Iowa motorcycle helmet law: Fighting for the right to choose, and winning

Political group may be reason state remains one of three states without helmet law

Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette

Motorcyclists with the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association travel along Third Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids.
Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette Motorcyclists with the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association travel along Third Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids.

Iowa is off to its deadliest start to the year for motorcyclists since 2012, with 21 fatalities. Only two of those victims were wearing helmets.

As the popularity of motorcycling grows, the number of those killed also have grown, and the overwhelming number involve people without helmets. But, few think the grim news will sway lawmakers who face a similar question whenever a helmet bill is proposed: Why is Iowa one of only three states without a helmet law?

A growing library of research from public health, medical, academic and even financial perspectives suggest helmets save lives and save taxpayers money, helmet-law advocates say. But Iowa seems more resolved not to pass a helmet law.

The most influential voice in all of this, both sides of the argument seem to agree, is a grass roots advocacy group called A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education. ABATE of Iowa has steered the conversation from one of health statistics and societal costs to something much more fundamental — education and liberty.

“A helmet law doesn’t stop crashes,” said Mark Maxwell, who serves as ABATE’s primary lobbyist and also runs a collision center in Des Moines. “If the focus is not on stopping crashes, we are having the wrong conversation.”

For decades now, ABATE has refined a powerful recipe — vocal members, narrow focus, clear messages and a spray-the-field approach to political contributions. By many indications, the group has found a winning combination.

“They are politically very effective,” said Geoffrey Lauer, executive director of the Brain Injury Alliance in Cedar Rapids, which annually argues in favor of a helmet law. “The ABATE chapters are well organized, and they communicate well with their constituents.”

In all, 19 states have universal helmet laws. and 28 have age-based laws, according to the Governors’ Bureau. New Hampshire never has had a helmet law, and Illinois repealed its law in 1970.

Iowa did adopt a helmet law, in September 1975, but repealed it less than a year later.

By 1976, under pressure from the states, Congress stopped the Department of Transportation from assessing financial penalties on states without helmet laws, according to the Insurance Institute.

The ABATE political action committee formed in 1986, according to state records, and has been preserving that repeal ever since.

‘100 letters a week’

Maxwell said the biggest threat in his time came in the 1990s, when ABATE successfully lobbied against a helmet law — even though that meant Iowa lost $1.5 million in federal funding for road projects. Federal requirements was later changed, severing any tie between a helmet law and funding.

One of the more recent pushes for a helmet law in Iowa came in 2012.

Three Iowa City West High students who lost classmate Caroline Found in a moped accident came to the State Capitol armed with statistics and a heartfelt pitch to require helmets for those younger than 18. The story gained statewide and some national attention, but the bill was never introduced in the transportation committee.

“While they appreciated our data and what we had to share, I think in the end they already had their minds made up,” recalled one of the students, Leah Murray, who continues to work on the issue from college.

State Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, who supports a helmet law and served on the transportation committee, said lawmakers knew the bill didn’t stand a chance.

“If you look at the issue from a medical, scientific or financial position, there’s no reason Iowa shouldn’t have a helmet law, but this group has harangued, bullied and forced their issue so aggressively,” McCoy said.

“No one wants to pick a fight with a group that can write 100 letters in a week,” he said.

For some lawmakers, though, the ABATE pitch is an easy sell because they say it mirrors their own views.

“I think it’s a personal responsibility question,” said Rep. Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, adding that he doesn’t believe the majority of Iowans want a helmet law.

Since he first ran for office, Paulsen, now House Speaker, has received 15 donations for a total of $7,350, which is the second most in the last 10 years. Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, a Democrat from Council Bluffs, has received the most, 15 donations for a total of $8,500.

Frederick Boehmke, a University of Iowa political science professor who studies interest groups, said it’s not surprising Gronstal and Paulsen — who have clout in what bills are brought before their respective chambers — get the most money because interest groups crave access to those in power.

In the past 10 years, ABATE has contributed 843 donations to 268 different campaigns totaling $222,450, according to state disclosure records. Often in $200 or $300 increments, the contributions swing to both Democrats and Republicans and geographically across the state.

“It’s not a gigantic amount of money, but in races that don’t have a lot of money, it can be enough to have influence,” Boehmke said.

In the most recent filing year, ABATE PAC had received about $40,543 in contributions and spent some $19,259. For each category, ABATE ranks among the top 20 percent of lobbyists, although it’s well below the six- and seven-figure amounts spent and received by the top lobbying committees.

Any interest group that can navigate partisan lines, make well-timed donations and has a strong support network, as ABATE appears to be able to do, will have a good chance at accomplishing its goals, Boehmke said. ABATE also is in the desirable position of defending the status quo, he said.

Gronstal and Paulsen said the active membership has much more to do with ABATE’s success then money.

“The reality is, most decisions aren’t driven by dollars,” Gronstal said. “Most are driven by bodies. If you have a well-organized population that advocates for an issue, they are successful.”

Plus, Gronstal asked, “Why do you presume the other 47 states are right about this?”

ABATE does not disclose membership numbers, lobbyist Maxwell said they have members in most if not all legislative districts. ABATE also regularly visits the State Capitol.

Paulsen said someone from ABATE stops in to see him every week or every other week.

It’s hard to miss Maxwell, who wears his motorcycle vest. He sticks out from other lobbyists in their business attire. On ABATE lobby day, well over 100 members typically show up.

“We get to know our candidates, and we are very passionate,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell said when individual cases are analyzed, it rarely comes down to just a helmet. A lack of training or awareness on the part of the motorcyclist or another driver, or faulty equipment are often a factor, he said.

Maxwell became a passionate advocate against a helmet law in the early 1990s after riding his motorcycle in St. Augustine, Fla., which required a helmet. Maxwell said his helmet nearly cost him his life by blocking out the sound and visibility of an approaching car that zipped by on his right and nearly clipped him.

Ever since, he said, the debate has been about finding ways to reduce crashes.

ABATE has focused much of its resources on share-the-road campaigns, driver education and running a mobile training center. Even Lauer credits ABATE’s work on education.

The debate, Maxwell said, has been about common sense.

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