The 2015-2016 crop of bills in the Massachusetts legislature

My opinion on these proposals, in general: all well-intentioned, but the the law of unintended consequences comes into play with some.

S. 1117, sponsored by Sen. Brownsberger of Watertown, by striking out the words “16 years of age or younger”, would require bicyclists of all ages to wear a helmet, and would encourage bicyclists to wear fluorescent clothing above the waist. The helmet requirement as it presently exists for children and youth is not enforced, and the bill establishes no requirement, only encouragement, of fluorescent clothing. I favor, and wear, a helmet and wear bright-colored clothing, but this legislation would have little effect other than to give defense lawyers more to hold against bicyclists. There is a particular problem with bike-share programs, with which it is inconvenient to provide helmets. Though the next clause in Chapter 85, Section 11B prohibits violation of the helmet rule from being used as evidence in a civil case, public opinion can sway juries. What actually increases helmet use is promotional campaigns.

S. 1818, sponsored by Sen. Creem of Newton, would require a taillamp on a bicycle at night, and eliminate the requirement for a rear reflector. We still sometimes call the small lights on a motor vehicle “parking lights,” but they are rarely used for parking, because the vehicle is equipped with retoreflectors. Retroreflectors work somewhat less reliably on a vehicle in motion, but still, if a taillamp is required, it should be in addition to a rear reflector, as a taillamp can fail without the cyclist’s noticing it. The bill would make it legal for a cyclist to use a helmet-mounted headlight, a reasonable provision, and increase the fine for bicyclists’ offenses from 20 to 50 dollars — usually of little importance, as enforcement is very rare, but a real hardship for people are cited and who ride bicycles because they are impoverished.

H 3706, sponsored by Rep. Howitt of Swansea, would prohibit bicyclists from wearing headphones — and evidence for headphone use could be introduced in a civil case, so the bicyclist is more likely to be held at fault even in a crash which was caused by someone else. Also, there are very important uses for headphones on bicycles, for example in teaching, in police work and in team management in races, and most headphone laws allow a headphone at one ear. This one makes no exception whatever. I have written detailed comments on headphones and headphone laws — please have a look.

H 3081, sponsored by Rep. Sannicandro of Ashland, a so-called “Idaho stop” bill, would make it legal for bicyclists and motorcyclists to cross intersections on a red light if the light is “inoperative due to the size of the bicycle or motorcycle.” The problem is that many traffic signals are controlled by vehicle sensors which do not respond to bicycles and motorcycles. Problems with the Idaho stop law are that it can be unsafe to cross without a functioning signal, that public opinion of bicyclists is lowered, incentive to implement technological solutions is reduced, and bicyclists are encouraged to run red lights whether operational or not. Additionally, this proposal makes no mention of motorized bicycles and motorized scooters, categories intermediate between bicycles and motorcycles. Technological solutions have been known for decades,  become better every year, and any legislation addressing the actuator issue should include provisions to require better actuators. I have already written about the Idaho stop law, see this, and about traffic-signal actuators, see this.

S. 1809, sponsored by Sen. Brownsberger of Watertown, is titled “An Act providing for the safety of bicyclists traveling on bicycle paths”, by requiring motorists to yield to bicyclists crossing in crosswalks. That is appropriate, though motorists usually cannot see bicyclists in crosswalks in time to yield to them if the bicyclists are traveling at typical speeds — the bicyclists must slow or stop. So, this law legitimizes stop signs at crosswalks, and resolves an existing confusion where they are installed. A second provision is intended to improve the safety of pedestrians by requiring bicyclists to yield to them. If a bicyclist collides with a pedestrian, either or both may be injured, so this does tend to protecting bicyclists. It is unclear whether the bicyclists who are required to yield are in the crosswalk or on the street — probably, then, both. I have hosted an earlier discussion of crosswalk laws as they apply to bicyclists on this blog.

H 3072, sponsored by Rep. Rogers of Cambridge, would prohibit standing or parking in a designated bike lane, sidepath, or shared-use lane. This would be unenforceable, as double parking is endemic and truckers often have no other option when loading and unloading. The discrepancy between law and common practice is so large that I was moved to write a satirical article about it. Prohibition of stopping in a bike lane would encourage stopping outside the bike lane, so bicyclists run the gauntlet between unloading vehicles and parked cars, as described here. Parking or standing in a barrier-separated on-street bikeway is difficult to prevent, because construction of one usually is accomplished by narrowing the roadway. Prohibition of parking or standing in a shared-use lane means, in effect, prohibition on all streets, as bicyclists are permitted to use all travel lanes — though probably meant to apply only to lanes with shared-lane markings. Whether there is another lane in which bicyclists — and motorists — can overtake is not accounted for in this bill. Bicyclists’ learning how to negotiate to change lanes is a real solution, but education is not mentioned.

S. 1808, sponsored by Sen. Brownsberger of Watertown, is the same as H 3072, already mentioned.

S. 1850, sponsored by Sen. Lewis of Winchester, would establish a “share the road’ license plate, similar to other specialty license plates in Massachusetts and to “Share the Road” plates in other states. This is a good publicity measure. Funds raised through this measure would be allocated to a nonprofit organization or to municipalities for “Complete Streets” efforts. Questions might arise as to where the funds go, but that issue may be addressed elsewhere.

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