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A decade in the making, Massachusetts road safety bill again headed to Governor Baker’s desk



By Chris Lisinski

DEC. 27, 2022…..Crossing off a late-session to-do list item, lawmakers on Tuesday sent Gov. Charlie Baker a revised road safety bill that they believe addresses his discomfort with an earlier version.

The bill (H 5103) would implement a range of new requirements aimed at protecting pedestrians, bicyclists and other vulnerable road users from threats posed by motor vehicles, including a standard requirement that a driver leave at least four feet of distance when passing such a person.

Some version of the legislation has been debated on Beacon Hill for more than a decade, according to both advocates who celebrated its latest passage Tuesday and Sen. Will Brownsberger, a longtime sponsor.

“This is an incredibly significant accomplishment,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the LivableStreets Alliance. “The kinds of things that people like me think about as no-brainer fixes — this is the kind of bill that will save lives, and that’s not hyperbolic. It both will protect the most vulnerable people on our roadways and also will give the state better data.”

“Sometimes, when something finally makes it across the finish line, it’s stripped to the lowest common denominator. The opposite happened here,” she added.

In addition to implementing a more widespread minimum passing distance, the bill requires trucks and large vehicles to install a range of equipment such as crossover mirrors and sideguards to protect pedestrians and cyclists, allows municipalities to petition to change speed limits on state highways within their borders, and orders the state to craft a standardized system for reporting crashes involving vulnerable road users.

Brownsberger told the News Service that many pedestrian and cyclist deaths in Boston in recent years have involved turning trucks, pointing to the new requirements as a way to limit those risks.

“This bill has been over 10 years in the making,” the Belmont Democrat, himself an avid cyclist, said. “It reflects a long collaboration among people concerned about safety on the roads.”

The legislation defines “vulnerable users” as any pedestrian, including construction workers and emergency responders on roadways, as well as those cycling, skating, riding scooters, and traveling via wheelchair, horse, horse-drawn carriage and farm vehicles.

Brownsberger, who penned a blog post about the final bill on Tuesday, wrote that the definition applies to “essentially anyone who isn’t inside a vehicle.”

Advocates said they also hope that enshrining a clear definition of vulnerable users in state law will make it easier to push for additional protections in future lawmaking sessions.

“This is a foundation that we can look to build upon,” MassBike Executive Director Galen Mook said.

The Legislature shipped a version of the bill to Baker’s desk in September, but he returned it with amendments while voicing concerns that the original draft featured some confusing, difficult-to-enforce sections.

For example, the original version sought to implement a minimum distance to pass vulnerable road users on a sliding scale, starting at three feet and adding another foot for every 10 miles per hour over 30 mph.

After rejecting his proposed changes and then remaining inactive on the measure for more than six weeks, the Senate on Tuesday unveiled a further amendment (S 3162), which won approval in the House.

The final bill scraps the scaled passing distance, instead settling on a universal four-foot requirement when vulnerable users are involved and making clear that motorists can cross the center line if needed to overtake a pedestrian or cyclist safely.

Mook said the four-foot distance will help protect not just bicyclists and those traveling by foot, but other drivers who might step out of their vehicles to check a flat tire or workers maintaining the roadway.

“It’s easy for messaging for motorists,” Mook said of the single requirement. “It’s also easy for enforcement as needed. It just makes it a smoother and simpler implementation.”

Lawmakers also dropped their original push to allow cities and towns to establish a 25 mph speed limit on state-owned roads — which Baker said might create issues with federal funding — and replaced it with a process for municipalities to ask the state for permission to change those speed limits.

Another update in the final bill is a requirement that cyclists use rear red lights at night, though it includes legislation declaring that failure to do so is not a primary offense, meaning police could not stop a cyclist solely for a missing rear red light.

Advocates said they are optimistic lawmakers made enough changes to the baseline bill to win Baker’s support.

“At this point, if we saw a veto, I would just be dumbfounded,” Thompson said.

The outgoing Republican does not need to break out his veto pen to doom the bill, though. Because lawmakers waited until Tuesday to send him the final version, the 10-day period Baker gets to review the bill stretches past the dissolution of the General Court for the two-year term, so he can pocket veto it simply via inaction.

“I think the governor really cares about the language that’s in this bill and he wants to get it done under his watch because arguably he and his administration have been working on this for many years now,” Mook said. “I think this is going to be a good feather in his cap.”

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