The Motor Cycle Helmet Fight of the Mid-1970’s that Brought ABATE to Maturity

One of these motorcyclists riding past our house on Lake Avenue doesn't seem to be wearing a helmet. His choice.

I see that the mandatory motorcycle helmet folks are back.

The Chicago Sun-Times editorialized about passage last November and I saved the piece to remind me to write this article.

Back in 1975, James “Bud” Washburn of Morris was Republican leader of a very diminished post-Watergate election Republican minority.

I was in my second term and pretty everyone left standing–76 out of 177–was named a Republican Committee Spokesman. I rated the Motor Vehicles Committee.

Motorcyclist leaving Skinner driveway wearing a helmet. His choice.

I had served on it before when Pete Papas of Rock Island.  He was indicted by then U.S. Attorney Jim Thompson along with maybe four others.

They were members of the Motor Vehicle Laws Commission.

I learned about that entity when the committee held an industry-paid for dinner in the lower level of the Mansion View Inn.

That was the motel across from the Executive Mansion that Paul Powell is reputed to have owned while he was Secretary of State and in which his employees were told to stay if they came to Springfield.

In any event, Committee Chairman Pappas used the event to tell the newcomers how his committee was run.

He said that if the Motor Vehicles Laws Commission reviewed bills and if that group recommended a bill it was OK to vote for it.

Freshman Skinner raised his hand and told him I had agreed to co-sponsor a bill that would come to our committee to eliminate the need to have a driver’s license application notarized.

“I don’t want to tell you how to vote, but if the Motor Vehicle Laws Commission has recommended the bill, it’s OK to vote for it,” Pappas said.

Glencoe Democratic Party reformer Harold Katz had already put me on as a co-sponsor the bill.   I told Pappas that.

“I don’t want to tell you how to vote, but if the Motor Vehicle Laws Commission has recommended the bill, it’s OK to vote for it,” Pappas repeated.

Seemed strange.

That first year in the General Assembly I had a lot of bills and was often running from committee to committee presenting them, while trying to attend the meetings of committees on which I served.

The Motor Vehicle Committee met in the Capitol where the press room now is located.

I remember rushing in one day while a committee vote was in progress.  I asked McHenry
County’s Democrat Tom Hanahan, first elected on the bed sheet ballot in 1964, what the bill was about.  He told me and I voted for it.

To the dismay of Chairman Pappas.

If looks could kill, I would have been a one-termer.

Katz and I also managed to get the bill out of committee.

Without opposition I see from the Digest listing below.

Even though the Motor Vehicle Laws Commission had not pre-approved it.

The stupid requirement that one find a notary to pay on car license applications is no longer law.  What sense could it make to accept hundreds of dollars to pay income taxes without a notarization, but make people find a notary to pay maybe ten bucks to get a new license plate?

The bill to repeal the requirement to notarize one car license plate payments was repealedi 1973.

Turns out everyone who served on the Motor Vehicle Laws Commission got indicted, except Henderson County self-made man Clarence Neff.  Here are the details.  They are by Mike Lawrence, who was later Governor Jim Edgar’s press secretary, not to mention a policy adviser.  If you want to read about corruption when I was starting my legislative career, this is the story to read.

During Thanksgiving week in 2010 this editorial ran in the Chicago Sun-Times.

But, back to motorcycle helmets.

I was approached by Ed Armstrong of Fox River Grove.  He was a member of ABATE, a motorcycle lobbying group.  He was also an engineer and proud owner of an old Triumph.  (Later, he served on the FRG village board.)

He filled a helmet with plaster and dropped it from head height.  The plaster shattered.

His argument was two-fold

  1. that the helmet provided precious protection and
  2. that people ought to be able to decide whether or not to wear a helmet without state law mandating it

But Secretary of State Alan Dixon and Governor Dan Walker’s Department of Transportation wanted the helmet bill out of committee.

We defeated the bill in committee, despite its being sponsored by State Rep. Gerry Shea, Mayor Richard J. Daley’s man in the House, despite his being from Riverside.

I had an intern from McHenry that year whose name escapes me right now.

His job every day was to look for bills on the calendar onto which a helmet amendment might be attached.

This was back in the days when legislators didn’t have to play “Mother, may I?” with the Speaker.

The parking lot from which this photo was taken was filled with motorcyles attending an anti-helmet rally. State reps. looked at them through the windows on their chamber on the third floor of the south wing of the Capitol.

Bill Redmond, a Democrat from DuPage County, beat Clyde Choate, a Democrat from Paul Powell “I can smell the mean a-cookin'” country in Southern Illinois, on the 93rd ballot.

Amendments didn’t have to be approved by a Speaker Mike Madigan and sent to committee for consideration.  Any amendment could be filed and had to be considered before the bill could be moved from Second Reading (the amendment stage of the legislative process) to Third Reading (the stage when passage was voted upon).

No amendment ever popped up, but we knew any day it could.

ABATE members continued to contact legislators, as the group became more and more organized.

They planned a rally in Springfield on the Sunday after session was supposed to adjourn.  Adjournment date was traditionally June 30th, because that was the day before which bills had to be passed in order to take effect immediately upon signature or, if an immediate effective date clause were not in a bill, on January 1st of the next year.

The General Assembly went into overtime that year.  We saw the 4th of July Fireworks from the House windows, if memory serves me correctly.

Then the first Sunday of July, motorcycles filled the parking lot south of the Stratton Building.  Little did they know, no one would have noticed had the legislature adjourned on time.

Of course, House members could see them.

From the comments made to me on the House floor, I knew a powerhouse lobby had been reached maturity.


The Motor Cycle Helmet Fight of the Mid-1970’s that Brought ABATE to Maturity — 4 Comments

  1. Nice article, Cal.
    I wouldn’t consider riding my motorcycle without a helmet, but I don’t believe there should be a law requiring me to do so.
    Just let all those who ride without helmets sign an irrevocable statement: “If I am injured while riding without a helmet, I agree that treatment will cease when I run out of insurance benefits and my treatment costs have bankrupted my family.”

  2. I agree that those who make that choice shouldn’t be allowed to cost the rest of us money. Life insurance policy null (or sign up in the first place for a very expensive ‘no helmet’ policy). Do not qualify for Social Security Disability Income or related SSDI-Medicaid if you are seriously injured.

    There is a reason that paramedics call them “donor cycles”

  3. Cal,

    Excellent article very interesting and informative. I will be departing shortly
    for a motorcycle trip and will be wearing a helmet. But I respect the rights
    of the individual to make that choice.

  4. Really can’t believe there is an argument about this. It’s a no-brainer. Helmets should be required. Period. You guys are idiots.

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