A question of allowing Nevada police officers to pull over cars if anyone inside is not wearing a seat belt pitted doctors who regularly witness crash deaths against public defenders worried about racial profiling at the state Legislature on Thursday.
Safety activists have been pressing lawmakers to make seat belt violations a primary offense — a reason law enforcement can stop a car — even before Nevada mandated passengers wear them in 1989.
Their latest attempt, Senate Bill 288, would delete a sentence in that law that says officers can enforce it only if the car is halted or its driver is arrested for some other alleged offense.
A leading trauma surgeon in Nevada, Douglas Fraser, and other physicians told lawmakers they would save lives by making that change. The vice chief of trauma at the only Level 1 trauma center in the state, Fraser said seat belts are not dangerous, contrary to what some people tell themselves.
“When you present to the trauma center and have a mark from your seat belt, at least you’re alive and talking to me and we can talk about fixing some smaller injuries, versus the conversations I have with families explaining how daddy’s not going to come home tonight,” Fraser said.
Public defenders opposed the measure, saying it could give officers pretext to pull over people because they are black or Latino and generally target minorities more often than they already do.
“We do not live in a post-racial America as it stands right now,” said John Piro, a lobbyist for the Clark County Public Defender’s Office who lost a 2016 bid for the Nevada Assembly.
He and Sean Sullivan, lobbyist for the Washoe County Public Defender’s Office, said lawmakers should weigh the possibility of enhancing the state’s already admirable seat belt behavior against passengers’ protection from unfair treatment.
Nevadans are more likely than the average American to wear a seatbelt — by a score of 94 percent-buckled riders in Nevada to 87 percent-buckled riders nationally, according to 2014 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But both nationally and in Nevada, 45 percent of people who died in car crashes that year were not wearing seat belts.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas researcher Laura Gryder told lawmakers many of the 34 states that have made seat belt violations a primary offense subsequently saw their rate of use increase.
Janine Hansen and Lynn Chapman, representatives of conservative political organizations, said they don’t believe that. Some people simply do not want to be told to wear seat belts, they said, and will never change that mindset.
“You cannot legislate common sense,” Chapman said.
Although enforcement varies, every state except New Hampshire mandates adults and children wear seat belts.
Vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death globally.
In Thailand, which sees one of the world’s highest rates of traffic fatalities, the military government on Wednesday ordered all passengers — not just those in the front row as previously required — to always buckle up.