- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Lawmakers have the responsibility to keep children safe on Nebraska’s roads, a state senator told a legislative committee Monday.

Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha presented three bills that would raise the age cutoff for car seats, increase penalties for drivers who don’t make sure children are buckled up and require seat belts on school buses. He said laws should be updated to fit current technology.

“Looking back at the progression of seat belt and car seat use over the course of my lifetime is amazing,” he said.

One bill would make failing to use a seatbelt for a minor a primary offense, meaning police officers can pull a car over and issue a ticket just because a child wasn’t buckled up. Thirty-four other states have similar primary enforcement laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 2016, seat belt use was at 92 percent in states with primary enforcement compared to 83 percent in states with other laws, according to a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The same report found seat belt use is lowest in the Midwest.

The bill also would increase the fine for not restraining a minor from $25 to $50.

Another measure would require the use of car seats for all children younger than 8 and rear-facing seats for children younger than 2. Current law requires car seats for children younger than 6 and has no provisions for rear-facing seats.

Nebraska’s current law doesn’t mandate an adequate level of protection for children, said Laura Osborn, a child passenger safety instructor. She told the committee parents she works with sometimes give up car seats when their children hit 6 years old, even if the child would be safer in a car seat.

“Those were the hardest days for me, knowing that a child too young to make a decision for him or herself was not being kept as safe as they could be in a motor vehicle,” she said.

About half the states in the country require children younger than 8 years old to use car seats or booster seats, though many make exceptions for children taller than 4 feet 9 inches or who weigh more than 65 pounds, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Four states require infants younger than 2 are placed in rear-facing car seats.

Jennifer Brock told the committee a rear-facing car seat saved her 17-month-old daughter’s life when a semi-truck hit the family’s car on Interstate 80.

“With 100 percent certainty, I can tell you that Ansley would not be alive today if it hadn’t been for use and proper installation of her child restraint,” she said.

A third bill would require all school buses purchased after Jan. 1, 2018, to come with seat belts. Six states now require seat belts on school buses, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration endorsed school bus seat belts in 2015 after years of ambiguity.

“I’m bringing this bill because I don’t want to read about another school bus tragedy without being able to say I did all that I could,” Hilkemann said.

The Nebraska Department of Education estimated adding seat belts to new buses would cost an extra $11,000 to $13,000 per bus. Matt Dunning of the Nebraska Association of School Boards said the bill, which wouldn’t allocate any funding to school districts, could result in unintended consequences such as schools keeping old buses on the road.

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Follow Julia Shumway on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JMShumway

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