MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

July 14, 2013

SUNDAY EXTRA: With son's death, mom has cause

She wants law to ban riders in back of pickups

By Wendy Burton
Phoenix Staff Writer

— The mother of a young man killed in a wreck last month wants to see the law about riding in the back of pickups changed.

Darlene Blevins lost her son Paul Blevins Jr. on June 15 when the pickup he was riding in hit a tree at the intersection of Pettit Bay and Indian roads in Cherokee County. Paul, 19, and three other young people were ejected from the truck bed. Michael Rogers, 14, also died. Two others were injured.

It’s not illegal for anyone age 13 or older to ride in the back of a pickup, according to state law.

But Blevins, barely able to speak through her tears, said it should be against the law for children or anybody else to ride in the cargo bed of a pickup.

“I’ve told my son so many times to stop doing it, and I’ve caught him riding in the back of trucks with other kids at least two other times before this happened,” she said. “He knew the dangers of it. They were just having fun. They were just kids, and they weren’t thinking.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a person riding in the cargo area of a truck is 26 times more likely to be ejected than a person riding in the cab. The risk of death for those riding in the cargo area is eight times higher than for those riding in a passenger compartment and wearing seat belts.

State law does prohibit drivers from “allowing anyone to ride outside the passenger compartment of a vehicle.”

However, the law specifically does not “apply to passengers riding on the bed of a pickup.”

There are also laws requiring children ages 5 and younger to be in a “child restraint system” and those ages 6 to 13 to at least be restrained by a seat belt. A $50 fine can be imposed for not following the child restraint law.

Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Betsy Randolph said troopers will sometimes pull over a pickup with children in the back.

“If a trooper saw a child, especially a toddler, that they thought was in danger, they could pull them over and cite them for not being restrained,” Randolph said. “But I can’t imagine why anyone would want their child to be in the back of a truck. It’s just so dangerous.”

But those ages 13 and up can ride in the pickup bed.

Muskogee Police Cpl. Michael Mahan said the city has no ordinance against the practice either.

But people should be aware that no matter how careful the driver is, riding in back of a pickup is dangerous, he said.

“Even at a really slow speed, if a driver has to swerve to avoid something suddenly, someone can be ejected from the back, or fall out,” he said. “So, we would strongly caution people of any age against riding in the back of a pickup.”

Mechele Cruz, community relations coordinator of  Muskogee County Emergency Medical Service, is also an emergency medical technician. In the 13 years she’s worked as an EMT, Cruz has seen several wrecks involving people falling out of a truck or being ejected, she said.

“And it’s preventable injuries, preventable deaths,” she said. “You’d be surprised how serious a head injury can be from someone even falling out of a slow-moving truck.”

Muskogee City Attorney Roy Tucker said the city’s ordinances match those of state law, as they are required to, and there is nothing prohibiting anyone from riding in the cargo area of a pickup.

Tucker said it also may not be legal for the city to prohibit the practice in city limits.

But he plans to do more research, he said.

“Because if there’s any way to protect the safety of our kids, then I’m happy to look into it and maybe address the City Council,” he said.

Blevins said that had a police officer or trooper seen and been able by law to stop the pickup her son was riding in the night he was killed, he and his friend might still be alive.

Now seeing people riding in the back of pickups greatly disturbs her, she said.

“Every time I see someone drive by with people in the back of their truck I get upset. I want to call the police and I get upset because I know it won’t do any good,” she said. “It’s not illegal, and it really upsets me. What if something happens to their children and I couldn’t do anything about it?”

Reach Wendy Burton at (918) 684-2926 or wburton@muskogeephoenix.com.