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Fred Zwonechek

Fred Zwonechek, pictured on Friday on the Arbor Road overpass of Interstate 80, retired Dec. 31 after serving as the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety Administrator for 37 years. 

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shifted dramatically in both directions in the mid-1980s when lawmakers made their usage mandatory and then voters repealed it.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

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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."

Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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Riley Johnson reports on breaking news and public safety issues in Lincoln and southeast Nebraska.

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