They may have saved taxpayers money, even saved lives, but don't call them politicians.
They are masters of public health students who took the lobbying skills they acquired in their legislative advocacy course to the Georgia state legislature-and in so doing influenced the course of two proposed bills.
House Bill 681, which would have repealed the state's mandatory motorcycle helmet requirement, was defeated in committee. A somewhat modified Senate Bill 17 was passed, thus establishing graduated teenage drivers' licenses. The new law establishes curfew restrictions for 16- and 17-year-olds, who may not drive between 2 and 6 a.m. unless for work. Full drivers' licenses will not be granted until age 18.
"The students are two-for-two," said course co-instructor Arthur Kellermann, director of the Center for Injury Control at the School of Public Health.
Kellermann and co-instructors Dawna Fuqua-Whitley, senior research associate at the center, and Deborah McFarland, chairman of Health Policy and Management, devoted the beginning of the spring semester to teaching the class political tricks-of-the-trade. "Being able to navigate successfully in political waters is an important asset to a public health professional," said Fuqua-Whitley. "In this class, we put theory to the test in a real world application to legislate for the improved health of the people of Georgia."
Students became familiar with statistics on motorcycle accident head injuries, epidemiology of injuries related to teenage drinking and driving, and strategies for forming a legislative action committee. They learned how to construct and-through role-playing-to deliver compelling arguments. They learned to garner testimonials from citizens. And they became privy to insider strategies for forming good relationships with legislators' secretaries and clerks, tracking bills via the Internet-even learning where to park at the state capitol.
Then the real process began. The students formed committees, tracked bills, met with legislators individually, deluged politicians' offices with letters and attended house and senate subcommittee meetings en masse.
They were particularly successful in providing statistical counterpoints to arguments presented by members of ABATE (American Bikers Acting Toward Education). Proponents of the helmet repeal suggested to committee members that choosing not to wear a motorcycle helmet was a personal choice affecting only that individual. Laws limiting that choice, they contended, limited personal freedom.
The students countered by pointing out that 56 to 64 percent of motorcyclists are uninsured and that taxpayers are responsible for the extensive medical bills incurred when an uninsured cyclist has a major head or spinal cord injury. The Emory group also pointed out that injuries increased 21 percent in those states that repealed helmet laws. In contrast, injuries from motorcycle accidents decreased up to 37 percent in those states that enacted mandatory helmet laws.
"These students worked hard and were very committed," said Fuqua-Whitley. "Score two for the 'reformers.'"