“Purgatory” and “limbo” are words being used by bicycling and walking activists to describe the current state of the Vulnerable Road Users Bill, which was sent to study on June 1st by the Joint Committee on Transportation in the Massachusetts Legislature. This move effectively keeps the bill off the table, if perhaps under the microscope, until next January. Intended to protect “vulnerable road users” like bicyclists, pedestrians, skaters, skateboarders, recently gained much-needed, though ill-gotten, attention after a woman was killed by an MBTA bus while riding along Huntington Avenue and a doctor in nearby Norwood was injured while biking—both on the same day that the bill went to study. And all of this, of course, is in the middle of an ongoing debate about the future of transportation in Massachusetts.
Though this bill and the simultaneous bike accidents have been the focal point of local media recently when discussing transportation, it addresses only one piece of a much larger puzzle. The bill (H.3079—DIY Nancy Drew), which is sponsored by Rep. Sean Garballey, along with Representatives Carl M. Sciortino and Kay Khan, and Senator William Brownsberger, seeks only to impose larger fines and mandate education for motorists who have hit a “vulnerable user.”
“It’s just giving law enforcement more flexibility,” said Price Armstrong, Program Manager for MassBike. “If it’s an egregious example of negligence, they can give stronger penalties.”
These penalties can include up to a $10,000 fine, a traffic safety class, and up to a hundred hours of community service “related to driver improvement and providing public education on traffic safety including interactions between motorized vehicles and vulnerable users,” as stated in the bill. Just as importantly, the bill seeks to add language to current law that highlights the danger that drivers pose to other users of the road when they drive “recklessly or negligently.”
“Motorists have a steel cage around them, whereas bicyclists and pedestrians do not,” Armstrong said. “It makes sense to try and protect those users because they’re more vulnerable.”
Though this bill is intended to heighten awareness around bicycle and pedestrian safety issues, and attribute the same gravitas to a car-on-bike collision as a motor-on-motor incident—and rightfully so—it does little to stop such accidents from actually occurring. MassBike uses other tactics to address the prevention side of the issue.
“More signage is another effort, which is a tremendously effective tool,” Armstrong said. MassBike currently supports a bill sponsored by WalkBoston that would lower the default speed limit on roads in Massachusetts from 30 to 25 mph. Ninety percent of people hit by a car going 40 mph are fatally injured, while only 5 percent of people die when the motorist is going 20 mph, according to a press release by the Active Transportation Alliance. Another joint effort between MassBike and WalkBoston seeks to set up “senior safety zones” around places where senior citizens frequent, since theirs is a demographic that disproportionally walks to their destinations.
MassBike has even teamed up with the RMV to begin raising the awareness of motorists before they’re even legal to drive.
“There are four bike-related questions that could be on the driver’s test, so at least one is guaranteed for new drivers,” said Armstrong.
MassBike tries to get them while they’re young by offering bicycle safety education for children, which “pays off in the long-term,” said Armstrong. The effect of these efforts may be impossible to quantify in terms of the lives and limbs saved, but they are irrefutably more effective in keeping all users of the road aware of their surroundings than any punishment could.
When the government focuses on creating—or not creating, as the case may be—legislation that gives stricter “justice” after the fact, rather than focusing on providing more funds and services that would prevent such accidents, it puts everyone at risk: motorists face stricter penalties, bicyclists still ride on roads without bike lanes or proper signage, and pedestrians sometimes find themselves walking around unsafe streets because of a lack of affordable or available public transportation. Massachusetts should be focused on creating safe options for those who choose not to, or cannot, drive or take public transportation, as it saves both the government and the public time and money in the courts.
So call your Senator and Representative, and thank/berate them for supporting/not-yet-supporting this bill, and then ask them, no matter where they stand on the issue, to take a more comprehensive look at the state’s public transportation system. Because, as Armstrong said: “We’re all just trying to get where we’re going safely and comfortably.”
FOR THE FULL TEXT OF THE BILL—AND HOW TO GET INVOLVED—HEAD TO DIGBOSTON.COM