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Though legal, officials have safety concerns about riding in truck beds

March 31st, 2014 9:44 pm by Max Hrenda

Though legal, officials have safety concerns about riding in truck beds

Although people older than 12 can legally ride in truck beds in Tennessee, law enforcement and motor club officials think the act can be unsafe. (Sam Watson/Johnson City Press)

Even though Tennessee law permits certain children to ride in truck beds, law enforcement personnel said that law is not often enforced.

Members of the Johnson City Police Department and Tennessee Highway Patrol said that’s because the law is not often violated.

“Very rarely do I ever see anybody in the bed of a pickup truck anymore,” JCPD Lt. Larry Williams said. “You don’t see it as much as you used to.”

“We just don’t encounter it that much,” said THP Sgt. Diane Mays. “It’s not (happening) near as much as when I was a kid.”

Under state law — Tennessee Code Annotated 55-9-189, to be precise — children over age 12 can ride in a truck bed on state highways, and children older than six can ride in truck beds in city limits. In each case, the truck’s weight must be 1,500 pounds or more.

The city of Johnson City expanded on state law, however, to place further age restrictions on the practice. In 1999, the City Commission approved ordinance 3711, which set the minimum age for children to ride in truck beds on any municipal street at 12 years.

Both state and local laws make exceptions for younger children when those children are participating in a parade or are doing some sort of agricultural work. State law also makes an exception when the truck is traveling at a speed below 20 mph.

Although riding in truck beds is legal for children of a certain age, motor clubs like AAA think parents should exercise caution before allowing them to do so. Stephanie Milani, who works as a public affairs specialist for AAA of East Tennessee, said parents should use good judgment before permitting their children to ride in truck beds.

“What we try to stress with any sort of traffic safety law is that it’s your decision,” Milani said. “We would just urge people to listen to their feelings about this. If they don’t feel that it’s safe, don’t put children in the back of a pickup truck, regardless of if it’s allowed or not.”

As far as safety is concerned, Milani said AAA, as an organization, does not advocate riding in truck beds.

“We would suggest that it’s not safe and that people not do it,” Milani said. “It’s not a good idea for anyone, especially kids, to ride unrestrained, anywhere. Being unrestrained in the back of a pickup truck is just not a good idea.”

Though both Williams and Mays said they are seeing fewer people riding in truck beds, neither said they would advocate the practice.

“It’s not a real safe thing to do,” Williams said. “It’s not advisable.”

“I was riding in the back of my dad’s pickup when I was a kid, but there was a lot of farmland,” Mays said. “As many cars that are on the road nowadays ... from my point of view as a law enforcement officer, it would be very dangerous.”

Potential dangers aside, the state has not suffered from an abundant number of deaths related to riding in truck beds. According to information collected by the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, in 2013, people riding in truck beds were involved in accidents 37 times. Of those incidents, 18 passengers were injured or possibly injured, while the remaining 19 were not injured. None were killed.

Still, East Tennessee has seen cases of death and injury for passengers riding in truck beds. In 2012, Aaron Walls, a high school student from Coalfield, was killed when he fell from the back of a truck bed. After the incident, the THP told members of the media that drugs, alcohol and speeding were not suspected in playing a role in the accident.

In 2006, an Elizabethton teen, David Brumit, was killed after he was thrown from a truck bed after the truck, which was driven by his mother, Marla Brumit, left the roadway, overturned, and crashed into a utility pole. Authorities said Marla Brumit told them she had been drinking and smoking marijuana prior to the crash, and, in May 2007, she pleaded guilty to charges of vehicular homicide and aggravated child abuse.

Though instances of death and injury after riding in truck beds are rare, they bring to light the issue of the dangers associated with traveling at high speeds with no restraints. Those dangers are unusual in Tennessee, which requires, by law, all occupants of a vehicle to wear seat belts or some other kind of safety restraint. The only exception to that law is when a passenger is riding in a truck bed.

“Why would you be belted in an enclosed frame, when you’re free and not able to be belted in the back of a truck?” Mays said. “Logically speaking, it’s not right.”

Despite what appears to be a contradiction in the law, no legislation has been crafted to address it, and the state Legislature has no plans to discuss it. Mays said the reason for that might be that fewer people choose to ride in truck beds.

“I don’t think it has become an issue because it’s one of those laws on the books that we very seldom run across,” she said.

Regardless of what laws are on the books, Milani said the risks associated with riding in pickup truck beds may be too great for people to safely exercise it.

“We have the child passenger safety laws,” Milani said. “And we have the primary seat belt laws to keep people safe in the event of a crash. With those restraints not in the back of a pickup truck, it’s not a safe place to ride.”

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