My opinions on the bills before the Massachusetts General Court

I can’t go to the Wednesday, January 6 hearing on transportation bills, because I’ll be out of town on business, but here’s my take (and be sure to read through to the last bill on which I comment: it’s one of the most important, and we should oppose it). My opinions are based on my long experience with legislation and as an expert witness in lawsuits over bicycle crashes, but are open to discussion.

S. 1807  (and also S. 1979 and H. 3073): Clearance when overtaking: Support this bill. It can be enforced if there actually is a collision. Then the motorist clearly wasn’t providing enough clearance unless the bicyclist swerved out (and that will be a topic of debate in civil cases and insurance claims). Crossing the centerline to pass is the norm, and in my opinion it should be legal. It is already legal in several states. The current law.

S. 1808  (and also H. 3072): Prohibiting parking in bike lanes: poorly worded in that it is selective and applies only when there is a bike lane or shared-lane marking. The Massachusetts Driver’s Manual indicates that double parking is prohibited, see page 104 in Chapter 4, but rings hollow. I searched the Massachusetts General Laws and couldn’t find a law against it (!) That’s one reason this provision is proposed to go into Chapter 89, a chapter with no related provisions, of which sections 4, 4A, 4B and 4C (and all the others) are only about driving, not about parking.

The Massachusetts Highway Department regulations, section 9.03 here, are the basis for the statements in the Driver’s Manual but they apply only on state highways, and the question of what is a state highway is a tangle based on property ownership and easements. A highway’s having a state highway number does not make it a state highway. (Ever notice the “state highway ends” signs on entering a town? Those are posted to identify whether state or local police have jurisdiction.) Except on state highways, parking regulations are up to the individual cities and towns.

Double parking outside the bike lane is worse than parking in the bike lane, see my comments on advice to do it in New York City. But, this bill appears to overturn the municipal regulations. It may even prohibit motorists from pulling into the bike lane to allow emergency vehicles to pass.

Truckers must make deliveries, and the police will not enforce against that. Double parking is endemic and this bill won’t put an end to it. A congestion charge, or demand-sensitive pricing of public parking would, along with some serious improvements in public transportation, but free or cheap parking is an ingrained entitlement which people aren’t going to give up any time soon. If there is to be a general law prohibiting double parking (which could be enforced under some circumstances, with police discretion) then it should not be selective like this bill.

S. 1809, bicycle path intersections: support. We have a real problem with confusion about yielding rules at crossings. See my blog post about this. The current law.

S. 1810 (and also H. 3019): Convex mirror: support. Truck side skirts on the other hand are not the panacea they are made out to be: The “lateral protective devices” which the City of Boston has been installing are window dressing, see my comments. If side skirts are to be effective, they must be better designed, but they still are only a partially effective mitigation device like a helmet or seat belt, not a way to prevent crashes. The problem needs to be addressed through education. That’s the very quiet elephant in the room, because it flies in the face of bike-lane designs which convey a false expectation of safety to bicyclists overtaking on the right. See my blog post about how bicyclists can avoid being run over by trucks.   The current Chapter 90 section 7.

S. 1816: Support the Vulnerable Road User Safety Commission, but I’m wondering how effective it will be because its duties overlap considerably with those of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board. There is opportunity for dialogue but also the likelihood that some representatives of state agencies will not show up. (I’ve been on these Boards again and again and that has happened, again and again.) A lot depends on who represents advocates at the meetings.

S. 1818, taillights: Push for amendment. Taillights are good, I always use one at night. Lights are becoming more and more affordable year by year, but this bill is poorly worded. The bill would hold a person with a rear reflector and no taillight negligent in an overtaking collision even if the reflector is clearly visible. This problem of presumption of negligence could not be avoided without a phase-in period and a massive publicity campaign. Also, the bill removes the requirement for a rear reflector, a very poor idea because a taillight can go out without the cyclist’s being aware of it. The bill should be amended also to require a reflector (as at present) to allow it to be amber, which is much brighter than red, and to fund education and publicity. The current law.

S. 1850: I support share-the-roads license plates but what is the money they raise supposed to do? I regularly attend Bicycle-pedestrian Advisory Board meetings but I had never heard of the Complete Streets Advisory Committee (yet another committee with overlapping duties!). Chapter 90, Section 2E of the MGL as at present is here. Chapter 90I, to be amended, is here.

S. 1879: redundant with S .1807, passing clearance bill..

S. 1890: increases traffic fines. This is a two-edged sword. It brings fines up to date. Would raising the fines make traffic-law enforcement a higher priority for police, because the enforcement would pay for itself? That makes economic sense, but on the other hand, traffic-law enforcement has also been applied as a form of discrimination in various places around the country, and this has been a contentious issue. There should be some affordability provision.

H. 3019 — redundant with the convex mirror and “lateral protective device” provisions of S. 1810

H. 3037: appears to be a bill to sell off rails and bridges which might be re-used for rail trails. Oppose unless someone can provide a good explanation why it doesn’t do that.

H. 3071  — standardizes crosswalk markings. Support.

H. 3072  — redundant with parking in bike lane bill, S. 1808.

H. 3073  — redundant with S. 1807

H. 3706  — prohibiting headphone use by bicyclists. Discourage headphone use but also oppose this bill. It restricts our rights in important ways without giving us anything in return or any exceptions to the restrictions. It provides a golden opportunity for motorists’ defense lawyers to hold cyclists responsible for crashes caused by others. I have served as an expert witness for a woman who was struck from behind by a motorist when riding straight along a street, and she lost her civil case because she was wearing headphones and not riding in the gutter approaching an intersection with a poor sight line to the right. The incompetent driver kidney-punched her with the right-side rear-view mirror. The jury decided that she should have dived out of the way on hearing a car approach from behind.

One presumption underlying efforts to ban headphonea is that they exclude sound from outside. That is true of some headphones but not others. Beyond that, the effect on the ability to hear depends on how loud they are played. A compromise bill might prohibit only headphones which exclude sound.

Motorists are currently prohibited from wearing headphones, but there is no law against their driving with their windows up or playing a car audio system at high volume.

Headphones have special advantages for bicyclists in requiring little power to operate and in avoiding noise pollution.

The bill has no exceptions for important and safety-related uses of headphones by bicyclists: to instruct people in an on-road class using two-way radios; to give directions to companions; by bicycle-mounted police and ride marshals for communication among themselves, etc. I have written a detailed article about bicyclists’ sense of hearing and headphone use. The current law, with no headphone prohibition.

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