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Bike Light Legislation Renews Debate Over Policing’s Role In Traffic Safety

8:43 AM PDT on March 22, 2021

A new traffic safety bill in the Massachusetts Senate is raising concerns among bike transportation advocates over a proposed new rear-light requirement that could lead to more victim-blaming in crashes and more policing against people of color.

Senate bill 1613, “An Act to Reduce Traffic Fatalities,” filed by Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont, would require state-owned trucks weighing 5 tons or more to install side-guards – devices that physically cover the gaps between axles on the sides of large trucks that prevent bicyclists and pedestrians from being swept under a truck’s rear wheels – in addition to convex and crossover mirrors.

Recycling truck with side guards
A recycling truck equipped with side guards, which can help protect pedestrians and bike riders from falling beneath a truck’s rear wheels. Courtesy of the City of Boston.

The bill would also reduce the default speed limit on state roads through densely-populated neighborhoods from 30 mph to 25 mph, and establish a minimum three-foot passing distance between motor vehicles and pedestrians, bicyclists, or construction workers.

But while most of Brownsberger’s bill is focused on regulating the dangerous vehicles and their drivers, it would also impose a new regulation on people riding bikes, with a requirement that bikes being operated at twilight or at night be equipped with “a lamp emitting a red light, and a red reflector visible for not less than six hundred feet.”

Current state law states that bikes operated at night must have “a lamp emitting a red light, or a red reflector,” in addition to a front-facing white headlight.

Bike advocacy organizations don’t dispute the safety benefits of using lights while riding a bike at night. But they are concerned about adding regulations that could add to inequities in policing, and potentially make it easier for reckless drivers to avoid accountability in crashes.

“We’re grateful to Senator Brownsberger for his continued support for safe biking throughout the Commonwealth, and we want this bill to move forward,” said MassBike executive director Galen Mook in a phone conversation with Streetsblog on Thursday afternoon. “However, there are concerns we have that this would be enforced through police interactions, and we know those to be inherently inequitable, and that they lead to more drastic incidents for people of color.”

Similar data isn’t available for Massachusetts, but a Chicago Tribune analysis in 2017 found that Chicago police issued twice as many citations for minor bicycling violations in Black communities than in predominantly white neighborhoods.

Sen. Brownsberger, a Harvard-educated white man, dismissed those concerns in an email to Streetsblog on Wednesday.

“The law already requires everyone to have a white front light,” wrote Brownsberger. “I don’t agree that requiring a rear light imposes an unmanageable additional burden on anyone.”

Josh Zisson, an attorney who often represents bike users, says that the rear light rule would also make it harder for him to convince insurance companies to compensate victims in crashes.

“I already have to argue with insurance adjusters that my clients didn’t do anything wrong. If there’s a law that says cyclists need a red light, that’s another way for insurance companies to wriggle out of liability,” says Zisson, even in cases where the driver is clearly at fault.

Mook suggests that if Sen. Brownsberger’s goal is for bike riders to use lights, non-punitive approaches would be more effective. Bike retailers could be required to include lights with every bike sold, for instance.

Mook also points out that MassBike runs a “Lights Brigade” program every fall to hand out free bike lights to cyclists who need them – a program that could easily be expanded with the Commonwealth’s support.

He’s hopeful that the bike light issue can be resolved as the bill moves through the Legislature, or when the Senate and House bills are reconciled.

A House version of the same legislation, filed jointly by Rep. Mike Moran and Rep. William Straus, omits the bike light language, and focuses exclusively on improving truck safety and specifying the minimum three-foot safe passing distance.

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