The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "The Law Q&A," runs in the Champaign News Gazette.
Is it legal to ride in the back of a pickup truck, or in a trailer that’s being towed?
Not really. You can ride in the back of pickup, but only if you buckle up. And you can’t ride in anything that’s being towed—unless it’s at a slow speed, or an emergency.
Some states have specific laws that restrict passengers in truck beds. Illinois does not.
But, the Illinois Vehicle Code says that “each driver and passenger of a motor vehicle operated on a street or highway in this State shall wear a properly adjusted and fastened seat safety belt.” None of the many exceptions that excuse the use of safety belts apply to passengers in a truck bed.
To be legal, then, truck bed passengers would have to be properly belted. For younger riders, that would mean proper seats or boosters. Those requirements would apply to both open truck beds, and those enclosed with a cap, topper, or camper shell.
As a practical matter, the seat belt requirement makes it hard to ride in a truck bed legally.
For “riding in towed vehicles,” we now have a specific law. It says that you can’t “occupy a trailer, semitrailer, farm wagon, or any other vehicle while it is being towed on a public highway.” So, generally speaking, if it’s being towed, you can’t ride in it.
There’s then three exceptions—two for slowly-towed vehicles. If the driver doesn’t top 15 mph, anybody of any age can be towed “in connection with a parade, farming-related activity, or similar activity.” If the passenger is at least 18, and the speed does not exceed 15 mph, they can ride in a towed vehicle at any time, for any reason.
The third exception permits passengers in towed vehicles “to avoid an imminent threat to a person's safety due to extreme weather conditions or another emergency situation.” That’s probably designed to avoid stranding passengers at the side of the road when their car is towed after a breakdown.
Arguably, at least, legally towed passengers would still have to buckle up—even on a parade float.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety notes: “The beds of pickup trucks are designed to carry cargo, not people, and are not designed to provide protection in a crash.” They also warn 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.”
By requiring safety belts for every passenger, Illinois protects those in truck beds from being ejected. Or, it subjects them to a $25 fine. That’s the maximum fine for not buckling up.
Indiana appears to require all passengers to buckle up, so riding in a truck bed over there would be similarly difficult. Missouri, however, only requires front seat passengers to be belted, and specifically permits riding in a truck bed if you’re at least 18.