When 11 people were killed earlier this year in a Hart County traffic crash, some coroners driving to the scene were slowed by bottleneck interstate traffic because they did not have emergency lights or sirens, said state Rep. Marie Rader.
"There was time lost," said Rader, who has drafted legislation to address the issue. "Coroners have no safety mechanism to get them through the lines of traffic."
Rader, R-McKee, noted that the problem occurred again later this year at a Northern Kentucky crash scene in which two people died.
She said coroners across the state have talked to her about the problem and she was also aware of it because her brother is Jackson County Coroner Melvin Lakes.
She pre-filed a bill for the 2011 General Assembly that would allow coroners to use red and blue emergency lights and a siren only while traveling to a death scene and only with the approval of the local governing body.
Under BR 143, the proposed legislation, the coroner or deputy coroner could not exceed the speed limit. The local government could revoke the permission, and the permission would expire when the coroner left office.
Kentucky law does not currently permit coroners to use sirens or emergency lights. In most cases other drivers don't know that a coroner or their deputies are trying to get through, officials said in interviews this week.
In Fayette County, Coroner Gary Ginn said that if there is a fatality beside the road, he often has no choice but to also park his office's vehicle beside the road. He and his staff need to be able to use blue lights to alert other drivers that the coroner's car is an emergency vehicle, Ginn said.
"Anything I can do that's going to prevent someone else or myself from getting injured, I think we need to do that," Ginn said.
Nine of those who died in Hart County were members of one family.
Henry County Coroner Jimmy Pollard said he was one of the coroners trying to help with the multiple fatalities and had difficulty making it through heavy traffic. "Traffic was backed up for miles, and we had no way of getting in emergency lanes," Pollard said.
On a regular basis, Pollard said, "it's a safety issue getting to the scene and at the scene."
Ginn said that his staff does not use their private vehicles when they investigate deaths, but some coroners in come counties have to use private vehicles.
Rader's proposed legislation would also allow coroners to equip the private vehicles they use to get to scenes with red and blue lights and a siren.
Ginn said that his office's vehicles are already equipped with blue and red lights and sirens, but he and his staff do not use them while driving because of an attorney general's opinion written in 1980. Officials in the Muhlenberg County coroner's office asked then-Attorney General Steve Beshear, now Kentucky's governor, whether they could use emergency lights or a siren en route to a death scene because they were often slowed by heavy traffic. "Vital evidence could be disturbed" as a result of a later arrival, said the request for an opinion.
An assistant attorney general in Beshear's office at the time, Thomas R. Emerson, wrote an opinion that said that state law did not allow a coroner to use emergency equipment on his vehicle even when proceeding to the scene of an accident.
Ginn said that a change in state law was needed so that the red and blue lights and sirens could be used while driving to death scenes.
"In a county the size of Fayette County and with two major interstates," Ginn said, "its almost a necessity for us to be able to do that."
Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3409.