Neb. lawmakers peddling traffic-safety measures

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Motorists and passengers who ride without a seat belt could face a $100 fine in Nebraska, and might even see their insurance rates increase if a bill in the Legislature becomes law.

Nebraska lawmakers are peddling a series of traffic safety measures this year that would impose hefty fines on seat belt violators and make it easier for police to stop drivers.

The Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee will hear three measures Monday that are intended to reduce highway fatalities.

One bill by Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff would give police the authority to stop motorists who aren't wearing a seat belt. Current state law treats seat belt violations as a secondary offense, which only allows officers to cite motorists if they're stopped for some other reason.

The bill would also impose a $100 fine for seat belt violations, up from the current $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.

The fine would apply to drivers and all passengers.

"It's all about safety," Harms said. "If you get seriously injured, and your insurance runs out, then the state may end up taking over the cost. That's one of my big concerns as well."

Harms has also introduced a bill that would make texting while driving a primary offense. Texting while driving is now a secondary offense, but some Nebraska law enforcement agencies have complained that it's difficult to enforce and prove. Lawmakers considered the measure in 2010, but made it a secondary offense after opponents argued that police could use it as an excuse to pull over minorities and young people.

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha has introduced a bill that would require all vehicle passengers to wear a seat belt. Krist's measure would also treat seat belt violations as a primary offense. Nebraska law now imposes no seat belt requirements for back-seat passengers.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense," Krist said. "In a crash, whatever is unbuckled in the back seat is going to come forward into the front seat. It just seemed logical to me that everyone in the vehicle should be belted."

The proposals follow an upswing in traffic deaths in 2012, after several years of decline. Nebraska reported 211 people killed last year, up from 181 in 2011, according to the Department of Roads. So far this year, the state has seen 29 traffic deaths.

Craig Bougher, of Papillion, said a crash involving his daughter convinced him Nebraska needs to strengthen its seat belt laws.

Bougher was at home on Dec. 5 when a Sarpy County sheriff's deputy called to tell him a pickup had slammed into his 16-year-old daughter's sports utility vehicle at a rural gravel intersection, about two miles from their home. His daughter, Mackenzie, would be OK, but she was headed to a hospital.

As he hurried to meet her, Craig Bougher drove past the crash scene and saw his daughter's Hummer totaled. The pickup had plowed her SUV into a utility pole. The pickup driver, 30-year-old Zachary Austin, was ejected from the truck. Austin, who died at the scene, was not wearing a seat belt.

"I'm not out for another law," Bougher said. "But at the same time, this guy died, and he didn't need to."

Nebraska is one of 18 states that do not treat seat belt violations as a primary offense, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The other 32 states allow police officers to stop vehicles solely for a seat belt violation. New Hampshire is the only state that does not require drivers to wear seat belts.

Highway crashes are the leading cause of the death for people ages 5 through 34, according the National Transportation Safety Board. Stephanie Davis, a safety specialist for the board, plans to testify in favor of Harms' seat belt bill.

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