NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN — Safety experts estimate 84 people who died in Nebraska traffic crashes last year probably would be alive today had they been wearing seat belts.

And the experts say opinion polls consistently show support for cracking down on texting behind the wheel.

But once again, it appears that there's no clear expressway for Nebraska bills aimed at tougher enforcement of laws that mandate seat belt use and ban texting while driving.

Highway safety advocates, paramedics and medical professionals testified in support of the proposed legislation Tuesday during a public hearing before the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. But State Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, the committee chairman, said afterward that he was unsure whether either measure will get the five votes needed to advance from the committee to the full Legislature.

Smith said he is most concerned about how authorities would enforce the law related to texting. Talking on a cellphone while driving would remain legal, which he worried could lead to innocent drivers who were talking, not texting, being pulled over and ticketed.

"You want to create a safe environment, but you don't want to violate personal rights to do it," Smith said.

Both measures, sponsored by Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, would make seat belt and texting violations primary offenses. Currently, they are secondary offenses, meaning motorists must commit a primary violation before they can be pulled over and ticketed for not wearing belts or for texting.

As for seat belts specifically, current law applies to only the front-seat occupants of a vehicle. Legislative Bill 669 would require all passengers to buckle in.

Since the current law took effect in 1993, nearly 5,100 people have died on Nebraska roadways and nearly 74 percent of those were unbelted, said Rose White, spokeswoman for AAA Nebraska.

Of the 190 drivers or passengers who died in crashes in 2015, 143, or about 76 percent, were not wearing seat belts.

"We encourage you to pass this legislation, which will save lives and prevent countless injuries and needless suffering," she said. "It is long overdue."

About 79 percent of Nebraskans wear seat belts, compared to 87 percent nationally. In Iowa, which has primary enforcement for front-seat passengers, 92 percent of drivers buckle up.

Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft questioned the need to pass another government mandate if more Nebraskans could be encouraged to follow the existing law. Laurie Klosterboer, director of the Nebraska Safety Council, rejected that argument.

"I don't think it's a government infringement. I think it's a minimum safety standard," she said.

Bruce Beins, a volunteer emergency medical technician from Republican City, said seat belts save lives. If changing the law encourages more people to buckle up, it's worthwhile, he added.

"If you're not a seat belt proponent when you get into this profession, you will be very quickly," said Beins, speaking on behalf of the 2,500-member Nebraska Emergency Medical Services Association.

In years past, proposals for primary enforcement of the seat belt law drew crowds of opponents. On Tuesday, George Ferebee of Edgar offered the only testimony against the bill, saying he thinks too many motorists rely on built-in vehicle technology instead of practicing safe driving techniques.

Nebraska is one of five states without primary enforcement of a ban on texting while driving. Legislative Bill 668 would change that.

"We have to start by treating it as an offense, a serious offense," Krist said.

Beverly Reicks, president of the National Safety Council in Nebraska, said a 2015 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety analyzed nearly 1,700 videos of teen-driver crashes taken from in-vehicle recorders. The study showed that distractions factored into 60 percent of the crashes and texting accounted for 12 percent of that total.

Those numbers were higher than what experts had thought based on previous studies, she said.

"The polls nationwide are really clear — we view that as dangerous. We see it as a danger to ourselves," she said.

No one testified in opposition to the texting bill.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

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