Repeal mandatory seat belts

One of the exasperating features of the legislative process is the unwillingness of some lawmakers and lobbyists to accept defeat of some proposals, with the result that legislation is brought back time and again, forcing members of the public to repeatedly make the same fight over and over, until finally the everyday citizen loses by being outlasted.

The best example in this year’s Nevada Legislature is the proposal to change Nevada’s traffic laws to make failure to wear a seat belt a primary instead of a secondary offense. A secondary offense is one that can be cited only in tandem with a first offense.

For years, insurance companies and police have gotten legislators to keep introducing bills to accomplish this. Each time, small community groups and private citizens write letters and go to the capital to oppose public agencies and corporate lobbyists on the issue.

Such measures were defeated in 1997 (Assembly Bill 181), 2003 (Senate Bill 480), and 2007 (S.B. 42). Unwilling to accept such judgments, insurance lobbyists now have two bills (S.B. 116 and S.B. 145) to make failure to wear seat belts a primary offense.

It’s easy for contract lobbyists paid by insurance companies and Highway Patrol lobbyists funded by the taxpayers to get to Carson City for long periods to shepherd bills through the process. For private citizens, it means taking time off from work and taking private time to lobby.

It’s useful to remember how Nevada got its seat belt law—not through concern for safety but as the result of a tawdry political/corporate deal.

On July 11, 1984, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, under heavy pressure from car makers who did not want to install airbags, caved in to their lobbyists and agreed that if “states representing two-thirds of the United States population enact mandatory seat belt usage laws by April 1, 1989,” the car manufacturers would not have to install airbags.

Auto executives fanned out across the land like locusts, hiring local contract lobbyists to lean on state legislators. In Nevada they set up a Detroit front group, “Traffic Safety Now.” Soon, seat belt laws were being enacted, though the smell of the political deal offended some locals. That’s why some states made their laws secondary enforcement.

The Nevada public didn’t like it and has successfully resisted its expansion. In truth, Nevada’s law is not a secondary enforcement measure. Trying for secondary enforcement, the lawmakers wrote a sloppy law that said seat belt tickets could only be written “when the vehicle is halted or its driver arrested for another alleged violation or offense.” For a long time, law enforcement respected legislative intent, but that “when the vehicle is halted” section became too tempting. Then the trick became to get vehicles to stop. Soon, drunken-driving checkpoints were being used to write seat belt tickets.

A lobby group called the Nevada Seat Belt Coalition is now being run by the Highway Patrol and UNLV, putting two tax-funded agencies into a hot political issue. Whether it too has Detroit corporate funding is not known, but there is something unseemly about dragging this same proposal out again and again instead of accepting its multiple defeats.

A far better use of legislative time would be repealing the mandatory seat belt law altogether instead of expanding it to primary enforcement. It is over the line of government intrusion in our lives.