guess is that responsible owners that wanted to stay in business made sure they operated in safe manner, knowing the first sick customer could ruin them.  Furthermore, in the Internet age we can always go online and do our own research to see which shops have a good — or bad — reputation, just as we can before hiring a contractor to fix our roof.  Too bad we tend to prefer the government doing it all for us instead.

It’s hard to believe conservatism is truly on the rise when we keep looking to the government to set a seemingly endless array of rules and regulations for how we behave — all in the false hope that if the government can’t protect us, nobody can.

I’m supposed to be grateful for all this, for the idea that if I do decide to get my ear pierced, the bureaucrats running Florida government are there to protect me.

But I don’t.

Instead, I think those angry Tea Party members who sounded like a lonely voice in the wilderness have a good point: they are a minority if they truly want the government to do less, not more.  Because right now, we’ve got a “conservative” Republican government in Florida that regulates like nobody’s business.

Contact Mike Freeman at

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