Massachusetts anti-motorist bills

In January, Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation considered a number of bills:

The full list of bills is here:

I urge you to oppose the major bills: S.1807*, S.1808*, S.1809*, S.1859, S.1879, S.1900, H.3069, H.3072, H.3073.

* Filed by Will B.

Also in the mix are a few bills that may or may not be good ideas. H.2950 and H.3004 would allow police to fine pedestrians who break the law. This is probably a good idea, but remember there are stupid pedestrian laws just like stupid vehicle laws. I bet you’ve broken some without realizing it.

S.1807, S.1879, and H.3073 are a trendy law that is being pushed around the country. You have to keep your car a specific distance away from a pedestrian or bicycle or get a ticket. You have to do math in your head to figure out how far, because it depends on speed. In other states police on bicycles will swerve towards cars to provoke violations. This will doubtless be one of the traps Massachusetts police re-invent if the law passes.

S.1808 and H.3072 would elevate parking in a bicycle lane from a parking violation to a moving violation, and would also prohibit parking on any road marked with “sharrows” (also a moving violation). This is a bad idea as a law because such no parking restrictions should be posted on signs which everybody is already supposed to understand. Do you even know what a “sharrow” is? Would you guess that it means no parking? (Lemme guess, we’re gonna have Sharrows on Trapello?)

S.1809 would give bicycles right of way in crosswalks, meaning they would fly through at full speed and you’d go to jail if you didn’t get out of the way in time. Maybe if the law required bicyclists to stop and put one foot flat on the ground before proceeding it wouldn’t be so dangerous. (Will, you gotta be kidding…)

Bill H.3069 would allow cities and towns to post 20 mph speed traps almost anywhere they like. They should not be given this power. Just look at the existing illegal municipal speed limits, and imagine all of them made legal. In physics there’s a concept of “colder than absolute zero.” That’s how bad cities and towns are at setting speed limits. They not only don’t know what they are doing, they actively work against standards for setting safe speed limits. (I’ll make an exception for the town of Warwick, which tried to fix some of its speed limits a few years ago. That’s 1 of 351.)

S.1859 would make a major change to where police can enforce motor vehicle laws. Currently property “open to the public” is defined based on what is visible to drivers. Basically, if it looks like a public road or mall parking lot you can get charged with reckless driving even if it is technically private. The new law would use an invisible standard, whether pedestrians are allowed to cross.

S.1869 would criminalize trespassing on a state highway. As written it is dangerously vague because jaywalking could be considered trepassing. If it only applied to Interstate-type highways where signs prohibiting pedestrians are already posted it might be a good idea, but probably wouldn’t change anybody’s behavior. Pedestrians who deliberately cross Interstates are usually drunk or literally suicidal.

S.1900 would require a license suspension for an intersection violation resulting in injury or death. This is an inappropriate special-purpose law for conduct that is already govered by general-purpose laws. The law is redundant with the existing crime of “operating to endanger” (MGL 90-24), and with the existing license suspension for causing death (MGL 90-29). Anyway, the law would need to be rewritten to make sense — it refers to “convictions” of a law that isn’t a crime.

Bills H.2950 and H.3004 would allow fines for pedestrians who break the law. This is a good idea for “fairness”, but you have to keep in mind that pedestrian control rules can be just as stupid as vehicle control rules. It’s illegal to take advantage of pedestrian countdown timers because the enticing 20… 19… 18… is only displayed during the don’t walk part of the cycle. Even if there’s a curb ramp and a sign, it’s illegal to cross on one side of an intersection if only the other side has a marked crosswalk. It’s illegal to cross in the left half of a crosswalk. And so on.

Bill H.3005 would regulate begging and selling merchandise from traffic islands. A similar, but not identical, ordinance in Worcester was invalidated by federal judges.

Bill H.3041 would require transition to mile-based exit numbers. This is a federal requirement. The Federal Highway Administration says MassDOT will start switching in 2016 but MassDOT refuses to confirm. The law may provide the pressure needed to make MassDOT join the rest of America.

Bill H.3071 would require crosswalk markings to comply with the Manual On Uniform Traffic Control Devices. This should be redundant with existing law, except that it specifies the 2009 version of the MUTCD rather than “the latest version”.

Bill H.3019 would require trucks to have guards to prevent bicyclists from going underneath. There have been a few deaths in recent years where a bicyclist attempted to pass a truck on the right only to discover too late that the truck was making a wide right turn.

Unlike the three foot space bills this bill would increase safety rather than ticketing. The question is whether the benefit exceeds the cost. I don’t know.

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3 replies on “Massachusetts anti-motorist bills”

  1. Will, I think “anti-motorist” bills are an excellent idea.

    If you compare social harm from car driving with that from biking or walking, it is quite large — very few people are killed or badly injured by bicycles or pedestrians crashing into them, in contrast motorists kill thousands of pedestrians (nationwide) every year. Gas taxes are too low to cover the costs of road maintenance, thus road use by drivers is subsidized from the general fund and should not be encouraged — the last thing we need is more potholes. And finally, we do have to worry about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change; automobile emissions are a considerable part of that in the United States.

    Furthermore, mortality statistics show that commuting by automobile is well-correlated with a 25%+ higher annual mortality rate (presumably from lack of exercise, perhaps from stress) in studies in 3 different countries. This early loss of life dwarfs crash losses, and Massachusetts ought not be in the business of discouraging healthier choices. (See OECD: Cycling, Health and Safety, Table 1.2: )

    I am very much in favor of allowing easy use of 20mph speed limits. Of all the laws proposed, this one is most likely (if enforced) to result in reduced harm, as well as (slightly) quieter urban areas. It’s unlikely to have a substantial effect on rush hour travel times, since I usually outpace automobiles through Cambridge on my bicycle, usually at an average speed of 15mph, even while obeying every single applicable traffic law and being more conservative about pedestrians in crosswalks than most drivers.

    1. I agree with most of what both Rich and David said, but I tend to favor Rich’s particulars over David’s generalities.

      As for the 20 MPH local option, there has to be a good reason for using it, and the law probably shouldn’t try to enumerate them. And I agree with Rich that go-slow zones would probably be abused. Just as the gas tax doesn’t cover road maintenance, neither are municipal receipts sufficient to pay for proper public services. Hard-strapped police departments would be mightily tempted to use them to cite more motorists for moving violations. Combine these zones with radar cameras and you’d have a quite a money-printing machine.

  2. Rich,

    Thanks for weighing in. I’m both a cyclist and motorist and try to take a balanced perspective — one that recognizes the vulnerability of cyclists and the environmental contributions they make, but also recognizes that many people have no practical choice but to drive to get where they need to go.


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