Advocates Pan Proposed Expansion of Policing in Baker ‘Safety’ Bill

Gov. Charlie Baker (left) and MassDOT Secretary Jayme Tesler (background).
Gov. Charlie Baker (left) and MassDOT Acting Secretary Jamey Tesler (background) at an April 26 press conference on the administration's proposed traffic safety legislation.

A number of safe streets organizations are distancing themselves from the Baker administration’s newly-proposed traffic safety legislation over concerns that the bill would expose communities of color to a dangerous increase in police stops, police violence, and incarceration.

In a press conference on Monday morning, Governor Charlie Baker, Lieutenant Governor Kathryn Polito, and MassDOT Secretary Jaime Tesler announced that their administration would file a new traffic safety bill, titled “An Act Relative to Improving Safety on the Roads of the Commonwealth.”

“With more drivers returning to the roads we need to build on efforts to keep drivers safe,” said Governor Baker on Monday morning. “Over the past year, even with the decrease in driving during the pandemic – and maybe in part because of that – Massachusetts saw 334 roadway deaths, most of which were single-car accidents. The primary cause, in many cases, was speed.”

The administration’s proposed legislation re-files several older legislative proposals, and includes some new policies. During Monday’s press conference, the Governor verbally outlined some of the bill’s elements, including:

  • Imposing harsher penalties for people who cause injuries while driving with a suspended license;
  • Allowing police to stop motorists for not wearing a seat belt;
  • Updating the law for commercial drivers licenses to ensure that “only safe and qualified drivers” are allowed to drive large trucks;
  • Allowing municipalities the option of installing red-light cameras at intersections and fine the registered owners of vehicles caught running a red light;
  • Establishing a minimum three-foot passing distance between moving vehicles and bikes or pedestrians along the side of a roadway;
  • Establishing a working group to review regulations regarding electric scooters and e-bikes;
  • Improving the Commonwealth’s crash reports and data;
  • Requiring all Commonwealth-owned trucks to install sideguards and convex mirrors, mirroring regulations already in place in Boston and Cambridge.

“This package of proposals will save lives,” said Lieutenant Governor Kathryn Polito.

Polito also name-checked several safe streets organizations during Monday’s press conference, including the Massachusetts Vision Zero Coalition, MassBike, the Boston Cyclists’ Union, LivableStreets, and WalkBoston.

But following the press conference, leaders of several of those groups distanced themselves from the Governor’s proposal, citing concerns over the bill’s focus on policing and  criminal punishments, which would subject people of color to even higher risks of police violence.

In 2004, a Northeastern University study of traffic stop data (collected under a since-expired data collection law) found that a majority of police forces in Massachusetts were considerably more likely to stop Black and Hispanic drivers than white drivers.

New traffic stop data collected in association with the state’s newly-passed distracted driving law suggests that racial profiling remains significant: white drivers have been more likely to be let go with only a warning, while people of color have been more likely to get tickets.

“We are a week out from the Chauvin conviction, and it’s been less than two weeks since police shot and killed Daunte Wright during a routine traffic stop. And the data that’s been collected out of the hands-free bill shows that racial profiling is happening in Massachusetts,” said Stacy Thompson, Executive Director of LivableStreets, in a phone conversation on Monday afternoon (disclosure: Thompson is also a member of the StreetsblogMASS Board of Directors).

Becca Wolfson, Executive Director of the Boston Cyclists Union, agreed that the bill’s focus on policing would need to change before her organization would support the legislation.

“A lot of these proposals are re-filed versions of bills that were tabled in the last session, before the pandemic. But there haven been a lot of changes in the past two years: the political and social context is completely different. We need to more actively oppose laws that focus on police enforcement,” said Wolfson (disclosure: Wolfson is another member of the StreetsblogMASS Board of Directors). “We’re happy that things like side guards on trucks and better crash reporting are moving forward, and we are glad that they see us as partners on these things… but we also hope to be a partner in changing the parts of this proposal that will cause harm.”

The bill’s policing provisions are also likely to be a political liability in the Massachusetts legislature: in 2019, a proposed distracted driving bill languished for months in a conference committee over concerns about racial profiling in traffic stops – and that was before the large, nationwide protests against police violence that swept the nation in 2020.

Neither Wolfson or Thompson were aware that the Governor was proposing new legislation before today’s press conference, and they have yet to see a copy of the proposed legislation to examine its details.

StreetsblogMASS has also requested a copy of the proposed bill from the Governor’s office, but has yet to receive a response.


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