Drivers with suspended licenses would face tougher penalties if they cause injury or death on the road. Cities and towns would be allowed to install traffic enforcement cameras at intersections. And police could pull drivers over for failing to wear a seatbelt under sweeping roadway safety legislation Governor Charlie Baker proposed Monday.
Baker cited several reasons for the new safety measures, including an increased rate of fatal crashes during the coronavirus pandemic, the scandal at the Registry of Motor Vehicles after a trucker killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire in 2019, and the advent of new technology and transportation options, such as rental scooter networks.
Tying them together, he said, was the belief that more should be done to make the roads safer.
“We are confident passing this bill will help reduce roadway deaths and injuries and improve our transportation system’s safety overall,” Baker said at a news conference.
Some aspects of the bill drew a quick backlash among roadway safety advocates who said added police enforcement — especially for seatbelt usage — would create a greater risk of racial profiling, highlighting a tension between demands for safer roads and concerns about enforcement. Similar concerns stalled a ban on handheld cellphone usage in Massachusetts before it was implemented last year.
Among the bill’s major provisions are stricter penalties for motorists whose licenses were suspended for safety reasons. Driving with a suspended license now carries a maximum sentence of 2.5 years in prison. Under the proposed rules, that would rise to 10 years if the suspended driver caused a deadly crash. It would also include harsher penalties for suspended motorists who drive negligently or recklessly or cause serious bodily injury.
Baker said the proposed penalties would update a 2015 measure, known as Haley’s Law, which required the RMV to notify local law enforcement about suspended drivers. The bill was named for Haley Cremer, a 20-year-old from Sharon who was killed while standing on the side of the road by a motorist driving with a suspended license.
“Had this law we’re discussing today been in effect on that day, Haley may very well be with us today,” Marc Cremer, her father and a roadway safety advocate, said at the news conference. Tougher penalties would serve as a deterrent for people driving with suspended licenses, he said.
Many parts of the safety bill have previously been proposed by Baker or lawmakers, such as requirements that large trucks be equipped with sideguards and convex mirrors to protect cyclists and pedestrians.
The legislation would also create a new system to allow municipalities to install cameras at stop lights and automatically ticket vehicle owners for violations; create a working group to study and create rules for emerging forms of transportation such as electric scooters, which are technically illegal under state law and have struggled to gain speed here as a result; and allow police to pull drivers over for not wearing a seatbelt. Today, law enforcement can only issue seatbelt citations as a “secondary” violation discovered during a stop for another violation.
The seatbelt rule angered some of Boston’s leading roadway safety advocates, who said they were uncomfortable with the idea of giving police another reason to pull people over.
Stacy Thompson, director of the Livable Streets Alliance, a Boston nonprofit, said the provision would lead to more policing on the roadways, increasing the risk of racial profiling or other discrimination against people of color. She noted that “the national conversation around law enforcement” has often focused on high-profile traffic stops that have resulted in police killings of Black motorists.
“My concern is that the [parts of the] bill prioritized today are punitive in nature and don’t do the most to keep people safe,” Thompson said. “We would have recommended a very different bill.”
Thompson said she was never consulted on the bill although state officials thanked her organization for its advocacy during the news conference.
The ACLU of Massachusetts also expressed concerns about giving police more power on the road.
“The ACLU is concerned that, at a time of nationwide calls to reimagine policing, this proposal seeks to expand law enforcement’s footprint on our roads,” Carol Rose, the chapter’s executive director, said in a statement. “Driving safety is an important issue, but policymakers must also address the presence of racial profiling on our streets and highways.”
Automated enforcement has also been a longtime source of controversy for its privacy concerns, although some advocates see it as a way to potentially remove police from aspects of traffic enforcement. Baker’s proposal would allow municipalities to automate enforcement at intersections, generally for violations like running a red light or making an illegal turn.