By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Driver safety advocates renewed their call Tuesday for a stronger seat belt and texting law in Nebraska, arguing that the measure would help reduce fatal crashes.
The legislation would allow law enforcement to stop drivers who are seen texting or not wearing a seat belt. Current state law treats the violations as secondary offenses, meaning officers can only ticket motorists after stopping them for another reason.
The proposal was backed by law enforcement, medical and highway-safety groups during a hearing of the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Nebraska is one of 18 states without a primary safety-belt law, and one of four that doesn’t consider texting while driving a primary offense.
“Texting is where you take your hands off the wheel, your eyes off the road, and your mind off your task - the task of driving safely,’’ said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff.
Harms said he introduced the measure in an effort to save lives, even if it proves politically unpopular. Similar bills in the past have drawn complaints from rural drivers who oppose seat belt and texting laws - and the proposal was repeatedly challenged by committee members on Tuesday. The bill has also stoked fears among minority groups that police could use the law as an excuse for racial profiling.
Nebraska had 179 fatal crashes last year involving vehicles that were equipped with safety belts, but 81 percent of those killed weren’t wearing one, according to the Department of Roads.
“I think this poses an immediate concern for safety in Nebraska, and I think we have to address this - and we should address this,’’ Harms said. “Nebraska no doubt needs to catch up.’’
Harms said the bill doesn’t change any of the current fines for a violation.
Rob Reynolds of Omaha testified about the December 2007 crash that killed his 16-year-old daughter, Cady. Cady was killed at an intersection when a distracted SUV driver ran a red light and slammed into her car at 49 mph.
“A few short hours later, at 16 years of age, my daughter’s life was ended,’’ Reynolds said. “It wasn’t by disease, or a gunshot, or some other malady, but a highly preventable driver distraction.’’
Steve Blackistone of the National Transportation and Safety Board said seat belt usage in the United States continues to trail other developed nations. Blackistone said more than 90 percent of drivers wore seat belts in states where violations were a primary offense, compared to 78 percent in states where it’s secondary.
Blackistone said some motorists mistakenly believe that an air bag alone will protect them, or that they won’t be driving far enough to worry about buckling up.
“Each of these objections has been studied numerous times at the national level, and each has been shown not to be a legitimate concern,’’ he said.
Some lawmakers questioned whether the law would work as intended. Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft pointed to a bill she sponsored that increased penalties for drivers who pass school buses that have extended their stop signs. Brasch said she has since spoken with school bus drivers who haven’t noticed a difference.
“I am concerned that changing the law really isn’t going to solve the problem,’’ said Sen. Lydia Brasch, of Bancroft. “I do think it comes down to personal responsibility.’’
George Ferebee of Edgar, Neb., said the bill fails to address the core problem of teaching youths how to drive safely. Ferebee argued that seat belt usage should remain a matter of personal choice and privacy.
“If you look at this bill, it’s a typical case of why people don’t trust government and don’t trust the Legislature,’’ he said. “No, you don’t take away our freedoms all at once. You just keep nibbling away at them, one bill at a time.’’