Pickup truck drivers who think they don’t have to wear seat belts due to a loophole in the law may find out the hard way the law has been changed. The exemption from buckling up only applies to farmers, and then only if they are participating in a farming activity.
Since early June, a loophole in the law that exempted pickup truck drivers from having to wear seat belts has been closed. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue signed changes to the seat belt law, and now only farmers in the act of performing farm-related duties are exempt.
If a farmer is driving his wife into town for dinner in the pickup truck, the law says they must buckle up like everyone else, said Georgia State Patrol Post 45 Lt. Bill Hitchens.
The new wording of the seat belt law “changed the definition to include pickup trucks, changing the language,” he said.” Farmers are exempt only when engaging in agricultural pursuits.”
When on the job, farmers find themselves getting in and out of their trucks on a regular basis – sometimes after having driven only a few feet. Buckling and unbuckling a seat belt hundreds of times a day just is not feasible, said long-time Bulloch County farmer Jack Brannen Sr.
“I hardly ever wear my seat belt,” he said. “One of my trucks is so old it doesn’t have seat belts. On the interstate or highways I wear it, but it would be a hindrance to me if I had to do it (while working.) I’m not planning in wearing a seat belt (while working on the farm) whether it’s the law or not.”
Georgia State Patrol troopers won't issue tickets for the offense until July, said Gordy Wright, state patrol spokesman. “Any time there is a new law or major rule change, the state patrol usually will give a grace period.”
Hitchens said warnings will be issued for a while in order to give drivers time to become informed about the changes.
“We want to educate people before we start writing tickets,” he said.
After the grace period, however, the tickets will carry fines, which vary across the state based on county fine schedules, Wright said.
Hitchens said penalties for not wearing a seat belt vary, but the maximum fine is $15. However, the real penalty for driving unbuckled is the reduction in safety, he said.
And determining what activities are considered farm-related will vary from post to post as well, he said. The law’s changes will “be interpreted differently all over the state.”
Brannen, 80, remembers plowing tobacco with a mule in the early part of his 65 years of farming, “The mules didn’t have seat belts,” he said. But now, even though his farm truck does have seat belts, he is in and out so much, sometimes I don’t go 100 yards “between stops, he said. The seat belt law “wouldn’t apply to me in the fields anyway.”
State Sen. Don Thomas, R-Dalton, was the sponsor of the bill revising the seat belt law, and has fought for changes for years. "Hundreds of lives have been lost because this law was not in place," he said.
Georgia has had a seat belt mandate since the 1990s, but rural legislators consistently blocked the requirement in pickups, citing the need for farmers’ exemption. According to AAA, Georgia was the only state in the nation to allow an exception for pickup truck operators.
Perdue said the new law will save about 21 lives, 300 injuries and some $30 million in hospital costs a year.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.