Conn. high school students push bill to limit smoking in cars with kids

March 25, 2010: A child is strapped into a safety seat in this file photo.

March 25, 2010: A child is strapped into a safety seat in this file photo.  (Reuters)

Most high school students learn about civics at some point. But some Connecticut seniors have decided to take their studies a step further – they’re looking to change state law.

A class of seniors at Daniel Hand High School in Madison is pushing the state Legislature to pass a law to prohibit smoking in the car with young children, and in the process, is learning more about the machinery of the state political system than any textbook could ever hope to teach them.

“Instead of giving us busywork when we all have ‘senioritis,’ our teacher said, ‘hey, let’s do something,’” senior Jen Ongley, 17, told “We can get worksheets, or we can actually go and call our legislators.”

The idea first came to the class when a teacher, undergoing treatment at a local hospital, witnessed a child get out of a car on his way to his chemotherapy sessions – while noticing that the boy’s mother had been smoking during the drive. The story made the rounds at Daniel Hand High, and the students were incredulous when they heard it.

So two weeks ago, the class, led by teacher Peter Nye, began researching other states’ laws against smoking with children in the car, and now want to ban the habit with kids under the age of 6, or who weigh less than 60 pounds – in other words, small enough to still use a car seat.

Making sure young children avoid the harmful effects of second-hand smoke is especially important, as toddlers who are regularly exposed can develop asthma, or it can aggravate those already plagued with the condition, Dr. Andrew S. Ting, an assistant professor of pediatrics, pulmonary and critical care at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, told But Ting said being in a car makes it worse, as it’s a more concentrated environment, and smoke will still find a way to remain in the car even if the windows are rolled down.

The class hasn’t yet decided on a penalty, though they envision a year of warnings before the law takes effect. Once it’s enacted, it would be a secondary offense – it would be enforced only if a driver was pulled over for another infringement, such as speeding or having a broken tail light.

The students dismiss suggestions that the law would be a “nanny state” violation, citing state precedent that Connecticut already protects kids in vehicles through means such as seat belt laws, senior Adam Bechtold said.

As part of the project, students have reached out to local media outlets to build political momentum, contacted representatives in the state Legislature and talked strategy with their aides, learning how bills maneuver through the statehouse.

“I’m 18, this is my first year I’m allowed to vote, and now I’m working hands-on with the actual system,” said senior Mike Marino. “We’re talking to the people who really make it happen.”

The students concede that it’s unlikely the law will be passed in this current legislative session, as the period for introducing bills is over, and they don’t want to attach it as an amendment to an existing bill. So the plan is to do the legwork as the spring semester ends, and hand off the project to next year’s class.

But regardless of when – or if – the bill is ever signed into law, the students at Daniel Hand High have already learned valuable lessons about the governmental process and the individual’s capacity to make a difference.

“You understand that what everyday people can do has an impact,” said senior Bill Brown, 17. “It really makes it a lot more real.”