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You won't find the definition in the DMV manual. Nor is it in the VTL. "Operating a vehicle" means driving it. However, it also means sitting behind the wheel with the motor running, even under circumstances where the car is not in motion. You can see that in the jury instructions for DWI which I have attached below. Jury instructions contain the law that the judge instructs the jury on prior to letting them deliberate on a case.
It's a good defense. You were not operating the car when you were ticketed.
On the other hand, traffic violations are administrative and not criminal cases. That means the state doesn't have to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather, you would have the burden of trying to show that you were going to put the belt on again once you started the car.