In a new report, Massachusetts has earned good marks for passing distracted driving laws that promote safety and reduce the risk of car accidents and injuries. Yet we still finished among nine states in the danger zone for not implementing other traffic safety laws.
The Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety released its 2023 Roadmap to Safety report in early December, noting the U.S. had recorded nearly 43,000 traffic fatalities in 2021. The breakdown is 115 lives lost each day in U.S. car accidents and crashes. The group added preliminary traffic figures for 2022 remained “egregiously high.”
Here in Massachusetts, traffic crashes have claimed 3,611 lives over a decade. Last year, 413 people died on the roads.
In response to the data, the group has called for states to pass more highway laws and support new driving technologies.
The report looked at these areas:
- Seat belt laws
- Child passenger safety seats
- Teen driving
- Impaired driving
- Distracted driving
- Automated enforcement to curb speeding
Massachusetts joined Michigan, Florida, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana in the overall danger zone ranking. Just 5 states and Washington D.C. received good ratings: Louisiana, Maryland, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington State.
Aside from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the rest of the New England states finished in the caution zone for their progress passing the recommended laws.
Where Do Massachusetts Highway Laws Fall Short?
Massachusetts laws on seat belts, child passenger safety, teen driving and impaired driving fell short of the group’s recommendations.
Child Passenger Safety Seats
Child safety seats are one of the most critical tools for protecting children. This is one of the first lessons a parent learns.
The American Academy for Pediatrics reports infants and toddlers are at high risk for head and spine injuries in motor vehicle crashes. When properly used, child safety seats reduce fatal injury by 71 percent for infants and 54 percent for toddlers, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Massachusetts joined 39 states and Washington D.C. in the danger zone on child passenger safety seats. Like Massachusetts, many states have passed at least one child safety seat law, but not all the recommendations.
In Massachusetts, we have a booster seat law for children until their 8th birthday or when they grow 57 inches tall.
As for rear-facing car seats, the state recommends keeping children in these until age 2. But this is not specifically required under Massachusetts law, as it is in Rhode Island, 17 other states and Washington D.C. Nationwide, the report did show movement on rear-facing car seat laws until age 2, noting Hawaii and Maryland just passed these in 2022.
Just one state – Louisiana – had passed the group’s recommended law requiring children to sit in the back seat until age 12. However, Louisiana does not have a booster seat law (though it has a law requiring rear-facing car seats until age 2).
As for teen driving, Massachusetts has a junior operator law, which restricts cell phone use and places special conditions on drivers ages 16 ½ to 18 to help them develop and build experience.
But the state lost points for allowing drivers to apply for learner permits at age 16 and their driver’s license at 16 ½. Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety recommend drivers wait until they are 17 and calls for them to have twice as many training hours as required under Massachusetts law.
Massachusetts received credit for having an open container law. Most states have these laws (39 states and the District of Columbia).
But Massachusetts was in the caution zone for impaired driving laws due to our ignition interlock law.
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety supports all-offender ignition interlock laws, which require all drivers charged with operating under the influence to install ignition interlocks in their vehicles.
Thirty four states and D.C. have optimal drunk driving laws requiring interlocks for all offenders.
Massachusetts does not have an all-offender drunk driving law. In October 2005, the state passed “Melanie’s Law,” with a goal of reducing drunk driving injury crashes. Melanie’s Law increased the penalties for operating under the influence in Massachusetts and included a provision that required drivers charged with a second offense of drunk driving to equip their vehicles with ignition interlocks.
While safety groups have long pushed for an all-offender law, there has never been enough support to pass the Legislature and governor.
The closest Massachusetts came was a few years ago, when state lawmakers who supported the measure tucked an ignition interlock amendment in the fiscal year 2021 state budget.
This required all drivers who had a .15 bac level to use ignition interlocks, regardless of how many offenses they had. But this is nearly twice the state’s legal limit of .08 bac.
Massachusetts was one of nine states without strong enough seat belt laws. Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety recommend states pass primary seat belt enforcement laws.
Massachusetts only has a secondary enforcement seat belt law, meaning police can only stop someone for failure to wear a seat belt if they stop the vehicle on suspicion of another offense.
Massachusetts residents have long debated seat belts. Getting a secondary enforcement law passed has taken a great deal of time, with the state Legislature passing the first seat belt law back in 1985, only to have voters repeal this at the ballot box. The state finally passed a secondary seat belt law in 1994.
Automated Speed Enforcement
Massachusetts and 26 other states are behind the recommendations for automated enforcement laws. Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety recommends states have automated enforcement to address the rise in speeding and car accidents. Speeding was involved in 27 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2021, a 5 percent increase from 2020.
At this point, roughly 23 states and Washington D.C. permit automated enforcement by law while 19 have automated enforcement in use.
Massachusetts Earns Good Marks for Distracted Driving Laws
Massachusetts was credited for passing an all-rider motorcycle helmet law, a booster seat law and banning open containers in vehicles.
We are going to take a minute to write about Massachusetts’ distracted driving laws. The state received good marks for having a junior operator law that restricts all cell phone use for teen drivers and for having a texting-while-driving ban that applies to all ages.
Massachusetts has banned texting while driving for all drivers since 2010, when the Massachusetts Safe Driving Law was passed. Then in 2019, Massachusetts joined other states, passing a more comprehensive hands-free driving law. We were the last New England state to do so.
With this law, police gained new authority to stop drivers who use cell phones as a primary offense. And before, drivers could pick up a mobile electronic device to make calls, but not text. There was some confusion and room to get away with cell phone use. Now, the message is clear in Massachusetts: drivers have to buy a mount and turn on voice activation if they want to talk or text.
Studying the Next Distraction For Drivers
Or maybe this is not so clear. What about drivers who are still engaging in very highly distracted activities, such as vlogging or livestreaming to social media? Their phones are mounted as Massachusetts law requires.
The Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety have taken note and plan to review state laws on “distracted viewing activities” for a future report.
Just four states specifically ban recording and broadcasting video as part of their hands-free driving law, according to a Massachusetts state lawmaker who filed legislation here following a 2021 crash killing a Northampton cyclist. The lawmaker was seeking an amendment to the Massachusetts hands-free driving law.
Police reported the 24-year-old female driver had been distracted by a 53-second call with a friend on Facetime. The woman has since pleaded guilty to a charge of motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation, receiving a one-year suspended jail sentence, with three years of probation and a 15-year loss of her driver’s license (Source: WWLP).
Update on Massachusetts Legislation to Protect Cyclists and Pedestrians
We also want to share an update on legislation we wrote about in September, An Act to Reduce Traffic Fatalities.
The Massachusetts House and Senate has reportedly rejected Gov. Charlie Baker’s response to their proposed legislation. Many are still watching because this was important legislation that in part, would have defined pedestrians, cyclists and others as “vulnerable road users” and established a statewide requirement for trucks to be equipped with sideguards, convex mirrors and other equipment. We will be watching this one too.
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