The Tennessee Highway Patrol wants to close a little-known loophole in the state’s seatbelt law that exempts drivers and passengers in heavy-duty trucks and SUVs. These are vehicles with a gross weight between 8,500 and 10,000 pounds, including a Ford F-250 Super Duty and some Chevy Surburbans and Lincoln Navigators.
When Tennessee's seat belt laws were first written in 1986, big diesel pickups and the largest SUVs were left out.
“Most of those vehicles were farm vehicles at the time, being driven around or close to the farms," says Col. Tracy Trott of the Highway Patrol. "The dynamics of vehicles and families have changed, and that's why we want to close that loophole and keep people safe.”
Now, some suburban teenagers drive heavy-duty trucks to high school everyday and farm families take trips in three-quarter-ton SUVs. Trott acknowledges the numbers are relatively small, and the owners probably don’t even know about the seat belt exemption. But Trott hopes to have his proposal included as part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislative agenda next year, which should increase the chance of passage.
This year, Trott successfully pushed through the first-ever increase to Tennessee’s fine for seat belt violations. Starting in January, the penalty jumps from $10 to $25, which is still in the middle of the pack compared to other states.
Troopers have also gotten more serious about writing tickets in recent years. The number of citations written this year has crossed 107,000 so far — 2.5 times more than at the same time five years ago.
"We hope the day will come when it is difficult for a state trooper to find a motorist not wearing a seat belt," safety commissioner Bill Gibbons said in a statement. "We hope the tougher fines will encourage motorists to obey the law."
Other states have been able to increase seat belt usage by increasing fines, even slightly, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
In recent years, Tennessee hit a high point of more than 87 percent of drivers wearing seat belts, but the 2015 survey saw a slight dip.