Ever Wanted to Fight the Law and Win? Part 2

Part 2
WORDS: Marc Danziger

Now all it had taken to get to this point – to have the bill introduced – was a minimal amount of work, and the accident of someone (me) who happened to know a legislator, as well as folks at the AMA, ABATE and MSF who were willing to step up. What does that have to do with the average motorcyclist, you ask? The reality is that it's not incredibly hard to make yourself known to your legislators. Yes, they have big staffs that exist to filter people, but it's relatively easy for anyone to get through those filters once you stop being intimidated by them and realize that they work for you.

All legislators have “town halls” where they sit in an office and meet and talk to constituents. Show up dressed in a nice suit or your best ‘business casual’ attire (I can’t emphasize enough the need to be ‘straight’ when meeting politicians or bureaucrats. They’re looking for a reason not to take you seriously, and if in your dress, demeanor, or style you give them a reason to…Sam Brown once said “Never offend people with style, when you can offend them with substance.”), shake their hands, and introduce yourself as someone who’s very concerned about traffic safety and would love to get some time with their staff to talk about the issue. Write a polite, grammatical, cleanly formatted letter to follow up. You’ll get handed off to a junior staff member, but the way that junior staff member becomes a senior staff member is by identifying and ‘owning’ issues that become important to the legislator. Work with them to help this happen, and the two of you can accomplish a lot.

We had Jennifer Douglas, who works for Sen. Bowen, and worked darn hard to get our bill through.

Invite a local legislator to speak to your group. I’m a member of the Labiker.com mailing list, and we typically invite speakers to a dinner four or five times a year. We’ve had CHP officers, magazine editors, folks from the MSF and others come and speak with us, and if we asked, I’m sure we could get a state Assembly member or Senator if we gave them enough lead time and committed to a big enough group. It takes a lot of scheduling, but they want to come speak to groups. Cynically, it’s how they grow their fundraising lists, and un-cynically it’s how they reach out and have some confidence that they know what’s important to their constituents. Knowing what’s important to their constituents is important to them, largely because that’s how they’re wired and because they know they can’t stay in office if they lose track of what the voters want.

So, thanks to Jennifer and Sen. Bowen (along with some hard work by Nick Haris of the AMA and Jean Hughes of Cal-ABATE) we sailed through the state Senate with a bill that would have charged drivers who injured someone in an accident they caused by violating their right of way with an infraction, added a point to their license, and fined them a total of about $600.We were working on some additional provisions for education, which we thought it’d be easy to get in, given the ease with which our bill had advanced so fare.

When we got to the state Assembly in the fall of 2005, reality mugged us.

The Teamsters Union, working with Transportation Chair Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach, now elected to the state Senate) opposed the bill because they didn’t want their members to lose their ability to work because of the additional point they’d get – a wrinkle of Federal Law we hadn’t considered when we wrote the provisions of the bill. My bad.

We got clobbered in committee – the bill was gutted, penalties reduced to ridiculously low levels, and we pulled the bill back to have it heard in 2006 and see if we could do better.

We talked to the Teamsters’ lobbyist, and he was adamant that the point had to come out, or they would oppose the bill.

The driver’s license point was important to us. It meant that the cited drivers would lose their licenses that much sooner, would pay more in insurance, would be impacted in ways that we hoped would get the most inattentive drivers off the road sooner.

And if we’d been sure that we could turn out hundreds of supporters four or five times for hearings, done grass-roots lobbying in each district, and generate thousands of letters two or three times during the process, we could have fought them on the issue and had a chance – not a certainty, but a good chance – of winning. We couldn’t, and so we grudgingly agreed to pull out the point and live with the bill as it was.

We sat with Assembly Member Oropeza and presented the case for the bill without the point, as well as for reasonable fines, a strong educational component, and a commitment to use the fine money to fund for PSAs like the ones that THINK! Is doing in the UK. We walked away hopeful, and wound up with less than we’d hoped for.

That was the point on the trip where I started thinking about just going home. I went through some soul-searching at that point and emailed a lot of motorcyclists that I know, as well as judges that my wife knows. They felt the bill was worth moving forward with. And when we – the stakeholders in the bill (the AMA, ABATE and myself) – talked, we decided that what we were getting was worth having and that we’d work to come back and add on the education provisions next year.

So we agreed with Bowen and her office that we’d move the bill forward, now with Assemblymember Oropeza’s support.

That’s where we are today, and that’s how a bill becomes law.

Did we get everything we wanted? Nope. Could we have?

Actually, yes. But it would have taken a lot more activism from the motorcycling community.

A few people with an idea and some hard work can do something. We can legalize foam earplugs or add relatively small penalties for being an idiot and injuring someone.

A few people with an idea, some hard work, and a lot of friends can do a bunch more. Let’s take that as a thought for the next time we all talk…

Huge thanks to Nick Haris of the AMA, Jean Hughes and James Lombardo Sr. of Cal-ABATE, Tim Buche of the MSF, Jennifer Douglas and Evan Goldberg of Sen. Bowen’s office, and especially to (former Sen. Now Secretary of State) Debra Bowen herself. She’s not riding yet, but we’re working on it.