Massachusetts law enacted to protect cyclists



Earlier this month, on her second day in office, Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey signed an act to reduce traffic fatalities into law. The act contains a new rule aiming to increase road protection for cyclists, pedestrians, wheelchair users and others.

If you have a driver’s license or in the process of getting one, you’ve likely sat through hours of DVD’s from the ‘90’s portraying the consequences of catastrophic car crashes. The variety of safety features in cars keeps riders safe, but what happens to pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders and other road users who don’t have that kind of protection?

Each year, hundreds of thousands of bikers and thousands of pedestrians are struck by cars in the United States, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

As more people turn to biking as an accessible, affordable and sustainable mode of transportation, safety is becoming an issue. Earlier this month, on her second day in office, Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey signed an act to reduce traffic fatalities into law. The act contains a new rule aiming to increase road protection for cyclists, pedestrians, wheelchair users and others.

Before this law was enacted, there was no clear standard for how close cars should get to cyclists. MA state law stated only that vehicle operators should pass bikers “at a safe distance.” That line was often blurry. Junior Elan Lipton, who bikes to school almost every day, said cars often come within a few inches of him as he rides to school or crew practice.

“It feels a lot closer than it actually is because cars are so big,” Lipton said. “I have actually gotten hit before. There’s a lot of reckless driving here. When you’re biking, oftentimes people either don’t see you or are not aware that you’re there, so you’re at much greater risk for accidents. I find myself maneuvering a lot, trying to avoid traffic.”

State Senator Cindy Creem of the first Middlesex and Norfolk district was involved in drafting the bill, according to her Policy Director and Counsel Garrett Casey. Casey said the bill is designed to protect what it calls “vulnerable road users” in a number of ways.

“The law says that you have to pass at a distance of no less than four feet when you’re going by a vulnerable road user, which is defined in the bill as cyclists, pedestrians, even workers who are using road space. And it also says that if you need to cross over the centerline in order to give that space, you can do so,” Casey said. “That’s obviously important because on our roads, people are passing at pretty high speeds. If you’re not giving a safe distance and you clip someone, the consequences can be fatal or otherwise really dangerous.”

Versions of the bill had been in the works since 2011 according to Galen Mook, Executive Director of MassBike, a MA-based bicycle advocacy group. Mook said MassBike played a role in drafting and advocating for the bill throughout the six legislative sessions it endured, calling on its members to contact their representatives regarding the bill.

According to Andrew Fischer, a long-time board member at Biking Brookline, a Brookline based bicycle advocacy group, by asserting that certain road users are inherently more vulnerable than others, this law implies that motor vehicle users are more responsible for any injuries or accidents that happen on the road.

“It is sort of heading us in the direction of European law, where there is a presumption that if a motorist is in a collision with a vulnerable user, the motorist is at fault. This doesn’t quite go that far yet, but it’s the beginning of establishing that precedent,” Fischer said. “The idea is, if I’m in a car and you’re on foot, I have to watch out for you. Or if I’m in a car and you’re on a bike and we’re in a collision, I’m presumed wrong. So I better be more careful, because I have a 2,000 pound weapon to hit you with.”

According to Mook, the fact that this bill even defines “vulnerable road users” is a big deal.

“We have a definition of somebody who can get extra protections out there because they are not in an automobile and they’re not protected by steel and airbags and a seat belt,” Mook said. “Now that we know in statute there’s something called vulnerable users, we can build legislation based off [them]. I don’t know exactly what that would look like, but perhaps it’s increased protection at marked crossings where, right now, only a pedestrian has the safety of a crosswalk.”

Fischer said that most of today’s roads were designed with only one thing in mind: speed. He said we need to reevaluate the way we’re designing and thinking about our roadways to put more of an emphasis on safety as the roads belong to everyone.

“There’s this attitude that a lot of drivers have that the road belongs to them. The road also belongs to the old lady with a cane who’s trying to get across a crosswalk. And the crosswalk slows the driver down, but it saves that old lady from being hit,” Fischer said. “If a bicyclist is making a turn or if a bicyclist is taking up the road, they have the same right to the road and to be safe on the road as a motorist. They don’t have to sacrifice that right so the motorists can get to where he’s going faster.”

In an effort to make roads safer for all vulnerable road users, this law also allows communities to work with the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to lower speed limits on a municipal level. Slower car speeds reduce the risk and severity of collisions according to the Institute for Road Safety Research. Casey says that Senator Creem’s constituents have voiced their support for these provisions.

“I know that [Senator Creem] is grateful we finally got something passed that is going to make a difference and make roads safer,” Casey said. “Her communities have reached out to our office to express their support for it and to express their support for reducing speed limits at a municipality’s discretion.”

The law also puts in place new safety standards for trucks owned or operated by MA state government and requires that bikers use red back lights at night to increase their visibility. Previously, Mook said, cyclists were only required to use front lights.

“All of that is thrown into one bill and it’s actually impressive that we were able to get all of these measures combined into a piece of legislation and get it through,” Mook said. “And we know these measures will save lives on our roadways. This is a piece of legislation not just for bikers or people on bikes. This law impacts literally everybody in the Commonwealth, whether you’re walking, whether you’re biking, whether you’re in a wheelchair or whether you’re driving.”

The law will take effect on April 1, 2023. The MA Department of Transportation will start advertising its existence along roadways. Its implications will be included in new additions of the RMV manual, and will be incorporated into driver’s education courses. Fischer says that historically, safety was not a priority when designing roads, but that’s just beginning to change.

“For a long time the purpose of road engineers, their goal in building a road, was to move cars as quickly as possible. Safety wasn’t the goal,” Fischer said. “The goal should not be accommodating the convenience of the driver. It should be that everyone who uses the road should be safe on the road. That should be the premise for the design as opposed to how do we move the cars faster. And that’s a huge change.”