• September 24, 2023

As traffic deaths spike, Mass. eyes new safety laws – The Boston Globe

But an AHAS report released this month says Massachusetts has enacted only five of the recommended 16 laws. For instance, the state has strong laws requiring helmet use by motorcyclists, requiring booster seats for young children, banning open containers of alcohol, and limiting cell phone use while driving.

AHAS favors more restrictions. The group says police should be permitted to pull over vehicles solely because the driver or passengers aren’t wearing seat belts, for example. Under the current Massachusetts seat belt law, drivers can only be cited if they’re first pulled over for some other offense.

Both Governor Charlie Baker and Democratic Representative William Straus, chairman of the Legislature’s joint committee on transportation, have said they favor such a change in the law. In 2019, Baker submitted legislation to make the change, but the effort was rejected.

“Opposition often comes based upon views of ‘Big Brother’ and whether it will be applied by police in an equitable manner as to who is stopped,” said Straus. But he added that there’s also considerable support for toughening the seat belt law, and said he expected renewed efforts to get it done.

Other AHAS proposals include mandatory ignition interlocks for anyone convicted of drunken driving, including first-time offenders. Currently in Massachusetts, such interlock systems, which require the driver to pass a breath-alcohol test to start the car, are required for repeat offenders or those who’ve tested at twice the legal limit for blood-alcohol level.

Traffic on the Longfellow Bridge and the Kendall Square skyline are seen, Friday, Nov 4, 2022, in Boston. Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Chase said the enactment of such laws could help turn the tide in traffic fatalities, which have spiked in the United States, and Massachusetts, since the COVID pandemic.

According to the National Safety Council, Massachusetts logged 319 traffic deaths in the first nine months of 2022. That’s up 7 percent from the same time period in 2021 and 32 percent compared to the 241 deaths in the first nine months of 2020. The organization says that the increase in auto deaths in Massachusetts from 2020 to 2022 is the third-highest of all US states.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In September, legislators sent Baker a bill aimed at protecting pedestrians and cyclists. The legislation required that drivers keep a safe distance when passing such “vulnerable road users.” Baker said he favored the bill but called it confusing and hard to enforce. Straus said a revised version of the law was presented to the governor on Tuesday.

The revised law will require drivers to keep a minimum distance of four feet while passing vulnerable road users. It will also require that all trucks operated by the Commonwealth or state-funded contractors use “lateral protective devices.” These are metal shields that cover the space between a truck’s front and rear wheels to prevent pedestrians or cyclists from falling under the wheels. In addition, bull bars, the massive tubular structures found on the front ends of many trucks, will be banned from state-owned trucks because they can increase the risk of death or serious injury in an accident.

Straus said that distracted driving is probably the biggest reason for surging fatality rates. (The AHAS report actually gives Massachusetts a good grade for its laws restricting cell phone use behind the wheel.) Straus said he is alarmed by the increasing use of dashboard-mounted touchscreens to control everything from air conditioning to music selection.

“Our law on distracted driving does not cover the many, many people who allow their cars to make use of Apple CarPlay,” said Straus. CarPlay lets iPhone users operate the device using the car’s touchscreen. Drivers with Android phones can use a similar feature called Android Auto.

Straus said it’s hard to conceive of a law that could effectively regulate these devices, which are already installed in millions of cars. Instead, he said, the auto industry needs to adopt safer, less-distracting user interfaces.

“I think this is where the engineers have to be brought in,” he said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

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