But that being said, I will 99 times out of 100, choose to wear a helmet and leathers regardless of the law. What I do recognize is the political reality of trying to change the helmet laws, particularly in Washington. I’ve often said I think it’s a safe bet that they won’t be changed. However I got an email last month from a reader who got me to thinking a little bit about that being such a safe bet.
This reader asked my opinion on whether or not we could get the helmet law here in Washington changed by requiring helmets only in the urban counties where traffic density is high and lower speed collisions more likely (places where helmets play a definite protective role), while allowing folks to ride without helmets in the rural counties where speed may be higher, but the risk of collision is lower.
To be honest, I’d never thought of it like this before. The general tactic taken by the rider advocacy groups pushing for helmet repeal has been an “all or nothing” proposition and have advocated for a total repeal. So far they have not been successful in this approach. But what about a partial repeal as my reader suggested?
Lets set aside for a moment whether repeal in rural counties is actually a good idea or not, and just look at the naked bare-bones political process. Does it make sense to make a Grand Canyon sized leap to full helmet repeal, or does it make sense to do it in smaller jumps over a longer period of time, taking small steps? Like repealing it in rural areas first? Think about it. Now let me give you a current textbook example of how doing things one small step at a time gets you across the Grand Canyon.
Marriage equality. Yep. Marriage equality. There is a direct political correlation between the efforts to approve same-sex marriage and helmet law repeal. I’ve been observing and participating in the political and legislative process my entire adult career – nearly 30 years. I think that there are a remarkable number of similarities as far as entrenched attitude and the need to overcome them to make any progress towards the goal. And that my dear readers, is the key to victory in situations like this -- overcoming entrenched and deeply held political convictions.
I have said it many times over and over. Repealing the helmet law in Washington is not going to happen. It’s too entrenched. I said the exact same thing regarding marriage equality 15 years ago. I was wrong. How marriage equality eventually won in Washington was by taking lots and lots of little baby steps along the process. If the helmet law is ever going to be repealed, I predict it will have to be done the same way. Little steps.
It took a long long time for the legislature to get itself comfortable with the idea of marriage equality – and an even longer time for the public. The supporters knew this and so they started out small – very small. The first step along that path was the passage of a “registered domestic partnership” bill that allowed anyone who wasn’t or couldn’t get married, gay or straight, to register as “domestic partners” and to obtain some sort of recognition and rights (such as hospital visitation etc.) that were traditionally given only to married couples. That first bill was small in scope and only granted a few rights and privileges to domestic partners, but it was a first step.
A year or so later the legislature expanded those rights, and over the course of several more legislative sessions kept expanding things until the final bill which gave domestic partners all the rights of marriage included in Washington law – including having to go to court to get it dissolved just as if it were a divorce. “Marriage without the name” it was called at the time.
And after that was passed and the world didn’t implode, the legislature passed the act that allowed for actual marriage equality in Washington. But all in all it took a number of years and more than a few bills to pass the legislature to get there. The whole process was outlined and thought out step-by-step before it was even implemented.
Can it work for the repealing the helmet law? I don’t know. I couldn’t have predicted the outcome of the marriage equality efforts 15 years ago – I can’t predict this one. But what I can say for sure is that there is a successful and proven political strategy that worked on an issue that it’s safe to say is far more emotionally and politically entrenched than is the helmet law. And it’s a strategy that the riding community and its advocates should seriously consider. In my lifetime I didn’t think I’d see marriage equality. Maybe in my lifetime I might see helmet laws repealed. Maybe.
Gary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com