In a late victory for cyclists and pedestrians, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a critical road safety bill into law during his final days in office. While encouraging safety, the legislation may also position Massachusetts as a leader on truck safety and protecting vulnerable road users.
Gov. Baker – now the former governor – signed An Act to Reduce Traffic Fatalities on Monday (January 2, 2023).
Supporters said the legislation represents 10 years of collaboration. Most recently, the Legislature sent Gov. Baker the legislation in September, but rejected his amendments.
Lawmakers sent Baker the latest version on December 27th. Then, MassBike announced the new law on Twitter this week, thanking its members and the Massachusetts Vision Zero Coalition for their support.
Vulnerable Users and a Safe Passing Distance
Previously, Massachusetts only protected cyclists as vulnerable road users. State law was silent on how much room drivers should leave as a “safe passing distance,” according to one state senator’s blog.
The new legislation defines “vulnerable users” as:
- Pedestrians and cyclists.
- Individuals using wheelchairs and personal mobility devices.
- Those traveling on skateboards, scooters, roller skates, tricycles and handcycles.
- Riders of motorized bicycles and scooters.
- Emergency responders and workers engaged in road and utility projects.
- The legislation has a broad reach, also protecting individuals traveling on horses, horse-drawn carriages and farming tractors.
The legislation establishes a new safe passing distance of “not less than 4 feet.” Drivers must also use a “reasonable and proper speed,” when passing vulnerable road users.
The Legislature had initially sought a safe passing distance of “not less than 3 feet,” when drivers travel 30 mph or at lower speeds. At higher speeds, drivers would have to leave more room: an extra foot of clearance for every 10 mph over 30 mph.
The governor responded this language presented “enforcement and messaging challenges,” and would undermine the goal of passing a “clearly understood and enforceable standard,” according to the Boston Herald.
Going forward, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation will post and maintain signage about the new passing requirements on public ways.
At least 35 states have already passed laws which define a “safe passing distance” of at least 3 feet,” according to the League of American Bicyclists’ web page, which was last updated in Sept. 2022. What’s notable is several states do not even allow drivers to pass cyclists traveling in the same direction, unless they fully change lanes.
Massachusetts was definitely behind on these laws. The League notes Wisconsin was the first state to adopt a safe passing law – back in 1973. But that is history. Joining New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Massachusetts is now one one of the few states which require 4 feet of clearance when drivers pass cyclists.
Expect to hear more about safe passing distances and vulnerable road users. In October 2022, the U.S. Department of Transportation released new guidelines to help states develop Vulnerable Road User Safety Assessments.
Truck Safety Equipment
The legislation sets new equipment requirements for large trucks which are owned or contracted by the state. This equipment includes lateral sideguards, convex and other mirrors and backup cameras. The goal is to protect cyclists and pedestrians from injuries.
This is a major headline because of all the work done here in Massachusetts to promote safety. Lawmakers have made several attempts at passing a statewide truck safety law.
Truck safety has been the subject of much discussion since 2014, when the Boston City Council passed its truck sideguard ordinance – the first in the nation.
The vote came after a series of truck crashes fatally injured cyclists in the city. Here at Breakstone, White & Gluck, our personal injury attorneys have represented victims and families after some of these devastating crashes.
Under the ordinance passed in 2014, the City of Boston requires large city-owned and contracted trucks to use sideguards, which protect underneath a truck near the wheels, mirrors and other safety equipment.
A few local communities – Cambridge, Somerville and Newton – followed Boston’s lead and implemented similar regulations.
Now, after several attempts at a statewide law, Massachusetts has passed similar legislation.
This will take effect in phases. Large vehicles owned or leased by the state of Massachusetts must be equipped in 2023. Large vehicles operated under state contracts have until 2025.
Small List of Cities with Truck Safety Ordinances
There are federal laws on truck safety (though we are not going to dive into this topic).
And we found research showing that other U.S. cities have passed or implemented truck sideguard ordinances in recent years. But not many.
In October 2022, the U.S. DOT’s Volpe Center reported fewer than 20 cities have implemented or passed truck sideguard policies, including those we mentioned in the Boston area. The Volpe Center, which operates locally in Cambridge, did not mention any other state laws on its web page.
Before we move on, we want to say this is really important legislation for Massachusetts cyclists in particular. In our law practice and through our Project KidSafe bike helmet donations, we have heard many cyclists say how much they worry, stress and fear large trucks. We hope cyclists start to see more trucks with the new safety equipment soon (while keeping a good distance away for safety).
Setting Speed Limits on State Highways in Local Communities
Thanks to the cities of Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, we have learned more about the impact of speed in pedestrian accidents over the past decade. The communities have all committed to developing Vision Zero plans, with a goal of preventing traffic fatalities and severe injuries.
As part of this work, the communities have focused on reducing speed-related accidents. Speed is involved in more than one-third of all fatal crashes, according to the Vision Zero Network.
Even when a driver hits a pedestrian, traveling at a slower speed can reduce the chance of a fatal encounter:
- When a car travels at 20 mph and hits a pedestrian, there is an 8 percent likelihood of death.
- Traveling at 30 mph, a driver who hits a pedestrian has a 20 percent likelihood of causing a fatal pedestrian injury.
- At 40 mph, drivers have a 46 percent likelihood of causing a fatal pedestrian crash.
Source: Vision Zero Network, Safety Over Speed
Boston has worked to lower speed limits as part of its Vision Zero campaign. One of the city’s first goals was to lower speed limits from 30 mph to 25 mph on certain roads.
Massachusetts state lawmakers made this possible by passing the Municipal Modernization Act in 2016.
Under the Municipal Modernization Act, cities and towns are allowed to “opt in” and lower the default speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph on thickly settled roads or in business districts. Communities can opt in with a local vote, such as from a City Council. But up until this week, Massachusetts laws only allowed communities to lower speeds on local roads, not state highways passing through a city or town.
Now, cities and towns can take the next step and petition to modify speed limits on state highways within their borders. The state will have 90 days to approve or deny a local petition.
Here, the Legislature had wanted to give local communities more authority. Gov. Baker sought to preserve the state’s authority over its roads and this was the compromise.
Traffic Crash Reporting
The legislation also calls for the implementation of a statewide data collection strategy for crashes involving vulnerable road users.
New Requirement for Rear-Bike Lights
When riding at night, Massachusetts cyclists will now have to use a rear red light on the back of their bike.
About Breakstone, White & Gluck – Boston Personal Injury Lawyers
With 125+ years combined experience, Breakstone, White & Gluck specializes in representing those seriously injured by negligent driving in car accidents, bicycle accidents and truck crashes. We are dedicated to helping our clients with all the difficulties they face after an unexpected accident.
Our attorneys represent victims and families in the Boston area and across Massachusetts.
If you have been injured, please feel free to contact Breakstone, White & Gluck. Ask to speak with one of our attorneys for a free legal consultation. We will review the facts of what happened and help you determine if you may have the right to bring a claim for your injuries, medical bills, lost wages and recovery.
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