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Lack of road safety laws in Mass. is ‘dangerous,’ analysts say

Massachusetts was one of only nine states to earn a "dangerous" rating in a new report.

Massachusetts severely lacks road safety laws, according to a new report. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

When it comes to road safety laws, Massachusetts lags behind many other states, according to a new report.

The Bay State was among only nine states to earn a “dangerous” rating by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in its 2023 Roadmap to Safety report.

Massachusetts ranked last compared to other New England states, receiving only three out of 12 points for driver safety laws. Rhode Island scored eight out of 12, while Maine scored six. New Hampshire and Vermont both earned four out of 12, with Connecticut slightly better at five.

Massachusetts did perform well in one of the six categories of safety laws — distracted driving. The Bay State has banned text messaging for all drivers and any type of cell phone use for drivers under 18.

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Advocates also praised the state for requiring that all motorcycle riders and drivers wear a helmet, that all children ride in a booster seat until they are eight years old or taller than four feet and nine inches, and for making it illegal to drive with an open container of alcohol in the car.

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But there are a plethora of other road safety laws advocates recommend that Massachusetts lacks.

In terms of passenger safety, police are not allowed to stop vehicles solely for seatbelt violations. Additionally, it is not required that infants sit in a rear-facing car seat until age two, nor are children under 12 required to sit in the back of the car, as is recommended by advocates.

For young drivers, Massachusetts only requires 40 hours of supervised driving before one can be tested for a license, instead of the recommended 70 hours.

For drunk drivers, Massachusetts does not require all people with an OUI to be part of an Ignition Interlock Program. Such programs work by having a device installed in a car that requires the driver to pass a breathalyzer test before the car will turn on.

Massachusetts also hasn’t legalized “automated enforcement” of driving laws, which would allow municipalities and law enforcement to issue tickets based on camera evidence that a driver broke driving laws. This could apply to violations such as speeding, not stopping at a red light, not stopping for a school bus, or parking or driving in a dedicated bus lane.

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Yet despite the state’s supposed lack of road safety laws, Massachusetts has comparatively few road fatalities when evaluated against states with a similar population size.

Washington (7.7 million residents) and Maryland (6.1 million residents), two states that earned “good” rankings for their road safety laws, had 5,256 and 5,160 fatalities over a 10-year period, respectively, while Massachusetts (6.9 million residents) only had 3,611.

State House News Service (SHNS) reported that some of the laws proposed by advocates have been debated but never gained traction in the Legislature in recent years.

One policy proposal from Gov. Charlie Baker that has been repeatedly ignored is the idea of moving the state from secondary enforcement of seatbelt laws, meaning that police can only ticket drivers for having riders without seatbelts if they first see another traffic violation, to primary enforcement, where law enforcement could stop a car if drivers or passengers aren’t wearing their seatbelt.

Supporters of the change say it would increase seatbelt use in the state, but opponents like House Speaker Ron Mariano have “long been concerned about potential racial profiling with primary enforcement measures,” SHNS reported.

SHNS reported that a spokesperson for the Mass. Department of Transportation said Tuesday that the department “has not studied this specific report however we welcome any opportunity to raise awareness about highway safety which continues to be a local and national problem.”

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