Eleven Million Dollars -- or Nothing -- for Paralysis Cure Research

03/22/2011 12:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Don C. Reed Sponsor, California’s Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act of 1999

A $3 fine tacked onto every reckless driving ticket in California could mean $11,000,000 a year for spinal cord injury research for cure -- IF Assembly Bill 190 passes the Public Safety committee hearing at the Sacramento State Capitol, April 5th.

If AB 190 passes, money will be put into the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Program: if not, it won't be.

It is all or nothing, that one day. If AB 190 is voted down, so is the research.

Odds are against us, of course. When trying to cure paralysis, everything is impossible; it is the very symbol of that which is incurable: but we have to fix it anyway.

Here's the problem.

As you know, it is essentially against the law to tax the rich in California.

We have a crippling requirement of a 2/3 vote to raise any taxes. That's not going to happen, as Republicans vote as a bloc against any new taxes whatsoever. If the state was on fire, we could not pass a tax to buy fire hoses.

If you are a millionaire, it must be nice. For everybody else, it feels like the end of the American dream.

As costs rise (and tax revenues don't) even the very best programs are being killed.

The Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act of 1999, small but powerful, essentially a million dollars a year, was put into place a decade ago, and we have been fighting to keep it alive ever since.

It has been killed again and again, but we just keep bringing it back because it is doing great work, advancing the research.

For money reasons alone, it is terrific. Imagine a program that quadrupled its investment? We did that, and more. Over the ten years of the program's existence, California spent $14.6 million on spinal cord research -- and that research was so outstanding, it attracted more grants -- an additional $64 million from out-of-state sources, new money and jobs.

But after ten gloriously productive years, the public funding was removed.

Assembly Bill 190 would put funding back -- without charging taxpayers a nickel. Only reckless drivers would pay, and they cause the problem in the first place. Car crash is a major cause (46%) of spinal cord injury.

A crucial hearing for the bill is April 5th, at the Public Safety committee, mark your calendar, please. If you live in California, come to Sacramento that day.

My paralyzed son Roman Reed and I recently lobbied on behalf of AB 190, speaking to legislative aides of the seven Assemblymembers who will decide the program's fate.

Everyone agreed that the RR Act was a fantastic program. (see bottom of page for overview)
But... a concern was raised about its funding mechanism.

We are asking a $3 traffic ticket add-on, money dedicated to spinal cord injury research.

The concern? Increased fines should not be used as a way to support government programs.
This is a valid objection, with which I would normally agree. Traffic tickets cannot and should not be used to pay for all government programs.

But we gave a unique situation. Reckless driving is a major cause of paralysis, with roughly 46% of all spinal cord injuries caused by car crash. This is actually an ideal way to fund paralysis cure research -- we can target the guilty, and leave the innocent alone.

Do other states have similar programs? YES! According to the National Academies of Science, the following seven states funded spinal cord injury research programs via traffic ticket add-on, or surcharge for driving under the influence (DUI):

1. Florida (DUI charges);
2. Illinois (traffic ticket surcharges);
3. Kentucky (traffic violation surcharge);
4. Missouri (traffic surcharges);
5. New Jersey ($1 surcharge on traffic or motor vehicle fines);
6. New York (traffic ticket surcharges);
7. South Carolina (a $100 surcharge on fines for DUI).

Can California not do what Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and South Carolina have already done?

Australia likes it too. In 2009, Victoria, Australia began a $19 million brain and spinal cord injury research project -- funded by the Transport Accident Commission.

These states and Australia have recognized the connection between reckless driving and spinal cord injury: one causes the other. South Carolina feels so strongly about it, they charged DUI violators one hundred dollars extra -- and California would only ask $3!

If polluters can be charged heavy fines to pay for cleanup costs for pollution they put in the water and air, why should bad drivers not have to face similar penalties, though far smaller ones? Three dollars is not much, especially when one bad driver can paralyze a person for life; should not violators pay to address the tragedy they may cause?

Has California done anything like this before? Again, yes. Precedent has been established, as Traumatic Brain Injury research receives funding from traffic violations.

The original plan for the Roman Reed Program was traffic ticket surcharge in the first place. In 1999, we asked for $15 a ticket (not just $3, as now) which would have given California a magnificent $75 million program. However, because of conservative concerns and the opposition of the American Automobile Association (AAA), the bill was changed to a tax-payer-funded program -- $19 million a year, still substantial.

And then the energy crisis struck and all the money was removed. The bill was killed. But we did not accept that it should die, and we came back, and tried again.

This time we asked only $1 million a year, which we finally got. That was raised to $2 million, then cut back to $1.5 million, where it stayed.

One legislative aide said: "It's a feel-good bill, and it doesn't cost much."

We took that little bit of money and did great things with it.

But last year, even that small amount of public funding was removed.

Now we are forced to go back to the original method of funding -- or let the program die.

The American Automobile Association still opposes it, as do those who don't like traffic ticket add-ons.

Their objections are not without merit. In general, we should not fund government programs by traffic tickets.

But every rule has an exception, and what better one than this? Driving carefully is every citizen's responsibility. Those who do not, and who violate the law so egregiously that they are singled out, cited, and found guilty -- is it not right that they should help fight the problem their reckless driving causes?

So here is the question: do we use an imperfect tool, and with it fight for paralysis cure, perhaps achieving that in our lifetime?

Or is a political ideal more important than anything else?

The answer, for me, is my son.

It is almost seventeen years since Roman broke his neck playing college football: September 10th, 1994. In an instant, he was paralyzed from the shoulders down.

When people ask how he is doing, they expect something positive, because Roman himself is so optimistic, and lives such an active life.

But I always answer: every day is Hell for him, because it is. Roman never complains, but I am his father, and I see what he goes through.

The Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act is a chance to alleviate, perhaps even defeat paralysis, uncured since the dawn of Man. I am not prepared to sit back and watch the program die.

If you agree, then help me now.

Below is the 7-person committee which will decide our fate. Please call or email them TODAY: if you only write one letter, make it to the chair, he has the most power. You can also call, and leave a voice message expressing your views. (Also be sure to CC bill sponsor Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), via his chief legislative aide, Ryan Spencer:

Short letters are best: just say you support Assembly Bill 190 (Weickowski, D-Fremont), because reckless driving is a major cause of spinal cord injury, and violators should pay a small fee to support cure research.

Be gentle, these are good people, laboring heroically in a nearly impossible situation. At the bottom of this page is a brief summary of the accomplishments of the RR Act, you might want to cut and paste it into your email, so they can know what we are trying to protect. Please do something, even if it is just one email to the genuinely good man in charge of the committee, Tom Ammiano. He has worked twenty years as a progressive, (recently passing up a chance to be Mayor of San Francisco, because he wanted to be in Sacramento in this most difficult of times) and deserves respect.

Tom Ammiano - Chair
Dem-13 (916) 319-2013

Steve Knight - Vice Chair
Rep-36 (916) 319-2036

Gilbert Cedillo Dem-45 (916) 319-2045

Curt Hagman
Rep-60 (916) 319-2060

Jerry Hill
Dem-19 (916) 319-2019

Holly J. Mitchell Dem-47 (916) 319-2047

Nancy Skinner
Dem-14 (916) 319-2014

Please send a copy of your e-mail to:

Finally, here is a brief description of the program we are trying to save.
The Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act: AB750/AB1794/AB190

Since its inception in 2000, the Roman Reed Program has provided $14.6 million for spinal cord injury research in California. This seed funding attracted add-on grants and other additional funding of $63,867,216 from the National Institutes of Health and other out-of-state sources, creating new jobs. It was twice renewed by near-unanimous votes of the Assembly and Senate.

Spinal cord injury causes a significant drain on state resources: an estimated five million six hundred thousand Americans suffer some form of paralysis, and 1,275,000 live with a catastrophic spinal cord injury. Financial costs are devastating. Medical costs during the first year after a spinal cord injury are approximately $775,000, and as much as three million dollars over the life of a quadriplegic, which exhausts insurance caps. Consequently, almost all people with a spinal cord injury end up on Medical and Medicare. Improving function and health of people with SCI will reduce this financial burden to the state.

The Program is administered by the University of California system and is directed by Oswald Steward at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at UC Irvine. The Program provides small grants (seed funding) for California scientists and supports a core laboratory for spinal cord injury research at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center.

1) Research grants are determined by a panel of out-of-state experts to preclude conflicts of interest. Of a total 289 applications, 129 were awarded grants totaling $11,795,292. Additionally, 68 fellowships were awarded to graduate students working on spinal cord injury for an aggregate cost of $1,607,487. These grants achieved efficient leveraging, resulting in 71 new grants from NIH and other sources, with a total $63,867,216 in new funding brought into California.

2) The Roman Reed Core Laboratory, a 6,000 square foot lab at UC Irvine, provides state of the art equipment, animal facilities, and trained personnel: where new scientists can learn, and established experts can work .The lab was dedicated on March 1, 2002, in a ceremony marked in the United States Congressional Record. The lab has hosted both individual projects (24) and collaborative efforts (18) as a central hub of spinal cord injury/nerve repair research.

Targets of funded research: develop neuroprotective interventions to reduce the wave of secondary that occurs in the hours and days following a spinal cord injury; restore bowel and bladder control; reduce chronic pain; restore sexual function; prevent life-threatening blood pressure irregularities; restore myelin insulation around damaged nerves; prevent formation of the spinal scar, which blocks nerve messages between brain and body; replace missing nerve cells; implant bio-engineered frameworks to bridge the gap in the damaged spine; develop neurotrophins (nerve fertilizer) and other interventions to promote nerve re-growth; reduce bone-loss; test FDA-approved medications which may have an SCI application, and develop new activity-based therapies to improve function and overall health.

Results: 175 peer-reviewed publications. Research on activity-based therapies led to new therapies which are a sea change for people with chronic spinal cord injury. These exercise-based therapies improve quality of life, reduce secondary health complications, and save the state money due to reduced health care costs. Other discoveries supported by the program are in the pipeline toward translation including: 1) the world's first clinical trial for stem cells for spinal cord injury; 2) a treatment initially developed for spinal cord injury is in clinical trials for inflammatory bowel disease; 3) new surgical techniques have been developed to treat people with nerve injuries.