Prominent Florida ABATE Attorney Dies in Crash

John Burns
by John Burns
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Ron Smith and friend Brenda Volpe were reportedly on their way to the funeral of another friend when Smith had to brake suddenly and crashed August 20th near Holiday, FL; both suffered fatal injuries. The Tampa Bay Times reports, “It’s impossible to say whether a helmet would have prevented Smith’s and Volpe’s deaths, experts said. Smith’s autopsy report lists blunt head trauma as his cause of death and an initial report from the Hillsborough Medical Examiner’s Office also lists Volpe’s cause of death as head trauma.”

prominent florida abate attorney dies in crash, Ron Smith and Brenda Volpe photo courtesy Gary Pruss
Ron Smith and Brenda Volpe (photo courtesy Gary Pruss)

Florida is one of a bunch of states that dialed back its helmet requirements in the last couple of decades, and Smith was a key proponent of that. Here’s a brief history from the National Library of Medicine:


Florida’s universal helmet law was first implemented in September 1967. For over 30 years, motorcycle rider groups led by American Bikers Aiming Toward Education (ABATE) lobbied the Florida legislature to amend the law. One argument unique to Florida and states with similar climates was that wearing a helmet in the intense heat was especially burdensome. An amendment of Florida’s universal helmet law nearly passed several times, including one occasion in 1985 when it was vetoed by Governor Bob Graham, a Democrat. The state legislature switched from Democratic to split control in 1992 and to Republican control in 1996. These political developments combined with a growing motorcycle population, involvement of ABATE in state campaigns, and changes in federal incentives created a legislative climate that was more supportive of policies focused on individual rights.

In 2000, the legislature passed and Governor Jeb Bush, a Republican, signed a bill amending Florida’s helmet policy to apply only to those riders who are either under age 21 years or without a medical benefit of at least $10 000 on their insurance policy. Governor Bush expressed his political perspective on the issue as follows:

I believe government oversteps its legitimate role when it excessively interferes with personal freedom… . Of course we could significantly reduce deaths, injuries, or health risks … through a mandate that all individuals exercise, wear sunscreen, stop smoking and learn to swim; yet we impose no such requirements.

The amendment passed despite objections from several organizations, including the AAA Auto Club and the Brain Injury Association of Florida. Florida requires special license tags for young riders to enable law enforcement to determine more easily whether an unhelmeted rider is underage. Studies have found that motorcycle registrations and fatalities increased in Florida after the universal helmet policy was amended. One evaluation estimated that in the year after the law change, rider fatalities rose 21.3% after adjusting for registrations.

Get the in-depth story from the Tampa Bay Times here, which includes this silver lining:

After the crash, the American Legion Post in Holiday implemented a handful of new safety rules, according to its rider director, Eddie Rodriguez… The post isn’t requiring helmets, though they are highly encouraged, Rodriguez said. He said the group doesn’t want to alienate those who might not want to wear them.

Even so, that rule might not be needed at this point. Riders who had previously resisted helmets have started wearing them, Rodriguez said. And on his first ride after the deaths, Rodriguez made an observation while looking at all the riders in the group.

“Every single one had a helmet on,” he said.

Our condolences to the families and friends of Mr. Smith and Ms. Volpe. We encourage all our readers and non-readers to always wear a helmet.

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John Burns
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