A roundup of recent Michigan newspaper editorials

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News,Science and Technology

Detroit Free Press, Dec. 30

Governor's 'balance' now tilts against women's rights

In signing one bill that imposes new restrictions on abortion providers while vetoing a second that would have eliminated insurance coverage for many abortions, Gov. Rick Snyder insisted Friday that he was trying to strike a balance between women's rights and his own opposition to most abortions.

But the more Snyder explains himself, the more apparent it is that those who seek to restrict Michigan women's access to safe, legal abortions have found a staunch ally in the governor's mansion.

Snyder vetoed Senate Bill 1293, part of a two-bill package that would have transformed Blue Cross Blue Shield into a nonprofit insurer. The Blue Cross legislation Snyder supported didn't even mention abortion, but during their lame-duck rampage, Republican lawmakers added a provision that would have left every Michigan woman without insurance coverage for abortion-related services unless she purchased an opt-in abortion rider at additional expense.

The governor said he'd decided to veto the amended bill after concluding that it improperly extended the opt-in requirement to private insurers and failed to provide exceptions authorizing abortion coverage in the event of rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother. But he added that he'd gladly sign legislation that denied abortion coverage to women who purchase insurance on a public health exchange, unless they purchase an optional rider or qualify under one of the three exceptions. Clearly, he's more concerned about the prerogatives of private insurers than about those of pregnant women.

Snyder's decision to sign HB5711, also known as the omnibus abortion bill, is even more troubling.

Snyder said his support for the bill, which requires medical professionals to redouble their efforts to make sure women seeking abortions haven't been unduly coerced, is consistent with his lifelong opposition to bullying of all sorts. But he conceded his only evidence that coerced abortions are going undetected was "anecdotal" -- a telling admission for a politician who likes to boast that his governing decisions are data-driven.

HB5711's other key provision would require providers who advertise abortion services and perform more than 120 procedures a year to meet new licensing requirements. Snyder said he's pretty sure the new rules will impact only "10 to 20" providers across the state -- which doesn't sound so bad, until you remember that there are only 32 abortion clinics in the whole state.

What percentage of women seeking abortions would be affected? Snyder said it's hard to know, because reliable data regarding the number of abortions performed in private physicians' offices is hard to come by.

Is there evidence that unlicensed clinics are botching procedures? Snyder says he has heard some complaints, but, once again, has little data to support abortion opponents' claims that the problems HB5711 purports to address actually exist.

In summary, Snyder seems to have charged into this breach armed with more animus than information. His own rationale notwithstanding, the requirements he signed into law Friday are aimed at reducing the number of abortion providers in the state and expanding the arsenal of tactics available to intimidate women seeking an abortion.

Whether by intention or circumstance, one thing is becoming clear: The Snyder who soft-pedaled his own view about abortion in 2010 bears little resemblance to the governor who sits in Lansing today.

Last year, Snyder attempted to distance himself from legislation he didn't personally endorse. This year, he has eliminated the pretense that he's merely respecting the Republican Legislature's own priorities. When it comes to advancing his party's extreme right-wing agenda, he has gone from being a sheepish fellow-traveler to a full-throated supporter.

Pretending that Friday's actions represent a compromise between the interests of women and pro-life Republicans is disingenuous. Michigan's governor has made his choice, and women who want to preserve their own must now look elsewhere for help.

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The Oakland Press, Dec. 31

Beer, wine tasting may improve supermarket sales

If we want a glass of beer or wine away from home, we head for a bar or a restaurant.

But a supermarket?

Hiller's Market, with stores in Washtenaw, Wayne and Oakland counties, expects to open a new store in Lyon Township in Oakland's southwestern corner in the spring, with a space for imbibing. The township's board of trustees has approved a tavern license.

We can imagine a joke or two, maybe imagining shopping cart collisions in the store and parking lot.

But the tavern license was approved with a designated tasting area in mind, although imbibing may not be limited to tasting. The chain's attorney, John Carlin, said it's a new trend in upscale markets "where you can sit down and eat a meal and have a glass of beer or wine."

The township's downtown development authority director, Michelle Aniol, believes it's unique in the region.

Township officials also approved package beer and wine licenses for the store.

A dining area at a supermarket which sells prepared food isn't new: We've seen them in stores from Whole Foods to Meijers.

But adding alcoholic beverages?

We wonder if the concept might grow. If the beverages weren't required to be confined in a certain part of the store, wouldn't a glass of wine be a gracious addition to the women's clothing area of an upscale department store? That could increase sales, perhaps the more so if it included seating for bored spouses. A beer to sip while pushing the cart through a big-box home improvement store?

A flute of bubbly at the florist's?

New cart designs with the requisite glass holder? In the outfitting store, a camo koozie?

If the local and state officials are OK with the concept and if the market's owners understand their responsibilities and liabilities, then we don't see a problem.

It may increase sales.

But we hope it doesn't spread to some of those stores we were kidding about. Things might get messy.

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Traverse City Record-Eagle, Dec. 30

Law doesn't guarantee teens won't talk, drive

Like most stereotypes, the one of teenagers talking endlessly on the phone to friends has its roots in reality. A lot of young people talk, text and tweet seemingly nonstop.

Today, however, there is a dark side to the joy of keeping up with one's friends 24/7 — texting, talking or tweeting on a cellphone while driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers (drivers 15 to 20) in America. And mile for mile, the NHSTA says, teenagers are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as all other drivers.

Bonnie Raffaele knows all that, and she also knows that, as the NHSTA also reports, a variety of behaviors contribute to those numbers — inexperience as a driver, immaturity, speed, drinking and driving, not wearing seat belts and distracted driving, a catchall term for a lot of bad-while-driving habits, including talking on a cell phone, too-loud music, talking to other teens in the car, drowsy driving, eating, etc.

In 2010, Raffaele's 17-year-old daughter Kelsey Dawn Raffaele was driving home from a friend's house in Sault Ste. Marie and chatting on her cellphone when she crashed and died.

After nearly two years of lobbying by Bonnie Raffaele, state lawmakers Dec. 14 passed a bill dubbed "Kelsey's Law" that prohibits young novice drivers from using a cellphone while behind the wheel. Gov. Rick Snyder has said he will likely sign the new law.

Police acknowledge the bill probably won't have a major practical impact on stopping young people from talking and driving, mostly because it is so hard to determine if a passing motorist is using a phone simply by glancing through the car window.

But Sgt. Chris Hawkins of the Michigan State Police said the bill will allow officers to check anyone they suspect of violating the ban; under most circumstances, he said, they will enforce the law as a "secondary measure" when a driver has been stopped for another reason.

"We'll see someone speeding by us and notice they're on their cellphone," Hawkins said. "We'll pull them over, and if they've got a Level 1 or 2 license, they'll get the additional citation." The fine can reach $100 plus court costs.

Hawkins said police hope the deterrent effect will make violations a rarity, just as with the state's existing ban on sending text messages while driving, which took effect in 2010.

This is all feel-good stuff and Bonnie Raffaele deserves credit for trying to get the word out. She and her husband Ron created a website and Bonnie has spoken at schools as far away as Grand Rapids.

Ultimately, though, what we need is a technical solution to a high-tech problem. There have been distracted drivers since day one, but cell phone use has become almost universal. Teens are hardly the only ones who talk and text while driving and put themselves and others at risk. There are business types for whom the car is a rolling office, and lots of soccer moms use their cells to coordinate the family from behind the wheel. It's all dangerous.

Car companies need to look seriously for solutions, such as fitting cars with devices that allow only incoming cell calls to hands-free phones and limiting calls to 30 seconds or so, just long enough to pass along an important message or just a "call me when you pull over."

Efforts to muzzle all cellular communication will go nowhere, but limiting calls by time and by type of device could help. Make it a competition and someone will find a solution.

Until then we can hope people like Bonnie Raffaele keep pushing the message one school — or even one teenager — at a time, that more and more young people get the message.

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The Macomb Daily (Mount Clemens), Dec. 26

Smart switches should result in fewer outages

A generation ago, a reporter covering Detroit Edison's efforts to restore power to tens of thousands of suburban customers after a severe storm learned about the "smoke test."

When crews were reasonably certain they'd repaired lines in a darkened subdivision, he was told, a worker would throw a switch to restore power, then look out across the area for smoke. No smoke, of course, was good.

True? Well, that's what our reporter was told.

Nowadays, DTE and other utilities are installing smarter ways to deal with outages. If we can expect more frequent and more severe storms, we hope they hurry.

An article in the Wall Street Journal describes the effort to ensure that outages affect fewer customers and that power can be restored more quickly. That means smart switches which can be used to divide a circuit into smaller segments, isolating an outage to the smallest area.

The switches can be operated remotely, perhaps automatically. Along with installation of smart meters at residences and businesses, they also provide a quick picture of the utility's grid.

Large-city utilities, the article indicates, are spending tens of millions of dollars, perhaps the low hundred millions, to make the improvements.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., a 170,000-customer city-owned utility has used a $100 million grant to make its system more resilient, including 1,200 smart switches. A recent storm left 35,000 without power. But 42,000 experienced only a brief outage. And the improvements shortened the restoration time for the 35,000 customers.

DTE is installing similar equipment, making improvements to several circuits even as it installs smart meters. Like Chattanooga and other utilities, it's financing the improvements in part with a federal grant.

The costs should be compared with the ultimate "hardening" of an existing grid: burying the lines. That costs far more, and such costs at this point must be paid for by ratepayers.

Power lines in many newer subdivisions have been buried, often as a municipal ordinance requirement.

But in older communities, overhead lines remain and are vulnerable to high wind, ice and falling trees. Right-of-way clearance must remain a high priority.

But if the grid is rebuilt to include more self-healing features, fewer of us will be left in the dark in the next storm.

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