Fred Zwonechek, who just retired after years of leading the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety, had a remarkable ability for effortlessly quoting statistics. But a colleague said he never forgot that every number or percentage point represents real people.
“Fred always pointed out that there were people behind the numbers,” said Eric Koeppe, president and chief executive officer of the Omaha-based National Safety Council of Nebraska. “We’d talk a lot about (traffic) fatalities and the number of people injured. Fred would say, ‘There are families and friends behind those numbers. Victims that are hurting.’ ”
Zwonechek, 71, retired Dec. 31 after 44 years, including 37 years as administrator of the office. He’s leaving the job but not the mission to save lives on Nebraska roads.
“I will still be involved in traffic safety, but from the outside, because it’s been my life’s work,” Zwonechek said. “I still think that I can contribute my knowledge and experience on a number of issues.
“You have to be passionate about this subject because you talk to the victims and realize that there’s a lot that can be prevented.”
Reducing traffic deaths, especially alcohol-related collisions, continues to be a priority for Zwonechek. He also plans to push for a law that would make failure to use a seat belt a primary offense. In Nebraska, it’s now a secondary offense, meaning that law enforcement officers can issue a ticket only if they pull over drivers for a separate violation.
“Nebraska needs to catch up with the rest of the country in many areas, including seat-belt use,” Zwonechek said. “There’s no question that making seat-belt use a primary offense would save lives and prevent injuries.”
Nebraska was one of the first states to adopt a law requiring seat-belt usage in the early 1980s when the average number of the state’s motorists buckling up was only 11 percent. Zwonechek credited the law with increasing participation “to 46 percent overnight.”
When the law was repealed by a voters’ referendum in 1986, usage fell back to 33 percent, he said. Since the current law passed in 1993, usage of seat belts has risen steadily, with 86 percent of Nebraska motorists wearing seat belts in recent studies.
“That 86 percent is still behind the national average of 90 percent, so we’ve got work to do,” he said. “Nebraskans as a whole are law-abiding citizens. I think we’ll get there.”
Zwonechek said he is gratified to see a steadily declining number of alcohol-related fatal crashes. In 1981, he reached out to Candy Lightner, founder of the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, for assistance when state senators were working to strengthen DUI penalties.
“The DUI law then was pretty pitiful,” he said. “In terms of what was happening, law enforcement wasn’t taking it very seriously. There were 150, 180 people dying every year from alcohol-related accidents.”
In 2018, he said, that number was about 70 to 80.
In the early 1980s, the state averaged 300 to 400 traffic deaths per year. Now, despite a greater numbers of drivers traveling many more miles, the state averages about 220 traffic deaths per year, Zwonechek said.
“That’s down 66 percent,” he said. “We can credit better roads, improved safety designs of cars and seat-belt use.”
In retirement, Zwonechek plans to spend more time working on his classic car collection and fishing. The highway safety office will be in good hands, he said.
“I was blessed with such a strong staff over the years,” he said. “There are a lot of great people there, and I’m sure that all their good work is going to continue.”