LL EXCLUSIVE: National Motorists Association's longtime president passes the torch

By Sandi Soendker, Land Line editor-in-chief | 1/20/2012

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, and the Wisconsin-based organization has been fighting for fair driving privileges ever since. And that’s 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 Laws” back then. 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 55 took off, Spencer and OOIDA joined with Baxter and NMA to create a formidable opposition to the “double nickel.” Both groups had 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 this is not happening is that, 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),” says Baxter. “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 onboard 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.”

Jim Baxter: 30 years fighting for drivers’ rights

What motivates a guy like Jim Baxter to donate 30 years and more of tireless effort as a freedom fighter for motorists?

He says his motivation changed over the years, but began as a combination of irritation and frustration with the National Speed Limit (55) and a realization that the law would not go away unless there was organized opposition.

“In my work as a trade association representative and state lobbyist I knew the value of organized activity, grass roots political pressure, creating convincing arguments, building coalitions with kindred organizations, and persistence,” he says. “I decided because no one else was launching a ‘repeal 55’ movement, I would. Once enmeshed in a project like this, it becomes all consuming.”

Baxter says the single-minded determination to accomplish this one task dominated everything he did from 1982 until 1987.

“That’s when we succeeded in breaking through the Congressional blockade and passing the law that allowed the states to raise the speed limit to 65 miles per hour.”

Baxter says his immersion in the speed limit issue made it obvious that most of what the government tells the public about traffic safety, accident causation, enforcement, and the effect of traffic laws is contrived, politically self-serving, and usually just plain wrong.

“Over those five years of total absorption in transportation politics, traffic laws, and related public policies my motivation shifted to a broader palette of issues, concerns, and injustices,” he says. “The pretense that citizens get a fair shake and due process in the traffic court system is a charade.”

Baxter says from that point forward his primary objective – and motivation – was that there be a permanent drivers’ rights organization that actually represents the interests and rights of motorists.

According to Baxter, that same motivation is what compelled him to step down from his leadership role with the NMA.

For the NMA to become a permanent motorists’ rights organization, he says there needs to be continuing transition to new leadership. Baxter believes he and his wife, Nancy, have now put that transitional process in motion. Nancy Miller Baxter has worked in the NMA office beside her husband for 30 years, supporting what Baxter calls his “eccentricities and dreams.”

“She needs a break,” he wrote in a recent newsletter to members.

What his post-NMA career will be is not entirely sorted out, but it’s clear Baxter and Nancy do not like to think of the next stage of their lives as “retirement.”

“I am not short on avocational interests that I hope to have more time for. I’ve been riding motorcycles, on and off road, for 45 years. There are five canoes hanging from the garage rafters and a foldable model in the storeroom. I’m an avid hunter and shooter,” he says.

Then there’s woodworking and lumber-making, and firewood cutting. He also says he enjoys skiing and enjoys bicycling as well. 

“That said, none of these activities are known to make a lot of money,” admitted Baxter. “But in that vein I plan on spending more time managing my investments in the stock market and being more involved in some other business interests.”

And not surprising, Baxter says he just “might just write a letter or two to my elected representatives” when they’re considering new laws that affect motorists rights or interests.”

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