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Editorial: Crash shows need for rules on riding in cargo areas

Aug. 15, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

A crash in the early morning hours of Aug. 7 that killed one teenager and injured 10 other people between the ages of 14 and 20 was tragic enough, but it could have been much worse.

The 17-year-old girl who died was found pinned under the pickup truck after it ran off W.Va. 36 near Wallback in Clay County, crashed through a guardrail and landed on its side in a small creek. It's somewhat surprising that the death toll wasn't greater, considering five of the youth were riding in the truck bed. As it was, they were ejected onto the creek's banks, and some did suffer critical injuries.

As it turns out, those in the crowded truck apparently broke no law because West Virginia has no law that restricts people riding in the cargo areas of trucks. Policymakers should think hard about changing that. As this accident demonstrates all too aptly, riders in cargo areas have no protection whatsoever in case of an accident.

Federal standards require that occupant compartments of vehicles be designed to protect occupants during a crash, and the measures to do that include seat belts, air bags and cushioning. But, as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety points out, the beds of pickup trucks are designed to carry cargo only and therefore do not offer protection to people if a crash occurs.

The institute contends that children and adults can be easily ejected from cargo areas at relatively low speeds as a result of a sharp turn to avoid an obstacle or crash. The result when that happens is too often fatal; the National Highway Safety Administration says nearly 100 children and teenagers die each year in the United States as a result of riding in cargo areas of pickup trucks.

Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to address this hazard. Most are aimed at protecting children, by barring people under a certain age from being passengers in cargo areas.

In Ohio, for example, its law applies to people 15 and younger unless the vehicle is driven less than 25 miles per hour. Exemptions also are allowed in emergencies and for pickup trucks with covered cargo areas.

Those restrictions are still weak, but at least Ohio is addressing the issue. Both West Virginia and Kentucky have not.

A law that bans all riders in uncovered cargo areas on roads and highways where prevailing speed limits are higher is not unreasonable, provided suitable exemptions are included for farm or certain commercial operations. Both states have a variety of laws aimed at protecting people in vehicles, and it only seems fitting that they should add one aimed at the dangerous practice of riding in cargo areas.

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