TAMPA — A man in a big, red pickup truck is peering into the car next to him. The driver doesn't notice until the heart-sinking red and blue lights start to flash.
A slow down, a lane switch and a scrambled reach. Too late.
No seat belt.
"People think we're like Big Brother, that they should be able to do whatever they want," sheriff's Cpl. Ed Raburn said before writing his sixth seat belt violation of the afternoon. "I'm not going to reach in there and force you to put it on, but if you choose not to, you choose to accept the consequences."
Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies issued more than 200 seat-belt tickets Tuesday, the first day a new state law allowed officers to stop drivers solely because they aren't buckled up.
In the past, tickets could be issued for seat belt violations only if an adult driver was stopped for some other infraction, such as speeding.
Tuesday's crackdown was part of Hillsborough County's Operation Belts or El$e. Deputies began at 7 a.m. at State Road 60 and Parsons Avenue in Brandon. In about two hours, they'd given out 86 seat-belt tickets and arrested a woman on charges of driving with a suspended license and giving a false name to deputies, sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said.
So far, Hillsborough is the only county with an operation targeting seat-belt violators. But authorities in Hernando, Pinellas and Pasco counties say they've got their eyes open.
"All our commanders have been advised," said Cecilia Barreda of the Pinellas Sheriff's Office.
Hillsborough handed out 5,512 seat-belt tickets last year, Raburn said. All those were either tacked on to other infractions or given to drivers younger than 18, who have always been subject to primary seat belt tickets.
The new law requires all front-seat passengers to be buckled up, and those younger than 18 must wear belts no matter where they sit. Kids age 3 and younger must sit in child-restraint seats, and 4- and 5-year-olds must wear seat belts or sit in booster seats with secured with a seat belt. If an adult passenger isn't buckled, he or she would get ticketed rather than the driver.
Since 2004, Hillsborough has had 160 crash deaths that probably wouldn't have been fatal had the victims been wearing seat belts, Raburn said.
"Many times you go to a crash and you can clearly see that someone died when they hit a tree, but the passenger cab is intact," he said. "Modern cars can take a lot of damage. People die because they're ejected."
The state fines violators $30, and each county tacks on court costs or other fees. In Hillsborough and Pinellas, a ticket costs drivers $101. In Pasco and Hernando, the cost is $99. No points go on a driver's record.
Raburn tries to tell drivers he's only trying to keep them safe. Most times, they understand. Lots of times, they cuss or cry.
"I had a grown 50-something-year-old man cry (crocodile) tears to me this morning," he said.
Maurice Elder was among those caught by Raburn. Inside the white Lincoln Town Car, a seat belt buckle glistened near the open window.
"I'm so mad," Elder, 28, said after Raburn gave him a ticket.
Elder said he wasn't buckled up because he was only a couple of minutes from home. Yes, he knows the danger of being thrown from a car. Yes, he knows he should buckle up.
And from now on?
A shrug, a smile and a reach.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3386.