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Legislature mulling distracted driving and seat belt bills

Posted: 10:16 PM, Mar 04, 2019
Updated: 2019-03-06 00:44:51Z
Legislature mulling distracted driving and seat belt bills

LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — Safety advocates gave their pitch for Nebraska to become the next state to allow police to pull drivers over for texting and driving.

"Anybody that drives can see people each day as they're driving, not paying attention while using a cell phone,” says Fred Zwonechek, the retired highway safety administrator.

Texting and driving is currently a secondary offense under state law. So an officer has to see a driver commit a different traffic crime before citing them for texting and driving.

The two bills brought to the committee today would change that.

"It does change behavior, people for the most part at least here in Nebraska, when we have a law that makes a change, most of the people know it's the right thing to do,” says Zwonechek.

So how would police actually catch drivers doing this? And then prove it in court?

Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner says it's likely many drivers will admit fault or show them their phone, if not, there's another option.

"(If) it looks like you were texting, I'm going to seize your phone and I'm going to get a search warrant to see if you were texting at the time this violation occurred,” says Wagner.

The lone opponent, Spike Eickholt, representing defense attorneys, says the bill is unnecessary as Nebraska already has laws like reckless or careless driving.

"Using your phone in any matter doesn't permit you to violate other rules of the road. If you are weaving within a lane, if you speed, if you are driving excessively slow, all of these things you can be stopped for,” says Eickholt.

Omaha Senator Rick Kowolski introduced one of the bills and mentioned Iowa making a similar move in 2017. He showed off stats showing the number of citations increasing dramatically after the law went into effect.

But some say those numbers are misleading.

"I didn't hear the necessary leap and that is that we've had any safer streets or any lower accident reports, no one said that,” says Eickholt.

A similar bill was pushed by safety advocates Monday that they say would save lives. Senator Robert Hilkemann's bill would make not wearing a seatbelt a primary offense and require everybody in the vehicle, including those in the backseat, to buckle up.

"When a passenger is ejected from a vehicle their chances of survival are severely more reduced than if they remain in that vehicle,” says state senator Robert Hilkemann, who introduced the bill.

Eickholt says Nebraskans have the right to be left alone in their vehicle, even if they're making themselves unsafe.

"However poor of a choice that might be, that is a choice that people can make," says Eickholt.

There was one line of criticism for both bills, which Omaha senator Machaela Cavanaugh brought up several times.

"If we have it as a primary offense that it's going to essentially lead to racial profiling especially in larger communities,” says Cavanaugh.

Bill supporters pointed to other states.

"We can thoroughly look at what other states have done to address that and maybe introduce some companion amendment,” says Rose White, public affairs director for AAA.

As for what's next. There seems to be an optimistic outlook for the distracted driving bill.

Earlier this session, Senator Joni Albrecht told 3 News Now , she was on the fence. In committee Monday, she seemed to be leaning one way, but said they need to get the language on the bill right.

"I certainly don't want to be the product of someone who's lost their life because of myself thinking that some message is more important than my responsibility to on the road,” says Albrecht.

One of those distracted driving bills would go a step further, making it a primary offense for those on learners or school permits to use a phone while driving at all.

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