By NATALIE WEBER, Tampa Bay Times
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — In the late 1990s, when Florida bikers were still required to wear helmets, Pinellas lawyer Ron Smith was an aggressive advocate for overturning the law.
Smith was a member of ABATE — A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments and American Bikers Aimed Toward Education — which lobbied against the law for years. He represented clients who ran afoul of Florida’s motorcycle requirements in court cases that some say helped overturn Florida’s helmet law.
One of the cases went all the way to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which ruled that Florida’s helmet law at the time was constitutional, but that the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles had failed to properly publish a list of protective equipment as required by law.
Smith didn’t like being told what to do and valued his independence, said Dave Newman, who met the attorney through an American Legion post in Old Town where they were both members.
“He thought everybody should have their own choice,” Newman said.
In 2000, Smith’s aspiration was realized when the Florida Legislature passed a law allowing motorcyclists over 21 to go without head protection as long as they had $10,000 in insurance coverage for motorcycle accident injuries.
In August, Smith and his girlfriend, Brenda Jeanan Volpe, were riding a motorcycle on US 19 in Pinellas County. They were headed to a memorial service for another biker who had died of cancer.
Smith crashed the bike as he tried to slow for traffic ahead of him. Both he and Volpe were killed.
Neither was wearing a helmet.
Smith and Volpe were on their first ride with the American Legion Post 173 in Holiday when they crashed.
Smith, 66, was an experienced rider. He had been a member of the American Legion rider’s group in Old Town for about two years, even serving as the rider director for a year. Volpe, 62, rode along as Smith’s passenger.
As they headed south on US 19 on the morning of Aug. 20, Smith lost control of his bike as he tried to slow down for traffic near the intersection with Eagle Chase Boulevard. Smith’s motorcycle started spinning clockwise and the bike collided with a trailer attached to a pickup truck in another lane.
No one has been charged in the accident, said Florida Highway Patrol spokesperson Steve Gaskins.
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.
“It’s entirely possible that if they were wearing a helmet they might have survived, but again, we can’t say for sure. It certainly would have improved their odds,” said Eric Teoh, who has researched motorcycle safety at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Helmets decrease the risk of death for motorcyclists by 37%, according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They are estimated to be about 41% effective for motorcycle passengers, meaning that for every 100 motorcyclist deaths, 41 could’ve been prevented if the riders were wearing helmets.
In states without helmet laws, 57% of motorcyclists who died in 2020 were not wearing a helmet compared to 11% of motorcyclists in states with helmet laws. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring helmets for all riders on all motorcycle-type vehicles.
Florida’s death rate increased by 25% after its helmet law was repealed, according to one study, and the number of motorcyclists admitted to hospitals with head injuries jumped 82% in the 30 months following the law change.
Nationwide, “things are moving in the wrong direction,” with preliminary reports showing a 9% increase in motorcyclist deaths from 2020 to 2021, Teoh said.
“Motorcyclists face greater risk on the road than occupants of enclosed vehicles,” Teoh said. “So it’s just really, really important to protect themselves.”
Friends remembered Smith as a sharp lawyer who loved to argue, but who also had a dry sense of humor and a generous spirit.
In 1996, he represented a man who was ticketed for riding without a helmet in Madeira Beach, according to a Tampa Tribune article. That case got the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office to briefly stop enforcing the state’s helmet law after a county judge dismissed the citation. The judge relied on another court case that Smith had handled in which a different county judge ruled that Florida’s helmet law was unconstitutional.
Smith told the Tribune at the time that he went out “looking for a ticket” in Pinellas County by riding a motorcycle without a helmet for 90 miles.
“I passed at least a half-dozen cops,” he said in an interview. “And all I got was a sunburn.”
Smith spent six years as a prosecutor, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said. Smith also worked in criminal defense and was a strong advocate for his clients, said fellow lawyer Joseph Hobson, who described Smith as “an outstanding attorney.”
Tampa defense attorney Bryant Camareno first met Smith about 30 years ago. Camareno was a young prosecutor at the time, while Smith had transitioned over to criminal defense. Smith was a somewhat unconventional attorney, Camareno said: He didn’t wear the double-breasted suits favored by many lawyers, but instead came to court with long hair, a mustache and a pair of boots.
“He looked like someone you would see in a biker bar,” Camareno said.
Gary Prass, who met Smith through the American Legion post in Old Town, fondly recalled breakfasts with Smith, who loved everything on the menu from eggs to hash browns to grits.
“He was a guy that you went to for advice,” Prass said.
Volpe was a social woman who loved her kids and was always eager to help out at American Legion functions, friends recalled.
Gary Pruss’ wife, Connie Pruss, said Volpe was full of “piss and vinegar” and fondly recalled a surprise party that Volpe planned for Smith.
“She was funny,” Connie Prass said. “She had the biggest smile.”
Newman remembered Volpe as an outgoing, bubbly woman who was, in many ways, Smith’s opposite.
“The first time I met her, she acted like we’d known each other our entire lives,” Newman said.
Smith’s son declined an interview request and attempts to reach Volpe’s children at phone numbers listed under their names were unsuccessful.
After the crash, the American Legion Post in Holiday implemented a handful of new safety rules, according to its rider director, Eddie Rodriguez.
They will ask riders whether they have taken any motorcycle safety courses, and if not, connect them to a class. Riders will be asked about their experience level and medical histories. They’ll also be required to do a road test before going on rides with the group, and ride in the back of the formation on their first group ride.
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.
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