Child-Safety Laws Recommended, Tough to Pass
By Margaret Nicklas, KUT News
Every year, almost 1,000 children in Texas die from non-natural causes like accidents, murders and suicides. A volunteer group studying these deaths and how to prevent them is calling on state lawmakers to make some changes, but has struggled to push legislation forward.
Big changes take persistence and time. Just ask Dr. Juan Parra. The San Antonio pediatrician is an advocate for laws to improve child safety.
“You can have what looks like a very good piece of legislation or recommendation, but if a committee looks at it and it doesn’t come out of a committee, it may never even get to the floor to be debated or certainly voted on,” Parra says.
Dr. Parra serves on the State’s Child Fatality Review Team Committee – a diverse group of professionals who volunteer their time to study child deaths in Texas. They publish an annual report and recommend changes the state could make to save lives, but the recommendations rarely become law.
In the last legislative session, the committee called for a ban on the use of wireless devices while driving. The state legislature passed a narrower ban on texting while driving, but Governor Rick Perry vetoed the bill, calling it “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.”
Parra was undeterred. He had no qualms about issuing the recommendation again this year.
“If you get narrow focused, you sort of lose that momentum,” Parra says. “You lose that education that you can do that includes those legislators, to make them aware that it’s just not texting that’s the problem – it’s using wireless communication devices.
Democratic State Senator Leticia Van de Putte helped create the Child Fatality Review Team Committee almost two decades ago.
“We can’t act until we know what causes injury and death to our children,” she says. “The reports and the whole idea of the child fatality review teams was that we would know how to keep our children alive.”
Van de Putte hopes to see the texting ban re-emerge in the next legislation session. More than three quarters of states in the U.S. have already outlawed texting while driving. Some Texas cities have too, including Austin.
“It reminds me of the first legislation that required seat belts. Texas was one of last few states to enact it because we didn’t want a ‘nanny government.’ We didn’t want folks telling us what to do,” Van de Putte says. “But we all pay the price when people drive recklessly or take chances.”
The Texas Pediatric Society also supports a ban on texting. The organization’s Carrie Kroll remembers how it took three legislative sessions to get Texas’ age and size requirements for car safety seats on par with national standards.
“We got slowed down legislatively [in] the first session because people really wanted more Texas data – what was really happening. Were these kids really getting hurt? And so we had to go back to the drawing board,” Kroll says. “DPS did a study of what the actual injuries were and indeed, kids were getting hurt. Once we compiled all that data and showed legislators that it was an issue, then it was just about how we make this a popular enough topic that people are willing to pass it.”
Governor Perry’s spokesperson Lucy Nashed says the governor’s office is reviewing the committee’s current report. She says Perry will thoroughly consider any new proposals legislators send him next session.
“We are always working with them to identify priorities and see what the state could be doing better,” Nashed says. “Child welfare and child health is obviously a big priority.”
As the new session gets underway in January, lawmakers will once again have the chance to act on the committee’s recommendations. And they’ll have at least one new idea to bat around this year: For the first time, the committee has recommended making it a crime to have any alcohol in your system when driving with a child in the car.