A bike rider negotiates busy and narrow Main Street in West Concord. Photo by Richard Fahlander

New law increases safety for bike riders

By Richard Fahlander - Correspondent

Concord is a well-known bicycling destination. On nice days, hundreds of people pedal around town on scenic and narrow roads that sometimes test the temerity of cyclists and the patience of drivers.

A new state law intends to provide a measure of protection for people on bikes by requiring a minimum “safe passing distance” of four feet at a reasonable speed.

In addition to people on bikes, the law applies to “vulnerable road users” including pedestrians, people on skates and skateboards, individuals with mobility devices, farm equipment, and even horses. The safe passing minimum extends to roadway utility and emergency service workers as well.

Town Transportation and Mobility Planner Erin Stevens appreciates the intent of the new law, which is in line with the town’s mobility and sustainability goals.

“The town is interested to learn more from the State about the new traffic law and what steps we can take to help both drivers and bicyclists understand the new rules around safe passing and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity for safe transportation,” she said.

Concord participates in Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Complete Streets program which supports safe and accessible options for all travel modes – walking, biking, transit, and vehicle – for people of all ages and abilities. Stevens expects that the town’s Transportation Advisory Committee will discuss implementation measures at an upcoming meeting.

The law also establishes a process to reduce speed limits on state highways in residential and business districts. Avid bike rider and Transportation Advisory Committee member Phil Posner applauds the safe passing aspect as a good first step.

“The new law will bring more awareness for motorists, and I hope it helps people be a bit safer on bikes, but the law was a missed opportunity to clarity the ability of the town to lower speed limits across the board,” he said. “For vulnerable users, speed kills.”

According to preliminary data from MassDOT there were 99 pedestrian and 10 bicyclist deaths in 2022. That’s up from the 76 pedestrians and five cyclists who were killed the previous year in motor vehicle-related crashes. Massachusetts is one of the last states to pass a safe passing distance law and brings the Bay State in-line with other states in terms of roadway safety.

Additional safety measures in the new law are requirements for both front and rear lights when riding a bike at night, installation of safety devices on state-contracted trucks, and improved pedestrian and bicyclist crash data reporting.

As a practical matter, motorists are unlikely to be cited, except when excessive speed or reckless operation is involved. In the coming months MassDOT will install informational signs announcing the safe passing distance requirement.