A Tale of Two ABATEs

January 2006

As of this writing, there are at least 417,000 registered motorcycles in the state of Florida, about 7,000 (1.7%) of the riders of which are members of ABATE of Florida, Inc. There are also at least 150,000 registered motorcycles in the state of Indiana, about 27,000 (18.0%) of the riders of which are members of ABATE of Indiana, Inc. Stated another way, although Indiana has less than half as many motorcycles as Florida, their SMRO is almost 4 times as large, and their recruitment penetration percentage is over 10 times higher.

I was struck by this vast contrast in organizational impact, and decided it might be enlightening to do a little web research on the matter. I identified four factors that may explain a significant part of the difference:

  • web presence,
  • lobbying record,
  • safety resources, and
  • operating approach.

Web Presence

I began my research by logging on to the websites of the two SMROs under study:

“Night and day” would be a fair capsule of the comparison. I found the home page of AbateFlorida.com, for example, to be amateurish, dull and rather depressing. Much of the content seemed stale, and the site offered limited user interaction. AbateofIndiana.org, on the other hand, was distinctively more professional, vibrant and alluring. The content included current newsfeeds, and transactions for everything from memberships to course registrations to merchandise were offered online.

If you go strictly by web presence, it is easy to see how AbateofIndiana.org might be ten times more effective at attracting new members than AbateFlorida.com.

Lobbying Record

ABATE of Florida has a full-time paid lobbyist. ABATE of Indiana does not. In Florida, helmets are not required if you are over 20 years of age with a minimum of $10,000 in medical insurance. In Indiana, except for instructional permit holders, helmets are not required if you are over 17. That means young riders can start to experience “freedom of the road” 3 years earlier in Indiana, which should make membership in an organization pledged to defending those rights more appealing to the younger riders there.

I have no statistics as to whether or how much ABATE of Indiana has capitalized on this particular advantage. The look, feel, content and imagery of their website, however, definitely reflects the influence of a younger, more web-literate demographic than their counterparts in Florida.

Safety Resources

ABATE of Florida unquestionably pays far more attention to motorcycle safety in the real world than they do to their motorcycle safety and awareness program (MSAP) web page … which as of this writing has not been updated since the spring of 2003. Yet even acknowledging their fledgling affiliation with the Florida Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles (DHSMV), their safety resources pale in comparison to those of ABATE of Indiana:

ABATE of Indiana contracts with the state to provide the Indiana Motorcycle Operator Safety Education Program, and offers over 150 MSF-certified safety instructors available to teach the courses. This high-visibility state-SMRO partnership is not only a major source of revenue but also a significant opportunity for publicity and member recruiting that ABATE of Florida simply does not have.

Operating Approach

I am told that ABATE of Florida has only one or two paid state office employees, whereas ABATE of Indiana has seven or eight full-time employees staffing the state HQ. That should clearly give Indiana an edge, in that about four times as many people are being paid to champion the interests of less than half as many motorcyclists. ABATE of Florida necessarily enlists, elects and appoints volunteers to fill the breach, but a chronic drawback with that approach is that the criteria for filling key positions can easily end up being favoritism, popularity or expedience more so than proficiency, experience and expertise.

Volunteers are vital to any grassroots organization, but so is proficiency in key marketing (e.g. member recruiting and retention) and administrative (e.g. membership services and database management) functions. If ABATE of Indiana can justify a full-time professional office staff, ABATE of Florida should easily be able to do so with a market base almost three times as large.


The objective of this analysis has been neither to praise nor pan ABATE of Florida or ABATE of Indiana, as there are many noble and dedicated freedom fighters in the ranks of both. Rather, by comparing and contrasting these two SMROs, my hope is that ABATE leaders and members everywhere will gain fresh perspectives enabling greater successes for all those truly dedicated to protecting our freedom of the road.

Until Next Time … Ride Long, Ride Free!

Hired Guns & Helmet Laws

December 2005

Part 1: Survey Preamble

Last month we noted that people frequently equate bikers’ rights with helmet law issues. Likewise, many consider the terms “SMRO” and “ABATE” to be synonymous. Actually…

SMRO is an acronym for “State Motorcyclists’ Rights Organization” or “State MRO.” MRO is often defined as “motorcycle rights organization” but that is incorrect. Motorcycles are property, not people. They don’t have rights … only their riders do.

There is at least one SMRO in each of the 50 states, and over 40 of them use “ABATE” in their name or as an acronym. In the original ABATE organization–founded in the early 1970s in California by Lou Kimzey of EasyRiders Magazine–the acronym stood for:

A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments

In recent years, that reference has been morphed into phrases like:

A Brotherhood Active Towards Education
A Brotherhood for Awareness, Training and Education
Alaska Bikers Advocating Training and Education
Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Equity
American Bikers Acting To Educate
American Bikers Aimed Towards Education
American Bikers Aiming Towards Education
American Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education

These changes in what ABATE the acronym stands for are reflective of changes that continue to take place in what ABATE the organization stands for. ABATE began as a bikers’ rights organization. Over time, as the new names above suggest, the focus has shifted increasingly to motorcycle safety … an oxymoron for some … and topic for another day for us. For now, our focus is strictly on ABATE as an SMRO.

The principal role of SMROs is to protect the rights and promote the interests of motorcycle riders at the state level. One of the primary means by which they accomplish this is lobbying, a term broadly defined as “… attempting to influence or sway a public official toward a desired action.” Like many things in life, lobbying has both positive and negative connotations:

On the plus side, lobbying helps keep legislators in touch with their constituents and informed about their issues. The right to lobby is even protected in the U.S. Constitution by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights which reads, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the right of the people … to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

On the minus side, historically lobbying has been associated with unscrupulous “influence peddling” activities such as bribery, blackmail, fraudulent misrepresentation and extortion. This is why every state has a Committee or Commission on Ethics, Integrity, Political Practices and/or Public Disclosure to register and regulate the activities of lobbyists–especially paid professional lobbyists. Many states also require lobbyists to wear badges identifying themselves as such whenever they are in the presence of legislators or government officials. Politicians often perceive lobbyists as being one of two types, grassroots or hired guns, and filter their messages accordingly:

  • Grassroots lobbyists include common citizens stating their case and volunteers promoting their cause. Their advantages include credibility, conviction, and the fact that elected officials are particularly attentive to facts and viewpoints provided by their (voting) constituents.
  • Hired guns are the paid professional lobbyists and political mercenaries that spin information and sell influence for a living. Their advantages include political sophistication, familiarity with the rules, and intimacy with the players.

Part 2: Survey Results

As lobbying is one of the principal means by which SMROs achieve their objectives, and defeating mandatory helmet laws has traditionally been their primary goal, I decided it might be enlightening to survey which methods of the former (lobbying) have been most effective with the latter (helmet laws). Here are the results of that survey:

November 2005 Survey Summary

Click here for the survey PDF

Lobbyist vs. No Lobbyist

Of the 50 SMROs surveyed, 21 (42%) were identified as employing (including using or contracting) lobbyists, while 29 (58%) did not.

Of the 21 states where SMROs employed lobbyists, 15 (71%) had either no mandatory helmet law or only partial helmet mandates for riders failing to meet age, insurance or similar requirements. The other 6 (29%) of these states had full mandatory helmet laws.

Of the 29 states where SMROs did not employ lobbyists, 19 (66%) had either no mandatory helmet law or only partial helmet mandates for riders failing to meet age, insurance or similar requirements. The other 10 (34%) of these states had full mandatory helmet laws.

Observation: If you view partial or no helmet mandates as success, and full mandatory helmet laws as failure, then the SMROs employing lobbyists showed only a slight (5%) advantage over those that did not. And among those, the assertion was often that lobbying was a team effort in which all members were encouraged to participate. As Bernie ‘Faceman’ Adams (President, Virginia Freedom Riders) proclaimed, “Our Freedom Fighters are our lobbyists.”

Paid vs. Unpaid Lobbyists

Of the 21 SMROs that employed lobbyists, 10 (48%) were identified as employing paid lobbyists, and 11 (52%) employed unpaid (volunteer) lobbyists.

Of the 10 states where SMROs employed paid lobbyists, 9 (90%) had either no mandatory helmet law or only partial helmet mandates for riders failing to meet age, insurance or similar requirements. The other 1 (10%) of these states had full mandatory helmet laws.

Of the 11 states where SMROs employed unpaid (volunteer) lobbyists, 6 (55%) had either no mandatory helmet law or only partial helmet mandates for riders failing to meet age, insurance or similar requirements. The other 5 (45%) of these states had full mandatory helmet laws.

Observation: If you view partial or no helmet mandates as success, and full mandatory helmet laws as failure, then the SMROs employing paid lobbyists showed a significant (35%) advantage. This is offset somewhat by the fact that some of the mixed results attributed to volunteers were actually brought about by hired guns who proved to be bad shots. Ken ‘Kenbo’ Moore (President, Kentucky Motorcycle Association) told us “… We do not employ any paid lobbyist. We tried one time and it produced nothing.” And as Donald ‘Duck’ Smith (State Communications Coordinator, ABATE of West Virginia) sagely quipped, “… Nop’ it ain’t easy. But it’s better than having a paid slug that don’t care.”

Full-Time vs. Part-Time Paid Lobbyists

Of the 10 SMROs that employed paid lobbyists, 3 (30%) were identified as employed full-time (32 hours or more per week), while 7 (70%) were employed part-time.

All 3 of the states where SMROs employed full-time paid lobbyists had either no mandatory helmet law or only partial helmet mandates for riders failing to meet age, insurance or similar requirements.

Of the 7 states where SMROs employed part-time paid lobbyists, 6 (86%) had either no mandatory helmet law or only partial helmet mandates for riders failing to meet age, insurance or similar requirements. The other 1 (14%) of these states had full mandatory helmet laws.

Observation: If you view partial or no helmet mandates as success, and full mandatory helmet laws as failure, then the SMROs employing full-time paid lobbyists showed a 14% advantage over those whose hired guns had more than one client. This may simply indicate the obvious, that the more focused you are the more effective you will be. It may also result from the fact that the 3 full-time paid lobbyists identified by the survey are themselves motorcyclists and therefore likely to share the conviction of their grassroots volunteer counterparts. Charles Umbenhauer, lobbyist for ABATE of Pennsylvania, is a good example.

Until Next Time … Ride Long, Ride Free!

The Wrong Battle

November 2005

When you mention bikers’ rights, the first thing that comes to many people’s minds is the helmet issue, which I believe to be one of the most widely debated yet least understood items on the MRO agenda.

First of all, the real issue is NOT helmets … it is whether motorcycle riders should be required by law to wear them. This is a helmet law issue, and a question of individual liberties and freedom of choice. It is NOT a safety issue, but safety is the arena where the fight is taking place.

I believe we are fighting the wrong battle. We are fighting a battle that cannot be won, and doesn’t need to be. We are engaging the enemy on their grounds, and under their terms. And if you follow the teachings of Sun Tzu, you know that to be a strategic blunder.

Let’s say I tied you to a chair, stood in front of you with a hammer and a helmet, and asked if you wanted me to strap the helmet on you before I hit you on top of your head. Would your answer be “Yes?”

Of course you’d say “Yes!” Anybody with enough sense to get a driver’s license knows that wearing a helmet increases the safety of the head it covers. Despite that knowledge, we have one of the nation’s largest SMROs issuing a press release that claims:

“Helmetless” Riders are Less Likely to Die in Motorcycle Crashes on Florida Roads

According to the recently released, Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles annual Traffic Crash Statistics Report for 2004, motorcycle riders wearing helmets were more likely to sustain an injury or suffer a fatality than their non-helmeted counterparts…. Of the 388 motorcycle riders killed in crashes on Florida roads during 2004, over 51% were wearing safety helmets. The crash facts also demonstrate that riders wearing safety helmets were more likely to sustain injuries than non-helmeted riders. In each of the statistical focus topics presented in the study, the percentage numbers were very close between helmeted and non-helmeted riders, except for non-injury crashes. The study stated that non-helmeted riders were 20% more likely to walk away from a crash without injuries than riders who were wearing helmets. This disparity could be due to the visual and physical limitations imposed by a helmet. Wearing a motorcycle helmet cannot keep a crash from occurring, however, riding without a helmet could allow a rider to respond more quickly or to visually recognize potential hazards, decreasing the severity of the injury sustained or avoiding injury all together.

Source: http://www.abatese.org/helmetless/PressRelease20050921.doc

What’s wrong with these statements? Among other things, the report referred to …

does NOT state that “‘Helmetless’ Riders are Less Likely to Die in Motorcycle Crashes on Florida Roads,”

does NOT state that “… motorcycle riders wearing helmets were more likely to sustain an injury or suffer a fatality than their non-helmeted counterparts,”

does NOT state that “…non-helmeted riders were 20% more likely to walk away from a crash without injuries than riders who were wearing helmets,”

… and, NONE of these assertions can be supported by application of scientifically valid statistical methods to the data reported.

Yes, it is true that according to the 2004 Florida Traffic Crash Statistics Report, 388 motorcyclists died in fatal crashes, 200 (51.55%) wearing helmets and 188 (48.45%) not. And yes, according to the report, 762 motorcycle riders and passengers were involved in crashes but not injured, 304 (40%) wearing helmets and 458 (60%) not. But this is only one year’s data, from which no statistically valid conclusions can be drawn to support the probabilities or likelihoods asserted in the SMRO press release.

What’s missing is not only trend or time series data, but also a provable correlation or cause-and-effect relationship. Let’s says that 100 riders headed for Sturgis and 30 broke down along the way, 20 of the 30 riding Harleys and the other 10 riding BMWs. Given only those facts, could you reasonably conclude that the chances of any rider making it to Sturgis are 7 in 10? Or, could you indisputably claim that Harleys are twice as likely to break down as BMWs?

Of course you couldn’t! You don’t have enough data to support such assertions. Likewise, the SMRO didn’t have enough data to support theirs. For example:

Over the 2004 period of the study, how many motorcycle riders were on the roads and exposed to crashes? How many of the riders wore helmets, and for what percentage of their total riding time did they wear them? With data like this, we might learn that 200,000 riders wore helmets 100% of the time, 100,000 wore helmets 50% of the time, and 300,000 riders never wore helmets. We might analyze this as being the statistical equivalent of a base of 600,000 riders, 250,000 wearing helmets and 350,000 not. If that were the case, then there might appear to be a statistically significant positive correlation between fatal crashes and helmet-wearing. But we don’t have that base data, so we can’t establish that correlation.

Let’s say we did have the data, and we were able to establish the correlation. Let’s say the numbers actually did support an assertion that “… motorcycle riders wearing helmets are more likely to be involved in a fatal crash.” Most people wouldn’t believe it, even given the “visual and physical limitations” argument put forth by the SMRO.

If the numbers supported it, I could believe that “… motorcycle riders wearing helmets are more likely to be involved in a fatal crash.” But that is NOT the same as saying that wearing a helmet increases the likelihood of a fatal crash. Instead, I believe that inexperienced riders are both more likely to wear helmets and more likely to crash than experienced riders. In other words, I suspect that experience might be the true base of the correlation, and helmets merely an indicator. Maybe someday, somebody will research that!

So, what drove the SMRO to issue such a press release? This did: In August, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a report entitled “Evaluation of the Repeal of the All-Rider Motorcycle Helmet Law in Florida,” the abstract of which reads as follows:

Effective July 1, 2000, Florida eliminated the legal requirement that all motorcycle riders wear helmets. State law now requires helmet use only by riders under the age of 21, or older riders who do not carry at least $10,000 of medical insurance. Observational surveys and crash reports indicated that helmet use dropped substantially following the law change. Motorcyclist fatalities increased by 81 percent comparing 2001-2003 to 1997-1999, compared to +48 percent nationally. Non-fatal serious injuries began increasing in the first six months of 2000, increased by 32 percent in the first year following law repeal. There was a 40 percent increase in the number of injured motorcyclists who were admitted to hospitals. Admissions for head injuries increased by 82 percent. The average head injury treatment cost increased by almost $10,000, to $45,602. In 1998 and 1999, the acute care hospital charges for head-brain-skull principal injury cases per 10,000 registered motorcycles were $311,549 and $428,347 respectively. The comparable figures for 2001 and 2002 were $605,854 and $610,386, adjusted for inflation. Time series analysis showed a statistically significant increase in fatalities while controlling for changes in motorcycle registrations. Similar analyses also showed significant increases for Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas. Florida crash reports also indicated that helmet use declined markedly among riders under age 21, who were still covered by the law. Fatalities in this age group nearly tripled in the three years after the law change. Comparing the 30 months before and after the law change, there was an increase of 55 percent in the average annual number of motorcyclists killed (181 to 280, respectively). Registrations increased an average 33.7 percent in this time period. Some of the increases in fatalities and other injuries in Florida were probably due to this increased ridership. The expected number of motorcycle fatalities as a result of the increase in registrations was 242. The actual number who died in 2002 was 301, 56 (+24 percent) more motorcycle fatalities than expected as a result of increased registrations alone. Nationally in 2001 and 2002, motorcycle miles of travel declined compared to earlier years. Given the large registration increase in Florida, it is unlikely that this national pattern held in the State.

Source: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/motorcycle/FlaMCReport/images/FloridaMCReportscr1.pdf

In short, the NHTSA report blames the July 2000 change in Florida’s motorcycle helmet laws for a significant portion of the increases in motorcycle crash injuries and deaths that have occurred since that date. The SMRO apparently saw this as a challenge in the safety arena, and responded with the first statistics that seemed suitable for their purpose. What they missed is that NHTSA’s analysis, like their own analysis of the 2004 Florida Traffic Crash Statistics Report, failed to address the possibility that the increases in crash deaths and injuries not attributable to increased registrations may be attributable to a disproportionate increase in the number of inexperienced riders as opposed to any decrease in helmet usage. And as I said earlier, maybe someday somebody will research that!

So … is that my point then? That the political factions both for and against mandatory helmet laws are making safety arguments flawed by incomplete data, incorrect premises, ignored causal factors and unsubstantiated conclusions?

Nope. That is merely an observation. I conclude as I began:

  • The helmet issue is NOT about safety. If motorcyclists’ rights activists continue to fight in that arena, they are likely to lose not only the battles but ultimately the war.
  • The helmet law issue is about individual liberties and freedom of choice. These are the high grounds, and if we take them, we will win.

Until Next Time … Ride Long, Ride Free!

Be a Freedom Fighter

October 2005

Welcome to the first installment of Bruce on Bikers’ Rights™!

This exclusive online series is going to be about motorcyclists’ rights: the legislation, the issues, motorcycle rights organizations (MROs), and when, where and how you, the individual motorcyclist, can make a difference in Washington D.C., your state capitol, and wherever you may ride.

Let me begin by challenging you all to make a commitment to be freedom fighters and not welfare riders. By that I mean our rights, liberties and freedom come at a cost–a cost paid by those who are willing to step up to the challenge. If someone asks you what you are doing to preserve our freedom of choice regarding helmets … or to protect our right to build choppers with ape hangers … or to maintain our HOV lane privileges … or to assure that soccer moms with cell phones glued to their ears think twice (and look twice) before they force us off the road … I want you to have a better answer than “I don’t know…” And, I sure as hell hope you wouldn’t say “I don’t care!”

Don’t be a welfare rider, taking advantage of all the privileges, and leaving others to pay the price. Don’t be some REMF (rear echelon mother f***er), hiding in the rear with the gear. And don’t cruise around like some garrett trooper, all shine and no substance. Come on up to the front lines, folks! Take the point! Get involved! Make a difference, for Christ’s sake! Here is a great way to get started:

The Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF.org) is the leading voice for bikers in Washington, D.C. The Motorcycle Riders Foundation is committed to less federal government involvement in your daily life. The MRF firmly supports the rights of the individual state governments to enact legislation without the threat of federal intervention. They stand for freedom of choice, freedom from unsafe highways, and freedom from unfair and overly restrictive federal and international regulations. The MRF’s nationwide membership email alert system, for example, was instrumental in the defeat of the Lautenberg Amendment this year, thereby saving us all from a universal helmet law.

Are you a member of the MRF? I am proud to say that I am, and I encourage all my brothers and sisters in the wind to sign up as well. For only $25.00 a year, you’ll get MRF reports, email alerts, a patch, a pin, and most importantly, the pride of knowing that you are a freedom fighter and not a welfare rider! Logon to this web page to join the MRF today (be sure and put “Bruce sent me” in the comments field):


Show me your MRF patch at any of these events, and your next cup a’ joe is on me:

Until Next Time … Ride Long, Ride Free!