LINCOLN — An effort to get tougher on drivers who text or search the web while driving appears headed for a rough ride in the Nebraska Legislature.
A trio of senators at a public hearing Tuesday questioned how law enforcement officers would be able to tell if a motorist was illegally texting or legally making a cellphone call.
“I have a tough time figuring out how a law enforcement officer driving down the street at 40 mph can make that determination,” said State Sen. John Murante of Gretna.
In response, Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner said it would be difficult but not impossible. An officer, he said, would likely ask drivers if they were texting, and if a driver responded “no” would have to let the motorist go.
The sheriff added that cellphone records could be subpoenaed to prove if a text had been sent, but he doubted that would happen very often.
On Tuesday, the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee took testimony on a wide-ranging proposal aimed at improving traffic safety in Nebraska.
Among other things, Legislative Bill 807 would make texting while driving a primary traffic offense, along with failing to buckle a safety belt. Currently, they are both secondary offenses, which means a law enforcement officer cannot pull someone over unless they observe a violation of another traffic law.
That leaves Nebraska's traffic safety provisions without sufficient legal teeth, traffic safety advocates said, and promotes dangerous driving practices.
The state and neighboring Iowa were recently ranking among the 11 worst states in the country for traffic safety laws by the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, primarily because both don't make texting while driving a primary offense.
Bev Reicks, the Nebraska head of the National Safety Council, said “science” has shown that by making texting or not wearing a seat belt a primary offense, it will increase compliance with the law. She estimated that 50 to 60 lives in Nebraska would be saved by tougher seat-belt laws alone.
“Nebraskans are literally dying for you to do something,” said Reicks, who is the former director of the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles.
But Murante, along with Sens. Jim Smith of Papillion and Lydia Brasch of Bancroft, all questioned whether officers would be able to enforce the tougher laws, or whether innocent motorists might be pulled over instead.
Murante, for instance, wondered how he could prove he wasn't texting but was making a cellphone call, which is legal and would stay that way under LB 807.
Doubts were also raised about whether racial profiling might increase if officers could pull someone over for suspicion of not wearing a seat belt or texting.
But Reicks and other advocates of the bill said that profiling is a separate issue, and that lawmakers should not get caught up in possible complications. The bottom line, they said, is that LB 807 would save lives.
“The time has come for Nebraska to make some decisions about safety,” said Scottsbluff Sen. John Harms, the bill's sponsor. “Sometimes making the right choice takes courage.”
Supporters included a Lincoln emergency room manager, the Omaha father of a teen killed in a distracted-driver crash, a retired sheriff's deputy from Papillion and the head of the National Transportation Safety Board. But there appeared to be a lack of support from the legislative committee to advance the bill for debate by the full Legislature.
Perhaps only two of the committee's eight members support LB 807 as written, according to the panel's chairwoman, Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas.
Harms, a longtime advocate for traffic safety laws, said Tuesday that he divided the bill into five parts to give the senators “lots of options” on how to proceed.
Other sections of LB 807 would: ban school bus drivers from using cellphones while driving; make it a primary traffic offense for teens with provisional driver's permits to drive with more than one passenger or while using a cellphone; and make it a primary offense to drive while using a cell phone for teens with a school permit.