Election Year Road Wars: Seat Belts, Speed Limits Collide

Omaha, NE.—$1,000 a year: That’s the estimated cost to each Nebraska motorist for less-than-strict seat belt and texting while driving laws along with several other safety measures

The expensive math is all part of a 2017 study examined by News Channel Nebraska which finds Nebraska near the bottom of all 50 states when it comes to keeping drivers and passengers, many of them children, alive and well.

As Nebraska lawmakers consider raising speed limits only five states in the study—Arizona, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming— score worse than Nebraska.

According to a 57-page report from the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, car wrecks in Nebraska cost nearly $1.3 billion a year, a “crash tax” that is tied to a dangerous list of likely lifesaving laws that key state officials have consistently nixed.

Topping the list is Nebraska’s refusal to allow police to stop and ticket drivers who are not buckled up. A close second is the lack of a rear seat belt law, which would also allow police to stop and ticket drivers’ whose passengers are not buckled up. Currently drivers must first be stopped for another “primary” offense such as drunk driving, speeding or a variety of other moving violations, before they can be ticketed for no seat belts.

The state’s “poor” performance also includes several teen driving laws and a text messaging law that critics drive a hole through.

Two lawmakers are pushing bills in the current legislative session that would tighten several of those measures.

Sen. Bob Krist—who is running for governor as an independent—is backing LB 671 which would allow police to stop drivers for not wearing a seat belt or for texting while driving—no other violation needed.

Sen. Roy Baker’s LB 711 says drivers and all passengers—not just those in the front as is now the case— must be buckled-up.

Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, is critical of 17 states with safety profiles similar to Nebraska. “It is time for every governor and every state lawmaker to reexamine legislative priorities, “says Claybrook.

But on at least two fronts, mandatory seat belts and tougher texting while driving laws, Governor Pete Ricketts has opposed tightening Nebraska’s statutes. According to the governor’s spokesperson, my interview with the governor from three years ago still stands:

2015 Interview

Joe Jordan: Police can’t pull them over if they’re not wearing a seat belt. It is not what they call a primary offense. Should that change? Should seat belts be more mandatory in Nebraska?

Governor Ricketts: I think the law we have right now on the books is appropriate.

Recent surveys indicate that over 80 percent of Nebraskans buckle up while at the same time nearly seven out of 10 drivers or passengers killed in crashes (68 percent in 2016, 73 percent from January- November of 2017) were not wearing seat belts.

The state’s 2016 traffic report notes: ”Reaching the remaining 20 percent of Nebraskans who avoid restraint use is a difficult problem.”

Once again, the governor from three years ago:

2015 Interview:

Gov. Ricketts: I think the secondary offense is a way we can make sure that we’re sending the right message that people should wear their seat belts but also balancing off that individual liberty and that if you are violating another law this will be something that gets added on top.

Joe Jordan: You say that despite the fact that the statistics indicate that when there are car wrecks—serious car wrecks— people not wearing seat belts are more likely to die than others.

Governor Ricketts: Well I certainly encourage everybody to wear a seat belt. When I’m in my car I wear my seat belt. What we’re trying is to balance off again people making their own decisions with public safety. I think the law we have right now finds that balance.

And the governor’s spokesperson tells News Channel Nebraska, Mr. Ricketts has the same no-change policy when it comes to texting and driving.

Meanwhile, just yesterday, Sen. John Murante—who is running for state treasurer—introduced legislation potentially increasing speed limits on several highways and the interstate, including Omaha to Lincoln, which would jump from 75-80 mph.

Gov. Ricketts—who is running for reelection—backs the higher speeds.

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