In the late 1990s, when Florida bikers were still required to wear helmets, Pinella attorney Ron Smith aggressively campaigned to have the law repealed.
Smith was a member of ABATE – A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments and American Bikers Aimed Toward Education – which campaigned against the law for years. He represented clients who violated Florida’s motorcycle requirements in court cases that some say helped repeal Florida’s helmet law.
One of the cases went as far as the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that Florida’s helmet law at the time was constitutional, but the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles had failed to properly publish a list of protective equipment required by law.
Smith didn’t like being told what to do and valued his independence, said Dave Newman, who met the attorney through a post with the American Legion in Old Town, where they were both members.
“He thought everyone should have their own choice,” Newman said.
In 2000, Smith’s aspiration was realized when the Florida legislature passed legislation allowing motorcyclists over the age of 21 to ride without headgear as long as they had $10,000 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 on their way to a memorial service for another biker who died of cancer.
Smith crashed his bike while trying to slow down for the traffic in front of him. Both he and Volpe were killed.
Nobody wore a helmet.
Smith and Volpe were on their first ride in American Legion Post 173 at Holiday when they fell.
Smith, 66, was an experienced driver. He was a member of the American Legion equestrian group in Old Town for about two years and even served as equestrian director for a year. Volpe, 62, rode as Smith’s passenger.
As they were traveling south on US 19 on the morning of August 20, Smith lost control of his bike when he tried to slow for traffic near the intersection with Eagle Chase Boulevard. Smith’s motorcycle began rotating clockwise and the motorcycle collided with a trailer attached to a pickup truck in another lane.
No one has been charged in the accident, Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Steve Gaskins said.
Experts say there’s no telling whether a helmet could have prevented Smith and Volpe’s deaths. Smith’s autopsy report lists blunt head trauma as the 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 they would have survived if they had worn a helmet, but again we can’t say for sure. It would certainly have improved their chances,” said Eric Teoh, who has done research on motorcycle safety at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
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According to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, helmets reduce the risk of death for motorcyclists by 37%. It is estimated that they are about 41% effective on motorcycle passengers, meaning that out of 100 motorcyclist deaths, 41 could have been prevented if riders had worn 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 vehicles.
According to a study, Florida’s mortality rate rose 25% after the helmet law was repealed, and the number of motorcyclists hospitalized with head injuries rose 82% in the 30 months after 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 are at greater risk on the road than occupants of closed vehicles,” Teoh said. “So it’s just really, really important to protect yourself.”
Friends remembered Smith as an astute lawyer who enjoyed arguing but also had a dry sense of humor and a generous spirit.
In 1996, according to an article in the Tampa Tribune, he represented a man who was fined for driving without a helmet in Madeira Beach. That case prompted the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office to temporarily halt enforcement of the state’s helmet statute after a district judge dismissed the subpoena. The judge relied on another court case Smith handled in which another district judge ruled that Florida’s helmet law was unconstitutional.
Smith told the Tribune at the time that he was “looking for a ticket” in Pinellas County by riding a motorcycle 90 miles without a helmet.
“I passed at least half a dozen police officers,” he said in an interview. “And all I got was a sunburn.”
Smith served as a prosecutor for six years, said Pinellas-Pasco District Attorney Bruce Bartlett. Smith also worked in criminal defense and was a strong advocate for his clients, said fellow attorney Joseph Hobson, who called Smith “an outstanding attorney.”
Tampa defenseman Bryant Camareno first met Smith about 30 years ago. Camareno was then a junior prosecutor while Smith had transitioned into criminal defense. Smith is a somewhat unconventional lawyer, said Camareno: He does not wear the double-breasted suit favored by many lawyers, but appears in court with long hair, a mustache and boots.
“He looked like someone you see in a biker bar,” Camareno said.
Gary Pruss, who had met Smith through the American Legion post in Old Town, fondly recalled having breakfast with Smith, who loved everything on the menu from eggs to hash browns to grits.
“He was a guy you went to for advice,” Pruss said.
Volpe was a social woman who loved her children and was always willing to help out at American Legion events, friends recalled.
Gary Pruss’ wife, Connie Pruss, said Volpe was full of “piss and vinegar” and fondly recalled a surprise party Volpe planned for Smith.
“She was funny,” said Connie Pruss. “She had the biggest smile.”
Newman remembered Volpe as an outgoing, vivacious woman who was in many ways Smith’s opposite.
“When I first met her, she acted like we’d known each other all our lives,” Newman said.
Smith’s son declined an interview request, and attempts to reach Volpe’s children at the phone numbers listed under their names were unsuccessful.
After the crash, the American Legion Post in Holiday introduced a handful of new safety rules, according to driver director Eddie Rodriguez.
They ask riders if they’ve taken motorcycle safety courses, and if not, they match them to a class. Drivers are asked about their level of experience and medical history. They must also do a road test before riding with the group and ride in the back of the formation on their first group ride.
The post doesn’t require helmets, although they’re highly recommended, Rodriguez said. He said the group didn’t want to offend those who might not want to wear them.
Nevertheless, this rule may not be needed at this point. Riders who had previously resisted helmets have started wearing them, Rodriguez said. And on his first ride after death, Rodriguez made an observation while looking at all the riders in the group.
“Everyone had a helmet on,” he said.