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Alec McChesney / Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press 

Iowa forward Tyler Cook (25) drives to the basket ahead of Nebraska forward Isaac Copeland (14) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday in Iowa City, Iowa.

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Nebraska's longtime highway safety administrator reflects on progress, challenges

When Fred Zwonechek began his career leading Nebraska's Office of Highway Safety in 1981, about one in every 10 drivers wore a seat belt.

That measure shifted dramatically in both directions in the mid-1980s when lawmakers made their usage mandatory and then voters repealed it.

Lawmakers again enacted a seat belt law in 1993. Now 86 percent of Nebraska drivers wear them.

But Zwonechek, who retired as administrator Dec. 31 after 37 years, said the data collected by his office in that time has left him frustrated with those drivers still in the 14 percent.

"They make up 70 percent of our fatalities," he said in a telephone interview from his home.

This public policy issue among others became a passion for Zwonechek, who plans to continue advocating to make state roads safer in retirement.

Interested in public service since junior high, Zwonechek started his career in state government after college in the early 1970s.

He started in then-Gov. Jim Exon's budget office before going to work in the Highway Safety Office in 1974, a time when Nebraska was averaging 441 traffic deaths a year. There were 30 percent fewer drivers on the road then, Zwonechek said.

He was appointed administrator in 1981, and since then he and his staff sought federal grants for the office to collect data, help law enforcement police issues, train prosecutors and judges and advocate for safety priorities of eight governors.

Last year, 230 people died in crashes on Nebraska roads.

Gone are the quick fixes to improve road safety, he said, but Nebraska's history shows leaders should continue to pursue public policy measures on issues like defining drugged or drunk driving even amid sometimes contentious fights.

"We’ve proven that it does work," he said. "There are more people alive today as a result of these public policies and enforcement strategies."

With drunk driving, Nebraska's path to a legal blood alcohol limit of .08 percent is likely an indication of its future, he said.

The state was one of the first to reduce the legal limit from .15 percent to .10 percent, Zwonechek said.

When he started, almost one of every two traffic deaths was alcohol-related, he said.

That has dropped to one in every three, according to fatality statistics.

And since peaking at 14,500 in 2005, drunk driving arrests have dropped to just under 7,000.

Lowering the legal limit to drive "obviously made a big difference," Zwonechek said.

Utah's new legal limit, reduced to .05 percent blood-alcohol content, will likely lead states like Nebraska to reduce their impaired driving thresholds, said one of the country's longest serving highway safety office administrators.

Other industrialized countries have limits lower than .08, Zwonechek said, and as drunk-driving data in Utah and those countries is collected, evidence of its effectiveness may prompt further law changes. 

He believes policymakers should continue to use the wealth of data collected by the state to examine problems and advocate for solutions they believe in, he said.

Listening to the personal stories of people injured or the relatives of people killed in drunk-driving crashes or seeing how life changed for people who crashed and didn't wear a seatbelt made him passionate about prevention, he said.

And those stories along with the data will be the key to curbing bad behavior and saving lives in the future, he said.

"You don’t want to give up too easily," he said. "A lot of people have habits. Some of those are difficult to break."

Trump says he needs to deal with Dem leaders to end shutdown

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump acknowledged Sunday that weekend shutdown talks led by his vice president would not break an impasse, as newly empowered House Democrats planned to step up the pressure on Trump and Republican lawmakers to reopen the government.

Heading to Camp David for staff meetings Sunday, Trump showed no signs of budging on his demand for $5.6 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Undercutting the staff-level talks, Trump declared that only he could make a deal with Democratic leaders — "in 20 minutes, if they want to."

Said Trump: "If they don't want to, it's going to go on for a long time."

With the partial shutdown in its third week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she intends to begin passing individual bills to reopen agencies in the coming days, starting with the Treasury Department to ensure people receive their tax refunds. That effort is designed to squeeze Senate Republicans, some of whom are growing increasingly anxious about the extended shutdown.

The seemingly intractable budget showdown marks the first clash for Trump and Democrats, who now control the House. It pits Trump's unpredictable negotiating stylings against a largely united Democratic front, as many Republicans watch nervously from the sidelines and hundreds of thousands of federal workers go without pay.

Among those Republicans was Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should take up bills from the Democratic-led House.

"Let's get those reopened while the negotiations continue," Collins said on NBC's "Meet the Press." Democrats criticized McConnell for waiting on Trump's support, but Collins said she was sympathetic to McConnell's opposition to moving legislation without agreement from the president.

Several Republicans pushed the Interior Department to find money to restaff national parks amid growing concerns over upkeep and public safety. And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., suggested Sunday that pressure would only mount amid the shutdown, which he said is disrupting Transportation Security Administration operations, home loans and farmers in his state.

"Democrats and now a growing number of Republicans are coming together and saying let's open up the government and debate border security separately," Schumer told reporters in New York.

Vice President Mike Pence arrived at the White House complex Sunday afternoon for a second round of negotiations with top congressional aides. Trump, who had tweeted the previous day that there had been "little headway," said he was not expecting much.

"I think we're going to have some very serious talks come Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," Trump said. While insisting he wanted to make a deal, he also declared he would not give an inch in his fight for funding for a border barrier, saying: "There's not going to be any bend right here."

Speaking to reporters later in the day, Trump said he had told aides to say that they wanted a steel barrier, rather than the concrete wall he promised during the campaign. Trump said Democrats "don't like concrete, so we'll give them steel."

The president has already suggested his definition of the wall is flexible, but Democrats have made clear they see a wall as immoral and ineffective and prefer other types of border security funded at already agreed upon levels.

Trump reaffirmed that he would consider declaring a national emergency to circumvent Congress and spend money as he saw fit. Such a move would seem certain to draw legal challenges.

Incoming House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said on ABC's "This Week" that the executive power has been used to build military facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan but would likely be "wide open" to a court challenge for a border wall.

Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff called the idea a "nonstarter."

"Look, if Harry Truman couldn't nationalize the steel industry during wartime, this president doesn't have the power to declare an emergency and build a multibillion-dollar wall on the border," said Schiff, D-Calif.

Trump also asserted that he could relate to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who aren't getting paid, though he acknowledged they will have to "make adjustments" to deal with the shutdown shortfall. A day earlier, the president had tweeted that he didn't care that "most of the workers not getting paid are Democrats."

Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, sought to frame Trump's support for a steel barrier as progress in the negotiations, saying on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "if he has to give up a concrete wall, replace it with a steel fence in order to do that so that Democrats can say, 'See? He's not building a wall anymore,' that should help us move in the right direction."

Trump said he planned to call the heads of American steel companies in hopes of coming up with a new design for the barrier he contends must be built along the southern border. His administration has already spent millions constructing wall prototypes near the border in San Diego.

Alex Brandon, Associated Press 

President Donald Trump speaks Sunday on the South Lawn of the White House as he walks to Marine One in Washington. Trump was en route to Camp David.

Bolton: US to leave Syria once IS beaten, Kurds safe

JERUSALEM — U.S. troops will not leave northeastern Syria until Islamic State militants are defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected, a top White House aide said Sunday, signaling a pause to a withdrawal abruptly announced last month and initially expected to be completed within weeks.

While U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said there is now no timetable, President Donald Trump reaffirmed his commitment to withdrawing U.S. troops, though he said "we won't be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone."

Trump had said in his Dec. 19 withdrawal announcement that U.S. forces "have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency," and added in a video posted to Twitter, "Now it's time for our troops to come back home."

Bolton said in Israel that the U.S. would pull out only after its troops had rooted out what's left of IS in Syria and after the administration had reached an agreement with Turkey to protect Kurdish militias who have fought alongside Americans against the extremists.

In Washington, Trump told reporters at the White House "we are pulling back in Syria. We're going to be removing our troops. I never said we're doing it that quickly." But in that Dec. 19 video, the president had said of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria: "They're all coming back, and they're coming back now."

And officials said at the time that while many details were yet to be finalized, they expected American forces to be out by mid-January.

"I think this is the reality setting in that you got to plan this out," said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. He told CBS' "Face the Nation" that "the bottom line here is we want to make sure we get this right, that ISIS doesn't come back. And I applaud the president for re-evaluating what he's doing. ... He has a goal in mind of reducing our presence. I share that goal. Let's just do it smartly."

Trump's decision last month drew widespread criticism from allies, led to the resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and raised fears over clearing the way for a Turkish assault on the Kurdish fighters. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.

'There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal," Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem. "The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement."

He was to be in Turkey today, accompanied by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, for talks with government officials.

Bolton said the U.S. will warn Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that it wants its Kurdish allies in Syria protected from any planned Turkish offensive.

"We don't think the Turks ought to undertake military action that's not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States," Bolton said. He said that in upcoming meetings with Turkish officials, he will seek "to find out what their objectives and capabilities are and that remains uncertain."

Bolton said Trump has made clear he would not allow Turkey to kill the Kurds. "That's what the president said, the ones that fought with us," Bolton said.

Bolton said the U.S. has asked the Kurds to "stand fast now" and refrain from seeking protection from Russia or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government. "I think they know who their friends are," he added, speaking of the Kurds.

Jim Jeffrey, the special representative for Syrian engagement and the newly named American special envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition, is to travel to Syria this coming week in an effort to reassure the Kurdish fighters that they are not being abandoned, Bolton said.

Turkey's presidential spokesman called allegations that his country planned to attack the U.S.-allied Kurds in Syria "irrational" and said Turkey was fighting terrorism for national security.

In comments carried by the official Anadolu news agency, Ibrahim Kalin said the Kurdish fighters oppressed Syrian Kurds and pursued a separatist agenda under the guise of fighting IS. "That a terror organization cannot be allied with the U.S. is self-evident," he said.

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told ABC's "This Week" that the conditions raised by Bolton were "obvious," and Smith criticized the conflicting messages from the Trump administration.

"We don't want ISIS to rise again and be a transnational terrorist threat and we don't want our allies, the Kurds, to be slaughtered by Erdogan in Turkey," said Smith, D-Wash.