Congratulations, Nebraskans: You set an all-time high for seat belt usage.

The record, however, is a silver lining with a cloud that just won’t seem to dissipate. Even though the Nebraska Department of Transportation reports this year’s high-water mark of 86 percent exceeds the previous standard of 85 percent set in 2009, it again falls short of the 2016 national average, which eclipsed 90 percent.

Nebraska’s low seat belt usage rate is particularly troubling given the state’s history of shirking this common-sense safety measure.

Only four times since 1990, when the state began comparing Nebraska and national safety belt usage rates, has Nebraska exceeded the national average. Twice, the state matched the federal percentage.

This lack of seat belt deployment has real, deadly consequences. None of the 17 teenagers killed in 2016 crashes in Nebraska were wearing seat belts. Clearly, the message isn’t getting through to enough young people – or Nebraskans in general.

Perhaps this topic seems preachy. But the act of clicking a seat belt, with such a vital return on investment in the unlikely odds of a crash, is so easy that it should become second nature to all.

It’s also easy to forget Nebraska voters repealed the state’s first mandatory seat belt law.

When the Legislature passed the measure in 1985, it made failure to wear a seat belt a secondary offense, meaning law enforcement officers didn’t have grounds to stop a vehicle solely for that purpose. Offenders could only get a $25 ticket if the car had been pulled over for some other reason.

Making seat belt usage a secondary offense was a very soft entry point into trying to save Nebraskans’ lives in car crashes. Yet, citing “personal freedom” and other nebulous ideas about government overreach, a narrow majority of voters in 1986 defeated the existing law – leaving Nebraska without a seat belt law for more than six years.

Reporting from the time told of many Nebraskans who wanted to the state and law enforcement to educate rather than mandate. Seat belt advocates have taken that to heart, staging mock crashes at area schools, driver’s education training, public service announcements and many other campaigns.

When a new seat belt law was passed in 1993, the Department of Transportation reported a 21 percent jump – from 33 percent to 54 percent – in seat belt usage. In the next 24 years, that number has steadily grown, though Nebraska still lags regrettably behind the national average.

Though failure to wear a seat belt remains classified as a secondary offense, education has helped convince countless Nebraskans to buckle up. The state still lags behind the nation, as too many Nebraskans who eschew seat belts, unfortunately, need more of a nudge.

—Journal Star, October 27, 2017

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