Not wearing a seat belt and texting while driving would be grounds for law enforcement to stop a vehicle under legislation heard by the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee Jan. 28.
LB807, introduced by Scottsbluff Sen. John Harms, would create the Nebraska Roadway Safety Act, which would change five motor vehicle violations from secondary to primary offenses:
• texting while driving;
• failure by occupants in a vehicle to use seat belts;
• using any type of wireless communication device while driving a school bus;
• using any type of wireless communication device while driving for those with a learner’s, school or provisional driving permit; and
• operating a motor vehicle between 6 a.m. and midnight with more than one passenger who is not a family member and under 19 years old by those with a provisional driving permit.
Currently in Nebraska, secondary offenses can be enforced only when a driver has been cited or charged with a traffic violation or some other offense.
LB807 would save lives and give law enforcement the “proper tools” to address dangerous driving behavior in the state, Harms said, adding that statistics overwhelmingly support the disastrous effects of distracted driving.
“Research shows today that texting is just as dangerous as drunken driving,” he said.
Sending and receiving texts takes drivers’ eyes off of the road an average of 4.6 seconds, Harms said, which, at 55 mph, is equivalent to driving the length of a football field. He added that Nebraska is one of only four remaining states where texting is not a primary offense.
Rob Reynolds of Omaha said stronger penalties for texting while driving may have prevented the death of his daughter, who was killed by a distracted driver. Speaking in favor of the bill, he said statistics show people who text while driving are 23 times more likely to cause an accident.
“You will not find a piece of research that negates the ill effects of texting while driving,” Reynolds said.
Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner testified in support the bill, saying it would heighten public awareness of a dangerous situation on Nebraska roads. Passing laws like LB807 “sends a strong message that these are important issues that save lives,” he said.
Enforcing a ban on texting while driving would not be impossible, Wagner said, noting that he sees people texting while driving daily. Officers who suspect a driver is texting can use phone records to determine if a text was made, he said.
“It’s frustrating to see a violation of law and not be able to do anything about it,” Wagner said.
Beverly Reicks of the National Safety Council testified in support of the bill, saying that young drivers will not change their potentially dangerous behavior “unless we show them that there are consequences for their actions.”
Bruce Beins of the Nebraska Emergency Medical Services Association spoke in favor of LB807. He said first responders have seen over time how seat belt and drunken driving laws have diminished the number and severity of traffic injuries. Updating current seat belt and distracted driving laws would continue to change drivers’ attitudes, he said.
George Ferebee of Edgar testified in opposition to LB807. He suggested that better driver education could increase seat belt use and recommended that the committee work with phone companies to develop technology that prevents phones from operating inside moving vehicles.
The committee took no immediate action on LB807.