Q&A With A Lawmaker:
How You Can Affect The Legislative Process
Can an ordinary citizen — a motorcyclist —
influence a state
The answer, according to a state legislator who has passed
motorcyclist-friendly legislation, is not only "Yes," but "Maybe more than you think."
In 2006, California state Sen. Debra Bowen sponsored two important pieces of
legislation on behalf of motorcyclists that were signed into law. The
first allowed the use of non-custom (foam style) earplugs, and
the second, co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia,
increased the penalties for drivers who violate the right of way of
other road users and cause injuries. The latter bill is the type of
legislation sought by the
AMA's Justice for All
AMA staffers asked Sen. Bowen for some insight into how motorcyclists
can help get legislation passed.
How can ordinary citizens – motorcyclists and others – do better at getting
their ideas into the legislative process?
Bowen: First of all, don’t be bashful. Go out and meet your representatives.
Get to know their staffs, even if you can’t meet with the elected
official themselves, assuming you live in a state where that’s the way
Having a staffer on your side can be enormously valuable
because you’ll likely get more of their time and energy. And remember:
If you use only the time you need, you’re likely to get your calls
returned first. In my Redondo Beach office, for example, I have a staff
of five to serve 850,000 people.
AMA: Once constituents get their lawmakers' attention,
what's the best strategy for getting their proposals through the legislative process?
Bowen: You’ll be best served in the long run by building coalitions and
working to solve problems. Before verbally beating lawmakers over the
head because they don’t agree with you or your position, do what you can to
work with them, try to understand their objections, and see what you can
do to help educate them or alter your position to address their
You’ll never make everyone happy with the end product, but
just as you want to see your concerns heard and addressed, lawmakers
want to know that you’ve heard their concerns and have at least been
open to addressing their objections, even if you can’t accommodate their
Something else that's important is to follow up and show your
appreciation. After I got the earplug
law passed, I got hundreds of e-mails thanking me. That let me know that
people really did care about these issues and that it was worthwhile for
me to invest time in them.
AMA: As an example of an individual getting involved and
making a difference, we understand that it was a motorcyclist who raised
the issue of right-of-way violations, leading to your introduction of SB
Bowen: A good friend of mine who has ridden for years pointed out the oddity
in the law that when someone commits a right-of-way violation, the
penalty is the same, regardless of whether they run a stop sign in the
dead of night where no one is injured or if they make an illegal left
turn at the height of rush hour, injuring everyone in their path.
Virtually every other traffic violation has a higher penalty in cases
where someone is injured or killed, so applying that same rationale to
right-of-way violations just made sense to me.
AMA: The bill went through a lot of changes and
back-and-forth negotiation. Can you give us an idea of how that happens?
Bowen: Having a difference of opinion isn’t uncommon in the Legislature, but
in this case, the discussion over what the penalties should be was a bit frustrating.
To start with, it was important to ensure the penalties for bodily
injury and great bodily injury were lower than the penalties for
reckless driving, which is a more serious violation, but were higher
than the current $35 right-of-way penalty for making an illegal left
turn or running a stop sign.
The penalties in the original Senate bill met that standard. But in the Assembly, I was confronted by some members who felt
that all traffic fines were too high and they didn’t want to support a
bill that raised penalties.
The penalties were lowered substantially
in the Assembly Transportation Committee in 2005, but last fall and
early this spring, some work on my part and the part of the AMA and
ABATE helped convince those Assembly members to raise the penalties a bit to bring the bill back closer to
where it started out.
The bill also requires the California driver’s handbook and traffic
school courses to emphasize the need to respect the right of way of
pedestrians, bicycle riders and motorcycle riders the next time the
handbook and course content are revised, which should be sometime in
2007 or 2008. (Editor's note: Both higher penalties and
motorcycle-awareness instruction are key components of Justice for All.)
This kind of negotiation along the way to passage happens with almost
all legislation, and since it's a public process, people have a chance to exercise their
influence at each step along the way. It's not a one-day process.
AMA: Any advice you'd like to give to AMA members?
Bowen: Yes. You have more power than you think you have.