Motorcycle Group Holds Power in Wisconsin Helmet Debate

May 17, 2013

Wisconsin is coming off its deadliest year for motorcyclists in a generation, but lawmakers are considering no new helmet laws.motorcycle helmet law

Three in four of those riders who were killed did not wear a helmet. But Wisconsin hasn’t required adult motorcyclists to wear a helmet in decades, thanks in large part to the robust lobby of ABATE of Wisconsin, according to Gannett Wisconsin Media. The group describes itself a motorcycle rights and safety organization.

On Feb. 28, ABATE’s annual lobby day, hundreds of motorcycle advocates descended on the Capitol, even though there was no helmet law pending in the Legislature.

“We don’t have any helmet issues on the table, but we want to make sure we are clear on that,” group member Jeff Egler, of Janesville, told one state lawmaker that day.

ABATE of Wisconsin is organized as a private, non-stock corporation headed by an elected board of directors and state officers. Its headquarters is in Black River Falls. According to its leaders, membership fluctuates between 7,000 and 10,000.

“We all love our freedoms of the road, and we want to keep the freedoms that we have,” said Dean Bartosh, of La Crosse, ABATE’s public relations director. “We believe people should all have their personal choice as to what they wear when they ride.”

The group’s activities are partially paid for through donations and membership dues, according to Dave Charlebois, executive director.

There are more than two dozen national ABATE groups, but Charlebois said each operates independently.

Wisconsin’s group works closely with the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, a national motorcycle rights organization that also works against motorcycle helmet laws.

In the past, “bikers had no say,” Charlebois said. “As we’ve grown, you can see that this state for sure is not totalitarian. That’s why we are here. We are against totalitarian enactments.

“We will have a voice in this state.”

Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a national group that lobbies for helmet laws, said groups like ABATE have gotten lawmakers to buy into the notion of “let those who ride decide,” that it’s a freedom issue. But she said taxpayers ultimately pay the costly and lifelong price of un-helmeted riders’ brain injuries.

“Let those who pay have a say,” she said. “It sounds trite, but there is no free ride.”

According to state lobbying records, 641 registered lobbying groups exist in Wisconsin. These groups represent interests as diverse as dog breeding, cigar smoking and gasoline taxes. Last session, groups reported lobbying expenses as small as $41.

According to the annual report ABATE of Wisconsin filed in October with the state Department of Financial Institutions, its business is “legislative lobbying.”

But ABATE is not a registered lobbying organization with the state Government Accountability Board because it does not employ a registered lobbyist.

“What ABATE of Wisconsin seems to be doing is what is often called grass-roots lobbying. That does not trigger registration requirements,” Jonathan Becker, Ethics & Accountability Division administrator for the G.A.B., explained in an email to Gannett Wisconsin Media. “However, if those same activities are conducted by a lobbying principal, the expenses would need to be reported.”

ABATE has a long history of success in holding off mandatory helmet laws in Wisconsin and rolling back ones in other states, even though motorcycle deaths have increased nationally during 14 of the past 15 years, according to data compiled the national Governors Highway Safety Association.

“There really isn’t an organization on the other side of the issue that has been very effective at promoting helmet laws, despite the overwhelming research and experience that they are effective,” said the group’s deputy director Jonathan Adkins.

No state has passed a mandatory helmet law since 1994; in 1997 there were 26 states with mandatory helmet laws, now there are fewer than 20, according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association.

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