10 Years Later: The Great Lead Uprising
A decade ago the AMA successfully killed a misguided “Lead Law” that applied to motorcycles, which could have destroyed youth riding and racing
Nov. 15, 2021
By Kali Kotoski
It is hard to imagine how close American kids and parents were to losing their favorite two-wheeled pastime. But it is even harder to imagine what youth riding and racing would look like today had the AMA, its members and industry supporters not come together to strongly oppose the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008, which would have banned the sale of dirt bikes for kids under the age of 12.
Would youth racing even exist today? Would parents be able to purchase dirt bikes for their kids? Would manufacturers have given up on the segment due to economic pressure? What would the future of the sport look like if athletes had to wait until they were old enough to ride adult-sized dirt bikes? There are a lot of unknowns, but the nightmare scenarios at the time were hardly alarmist.
Better known as the “Lead Law,” CPSIA would have effectively banned the sale of kids’ dirt bikes over concerns about components that carry lead, typically trace amounts found in engines, brakes, suspensions, batteries and other parts, for example.
The law itself wasn’t diabolically crafted, just another unintended consequence of government policy that would have unreasonably ensnared an industry already reeling from the economic calamity of the Great Recession.
In 2008, CPSIA was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The impetus for the legislation was over growing concerns that kids’ toys manufactured particularly in China were shown to contain unacceptable amounts of lead. Because children are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead, which can cause profound and permanent damage to the brain and nervous system, parents and lawmakers swiftly acted to prevent potentially harmful imports.
But in doing so, not only were kids’ dirt bikes caught in the firing line, but also ATVs, books, bicycles, telescopes and microscopes — all products that kids would likely never chew on or ingest. Plus, it also would have curtailed the ability of parents to make parental decisions, banned the sale of certain helmets for kids even if they weren’t the ones behind the handlebars, and decimated the ATV industry.
As implementation of the law neared in 2009, dealerships across the country started to pull bikes from the showroom floor while replacement parts vanished and consumers were forced to order from Canada. The economic fallout was predicted to be immense. According to reporting by American Motorcyclist at the time, the industry estimated that it could lose up to $1 billion in revenue annually.
“The potential losses for the powersports industry are massive at a time when this country cannot afford additional economic losses,” Paul Vitrano, then-general counsel for the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America (SVIA) and the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC), told American Motorcyclist. Vitrano is currently a member of the AMA Board of Directors, Senior Assistant General Counsel for Polaris, and the current MIC Chair.
The AMA and its Government Relations Department, however, were quick to act and spread the word among its members in preparation for what ended up being a blistering three-year fight. Dealers were only told in January of 2009 that their products would be subject to the law, with the law set to take effect in February.
With the industry in crisis, the AMA rallied its members and within a month parents wrote more than 70,000 letters and e-mails to Congress and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) — the agency charged with enforcing CPSIA.
In a great act of protest, AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer Malcolm Smith flouted the law with seven-time motocross and Supercross champion and Hall of Famer Jeff Ward and other luminaries and defiantly and openly sold bikes at Malcolm’s California dealership in March of 2009.
“You all going to visit me in jail?” Malcolm asked a packed crowd that turned out. “I hope that is not the case and they wake up and change the law.”
Under the law, Malcom was liable for a $100,000 fine and time in federal prison. While he was not charged, his event helped galvanize the riding community and helped spawn the next generation of motorcycle advocates.
Motorcyclists even took their opposition to the steps of the Capitol with the AMA organizing rallies in hopes of overturning the law. Kids who spoke during the events adopted a winning phrase: “Please give me my dirt bike back. I promise not to eat it.”
Under pressure, the CPSC relented, albeit temporarily. The agency granted a two-year stay of enforcement meant to give the industry time to comply with the law, which would have cost untold sums in R&D and in developing manufacturing processes with costs handed down to the consumer.
In response to the limited reprieve, the AMA recognized kids as the 2009 AMA Motorcyclists of The Year. With that temporary victory, the issue started to fade from the public’s consciousness as the AMA and industry affiliates began the laborious lobbying process of creating a permanent exemption.
“It is not an understatement to say how close we all were to losing the right for kids to ride,” said AMA President and CEO Rob Dingman. “It really came down to the wire, and the two-year stay was a huge victory, but it wasn’t the end of the fight.”
As the end of the two-year extension approached, bureaucratic wrangling only complicated the issue. There were disputes over CPSC’s ability to rectify the matter and numerous delays that impacted some parts of the law, such as enforcement, while others, such as testing, were not affected.
“It became clear that we had to push for a wholesale change of the law to limit confusion and prevent this arbitrary attack on the sport,” Dingman said.
So in 2011 the AMA again tapped into its greatest political contingent — its members — and focused its efforts on raising grassroots support through messaging campaigns and action alerts calling on members to contact their lawmakers.
Completely flabbergasted with the situation, Maryland’s Nancy Sabater became a key warrior in the fight.
“I remember hearing about the ‘Lead Law’ when it first passed and thought it was resolved,” she recently told American Motorcyclist. “But when I saw that it was still an issue in 2011 and was closing in fast, I just couldn’t imagine how devastating it would be for kids. It would be so unfair to have robbed kids of such amazing memories and childhoods.”
With the AMA’s help, Sabater started spreading the good word. She spent day after day calling individual dealerships hoping that they would take up the cause and enlist their customers. She went to races and got into the announcer’s booth to speak; she contacted racers and asked them to get involved and to educate their fans; and she amassed a huge number of petitions in opposition to the law.
“Never before was I so passionate about a motorcycle-related issue,” Sabater said, explaining that fears over the worst possible outcome fueled her determination. “I don’t know what it was, but I just felt I could do this and get involved and approach people over this upsetting issue and make change happen.”
“It was just amazing to see how people from every corner of the political spectrum came together and agreed that kids should be able to ride, and kids’ dirt bikes should not be illegal,” she said.
In some respects, efforts to overturn the Lead Law’s misguided assault on kids’ dirt bikes culminated in the 2011 AMA Family Capitol Hill Climb in Washington, D.C. The mission was to cement the passage of the Kids Just Want To Ride Act — an amendment to the 2008 law that would exempt youth dirt bikes and ATVs from excessive lead law restrictions.
“That day at the Capitol was incredible. We had kids running through the halls and addressing their congressman and pitching them for why they need to support the Kids Just Want To Ride Act. They also promised they wouldn’t eat their dirt bikes,” Nancy said with a chuckle. “At one point, the congressman asked for the kids to get up on the [main hearing room] desk. There they were, all dressed in colorful motocross gear, advocating for their rights.”
With hundreds of kids at the capital putting a face to the issue, the fight came to a swift end in August of 2011 as the act steamrolled through the House and Senate and was then signed by then-President Barak Obama.
“We really couldn’t have done it without our members and all the grassroots support,” said AMA CEO and President Rob Dingman. “Had we not succeeded in getting the law changed, it is hard to fathom where we would be today. It is difficult to think about what would have happened if youth riding was effectively banned.”
For the AMA’s efforts, Dingman received the 2012 PowerSports Business Executive of the Year award.
Nancy Sabater was named the 2011 AMA Motorcyclist of The Year for her impressive efforts. Looking back on the fight 10 years later, she has an important message for motorcyclists and AMA members: “We need to know our history to not repeat it! We have to remember our victories and celebrate them! Too often, we live in our own bubbles and don’t realize how quickly things can change. It is easy to get comfortable and think everything is fine…until one day you wake up and it isn’t fine and you are kicking yourself for not doing something when you could have.”
“To this day I tell people to stay informed and remain vigilant, and if you are passionate about something, be prepared to act even if it isn’t an easy fight,” she said.
The AMA’s Government Relations Department continues to fight to protect and preserve the rights of motorcyclists. Visit https://americanmotorcyclist.com/action-center/ to get involved.
*This article was originally printed in the October 2021 issue of American Motorcyclist. To read the issue, click HERE.