Seatbelt ‘Primary Enforcement’ Change, Red-Light Cameras Pitched as Lifesavers by Massachusetts Governor

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By Chris Lisinski
State House News Service

Warning that roadway deaths remained nearly unchanged during the pandemic despite a significant drop in traffic, Governor Charlie Baker unveiled a suite of safety reforms Monday including red-light cameras, stricter penalties for driving with a suspended license, and increased seatbelt use enforcement.

Baker filed a wide-ranging traffic safety bill (HD 4200), combining new and old proposals aimed at cracking down on motorists who drive dangerously and strengthening the state’s licensing processes.

“This road safety package we’re filing today addresses some of the most pressing issues that are facing commuters, and we are confident that passing this bill will help reduce roadway deaths and injuries and improve our transportation system safety,” he said.

The administration’s latest push for traffic law updates lands in a significantly different environment from some of the provisions Baker targeted last session, altered by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on travel patterns across Massachusetts.

The statewide average of vehicle miles traveled, which counts all trips made by motor vehicles, dropped sharply in March 2020 as many businesses either closed or shifted to remote working options, according to Massachusetts Department of Transportation data. Although traffic has rebounded in some areas, the weekday average vehicle miles traveled at the start March 2021 remained about 38 percent lower than before the pandemic.

However, the decline in car travel did not translate into a decline in roadway deaths. Baker said 334 people died on Massachusetts roads over the past year, only two fewer than the 336 in 2019. Most of the crashes in the past year were single-car accidents with speeding as a primary factor, he said.

After implementing new safety laws such as a distracted driving ban that took effect last year, Baker said lawmakers must now step up and do more to protect drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

“With more drivers returning to the roads, we need to build on these efforts to keep people safe,” he said.

The bill would give municipalities the option to deploy red-light cameras at chosen intersections. Cameras would take pictures of vehicle license plates if a driver commits a violation such as running a red light or making an illegal turn on red.

Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said more than 300 communities in the United States already use red-light cameras and that studies indicate they have been “instrumental in reducing dangerous accidents and roadway deaths.”

“Red-light camera enforcement has been proven again and again to reduce fatal crashes at red lights and pedestrian deaths as well, and allowing communities to use this tool in dangerous intersections will have carryover effects and carryover benefits,” Acting Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler added. “Studies have shown consistently that drivers tend to run reds at non-camera locations less when other locations have cameras.”

The Massachusetts Senate last year initiated debate on red-light camera legislation but pulled the bill back after it drew dissent from Republicans and Democrats over privacy violations and the efficacy of camera enforcement.

A newly proposed section in Baker’s bill builds on a 2015 law that requires the state Registry of Motor Vehicles to notify police departments when a motorist in their community has had their license suspended. The law is often referred to as “Haley’s Law” in honor of Haley Cremer, who was struck and killed in 2014 by a driver whose license was allegedly suspended at the time.

Current law only penalizes driving with a suspended license, and Baker’s bill would add harsher penalties for driving recklessly, causing serious bodily injury or causing death while a license is suspended.

The bill would impose punishments on three levels of “aggravating factors,” according to Baker’s office:  a fine up to $1,000 and up to five years in prison for driving negligently or recklessly on a suspended license, a fine up to $3,000 and two-and-a-half years in a house of correction or five years in prison for causing serious bodily injury, and a fine up to $5,000 and between two and 10 years in prison for causing death.

Marc Cremer, Haley’s father and a vocal advocate for the original legislation, said those who get behind the wheel after their license has been suspended or revoked for a serious offense “are exhibiting a complete and blatant disregard for the laws of the commonwealth and the safety of the community.”

“These offenders need to know the consequences of their actions are going to be severe when they cause bodily injury, serious bodily injury or death,” Cremer said. “If enacting penalties commensurate with the recklessness and negligence of this behavior prevents one crash, and it will, we will save another family — more likely many families — from the horror my wife, daughter and I live with every day.”

Another section of the bill repeats proposed reforms to the commercial driver’s licensing process that Baker and his deputies sought unsuccessfully last session.

The changes would make commercial licenses unavailable to motorists who have had their standard license suspended or have been disqualified from driving in the past three years. It would also increase minimum suspensions from 60 days to 120 days for existing commercial licensees who commit two serious traffic violations in a three-year period and from 120 days to 240 days for those who commit three violations in three years.

The administration first filed the changes in July 2019, after a Massachusetts driver whose commercial license should have been suspended following an arrest in Connecticut allegedly caused a crash in New Hampshire that killed seven motorcyclists. The National Transportation Safety Board probed the incident and concluded last year that a “pickup truck driver under the influence of illicit drugs crossed the centerline of a rural Randolph, New Hampshire, highway June 21, 2019, striking a group of motorcyclists and killing seven of them.”

Lawmakers launched an oversight inquiry into the Registry of Motor Vehicles and its failure to react to the out-of-state alert about the driver, but did not act on Baker’s licensing reforms before the 2019-2020 legislative session ended.

Tesler, who took over as acting registrar in the wake of the New Hampshire crash, said the tragedy “was a moment of truth for me as to the importance of both strong laws and the effective implementation of those laws, but also the tragic impact one driver’s decisions can have on so many other lives.”

Baker’s bill also renews his push to empower police to pull drivers over for failing to use a seatbelt, which is required. Police currently need another reason to stop a motorist and cite them for a seatbelt violation, but the legislation would allow “primary enforcement” of seatbelts without any other condition.

Massachusetts ranks 46th out of 50 states in rate of seatbelt use, according to Highway Safety Division Director Jeff Larason, who added that more than half of the people killed on Bay State roadways were not wearing seatbelts.

States with primary seatbelt laws, which allow police to enforce seatbelt usage without first identifying another violation, have seatbelt use rates an average of 10 to 12 points higher than states with secondary laws like Massachusetts, Larason said.

“This increase in Massachusetts seatbelt use rate, which will come, will translate into saving on average 15 lives a year,” Larason said.

Motorists would also be required under the bill to maintain a “safe passing distance” of three feet between their vehicles and cyclists or pedestrians on stretches of roads without a protected bike lane or curb. Thirty-six other states have a similar mandate in place, according to the Baker administration.

Other reforms include a new requirement for vehicles over 10,000 pounds to install side guards, convex mirrors, and cross-over mirrors, additional data collection from motor vehicle crashes, and creation of a working group to study possible regulations on electric scooters.