No Helmet + Motorcycle = Death?

Frankfort, KY – Eleven years ago, Kentucky lawmakers repealed the state's mandatory motorcycle helmet law. Since then, the commonwealth has witnessed a dramatic rise in motorcycle deaths. Is there a link? Possibly. Kentucky Public Radio's Tony McVeigh has been studying the issue, and finds that the jury is still out.

Ron Marshall of Lexington loves to ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. And when he climbs on and fires it up, he wears his boots and leathers, but he doesn't wear a helmet.

It doesn't feel closed in," says Marshall. "I can see what I'm doing better and hear what I'm doing better. It's my choice, so I make it that way."

Marshall knows he's taking a risk. He's seen the numbers. He knows motorcycle deaths in Kentucky have more than tripled since repeal of the helmet law. But it's a chance he, and thousands of other Kentuckians, are willing to take.

"What'll you do?" Marshall questions. "I mean, do you put a steel cage around every bike and ride it down the road? I mean, you know, how much protection is too much? Really, the most safe thing to do is not let anybody ride motorcycles. Now can we do that? No, I don't think we can."

"I understand the claim that it ought to be an independent decision of the individual," says former Gov. Julian Carroll, who's now a state senator from Frankfort. "But certainly, at the same time, I understand the taxpayer picking up the bill when you have an accident and you don't have a helmet on.

Carroll says he's deeply troubled by the rise in Kentucky motorcycle deaths, which exceeded 100 in each of the last two years. In 1997, the year before repeal of the helmet law, 29 people died in motorcycle crashes. Sen. Carroll says the 1968 law requiring helmet use never should have been repealed.

"I wouldn't allow it to be repealed when I served as governor," says Carroll. "And I told anybody that if they tried to repeal it, I'd veto the bill."

But Carroll wasn't governor in 1998, when Louisville Sen. Dan Seum shepherded a repeal bill through the General Assembly. The vote came after several thousand motorcyclists rallied at the State Capitol in support of the measure. But, with motorcycle deaths rising ever since, does Seum now regret sponsorship of the bill?

"No, not at all," says Seum. "It's called the Adult 21 bill. I think most people I would assume know, that you do have to wear a helmet up to the age of 21. After the age of 21, you're an adult and you get to decide."

And Seum says no one should be surprised motorcycle deaths and injuries are up, because more people are riding bikes. Indeed, there are now 83,000 registered motorcycles in Kentucky. But Sen. Carroll says that's all the more reason to reinstate the helmet law, and was prepared to offer a bill to that effect last January.

"All of a sudden, I started getting an avalanche of motorcyclists coming to the Capitol and emailing the Capitol to the point where it became quite clear that I was going to be unable to get the bill out of committee," says Carroll.

Carroll says he's willing to try again, but only if the measure has the support of legislative leaders and the governor. The governor's Kentucky Motorcycle Safety Education Commission intends to study the issue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration already has. Like Kentucky, Louisiana repealed its helmet law, only to see motorcycle deaths quadruple. But after reinstating the law in 2004, motorcycle deaths in Louisiana began falling for the first time in eight years. That doesn't surprise Lt. Colonel Mike Sapp of Kentucky State Police, who's been riding motorcycles since he was ten. Sapp says he always wears his helmet.

"I've seen many cases where there's been head trauma that could have been prevented by the use of a helmet," says Sapp.

Right after the 4th of July, four more motorcyclists died on Kentucky highways. Three were not wearing their helmets. That raised the state's motorcycle death toll to at least 45, or about the same as this time last year. And the total for 2008? 102.