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Government lesson for teens pushing for helmet law

DES MOINES (AP) — Since Iowa City teenager Caroline Found died in a mo-ped crash nearly two years ago, a group of her friends have been campaigning to change state law so that underage mo-ped drivers are required to wear helmets — an effort that last week again failed to advance in the Senate.

While Leah Murray, 18, Olivia Lofgren, 19, and Caroline Van Voorhis, 18, described themselves as undeterred, their experience has been a political education in the often slow process of getting legislation passed, which can require grassroots organizing, public education campaigns, befriending legislators and years of work.

“Politics are not how the textbooks describe it. You need connections, you need to know people. It definitely is who you know compared to what you know sometimes,” said Murray, a freshman at Hope College in Michigan.

Murray and Lofgren testified last month before a Senate subcommittee on behalf of the bill, which would require helmets for mo-ped drivers under 18. They called it a common-sense safety measure in a state with no helmet laws, but motorcycle advocates lined up in opposition. While the legislation passed the subcommittee, it had little support from lawmakers and never made it to a committee vote.

“They have taken on an issue that has stiff opposition in the form of an organized group that has been pretty successful in preventing any progressive policy around head injury,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who sponsored the legislation.

Iowa is one of just three states with no motorcycle helmet laws. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 23 states have motorcycle helmet laws that cover mo-peds and another 19 states have laws that cover some lower power vehicles like mo-peds.

Phil McCormick, state coordinator for the motorcycle advocacy group ABATE Iowa, said the state shouldn’t make helmet decisions for young people.

“We believe that it is the parents’ responsibility to raise the kids, not the government’s. Everybody under 18, their parents should make the decision,” McCormick said.

In 2011, 17,026 mo-peds were registered with the state, according to data from the Department of Transportation. That year there were 201 crashes of mo-peds, all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, with injuries in 170 of those cases, said Dennis Kleen, a DOT staffer.

Found’s death in August, 2011 was one of three mo-ped fatalities that year, Kleen said. Found was 17 when she lost control of a mo-ped and hit a tree. She was not wearing a helmet.

Murray said this campaign, called Hope for a Helmet, started after Found’s death in hopes of preventing similar situations. An attorney in their neighborhood offered support and introductions to lawmakers, and they got help from Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, who taught at the girls’ grade school before entering the Legislature.

“We realized that Iowa is one of three states in the nation without any helmet laws. How crazy is that?” Murray said. “Iowa is such a great state. We lead in education and politics, why not lead in safety too?”

The teens said they would continue to build support for their legislation around the state. They’ve gathered 2,000 signatures on a petition and hope to increase that number.

“Showing senators and legislators it’s a statewide issue and it’s not just people from Iowa City. We just need to get the word out and continue to talk to more people,” said Van Voorhis, a freshman at Vanderbilt University.

Experienced issue advocates said persistence and coalition-building were keys to passing Iowa’s smoking ban, which prohibits smoking in public places and restaurants. That law passed in 2008, but supporters said it took nearly a decade of work to make it happen.

“It takes a long time to build what is a grassroots support. That is working across the state in as many districts as you can, because you have to convince legislators this is a good thing to vote for,” said Christopher Squier, a professor of oral pathology at the University of Iowa who was active in the campaign.

Lofgren, a freshman at St. Ambrose University, said she’s heard from parents that their campaign has already had an impact.

“I know I’ve been told by so many people that we have already saved children’s lives. Parents have come up and said, because of you guys my child is wearing a helmet,” Lofgren said.

Still, the teens said they’ll be back to the state Capitol as many times as it takes to get the legislation passed.

“No one should have to start their senior year by going to their best friend’s funeral. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what we did,” Murray said. “I’m 18 years old. I’ve got my whole life to pass this law.”

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