LINCOLN — Rob Reynolds vowed that after his daughter died in a crash caused by an apparently distracted driver, he would do everything he could to prevent other families from similar tragedies.
A teenage driver, he said, never touched the brake as she ran a red light at 132nd Street and West Center Road, plowing into a vehicle driven by 16-year-old Cady Reynolds in 2007.
While there was no proof that a cellphone was in use, Reynolds has given hundreds of talks at schools and testified in Washington and Lincoln to pass laws restricting a leading distraction among teen drivers: texting while driving.
“Unfortunately, we made the mistake of passing a law that has no teeth,” he said.
Reynolds were among the safety advocates who descended on the State Capitol today to promote a proposal making texting while driving, as well as failure to use a safety belt, primary traffic offenses, meaning that an officer can pull you over for the violation.
Right now, both texting and seat belt laws are secondary offenses in Nebraska, which means you cannot be ticketed unless stopped for another infraction.
The Nebraska Roadway Safety Act will be among hundreds of bills that will be introduced by legislators in their 60-day session, which began Wednesday.
The session, which is scheduled to end on April 17, is expected to focus on tax relief, prison reform and Medicaid expansion.
State Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff said he also wants a spotlight on highway safety.
The former community college president, who has championed bills on the topic before, said that in his final year in the Legislature, he will make another push to reduce the death toll on state highways.
“For every child we can save, it's that much less sorrow for a family and community to go through,” said Harms.
In 2010, state lawmakers passed a law that prohibits texting while driving, but it was amended so that a $200 ticket could only be issued as a secondary offense.
In 2011 and 2012, there were 234 convictions statewide for driving while texting, which Harms said isn't enough to deter such cellphone messaging.
“Just go down to the nearest stoplight, and you can see that,” the senator said.
There were 1,396 crashes in the state that involved drivers distracted by cellphones from 2002 through 2012. Some studies indicate that a driver is 23 times more likely to get in an accident while texting.
Nebraska and Iowa are among 41 states that ban texting while driving, but they are among only four that make it a secondary offense instead of a primary offense.
“This is the low-hanging fruit in terms of driving safety,” said Reynolds, who helped found FocusDriven, an Omaha-based group that advocates for cellphone-free driving. “We understand that it's dangerous. Let's just do something about it.”
Law enforcement officials at a press conference Thursday morning said that making texting a primary offense is a great step to save lives, though it can be hard law to enforce because motorists may claim they are dialing a cell phone number instead of texting.
Capt. Ben Houchin of the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office said officers can usually tell the difference, but proving it in court may require a subpoena of cell phone records, a step that probably won't be taken unless an accident is involved.
There's also been some resistance in Nebraska to such government mandates. Voters rescinded a mandatory seat belt law in 1986 before it was reinstated by the Legislature in 1993, and legislators have rejected past attempts to make the seat belt law a primary offense.
But safety advocates on Thursday said that public opinion is on their side, and that there are more and more studies confirming such steps save lives.
Nebraska is one of 17 states where not using a seat belt is a secondary offense, though nearby Kansas recently changed it from a secondary to a primary offense.
Public opinion polling done by the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety indicates a steady rise in support for making it a primary offense. Only 26 percent of those Nebraskans polled in 1993 supported allowing police to stop motorists for not wearing a seat belt, but that number has risen to 53 percent in 2013.
Advocates point to Iowa to illustrate the power of tougher laws. There, it's a primary offense, and seat belt use was 92.4 percent in 2012. In Nebraska, where it's a secondary offense, use stood at 78.6 percent.
Every percentage point increase in seat belt use represents another 19,000 people in Nebraska, said Fred Zwonechek, the state's highway safety administrator.
Harms said his safety bill will also make primary offenses out of a law requiring parents to buckle up children older than 5. It also bans cellphone use by school bus drivers and by young motorists driving on provisional permits (15- to 17-year-olds) and school permits (14-year-olds).
Harms' proposal does not call for a ban on all cellphone use while driving, which is done in 12 states.
The senator, who is leaving office due to term limits after this year, said that Nebraskans aren't ready for that, and he expects that such a ban will be adopted nationwide eventually, given the growing evidence that it saves lives.
“It's just a matter of time,” Harms said.