Although most vehicle occupants are now required to wear safety belts in California, passengers sitting in the back of pickup trucks remain free to ride unrestrained--sometimes with fatal results.
The lack of seat belts can turn the most useful feature of a pickup into the most dangerous when the cargo is passengers, officials say.
"People don't really think about it much, but obviously there are no seat belts or anything else back there to stop you from being flung out the back," said Officer Jill Angel of the California Highway Patrol. "It's not a pretty sight."
The CHP does not keep statistics on the number of people injured or killed while riding in the backs of trucks, but officers report the potential for such tragedies is rising as the number of pickups increases.
More on the Road
"There definitely are a lot more pickups on the roads, especially small pickups," CHP Sgt. Mark Lunn said. "They've replaced hot rods as the 'in' thing for young people to drive."
"Oh, yeah, it's very common to see people riding in the back," Officer Craig Klein said. "I couldn't tell you exactly how many people get hurt or killed, but it certainly happens. People just ride back there without thinking about how dangerous it is."
Nationwide, about 28,000 passengers were injured or killed in 1984 while riding in the cargo areas of light trucks and vans, said Craig Miller, acting regional administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
State law requires most vehicle passengers to wear seat belts. But the law, which became effective Jan. 1, does not apply to passengers occupying seating positions that have no seat belts, such as the bed of a pickup.
A 1982 law prohibits only children under 12 from riding in the back of trucks unless secured by a restraint attached to the vehicle or accompanied by an adult.
The CHP does not encounter many violations of this law, Angel said, probably because the legal consequences for the driver can be severe, ranging from a $30 traffic fine to a prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter.
State Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Los Angeles) sponsored the law. His assistant, Teri Burns, said there are no plans to introduce more restrictive legislation.
No Public Pressure Felt
Sandy Browne, investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said lawmakers feel no public pressure to enact pickup-safety measures.
"It's not a big issue because it doesn't kill extraordinary numbers of people," she said. "There's no MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) organization pushing for laws to prevent people from riding in the back of pickups.
"It's like trying to mandate stupidity; you try to prevent people's stupidity by prohibiting them from riding back there. But it's like helmet laws. People don't like those laws, either."
Predictably, most injuries and fatalities involving riders in pickup cargo areas occur during collisions, Angel said.
People also are ejected when the truck makes a sharp turn or sudden stop or hits a bump, she said.
Lunn said, "When you're ejected from the back of a moving truck, you're moving at the same speed as the truck. And if that truck is moving down the highway, you're looking at major body injuries, at least."
Recently a 16-year-old boy was killed when a gust of wind blew him out of the back of a pickup on a Los Angeles freeway, the CHP reported.
Riding inside a car without wearing seat belts is dangerous enough, said Miller of the traffic safety administration. "But anytime you ride outside a passenger area without some type of restraint, you're really exposing yourself to danger in an accident."