MPHA in the News: ‘Vulnerable road user’ bill aims for safer streets (Milford Daily News)

MILFORD Daily News
MAY 5, 2013

‘Vulnerable road user’ bill aims for safer streets


By David Riley/Image by: Telegraph UK

Twenty-eight years ago, a driver struck Peter Brooks with a truck while he was riding his bike, leaving him with brain damage in the trauma center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston for five days.

Brooks said he has since recovered completely and        remains an active cyclist, sitting on the board of directors for the Charles River Wheelmen, a club of some 1,200 riders.

“Life has to be lived,” he said of his return to biking.While the driver’s insurance helped pay for medical bills, Brooks said the man faced no penalty for the crash. In part, that’s why the Watertown cyclist supports legislation from the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, or MassBike, known as the vulnerable road users bill.

The bill would step up consequences for negligently or recklessly killing, seriously injuring or harassing a cyclist, pedestrian and anyone else considered vulnerable in the path of a car.

“If the vulnerable road user law is passed, that would give cyclists a little bit more leverage in a case against motorists,” Brooks said.

It’s one of several bills bicycle, transportation and public health advocates hope to pass this year with the aim of making it safer and easier to get around by bike or on foot. Other bills would bar parking in bike or marked shared-use lanes and reduce the default speed limit, if it is not marked, from 30 miles per hour to 25 mph on certain busy streets.

The main bill defines vulnerable road users as “a pedestrian or a person operating a bicycle, handcycle, tricycle, skateboard, roller skates, in-line skates, wheelchair, non-motorized scooter or any non-motorized vehicle, or a person riding a horse.”

That is a broader definition than in a version of the bill MassBike filed last year. “We wanted to pitch a bigger tent,” said David Watson, MassBike’s executive director.

Among other things, the bill would subject drivers found guilty of crimes such as motor vehicle homicide or hurting or killing a person while driving drunk to double the normal fines if the victim is considered a vulnerable road user.

The bill also would require violators to take a traffic safety class and perform up to 100 hours of community service related to road safety. The legislation would set penalties for drivers who harass vulnerable users with their vehicles and lays out guidelines for victims to sue motorists who assault or make verbal threats against them.

Such behavior is rare, several cyclists said, but dangerous when it occurs.

“We want to actually create the legal structure to protect people, but by doing so, we’re also publicly sending a message that this kind of behavior is unacceptable, and that is perhaps the more important result,” Watson said.

Overall, many cyclists see room to improve safety on Bay State roads. Massachusetts ranked the 11th safest state in the country for biking in the 2012 Bicycling and Walking in the United States report, by the Alliance for Biking and Walking.

Bicyclists represented about 2 percent of all traffic deaths in this state from 2007 to 2011. That rate is about the same as the nation as a whole, according to the Bicycling and Walking report.

Several cyclists said they see a need for more drivers to be aware of bikes around them and avoid turning in front of riders or look before opening doors in traffic. Yet they acknowledge some bikers could improve safety, too, by avoiding habits such as running red lights or riding in the wrong direction.

Watson chalked some safety problems up to an across-the-board casual attitude about traffic laws in the Bay State, regardless of how one gets around. MassBike focuses partly on public education on safety and rules of the road.

“Part of it is there may be a need for more traffic enforcement in Massachusetts, but that’s a challenge because our police departments are under huge financial pressure and have lots of other priorities,” he said.

Andrew Steinhouse, a Brookline bike commuter, said he would like to see law enforcement do a better job of consistently and fairly policing cyclists who break the rules.

“I think the biggest failure in all of this is the failure of law enforcement,” he said.

A vulnerable road users law would help set an official tone that whoever can cause the most damage in a situation has more responsibility to prevent it, said Steve Miller, a board member at the nonprofit Livable Streets Alliance and author of a transit blog, “The Public Way.”

“Right now, we have a general attitude of, ‘I’ve got my space, get out of my way,’” Miller said. What’s needed is more of a sense that “we’re all in this together,” he said.

Another bill takes aim at the way streets are designed, which other advocates see as key to safer roads.

An Act Relative to Active Streets and Healthy Communities would offer financial incentives to towns and cities that adopt cyclist- and pedestrian-friendly street standards and create plans to carry them out on the ground.

“The problem is there’s always a space between policies that are on the books and getting them implemented, really, on the ground,” said Maddie Ribble, policy and communications director for the Massachusetts Public Health Association, which backs the bill.

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