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Pickup drivers must buckle up
Legislators this week changed longtime law that exempted pickups from seat belt use
Fire and emergency personnel Chris Black and David Green look over a pickup truck on Ga. 53. The driver of the truck was not wearing a seat belt. - photo by EMILY SAUNDERS

Sgt. Chris Shelton sees it too much, and he saw it again Wednesday — pickup truck drivers seriously injured because they aren’t wearing their seat belts.

“Any time we have someone involved in a crash, the injuries are far greater if they aren’t restrained,” said Shelton, a traffic crash investigator for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.

This week, Georgia lawmakers passed a primary seat belt bill requiring drivers of pickups to buckle up. Pickup drivers in Georgia have never been required to wear a seat belt.

The primary law means that a law enforcement officer can pull a driver over for not wearing a seat belt. Prior to the 1998 law, a seat belt citation was a secondary offense, and pickups had been exempted from the law since it first went into effect 12 years ago.

The same day the bill passed, Shelton was on the scene of a serious accident on Ga. 53 near the Dawson County line, where 32-year-old Cortney Peardon was ejected from the side door of his Ford Ranger pickup. He was airlifted to Atlanta Medical Center and was in critical condition Thursday.

“That crash was pretty serious and injuries probably would have occurred anyway (if the seat belt was used), but not that level of severity,” Shelton said.

According to the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, there should be 107 fewer fatalities and 928 fewer injuries a year once more pickup drivers buckle up. While Georgia’s seat belt compliance rate is 93 percent for all other vehicles, it is 74 percent for pickups.

The pickup exemption for many years was a nod to the power of the late Georgia Speaker of the House Tom Murphy, who steadfastly stood against requiring his rural constituents to buckle up in their pickups.

Bob Dallas, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, acknowledged that Murphy played a role in preventing a seat belt requirement for pickup drivers, but noted that Murphy has been out of office since 2002. Murphy died in 2007.

Dallas said there continued to be a reluctance among legislators representing rural areas of the state, but that the new law has “significant exemptions for agricultural pursuits.”

Contrary to a widespread perception, Georgia has not lost out on much federal transportation money by exempting pickup drivers from seat belt requirements. Through a grant program that expired last year, the state was able to get $20.7 million in federal allotments for safety programs and infrastructure by showing that Georgia had seat belt usage rates that were higher than the national average for two years in a row, Dallas said.

“We (still) received that money due to the fact that most everybody else buckled up,” Dallas said.

There was, however, federal funds of about $2 million to $4 million that Georgia would have gotten had pickups been included in the primary seat belt law, Dallas said.

“From my perspective and the perspective of the office, it’s never been about the money,” Dallas said. “It’s always been about the fact that with the law in effect, we’re going to save a lot of lives.”

Dallas said the bill’s passage was a long time coming.

“From 1998 until today, this is something we’ve been hoping for,” Dallas said.

Said Shelton, “As crash investigators, we’re glad to see it, because I think you’re going see a reduction in injuries in crashes involving pickup trucks.”