CARSON CITY — On a voice vote Thursday, the Assembly Transportation Committee killed a Senate-passed bill that would allow police to pull over vehicles anytime they believe the driver is not wearing a seat belt.
Under current Nevada law, not wearing a seat belt is considered a “secondary offense.” Police cannot cite unbelted drivers unless they also first cite them for another offense.
Senate Bill 116 would have made not wearing a seat belt a “primary offense,” under which police could issue tickets without having to cite the driver for another offense.
The bill had won approval in the Senate on a 12-9 vote. While votes of the Transportation Committee were not recorded, a large majority opposed the bill.
Before the vote, Chairman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, complained that he had just received a lengthy amendment sought by Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, which would require him to hold another hearing on the seat belt bill.
Nolan, who was not present, wanted to amend the bill to allow only law enforcement in Clark County to be able to cite drivers for not wearing seat belts as a primary offense.
Assemblyman Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, proposed adding the Nolan amendment. He said doctors at University Medical Center say costs of treating people harmed in accidents who were not wearing seat belts are $70 million a year.
Atkinson, however, said there was not enough time left in the legislative session to consider the amendment. He questioned why Nolan did not amend the bill when it was in the Senate.
Then Manendo asked the committee to approve the bill as written and lost on the voice vote.
Two years ago a similar bill also was killed in Atkinson’s committee.
In an earlier interview, Atkinson said he is not convinced a primary seat belt law will lead to more people wearing seat belts and a reduction in serious traffic accidents. He noted that 92 percent of Nevadans already wear seat belts, according to a traffic survey.
Atkinson added the bill would give some officers an opportunity to pull over drivers they don’t like and give them a hard time. He said there is racial profiling against middle-age and young blacks, Hispanics and some whites.
Atkinson, who is black, voted against the bill as did all three black members in the Senate.
Before the vote Thursday, Assemblyman Joe Hogan, D-Las Vegas, said he doubted the accuracy of the survey that showed 92 percent seat belt compliance since it was taken during daytime hours. He said seat belt use may be half that rate at night, when most accidents occur.
Lives are being lost, he added.
But Atkinson had previously said that most people don’t know the difference between a primary and a secondary seat belt law and simply think that state law requires them to wear seat belts.
“If you can prove to me that a primary seat belt law will cause the 8 percent who don’t wear seat belts to wear them, then I will vote for it,” he added at the time.
Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel, D-Las Vegas, offered much the same view Thursday.
“I am very disturbed that it seems our children are taught that our laws don’t count,” she said. “We have a law on the books that you wear seat belts now.”
She said from listening to supporters that they seemed to be saying SB116 would be the “we-really-mean-it” seat-belt law.
Rebecca Gasca, public advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union, said passage of the bill would have expanded the power of police in such “vague and arbitrary ways that almost most any vehicle on the road could come under suspicion.”
“We believe that our long Nevada tradition of skepticism toward expansion of government power is best honored by the death” of the primary seat belt law, she added.
Contact reporter Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901.