Bills would make seat belts a priority
COLUMBUS, Feb 15, 2013 (Columbus Telegram - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Seat belts save lives.
It's that simple in Platte County Sheriff Jon Zavadil's opinion.
That's why he supports two bills introduced in the state Legislature with a goal of getting more people across Nebraska to buckle up.
"I'm a big proponent of seat belts," said Zavadil, who has seen too many fatal accidents where victims weren't wearing the safety devices.
Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff specifically cited safety and the need to reduce motor vehicle fatalities as the reason he introduced a bill that would allow police to stop motorists who aren't wearing a seat belt.
Current state law treats seat belt violations as a secondary offense, meaning motorists can only be cited after they're stopped for another reason.
Nebraska is one of 18 states that do not classify seat belt violations as a primary offense, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and New Hampshire is the only state that doesn't require drivers to wear seat belts.
Columbus Police Capt. Todd Thalken believes changing the infraction to a primary offense in Nebraska will make the law easier to enforce, which should lead to increased seat belt use.
Although there aren't a high number of deadly crashes in Columbus, Thalken said the "vast majority" of fatalities involve people who aren't buckled up.
Highway crashes are the leading cause of death for people ages 5 through 34, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Last year, 211 people were killed in traffic accidents across the state, up from 181 in 2011.
Harms' bill would impose a $100 fine for seat belt violations, a drastic increase from the current amount of $25, and add one point to a driver's record. Accumulating too many points can cause drivers to lose their license or see insurance rates increase.
"Hopefully it will make people more conscious of it and get them to put the dang thing on," Zavadil said of the seat belt proposal.
Another bill introduced by Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha would require all passengers in a vehicle to wear seat belts and treat violations as a primary offense.
Currently, Nebraska only has seat belt requirements for drivers and front-seat passengers.
Harms is also hoping to put more teeth into a texting ban he introduced three years ago.
His proposal this session would change texting while driving from a secondary to a primary offense, which would allow law enforcement to stop drivers for sending or viewing text messages and emails using cell phones or other electronic devices.
The intention was always for the ban to be a primary offense, Harms has said, but the Legislature accepted a compromised version after opponents argued police could use it as an excuse to pull over minorities and young people.
Thalken said he supports legislation that targets texting while driving because the act creates a hazard for both the offender and other motorists.
He contends that this distraction can be worse than driving drunk.
Between 2002 and 2011, 1,252 traffic accidents involving "mobile phone distractions," not specifically limited to texting, occurred in the state, according to the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety. Six of those accidents resulted in fatalities and another 537 led to injuries.
Of those crashes, 399 involved teenage drivers, who are now banned from using a cell phone for any purpose while driving if they are younger than 18.
Zavadil agrees that people texting while behind the wheel has become a problem.
"It is a big distraction and I'm sure that we've had some instances where that was a contributing factor (to an accident)," he said.
But both local law enforcement officials maintain that the ban is simply too hard to enforce, regardless of whether it's a primary or secondary offense.
Columbus Police Department has issued just seven tickets and six warnings for the violation since the law took effect July 15, 2010, and Zavadil recalled only one citation coming from the sheriff's office.
The Nebraska State Patrol had issued 129 tickets and 116 warnings for texting while driving as of Sunday.
The problem for law enforcement is it's not illegal for adults to dial a cell phone while driving and proving a person was texting, not making a call, would require an admission from the guilty party or subpoena of phone records -- something that's unlikely to happen outside of a serious accident investigation. Plus, Zavadil said, most motorists who are texting don't do it in plain sight.
Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have a text messaging ban for all drivers with all but four of those states considering the violation a primary offense, according to the Governors' Highway Safety Association. An additional five states ban text messaging only for novice drivers.
Ten states and the District of Columbia prohibit any handheld cell phone use while driving.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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