Legislators hear appeals for primary seat-belt law

CARSON CITY — Two Las Vegans openly cried Thursday as they told legislators that two of their loved ones would still be alive today if Nevada had a primary seat-belt law.

“Having a primary seat belt can save lives,” Las Vegas mother Tina LaVoie told the Senate Transportation Committee. “My daughter knew it was optional” to wear a seat belt.

“If my best friend was wearing her seat belt, she would have walked away with minor injuries,” said Las Vegas teenager Capri Barnes, whose friend died in a crash. “I have read the coroner’s reports and death certificates over and over again.”

LaVoie and Barnes testified in favor of Senate Bill 235, which would make failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense that would carry a $25 fine.

Now the failure to wear a seat belt is a secondary offense, which mean officers can’t cite a driver unless they first charge them with another offense.

LaVoie’s daughter, Hillary, was killed last year in an accident outside Reno when she was thrown from a car.

Her mother said she was taught to wear a seat belt and usually did but wasn’t buckled in at the time of the accident.

Barnes said her best friend, Monica Mapile, died last year in an accident outside Las Vegas when she was not wearing a seat belt.

Barnes has formed a “friends that click together stick together” campaign in remembrance of Mapile.

Senate Transportation Chairwoman Shirley Breeden, D-Henderson, did not take an immediate vote on the bill, which must pass out of the committee by April 15, or it dies. Most members of the committee expressed support for the bill. But similar bills have failed in past sessions.

One legislator who does not back the bill is freshman Sen. Elizabeth Halseth, R-Las Vegas. Halseth, who also has lost friends who weren’t wearing seat belts in accidents, teared up while telling LaVoie and Barnes that the bill would not have saved the lives of their daughter and friend.

“I come from a primary seat-belt state. … I’m sorry, this bill does not save your friends. This bill has nothing to do with safety,” Halseth said.

Rebecca Gasca, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said she was concerned that police would use racial profiling and use the law to make unnecessary stops of vehicles with minority drivers.

Nevada Highway Patrol Chief Tony Almaraz praised LaVoie, Barnes and other speakers for their “intelligence” and insisted police are not out “harassing people” but trying to save lives by stopping drivers for seat-belt violations.

Even without a primary law, Highway Patrol officers issued 13,315 seat-belt tickets last year.

In 2010, the Highway Patrol investigated 129 fatal crashes in which 140 people died. Fifty-four victims were not wearing seat belts.

“I don’t have time to talk about all the things I have seen,” Almaraz said. “Survivors at crashes have begged to save their loved one. I have gone to homes in the middle of the night to tell them. It could have been prevented.”

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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