After listening to emotional testimony, a Nevada Senate panel voted Thursday for a bill that allows police to stop any driver they believe isn't wearing a seat belt.
SB116, now moving to the full Senate, is a new version of a proposal that has been killed in several previous sessions despite strong support from police agencies.
Existing law prohibits police from stopping a driver suspected of not wearing a seat belt. Although belts are required in Nevada, drivers can only be ticketed if they were lawfully stopped for another reason and are found to be unbelted.
Proponents of the bill said it would save lives, reduce injuries, and save taxpayer money in the form of health care costs for injured drivers and welfare services for survivors of people killed in wrecks.
Opponents said seat belts don't necessarily save lives or may even harm or kill people in crashes. They also said current seat belt laws are enough, and that the proposed law interferes with personal liberty and may encourage racial profiling.
Advocates included Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, who told Senate Energy, Infrastructure and Transportation Committee members that she was "blessed to be serving on the Legislature" after a 2008 car accident that "was the most horrendous, horrifying and frightening event in my entire life."
Woodhouse then shared what a police officer told her while she was in an ambulance on her way to a hospital.
"As I was strapped to that board in the ambulance, he said, 'You are one lucky lady. ... If you had not been wearing your seat belt at the speed at which you were hit, you would have sailed through the windshield of this car. You would not be here with us today," Woodhouse said.
Critic Lynn Chapman of the conservative Nevada Families Eagle Forum said her brother died in an accident while wearing a seat belt, adding, "It made no difference. He still died."
"We should really be worrying about people who are reckless out on the streets rather than if they're wearing a seat belt," Chapman said.
Also testifying was student Alec Thomas, 18, backed by 11 other student members of a foundation that he said was formed in memory of his older brother, who died in a 2007 car accident after forgetting to buckle his seat belt.
Aside from saving lives, Thomas, a senior at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, said the proposed law would force people into the habit of using their seat belts, which might prevent someone else from forgetting to buckle up.
After the hearing, Thomas said he didn't want committee members to feel sorry for him and vote for the proposal, adding, "The most important reason is because of the amount of lives it will save."
Janine Hansen, representing the Independent American Party, opposed the bill, saying it takes away personal liberties and police could stop anyone for any reason to find out whether they're wearing a seat belt.