BOSTON (SHNS) – Massachusetts lawmakers this week sent Gov. Charlie Baker a bill designed to reduce traffic fatalities and improve roadway safety for pedestrians and cyclists statewide.
The bill (H 5103) features measures specifically aimed at protecting construction workers, emergency responders, pedestrians and cyclists – officially defined in the bill as “vulnerable road users” – or anyone on the road who is not in a vehicle.
Sen. William Brownsberger, who is known for riding his bike from his home in Belmont to his office at the State House, is a longtime proponent of the bill and said advocacy groups and lawmakers have been working on legislation for five years.
“I’m so glad we could finally get this legislation to the governor’s desk,” he told the News Service. “It will save lives on the roads.”
The bill requires that motorists leave a safe distance when passing “vulnerable road users.” It defines “safe distance” as three feet, plus one foot for every 10 miles per hour over 30 miles per hour.
At a virtual Transportation Committee public hearing last October on an earlier version of the bill, MassBike Executive Director Galen Mook said creating a defined safe passing distance “is really about saving lives.”
“We all know ‘safe passing distance’ is a sensible thing, but we don’t know what safe passing distance is,” Mook said. “So, if we can reinforce with drivers that are out there it’s at least three feet … it will certainly help in the cultural consciousness of drivers.”
MassBike was one of many transit and pedestrian/cyclist advocacy groups that were early supporters of the bill. The organization was joined by the Institute for Transportation Development Policy, Transportation for Massachusetts, the Boston Cyclists Union, WalkBoston and others.
The legislation also requires MassDOT to develop a reporting system for crashes involving vulnerable road users. The goal is to better understand the causes and identify repeat locations of these crashes.
The bill also adds teeth to previously passed legislation, which allows municipalities to set a 25 mph speed limit in thickly settled areas or business districts. Under the bill on Baker’s desk, towns and cities can establish a 25 mph speed limit on state-owned roads as well, outside of state highways.
Another main focus under the bill is addressing the danger that trucks pose to pedestrians and cyclists.
Should Baker approve the legislation, any large vehicle leased or owned by the state starting in 2023, or used under contract with the state starting in 2025, will be required to have a new set of safety devices.
These devices include backup cameras, convex mirrors and cross-over mirrors to make it easier for drivers to see vulnerable road users who might be operating far below their eye line. Truck side guards – also called lateral protective devices – are also required under the legislation in an effort to prevent pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists from being run over by a large truck’s rear wheels in a side-impact collision.
Crashes between large trucks and vulnerable road users are the deadliest, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe Center. “While large trucks comprise 4 percent of registered vehicles, large trucks are involved in 10 percent of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities,” the Volpe Center has reported.
Massachusetts resident Alex Epstein, who has worked as a researcher for the Volpe Center on safety solutions to protect pedestrians and bicyclists, spoke during the October 2021 public hearing in strong support of side guard requirements, although he said he was speaking as a private resident.
There were 541 vulnerable road user fatalities in the U.S. during 2018 from crashes involving large trucks, he said, and that number is likely rising with each year.
“These bills would make Massachusetts a leader in requiring truck side guards,” he said.
There are 47 countries that already require side guards on trucks, Epstein said.
The city of Boston was the first jurisdiction in the country to require its contractors to use the equipment, Epstein said. Other jurisdictions have followed Boston’s lead and if Baker signs the bill, Massachusetts will become one of the first states to implement the requirements statewide.
One issue where lawmakers diverged from the requests of advocates was in including a requirement for cyclists to use rear red lights at night. The final bill includes language to mitigate the effects of some concerns that advocates raised during the public hearing.
Eliza Parad, the director of organizing for the Boston Cyclists Union, told lawmakers she opposed legislation that “penalizes vulnerable road users or might lead to biased enforcement.”
“Cyclists are already required to have a reflector, and this requires people to buy a light that not everyone can afford,” she said. “We see often that people experiencing homelessness, low-income riders and other riders of color are pulled over and cited more for things like this, and it will lead to biased enforcement.”
The final bill says “the provisions of this paragraph related to front and rear lighting shall be enforced by law enforcement agencies only when an operator of a bicycle has been stopped for some other offense” and says that a “violation of this paragraph related to rear lighting shall not be used as conclusive evidence of contributory negligence in any civil action.”
The bill began gaining momentum in July, just before the end of formal sessions, and the branches on Monday were able to agree on details of a consensus bill and enact it in both branches.