It’s Time To Pass A Vulnerable Road Users Bill

Each of us in the bicycling community has been affected by the two collisions of the past two days. We are sad, angry, and scared. Many of us are wondering what we can do.

We, at MassBike, have been working on a new piece a legislation that will help to raise driver awareness of bicyclists and make sure that those motorists that harm us are held accountable. These tragic recent events have only strengthened our conviction that heightened awareness and increased safety are needed.

Currently, Massachusetts law does not adequately deal with motorists who kill or injure vulnerable road users, such as bicyclists and pedestrians. Motorists should have a greater responsibility to protect vulnerable road users than they do to protect other motorists, because vulnerable road users are not protected by two tons of steel, seat belts, crumple zones, and airbags.

Sadly, Bicyclists represent 3% of deaths and 2% of serious injuries, but only 1% of trips. Pedestrians represent 16% of deaths and 5% of serious injuries, but only 4% of trips. This disproportionately high number of deaths and serious injuries for vulnerable road users tells us that greater protections need to be put in place.

A motorist who injures a vulnerable road user faces no punishment unless the victim dies, or is seriously injured, or the motorist is under the influence. There is currently no incentive for motorists to exercise greater caution around vulnerable users than they do around other motorists.

For these reasons, MassBike is working on a new Vulnerable Road Users Bill, aimed at addressing the concerns and needs of those who use the road. We’ve drafted a bill and our legislative supporters and legal friends are currently reviewing the document. We’ll post a copy of the full bill as soon as it is available. Our aim is to increase penalties when the victim is a vulnerable road user, including increased suspension or loss of the motorist’s license and community service based around traffic education. We believe that by moving forward with the Vulnerable Road Users Bill we can increase drivers’ awareness of bicyclists on the roads, and ultimately, our safety.

There are many ways that you can become involved to help make this bill become a law. We are petitioning bicyclists and pedestrians to let their legislators know that they should co-sponsor the bill when it is introduced into the legislature. The more legislators signed on, the faster the bill will move through the law-making process. We need your help to come out and petition with us on the street. Our upcoming dates are as follows:

Monday, 4/12, 5-6:30pm, SW Corridor Park, near Stony Brook T Stop, Jamaica Plain
Monday, 4/26, 5-6:30pm, Massachusetts Ave. & Memorial Dr. (Mass. Ave. Bridge), Cambridge
Tuesday, 5/3, 5-6:30pm, Broadway & Galileo Galilei Way, Cambridge

You can check our volunteer calendar for future dates or RSVP to volunteer@massbike.org.

You can also collect signatures on your own, by downloading our petition here. For information on how to use the petition effectively, click here.

Finally, if you aren’t already, you can become a member of MassBike. We are grass-roots organization, funded mostly by bicyclists like you, concerned about the issues that matter to those of us on the road. We need your help to continue working hard for bicyclists across the state. People in government listen to us because we have the voice of so many cyclists, they will listen more if we can come to them with an even broader coalition of cyclists. Join today to support this and all of our efforts to make cycling safer.

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16 Responses to It’s Time To Pass A Vulnerable Road Users Bill

  1. Eli Damon April 9, 2010 at 3:30 pm #

    Motorists do need to be held responsible for harming cyclists but I think that a law that poses the problem in terms of the rights of “vulnerable road users” will not be effective. I would much rather see a law that poses the problem in terms of the responsibilities of “dangerous roads users”. I also think that our biggest problem is not the law as written but the way that law is (or isn’t) carried out.

  2. Eli Damon April 9, 2010 at 3:35 pm #

    Also, posing the law in terms of the rights of “vulnerable road users” could set a precedent of treating cyclists differently from everyone else and re-open the door to laws that discriminate against cyclists.

  3. J K Monroe April 10, 2010 at 11:31 am #

    Agree with Eli. Team up with a motorcycle organization, and a coalition of parents pushing strollers! This should not be framed as a problem to which cyclists are uniquely vulnerable.

  4. ODB April 12, 2010 at 9:20 am #

    The new bill should create a rebuttable presumption where in a car/”vulnerable user” collision, the car will be presumed to be at fault.

  5. Roland Adams April 12, 2010 at 12:12 pm #

    I’d like to send my condolences to the families of the cyclists who recently lost their lives. Advocating this kind of law seems counter to the message of MassBike though, “same road same rules.” These accidents happened in dense urban areas, and there are “vulnerable users” everywhere in these areas… drivers should have this assumption and drive accordingly. And while it is certainly arguable that a cyclist is far less like likely to be the cause of fatality in an accident, I’m not sure that a law that presumes that a motorist is at fault in any car-bicycle accident is fair.

  6. matt April 12, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    agree with Roland, plus I doubt what impact such a law would have.

    instead, maybe we should pass a law making it mandatory for all cyclists to wear a helmet. a Globe article on the recent accident says the cyclist wasn’t wearing one…which is not to say a helmet would have saved someone hit by a bus, of course, but the odds generally favor wearing one.

    one reason I’d guess many folks dont’ wear a helmet is that they are inconvenient to carry. i agree. maybe making a foldable helmet (like the Dahon Pango) available at low cost could help with this.

  7. paola April 13, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

    I must agree with ODB. We need to advocate for changes to our negligence standards when “vulnerable road users” are involved. A rebuttable presumption of liability on drivers, similar to what is used in the Netherlands, would go a long way in supporting and protecting cyclists involved in collisions with cars. The current bias against cyclists places an unreasonable onus to show, even when we’ve been injured, that we are not at fault. To make matters worse, Massachusetts follows a “modified comparative negligence” system, which uses a 51% rule to determine who is at fault and whether a person can recover for injuries sustained. Basically, if a cyclist is determined to have been 51% at fault (or more) he will not recover for his/her injuries. This seems unfair when a cyclist is likely to have the most severe injuries when pitted against a car. Similarly, in a pure comparative negligence jurisdiction, a plaintiff’s recovery is reduced by the degree of his or her fault. Nevertheless, you can still recover for some of your injuries and responsibility/liability is apportioned accordingly. In essence, Massachusetts rewards drivers for being 51% safe… and that should not be the threshold for a safe driver.

  8. David April 13, 2010 at 3:26 pm #

    Thanks for all the helpful comments. We’re still refining our approach to the bill, so different perspectives are welcome and instructive. The bill will define who is a “vulnerable road user”, and will include pedestrians and bicyclists for sure, and possibly motorcyclists or other groups. I’m not concerned about setting a precedent for treating cyclists differently – current law already treats cyclists differently in several ways (e.g., passing on the right, prohibited from limited access highways) that do not affect our overall right to the road. And the reality is that we are different: in a crash, we are significantly more vulnerable to injury and death than motorists simply because we are not encased in two tons of steel. A presumption of fault (strict liability) would be a radical change in the way criminal cases are prosecuted in the United States. Strict liability has been applied in product liability and environmental cases, but generally not for serious criminal offenses because of our bedrock presumption of innocence. One exception has been in cases where the defendant motorist was under the influence when they killed or seriously injured the victim, and Massachusetts law already incorporates this concept. The things we’ve been looking at are: increasing the penalties (jail time and/or fines); suspending or revoking licenses more readily or for longer; adding traffic safety education and community service teaching others about traffic safety; and closing a loophole that makes it difficult to prosecute someone for causing serious injury when they were not under the influence. The overall idea is to create incentives for motorists to be more careful and for prosecutors to bring charges. Other thoughts?

  9. matt April 13, 2010 at 8:33 pm #

    how about advocating for mandatory helmets for all cyclists? I noted with sadness that the student killed last week wasn’t wearing one.

  10. paola April 14, 2010 at 9:31 am #

    David, I want to clarify that what I am advocating -and ODB posted on it first- is a rebuttable presumption of liability NOT strict liability. The rebuttable presumption of liability would be based on prima facie evidence of injury to a cyclist/pedestrian, but the driver would still be able to show he/she is not at fault. I know it is an impossible standard for our criminal justice system, because it goes against the presumption of innocence core to our system of justice, but we do have different standards of proof in civil court and this should not be seen as anathema to our principles of fairness. Strict liability goes much further by holding defendats accountable regardless of fault, and that is not what I am suggesting. As you mentioned, “we are significantly more vulnerable to injury and death than motorists simply because we are not encased in two tons of steel.” Our laws should reflect this.

  11. ODB April 16, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    Indeed, strict liability is a little bit radical, but a rebuttable presumption in favor of cyclists is a different concept and makes a lot of sense here. If a cyclist is at fault he should not recover, but the burden will be on the motorist to prove it.

    I really think it is important to modify the tort law to protect vulnerable users more than it does. Criminal penalities rely upon police officers to levy them–something they will not always do (especially if they did not witness the accident). Tort would allow a cyclist an avenue for justice in this situation.

    On mandatory helmets: my understanding is the data shows that when helmets are mandatory, bike riding decreases. When bike riding levels decrease, bike/car accidents increase. Therefore, I support leaving the law as is to encourage as many as possible to ride.

  12. lynn May 2, 2010 at 6:25 pm #

    This bill was up for consideration in April & I know my representatives had no interest in it.

    House bill 2190 makes a small tweak to state law to give cyclists slight breathing room in a crowded, potentially crunching, set of roads. Designed after a Montana law, it lets cyclists pass a stop sign after slowing down, so long as the way is clear. The idea is that they are safer and drivers less nervous if the bicycle gets a little head start and any motor vehicles overtake the cyclist rather than find themselves starting from the intersection simultaneously. In the latter way lies madness, anxiety and swerving.

    It certainly makes sense if you are at an intersection to the right of a person making a right turn & there is no traffic. It’s certainly not safe for the vehicle & the cyclist to start out at the same time. Yet MA legislators aren’t all that interested in the safety of the cyclists.

  13. David May 4, 2010 at 7:17 pm #

    @lynn, wow, I didn’t know that someone had introduced a bill like this in Massachusetts. It’s modeled on the “Idaho stop” law, by the way. I know there is a lot of discussion about this type of law among cyclists, and a great deal of disagreement. So before I join the controversy, I want to invite further comment because we want to know what you all think about this.

    Here goes: MassBike does not support this type of law. The population density of Idaho’s largest city is about one-tenth that of Boston. Ironically, the people who are most interested in this kind of law are urban riders, because it doesn’t really make any difference in a rural area where there is no traffic. We think that all roadway users should follow the same set of rules. It makes everyone’s behavior more predictable, so we can more or less rely on what others will do. That predictability helps most people on the road get where they are going, safely, most of the time.

    We hear all the arguments, such as bicyclists have better visibility, bicyclists need to conserve momentum, bicyclists are safer getting a head start on the waiting cars, but none of it is really convincing. Convertibles and open Jeeps offer better visibility than other cars, and no one would argue that they should roll through stop signs. Conserving momentum? Come on, riding around town is not an endurance event, most bicyclists have more than enough energy to stop and start. The head start theory? Is getting passed by a car going 30mph a hundred feet down the road really safer than that same car starting from a standstill next to you? The simplest (and, until someone comes up with statistically valid evidence to the contrary, safest) system is for everyone to follow the same rules.

  14. KimD June 28, 2010 at 10:54 pm #

    A couple of months ago, I was in an accident where I was going down a nearly deserted road in Lynn, MA in the middle of the day. A car driving in the other direction made a left turn in front of me. The car made turn no signal and I had no time to stop. I completely t-boned the car and went through the front passenger window. As a result of the accident, I received a Grade 3 concussion even though I was wearing my helmet. The impact split my helmet and broke my new carbon fiber bike in half. The motorist’s insurance company said I was 50% responsible and offered less than $900 because I was riding my bike over the speed limit, which is impossible for me since I am not that good of a rider.

    These accidents happen not only in congested areas but in residential ones too, and people get injured whether or not they are wearing a helmet (although I always advocate wearing one). This driver received no ticket from the officer and therefore, no penalty. I am extremely frustrated because I feel like there is nothing out there protecting us from what is so blatantly wrong. There is no incentive for motorist (or insurance companies) to be more cautious around bicyclist because they know they can get away it. I am now scared to ride my bike anywhere.

    Oregon passed a Vulnerable Roadway User Law in 2007
    http://www.stc-law.com/vulnerable.html

    Virginia:
    http://www.vabike.org/the-case-for-a-vulnerable-road-user-law/

  15. Paul Schimek September 15, 2010 at 11:11 am #

    KimD, the insurance company’s position is outrageous! Your speed is irrelevant; the motorist had a duty to yield (it’s in the law twice, even!). (And how would they know what your speed was anyhow?). Is there a police report? Did they take any action (i.e., citation) against the motorist?

    The Safe Driver Insurance Program (another parallel set of Mass. traffic laws — we have many) says:

    (15) Collision While Making a Left Turn or U-Turn Across the Travel Path of a Vehicle Traveling in the Same or Opposite Direction. The operator of a vehicle subject to the Safe Driver Insurance Plan shall be presumed to be more than 50% at fault when operating a vehicle making a left turn or U-turn across the path of travel of another vehicle moving:
    in the same direction, or
    in the opposite direction, and whose vehicle is in a collision with such vehicle.

    I would be happy to help you get a just resolution to this if I can, and perhaps MassBike can assist as well.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Cyclist killed last night @ Mass Ave and Vassar | The Handle - December 28, 2011

    […] Cyclist killed last night @ Mass Ave and Vassar Posted on December 28, 2011 by jthandle TweetTanker on wrong side of the road. Photo from CBS, link below.Looks like the tanker is on the wrong side of the road. Looking @ the intersection of Massachusetts Ave & Vassar St, Cambridge, MA 02139 with Google maps street view, it appears that there are many traffic cameras overhead, which should have recorded the incident. This is an awful tragedy and my thoughts and best wishes go out to the cyclists family. Seems pretty clear from the photo of the tanker on the worng side of the road in this article that it is the motorist that is at fault in this collision and killed a human. Unfortunately, with the lax roadway laws in Massachusetts, this driver will most likely receive merely a paltry fine and a bump on his insurance premiums. It is time to pass a vulnerable road users law. […]