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OWENSBORO, Ky. -- After a local man recently died from injuries he received during a motorcycle accident, Sgt. Scott Steward began reviewing helmet laws in Kentucky.
Now the officer, who oversees the traffic division of the Owensboro Police Department, is doing something about it.
Police will be homing in on motorcycle helmet law enforcement to ensure that operators follow the guidelines that have changed dramatically over the last 10 years and are often misunderstood.
Kentucky is one of 30 states in the country that does not make helmets mandatory for all motorcyclists, yet anyone under 21 must have the protection on at all times, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
In 1968, Kentucky first enacted a law requiring that all passengers and drivers wear helmets. But it was changed in 1998 to include only operators and passengers under 21, operators with a permit, and operators who have had their license less than one year.
As part of that amendment, the law also required a helmet be worn by anyone without at least $10,000 in medical insurance coverage, but that provision was repealed, effective July 2000.
A survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that helmet use in Kentucky dropped after the law changed -- with 96 percent of operators wearing them before the law took effect in 1998 to 76 percent wearing them later that same year.
By 2001, less than 56 percent of motorcyclists were observed not wearing a helmet, according to the study, and many attribute that to the growing number of motorcycle fatalities in the state. The state survey indicated that the number of fatalities increased by more than 50 percent after the law change almost a decade ago.
Last year, Kentucky reported nearly 2,000 motorcycle collisions resulting in 105 fatalities. The NHTSA estimates that a rider without a helmet has a 40 percent greater chance at suffering a fatal head injury and a 15 percent greater likelihood at incurring a nonfatal head injury than a rider with a helmet.
On Wednesday, Michael W. Walters, 56, of Whitesville died from head injuries he received when the motorcycle he was riding collided with another motorcycle May 21.
Steward said the accident marked the first time in his 15 years as a police officer that he had ever seen two motorcycles essentially T-bone, and said he hopes officers can get the message out that helmets can save lives.
"I've been riding bikes for several years and any time I get on one I put a helmet on," Steward said.
Steward said after he researched the law, he discovered that officers have probable cause to stop a driver who is not wearing eye protection or who is not wearing a helmet and appears to be under 21.
He said it would be helpful to officers if there was a sticker or information available through the license plate that would indicate if the driver had only a permit or had been licensed only a year so the helmet law could be better enforced.
Officer Marian Cosgrove, spokeswoman for OPD, said when there are laws mandating motorists wear seat belts, it seems there should be laws requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets.
"People think they will go out and have fun in the sun and not wear their helmet, and then it ruins their whole summer or even their whole life because of an injury," she said.
Kentucky motorcyclist helmet law
-- Motorcycle operators and passengers under 21 must wear a helmet
-- Motorcycle operators who possess a motorcycle instruction permit must wear a helmet
-- Motorcycle operators who have a motorcycle operator's license for less than one year must wear a helmet