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Lack of seat belt usage cited in rise in fatal wrecks

Posted at 10:23 AM, Jan 02, 2020

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska roads saw a deadly rise in fatal crashes in 2019, and state leaders say the failure to buckle up was a major factor.

The Lincoln Journal Star reported that as of Dec. 27, 249 people had died on Nebraska roads, a 9% increase over the average for the years 2014 through 2018.

Nebraska Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jeni Campana said it’s tough to pinpoint the main reason, but the failure to use a seat belt is often a factor.

From 2014-18, 69.3% of those killed in passenger vehicle crashes were not wearing a seat belt, according to the department’s data. That’s 25% higher than the national average over the same time period.

“It’s absolutely concerning,” AAA spokeswoman Rose White said.

Just last month, four people in the same Lincoln family, ages 4 to 19, were killed in a crash on an ice-covered stretch of Interstate 80 between Lincoln and Omaha. The Nebraska State Patrol said none of those killed were wearing restraints.

White said part of the problem is that Nebraska is among just 16 states that don’t enforce seat belt use as a primary offense.

Having seat belt use as a primary law would allow police to pull over and cite drivers for simply driving unrestrained. Secondary laws can only be enforced if an officer notices a driver without a seat belt after they have already been suspected of another violation.

State Sen. Robert Hilkemann, a Republican from Omaha, introduced a bill nearly a year ago to upgrade the state’s seat belt law to a primary offense, but it remains in committee. The bill would require all occupants to wear a seat belt and calls for a $25 fine for each violation.

“We know that unless the law has primary effects, it’s like not having the law,” he said. “It’s a kind suggestion, but there’s no weight behind it.”

Hilkemann said the bill has been mired by objections that have kept it from reaching the floor for debate. He plans to amend it to define backseat passengers riding without a seat belt as a secondary offense, rather than a primary offense.

State data shows that 230 people died in crashes in 2018. The 2019 fatality total was the most since 2007, when 256 people died on the state’s roads.