Wear your seat belt

A new report warns Nevada’s traffic safety laws are inadequate, especially when it comes to buckling up.

wear your seat belt
The aftermath of a three-car crash at Flamingo Road and Maryland Parkway in December 2019. An impaired driver not wearing his seat belt was ejected from the vehicle. (Photo: Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)

Nevada’s traffic safety laws are lagging behind the rest of the country, according to a new report from a national traffic safety advocacy group.

It’s an assessment local traffic safety advocates agree with, but they say it’s not for a lack of trying.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety placed Nevada in the bottom third of states when it comes to traffic safety laws. Only four states were rated worse. Seven states tied with Nevada. The group rated states based on whether they’d adopted 16 specific laws in five traffic safety areas: occupancy protection, child passenger safety, teen driving, impaired driving and distracted driving.

Nevada earned a positive, ‘green’ rating in only one of the five categories: impaired driving.

Nevada received a ‘yellow’ rating in distracted driving laws because it has a text messaging law but lacks a cell phone restriction for teen drivers.

When it comes to occupancy protection, child passengers and teen driving, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety considers Nevada dangerously behind. The group places an emphasis on states allowing for primary enforcement of seatbelt laws — meaning police can pull over a vehicle if any of its passengers are not wearing a seatbelt. While Nevada law requires all passengers to wear a seatbelt, the law only allows for secondary enforcement — meaning police can ticket you for not wearing a seatbelt, but only if they’ve pulled you over for some other reason.

“Every session for 25 years we’ve tried to upgrade the seat belt law to no avail,” says Erin Breen, director of UNLV’s Vulnerable Road Users Project.

Each time the change is proposed, objections are raised by criminal justice advocates concerned with giving police officers another way to discriminate against black and brown drivers. Most recently, in 2017, the proposed bill received one committee hearing before dying unceremoniously.

“I get it, especially this year,” says Breen, referring to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers and the wave of Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations over the summer. “All it takes is one (bad cop). That’s somebody’s life.”

One report by the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida found Black motorists were stopped and ticketed 1.9 times more often than white motorists for seat belt violations. Traffic safety advocates point to their own studies, such as one from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which found very little change in minority ticketing in states that changed from secondary to primary enforcement.

Here in Nevada, Breen points out that the existing law banning the use of cell phones while driving allows for primary enforcement and hasn’t received much pushback. Nevada law also allows for police officers to pull someone over for having something hanging from their rearview mirror and obstructing the driver’s forward view.

“So I can pull you over for hanging a tassel from your rearview mirror,” says Breen. “Nobody as far as I know has died because they got hit by a tassel.”

According to the Nevada Office of Traffic Safety, 47 percent of the drivers or passengers in cars who died in crashes between January and November last year were not wearing a seatbelt.

Breen says examples are plentiful of people who were ejected from their vehicle during a collision they could have otherwise survived.

There have been other push backs against changing the seatbelt law. Some lawmakers have demanded that any change result in lowering insurance rates for drivers, something that’s difficult, if not impossible, to prove. Lawyers are sometimes concerned about potential legal implications.

Others feel it’s not necessary because Nevada has a high rate of reported seatbelt usage — 94.2 percent in 2019, according to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis. Breen says that number is likely artificially high because seatbelt usage observation is typically done at onramps to freeways where intermittent seat belt users are more likely to be buckled in because they perceive freeways to be more dangerous than surface streets, despite the opposite being true. Observation is also only done on drivers, so it doesn’t reflect seat belt usage of any passengers.

“Our (seat belt) usage as a secondary enforcement state is still higher than a lot of primary enforcement states,” says Breen. “To some legislators, that was good enough.”

Breen says she might revisit proposed legislation on seat belt enforcement and other safety measures in 2023. She doesn’t see much chance for success with the 2021 Legislature given that budget issues are expected to dominate the session, as well as the ongoing  conversation about law enforcement and race.

Instead, Breen is focusing on outreach to employers about the financial impact of traffic fatalities — and the possible solutions proposed by traffic safety advocates.

“We’ll start with large employers, the self insured: How much does this cost you? Maybe that’s the best strategy,” says Breen, “to try and educate around the decision makers there. These really are the people who have the legislators’ ears anyway.”

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.