Updated on December 27, 2022 to reflect the finalization of a few details which held up the Governor’s approval of the bill.
Note on January 3, 2023: The Governor has signed this bill — it is law in the form described below.
Today, the House and Senate both again passed a bill intended to reduce fatalities among vulnerable road users. There was substantial agreement about this legislation in July, but it didn’t quite make it across the finish line until September. The Governor then sent it back with some recommended changes.
Through the fall, House Transportation Chair Bill Straus led careful discussions with MassDOT. As of today, December 27, 2022, the bill is back on the Governor’s desk with a few changes that we understand will render the bill acceptable to him.
I’m so glad we could get it to Governor’s desk again. I feel the final bill is as strong as what we originally submitted: It will save lives on the roads. The final text of the bill of the bill appears here.
The legislation defines vulnerable road users broadly to include construction workers, emergency responders, pedestrians, cyclists — essentially anyone who isn’t inside a vehicle:
“Vulnerable user”, (i) a pedestrian, including a person engaged in work upon a way or upon utility facilities along a way or engaged in the provision of emergency services within the way; (ii) a person operating a bicycle, handcycle, tricycle, skateboard, roller skates, in-line skates, non-motorized scooter, wheelchair, electric personal assistive mobility device, horse, horse-drawn carriage, motorized bicycle, motorized scooter, or other micromobility device, or a farm tractor or similar vehicle designed primarily for farm use; or (iii) other such categories that the registrar may designate by regulation.
The legislation as finalized today requires that motorists leave a safe distance of not less than 4 feet when passing vulnerable road users:
In passing a vulnerable user, the operator of a motor vehicle shall pass at a safe distance of not less than 4 feet and at a reasonable and proper speed.
Existing law (a) spoke only to cyclists as opposed to all vulnerable road users; (b) did not include a specific minimum distance. The original version of the bill, as it landed on the Governor’s desk in September, included a new sliding minimum distance that was a function of speed. MassDOT perceived this as too complicated to enforce. The original bill required a minimum distance of 3 feet a 30 miles per hour, so the finalized 4 foot minimum distance is an improvement over the original bill for cyclists on most roads that they lawfully can use; for other vulnerable road users like police and emergency workers on highways the existing move-over law provides good protection.
The legislation allows drivers to cross the center line to achieve a safe passing distance (as does existing law with respect to passing cyclists). The final exact wording of this language was another issue that the Governor sought clarification on. The final language is as follows:
If it is not possible to overtake a vulnerable user, as defined in section 1 of chapter 90, or other vehicle at a safe distance in the same lane, the overtaking vehicle shall use all or part of an adjacent lane, crossing the centerline if necessary, when it is safe to do so and while adhering to the roadway speed limit.
Finally, the legislation directs MassDOT to erect and maintain signage notifying operators of the safe passing distance rules.
Truck Safety Devices
The legislation requires trucks to have devices installed to protect vulnerable road users. The act applies to large vehicles that are leased or owned by the commonwealth (starting in 2023) or used under contract with the commonwealth (starting in 2025).
- devices to make it easier for drivers to see vulnerable road users — backup cameras, convex mirrors, cross-over mirrors.
- devices to prevent vulnerable users from coming under the side of the vehicles
Some of the most tragic accidents have occurred when large vehicles started up and could not see people on the street around them. Other tragic accidents have occurred when people have been caught by the sideways sweeping motion of longer trucks when they turn.
While these safety devices should be installed on all large vehicles, we had to limit the scope of the legislation to those with a nexus to the commonwealth to avoid running afoul of the federal constitutional prohibition on state regulation of interstate commerce. Over time, we may be able to somewhat expand the scope. But with this first of group of vehicles, the Registry of Motor Vehicles can sort out regulations. Additionally, MassDOT can study how well the devices are working.
These provisions were not altered from the September version to the final version.
Under legislation passed previously, municipalities may elect to set a 25 mph speed limit in thickly-settled areas and business districts.
Notwithstanding section 17 or any other general or special law to the contrary, the city council, the transportation commissioner of the city of Boston, the board of selectmen, park commissioners, a traffic commission or traffic director of a city or town that accepts this section in the manner provided in section 4 of chapter 4 may, in the interests of public safety and without further authority, establish a speed limit of 25 miles per hour on any roadway inside a thickly settled or business district in the city or town on any way that is not a state highway.G.L. c. 90, s. 17C
The September version of the legislation extended the 25 mph limit, if adopted by a municipality, to state controlled roads and parkways (other than limited access highways) within the municipality. This language was not acceptable to MassDOT and the Governor sent it back.
The final compromise version, just sent to the Governor’s desk, takes a different approach. It preserves for the state the authority to control speed limits on state-controlled roads. However, it rewrites Chapter 90, Section 18 to clarify the process for municipalities to alter speed limits both on state-controlled roads and on the roads they control.
As to state-controlled roads, the final language of the current bill creates a pathway for a municipality to request a modification from MassDOT:
The city council, the transportation commission of the city of Boston, the board of selectmen, park commissioners, a traffic commission or traffic director may petition the department to modify the speed limit on a state highway within their geographic boundaries. Said petition shall be made in writing to the state traffic engineer. The department shall have 90 days to approve or deny the petition. Upon approval of the petition or the expiration of the 90 days without action, the petitioned speed limit shall become effective and the department shall erect upon the state highway affected thereby and at such points as the department may designate, signs, conforming to standards adopted by the department, setting forth the speed limit.
As to municipally-controlled roads, under existing law, there are two kinds of speed limits : (a) statutory limits; (b) special limits. Under Chapter 90, Section 17, the default statutory limit within a thickly settled area is 30 miles per hour. Under Chapter 90, Section 17C shown above, a municipality can lower that statutory limit to 25 miles per hour. Special limits are limits above or below the statutory limit. In general, special limits have been specially approved by MassDOT after a speed study. MassDOT’s position after the passage of Section 17C, has been that a municipal reduction of the statutory limit to 25mph does not alter special limits.
As to municipally controlled roads where there is a MassDOT-approved special limit in effect, our final language provides that:
The city council, the transportation commission of the city of Boston, the board of selectmen, park commissioners, a traffic commission or traffic director or the department, on ways within their control, may make, amend or rescind special regulations as to the speed of motor vehicles . . . . In the case of a speed regulation, or an amendment or rescission thereof, no such action shall take effect unless the department shall have certified in writing that such regulation, amendment or rescission is consistent with the public interests.
. . .
Upon rescission of the speed regulation, or a portion thereof, and removal of the signs, sections 17 and 17C shall govern.
The main change from existing law in the paragraph above is the words “amend or rescind” — previously, there was no explicit provision for alteration of special regulations. Additionally, a vestigial requirement that the Registrar of Motor Vehicles approve special regulations is removed, leaving MassDOT as the sole state-level approving authority.
To improve our understanding the causes and locations of crashes involving vulnerable road users, the legislation requires MassDOT to develop a reporting system for those crashes. The reports are to be published in an accessible database.
. . . the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, in consultation with the department of public health and the executive office of public safety and security, shall develop a standardized form to report crashes and incidents involving a motor vehicle and a vulnerable user, as defined in section 1 of chapter 90 of the General Laws. In developing the standardized form, the department shall consider best practices in reporting crashes and incidents involving vulnerable users, including the Federal Highway Administration’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Crash Analysis Tool.
Rear Red Lights
For cyclists, the legislation adds a new requirement for use of rear red lights at night. The final bill includes the following compromise language to mitigate the possible effects of that requirement.
The provisions of this paragraph related to front and rear lighting shall be enforced by law enforcement agencies only when an operator of a bicycle has been stopped for some other offense, A violation of this paragraph related to rear lighting shall not be used as conclusive evidence of contributory negligence in any civil action.
. . .
The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security shall within one year report the results of a study of the implementation of this bill focusing on racial, gender and geographic disparities if any.Sections A2 and 13A of H5103 as amended by Senate amendments 3 and 4
There will be little enforcement of this new rule on the street, but we may hope that bike stores will advise their customers.
This legislation reflects over ten years of collaboration with the goal of reducing traffic fatalities. It has evolved substantially over that time. A bill with a long history has many contributors. An early version was filed in 2011 by Representative Sean Garballey. The most recent effort has additionally included Representative Mike Moran (the lead House sponsor), Transportation Committee Co-chairs Senator Brendan Crighton and Representative Bill Straus, the Baker administration, members of the Vision Zero Coalition (including MassBike, the Boston Cyclists Union, Walk Boston, Livable Streets and others), Representatives Kipp Diggs, Dan Hunt, Dave Rogers, and Tommy Vitolo, and Senators Cindy Creem, Joanne Comerford, Lydia Edwards, and Adam Hinds. Appreciation to all of them, to House and Senate Leaders, and to many others unnamed. For more of this long history, browse the “Rules of the Road” thread on this site.
The effort to improve traffic safety is, of course, vastly broader than this bill. Much more remains to be done on many different levels. This bill does represent the second part of an informal three-part agenda discussed a decade ago. The top priority was the hands free cell phone bill that we passed in 2019. The remaining priority is authorization of automated traffic enforcement. That bill bogged down in March 2020 as COVID hit. Automated enforcement is controversial, but I’m hopeful that additional effort may yield a consensus framing for it.