In a first, highway safety grant program focuses on bikes and pedestrians
If you don’t know all the bicycle-related rules of the road, Secretary of Transportation Richard A. Davey does not blame you.
“I know when I took my driver’s test more than 20 years ago, sharrows weren’t talked about,” said Davey, referring to the white road markings that indicate space for bicycles, “and neither were those green bike lanes in downtown Boston.”
A new program announced this week by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation seeks to raise awareness about bike and pedestrian safety in 12 Massachusetts towns by training police in laws related to cyclists and those on foot. That training will help them regulate commuters of all modes who violate the rules of the road.
“It’s always good to be reminding folks about the expectations of what the law is,” Davey said, “and we especially want to make sure that we’re doing that as we see more of a shift toward multimodalism across the state.”
But police and state officials are also hoping to learn from those rule-breaking travelers by asking them to explain why they jaywalked in a dangerous spot or failed to pause for a pedestrian in a crosswalk — information that will be compiled and used by city planners to rethink the design of dangerous intersections.
“The difference between this and other enforcement campaigns is that we want to know the whys,” said Newton police Officer Dan Devine.
In the first year, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Awareness and Enforcement Program will provide $461,851 from federal highway safety coffers to Brockton, Cambridge, Fall River, Haverhill, Lynn, New Bedford, Newton, Pittsfield, Quincy, Salem, Somerville, and Watertown.
The towns were chosen largely based on the relative number of annual collisions involving bikes and pedestrians, as well as the proportion of trips made by bike or on foot.
David Watson, executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, a statewide advocacy group, said the program marks the first time MassDOT has used federal highway safety money specifically to improve safety for cyclists and pedestrians, not just motorists.
It is a noteworthy shift in priorities, Watson said — and Davey agrees.
“Now we’re looking less at just vehicles and trains, and we’re thinking about how do we move people in every way,” Davey said. “That’s becoming more and more a part of the drinking water, and it’s becoming part of our DNA as a department.”
Last year, state officials set a goal to lower the number of road fatalities and injuries by 20 percent by 2018.
“We all have to try to keep ourselves and the people around us safe — that goes for whether you’re driving a car or riding a bike,” Watson said.
The funding will go to regional planning agencies working on infrastructure fixes, as well as to local police departments, which will undergo training on bike laws and safety strategies. The training program will include an 11-minute video produced by Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition that demonstrates some of the most common dangerous, and illegal, practices by drivers and bike riders — along with the punishments associated with those actions.
Motorists can be ticketed for opening a car door in front of a bike — even if no collision occurs, the video explains. Cyclists are always allowed to take up a full lane of traffic if they feel unsafe in a bike lane. And bike riders, too, can be ticketed if they don’t yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
At the Pittsfield Police Department, which is receiving $12,500 from the grant, Captain John Mullin said the agency is seeking to cut down on the number of bike riders and pedestrians killed and injured in collisions. Last year, he said, there were 17 bike-related crashes and 30 pedestrians were struck by cars.
When it comes to enforcement, Wendy Landman, executive director of WalkBoston, said she expects citations to be meted out with a goal of egalitarianism.
“It’s really about safety, not just picking at the rules,” Landman said.