A changing of the guard
The National Motorists Association celebrates 30 years on the front line for drivers; longtime President Jim Baxter gives the wheel to new chief Gary Biller

By Sandi Soendker, editor-in-chief

A small but resolute group now known as the National Motorists Association arrived on the scene in 1982 with a single goal: Get rid of the national speed limit.

Its track record includes a huge role in doing away with 55. The Wisconsin-based organization has been fighting for fair driving privileges ever since. For all drivers, NMA leaders are quick to point out.

This year NMA observes its 30th anniversary with a nod to its successful past and an eye toward the future. The name of the group in 1982 was actually the “Citizen’s Coalition for Rational Traffic Law.” It was renamed “Citizens for Rational Traffic Laws” in 1987 and then changed permanently to the National Motorists Association in 1990.

Throughout all of that, the president of the group was Jim Baxter, who took the message of the organization far and wide. It was mostly the same: Members of NMA want to go where they want to go, drive what they want to drive, and not be impeded by self-serving government.

The message appealed to OOIDA’s Executive Vice President Todd Spencer who has been a member for nearly 25 years.

When the fight to repeal the 55 mph national speed limit took off, Spencer and OOIDA joined with Baxter and NMA to create a formidable opposition to the “double nickel.”

Both groups have strong convictions that if traffic signals and speed limits are properly set, using known traffic-engineering principles, the result is compliance and improved safety. Why that is not happening is because, unfortunately, properly set traffic signals and speed limits don’t generate ticket revenue or appease those with a command-and-control mentality.

“The 55 mph speed limit is a perfect example of what happens when there is not an organized and effective voice in place to protect motorists from irrational and counter-productive public policies or corporate initiatives like ticket cameras,” Baxter said. “A law, the national speed limit law, that should have never been passed in the first place, tormented the driving public for 22 years, primarily because there was no organized opposition when it was first proposed.”

Today, NMA supports higher speed limits, an end to speed traps, fairer traffic courts, and stopping the use of traffic tickets to generate revenue. It wants red-light ticket cameras and photo speed enforcement off the streets, roads, and highways. They oppose road blocks for any purpose.

A message on their website proclaims: “NMA wants better lane courtesy on our highways and our user fees spent on meeting our needs, not harassing us. Drivers have rights too, including the right to privacy in our cars and trucks and the right to travel without being tracked and spied upon by our own government.”

Jim Baxter brought Gary Biller on board in July 2009 as executive director, with the purpose of turning the group’s leadership over to him when the time came. 

Biller assumed the title of president of the National Motorists Association on Jan. 1 of this year. 

Baxter remains a devoted part of NMA, but Biller says the former and longtime president of NMA has vowed to keep his distance to let the new management team work on its own projects and programs. Biller says he will concentrate on legislative strategies, as well as membership and fundraising growth. 

Biller, a graduate of Columbia University, likes being involved in community-based issues, mostly doing volunteer work with the local United Way and related agencies. 

“I grew more of a social conscience in the aftermath of 9/11,” he says. “It took events of that magnitude, I guess, to knock a large chunk of apathy out of me.”

Through the dozens of stories that the NMA receives weekly from members and from the general public, he became a “convert.”

“I heard so many stories of poorly-written and unfairly applied traffic laws, and of the quashing of defendants’ rights in traffic courts around the country,” he says. “It took those stories for me to realize that the work Jim Baxter has been doing for the past three decades – mostly unsung work – is vital. It has to be carried on.” LL