LAS VEGAS -- A ban on certain cell phone use while driving highlighted a package of traffic safety reforms Gov. Brian Sandoval signed into law last year, but many other proposals fell by the wayside and face an uncertain future.
The adoption of Senate Bill 140, which took effect in October, meant that drivers could no longer text or read messages while behind the wheel and also couldn't have a cell phone conversation unless they used hands-free devices.
Violations are misdemeanors, punishable by fines that took effect Jan. 1. It's a $50 fine for a first offense, $100 fine for a second infraction, and $250 fine for three or more offenses as long as they occur within a seven-year period. Motorists who commit at least three offenses also will have their driver's licenses suspended for six months.
Exceptions were made only for law enforcement and emergency personnel. Co-sponsoring state Sen. Shirley Breeden, D-Henderson, told the Senate Transportation Committee in February 2011 that in 2009 nearly 5,500 people were killed nationwide and nearly 500,000 were injured in crashes involving distracted driving. Of the fatalities, 995 involved cell phones as the distraction.
"In 2009 a survey of drivers conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found 52 percent of them said they feel less safe on the roadways than in 2004," Breeden said. "That was a 17 percent increase over 2008's results. Forty percent cited cell phones, texting and distracted drivers as the main reasons they felt more unsafe.
"There were 95 percent who believed texting while driving was unacceptable, but 18 percent admitted to reading or sending a text or email message while driving in the last month. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety reported that drivers using hand-held communications devices are four times more likely to have an injury crash."
Sandoval also signed Assembly Bill 328, a law effective in October that expanded the definition of reckless driving to include collisions with pedestrians and bicyclists when the motorist violated rules of the road such as those pertaining to pedestrians, bicycles, crosswalks, school crossing guards, school zones or speeding.
Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, told the Assembly Transportation Committee in April 2011 that the bill defined pedestrians and bicyclists as vulnerable highway users.
"The intent of this bill is to acknowledge what we all know, which is people who are pedestrians or bicyclists on our roadways are at a disadvantage when they come into contest with motor vehicles," she said. "They are not encased in steel. They have the right-of-way to use the road."
She also wanted to clarify what the legislation wouldn't do.
"This bill does not alter the existing rules of the road," Benitez-Thompson said. "We are not changing fault. If a pedestrian or cyclist is using the roadway in an illegal manner and he is struck, this does not assign fault to the driver."
Another new law effective in October aimed to place Nevada on equal footing with federal regulations regarding drivers of commercial vehicles who aren't allowed to drive those trucks due to various infractions. Senate Bill 51 expanded the definition of a driver with an "out-of-service order" to include both a temporary prohibition against a person operating a commercial vehicle and a temporary ban against a vehicle being used if it has serious mechanical problems.
The law also gives the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles authority to suspend commercial driver's licenses and levy fines for violation of out-of-service-orders and also fine employers who knowingly allow drivers or their vehicles to violate such orders.
Nevada Highway Patrol Lt. Bill Bainter, the state's commercial enforcement coordinator, told the Senate Transportation Committee in March 2011 that the highway patrol in 2010 took 2,495 drivers out of service for violations such as driving too many hours or having fatigue issues. The highway patrol also sidelined 2,664 vehicles for serious mechanical deficiencies.
"A truck driver's commercial license is his livelihood, so this bill would increase compliance," Bainter told lawmakers.
Lawmakers also approved Senate Bill 475, which made the Nevada Department of Transportation responsible for educational programs dealing with pedestrian and bicycle safety. The bill was partly an effort to eliminate duplication with similar programs in the state Department of Public Safety.
"The main focus of the program is education, with the primary goal of teaching all ages to use bikes appropriately on roadways," Traci Pearl, the state's highway safety coordinator told lawmakers in April 2011. "It also teaches children how to walk to school correctly. Almost one in five, or 17 percent, of traffic fatalities include a bike or pedestrian. If you consider that cyclists ride a lot fewer miles than cars drive, that percentage is phenomenal."
SB 475 also changed the Nevada Bicycle Advisory Board to the Nevada Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, and created a highway safety information and outreach coordinator within the transportation department, replacing a similar position within the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Failed legislation from the Nevada Legislature's 2011 session included:
* Assembly Bill 34, which would have allowed law enforcement agencies to use photographic or video cameras or other digital equipment to gather evidence for issuing traffic citations. The bill died in the Assembly Transportation Committee.
* Assembly Bill 64, which have made it possible for habitual truants from school to have their driver's licenses suspended. The bill died in the Assembly Education Committee.
* Senate Bill 42, which would have required a driver to consent to a preliminary breath test for the presence of alcohol if a police officer had reason to believe the motorist drove a vehicle that caused a fatal accident. This would have applied regardless of whether the officer had reason to believe the motorist was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The bill passed the Senate but died in the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
* Senate Bill 50, which would have given the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles 30 days to suspend a driver's license rather than require immediate action if the person fails to pay certain fines or fees, and also wouldn't have exempted the driver from submitting to tests and other requirements to get the license reinstated. The bill also would have required the suspension of a driver's license if a person fails to appear in court not only for a traffic violation, but also for delinquent fines and for other motor vehicle infractions. The bill died in the Senate Transportation Committee.
* Senate Bill 72, which would have prohibited the Nevada Corrections Department director from assigning to residential confinement certain inmates who caused death or substantial injury while diving under the influence unless those individuals already served the minimum prison sentence imposed by the court. This legislation passed the Senate but died in the Assembly Judiciary Committee.