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 FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

Insect-infested food served at the Orange County Jail is an isolated case, jail spokesman says.

ORLANDO – The recent shipment of food to the Orange County Corrections Department that included an unwelcome ingredient — insects — was an isolated incident that shouldn’t happen again, the spokesman for the jail said.

“There was one other minor incident, not exactly the same, in the mid-1990s, and that was it,” said Allen Moore, public information officer for the jail.

Earlier this month, inmates at the jail’s medium-security Whitcomb building found insects in the food being served to them.  The inmates quickly pointed this out to a corrections officer.

The county jail houses not just inmates who have been sentenced to a term of less than two years, but anyone who has been arrested for committing a crime  in Orange County, awaiting a court date.  If that inmate doesn’t have the money for bail or to hire an attorney, they can sit in the jail for weeks or longer waiting to get into court.  In the meantime, they haven’t been convicted of a crime – but they’re still stuck in jail.

“Sixty-six percent of most jail populations are not yet convicted of the crimes for which they were accused,” Moore said.

That’s one of the reasons, he said, why “Our goal is humane treatment.”

That includes providing decent meals to inmates, he said.

“We’re watching everything very closely, and so far everything is going well,” Moore said.

Moore said food is provided to the jail by Trinity Food Service.  The parent company, Trinity Services Group, is a part of Canteen Correctional Services, which provides commissary services to more than 70,000 correctional inmates across the U.S.

Trinity blamed the infests on the trucks they used to transport it to the jail, and Moore said those trucks are no longer in use.

“They’re replacing those trucks being used, and it only reached a small number of inmates that we serve,” he said.  “I don’t know how many trays got into the hands of inmates, but they saw it had insects and pointed it out to an officer, who had the trays removed. It wasn’t a whole slew of bugs, just one or two running here and there — which is bad enough.”

Overall, he added, Trinity has a good record.

“They’re done a very good job,” he said.  “Some jails run their own food service, like Polk County. Ours is a mega jail — we’re roughly the third largest jail in the state.  The jail menus are approved by a nutritionist, and we have to meet Florida Model Jail standards, and we’re inspected by the American Correctional Association, the national accrediting agency for jails. We need to show that we meet national standards of care and control.” 

Trinity has been under contract with the jail since 2001, he added, and “We have no complaints with Trinity. Those trucks are no longer in use. Ironically, that same week that occurred, those trucks were supposed to come off line. It only appeared to be involving that one truck. They cleaned out all the trucks, not just that one, with a bleech solution, and after that meal was served — there was no evening meal – they fumigated the truck.  Just to be sure, they brought in rental trucks for the meals as well.”

Based in Tampa, Trinity notes on its web site that it has “become the predominant correctional foodservice contractor in Florida. By 2000 Trinity was successfully operating every major County Jail foodservice contract that had been awarded in Florida.”

Canteen’s site emphasizes the importance of “quality and nutrition” in their commissary services.

“We understand that mealtime plays a critical role in the overall stability of a secure facility – and we take that responsibility very seriously,” the site notes.  “To help reinforce a sense of order and control within your facility, we make sure that all food is properly prepared and presented.  Canteen is committed to providing food service programs that achieve these objectives three times a day, seven days a week.”

As far as the nutritional requirements, “Canteen’s on-staff registered dietitians meet with clients and medical staff to develop nutritious menus,” the site claims.  “We exceed federal, state and local guidelines, and respect individuals’ dietary and religious requirements.”

The Orange County Corrections Department’s Inmate Handbook states that prisoners have “the right to expect to be treated fairly by all staff members,” and that they have “the right to nutritious meals, proper bedding, clean clothing and a laundry schedule for exchanging county issued clothing, an opportunity to shower regularly, availability of toilet articles, and accessibility of medical treatment.”

As for meals, the handbook notes that three meals are served daily: breakfast at 5:30 a.m., lunch at 11 a.m. and dinner at 4 p.m. 

“There are no extra helpings,” the handbook states.  “Meals will be eaten at meal times.  No food (including condiments) will be taken back to the sleeping area.  No pork products are served. If for medical reasons, you need a special diet, you must be seen by the Health Services Division for an evaluation of dietary needs.”

Inmates at the Orange County Jail found insects in the food served to the Whitcomb building earlier this month.

 The Southern Center for Human Rights, which advocates human rights for prisoners, notes that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with the highest incarceration rates in southern states.

 Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

Tea Party chairman says “Republicans have to deliver” — but probably won’t.

ORLANDO – Looking at the huge victories won by the Republican Party last November, when the GOP picked up 63 seats in Congress, the chairman of the Florida Tea Party expects her movement to experience something this year: a golden opportunity.

Peg Dunmire, who is building up the Florida Tea Party to become a legitimate alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, says the GOP victories last November represented a clear repudiation of the performance of President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress in managing the economy, reducing our national debt, and controlling spending.

But it doesn’t, she added, represent a clear endorsement of the Republicans, and Dunmire is convinced that the GOP may set expectations too high on what they can accomplish – and ultimate fail.

“I think that the public is very skeptical about whether the Republicans will deliver – and what they will deliver,” Dunmire said. 

Polls so far haven’t been encouraging to the GOP, she noted. A Wall Street Journal poll showed that 24 percent of Americans view the Republican Party positively, compared to a 33 percent who give a positive rating to the Democrats.  Even after Democrats got crushed in the midterm elections, Dunmire said, voters remain skeptical about what the GOP will accomplish.

That skepticism is likely to grow, Dunmire said, since in December’s “lame duck” session, Congress approved a massive spending bill called the Omnibus Appropriations Act.

“They added a trillion dollars to our debt,” Dunmire said, while noting that the Florida Tea Party stands for the exact opposite: no deficit spending and a reduction in the responsibilities of the federal government, with more and more programs turned over to the states.

The 112th Congress recently convened, with U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, taking over as Speaker of the House from liberal Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who now becomes minority leader.  But the U.S. Senate is still controlled by Democrats, and with President Obama in the White House, there’s speculation that Republicans may have to compromise on a lot of their goals, including repealing the health care law and pushing for new spending cuts.

Dunmire said that after such a sweeping victory, the GOP needs to deliver on their pledge to reduce the budget deficit and seriously cut federal spending – or risk alienating the voters who elected them.

“They have to stand for something,” she said.  “It remains to be seen what their attitude will be.  The jury is totally, totally out on them.”

The first big test, she said, will be the vote in the House to kill the national health care reform law passed by Congress in early 2010. The controversial measure, which many political analysts say contributed heavily to the Democrats’ sweeping defeat, nevertheless continues to have strong support from the president, who had pledged to veto any repeal effort.

Dunmire noted that some conservative commentators, like Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly of The O’Reilly Factor, “are saying this is a waste of time because the Democrats control the Senate.  I disagree.  The Republican strategy in the House is to kill Obamacare, and I think it’s very good that the Republicans want to do this.  They need to.  The Republicans have to deliver on this in the House.”

Dunmire ran for Congress last year in Florida’s 8th Congressional District, which includes parts of Orlando and Orange, Lake, Osceola and Marion counties. She and the Democratic incumbent, Alan Grayson, lost to the Republican candidate, former state Sen. Dan Webster.

Dunmire noted that during the election, Republican candidates picked up a lot of support from voters affiliated with the Tea Party movement, which called for a return to a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and limits on the powers of the federal government.

If the GOP can’t control spending and end up returning to the big spending days when they controlled Congress under much of President George W. Bush’s first term, Dunmire said, they could turn off Tea Party voters altogether.

“Are they going to play politics as usual?” she asked.  “This is why we’re not going away. 

Peg Dunmire says the Florida Tea Party is here to stay because Republicans may not follow through on their promises to cut spending and repeal Obamacare.

The Florida Tea Party is here to stay, because we don’t know if the Republicans will deliver.”

 Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

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