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Q&A With A Lawmaker:
How You Can Affect The Legislative Process  

California state Sen. Debra Bowen - 2006

Can an ordinary citizen — a motorcyclist —
influence a state legislature?

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 campaign.

AMA staffers asked Sen. Bowen for some insight into how motorcyclists can help get legislation passed.

AMA: 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 it works.

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 concerns.

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 particular issue.

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 1021.

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.