Lawmakers agree: If Blandford doesn't want new Pike exit, case closed

Traffic on the Mass Pike passes a service plaza in Blandford.

Red-light cameras. Increased seat belt enforcement. Stiffer penalties for certain suspended license violations. These are the big pieces of a wide-ranging road safety package Gov. Charlie Baker pitched earlier this week. The bundle of new and old proposals has a laudable goal: curb roadway deaths across the commonwealth. But as with any sweeping legislation, this bill deserves a close look and prompts some important questions.

The Baker administration says the numbers warrant urgency on improving road safety. Statewide, vehicle miles traveled took a sharp dip after COVID-19’s arrival last year, and while it has rebounded a bit it’s still nearly 40 percent lower than pre-pandemic. Yet despite Bay State motorists driving fewer miles — as well as a new distracted driving law that went into effect last year — fatalities on the state’s roads have not decreased significantly. The riskiest drivers, it stands to reason, might be more likely to drive even when others wouldn’t. Still, if vehicle mile traveled ticks up as we enter the post-COVID era, roadway deaths could climb even higher.

More than 36,000 people lose their lives on American roads every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Meanwhile, half of those killed on Massachusetts’ roads were not wearing seat belts, according to Highway Safety Division Director Jeff Larason, who also noted that the commonwealth ranks 46th out of 50 states in seat belt use rate. One of the proposals in Gov. Baker’s bill would allow “primary enforcement” of the state’s existing seat belt laws — meaning the police could pull over drivers for perceived violations without any other condition. Currently, police need another reason to stop a driver and cite them for a seat belt violation.

Mr. Larason hopes this would increase seat belt use, and in turn prevent some deaths, which would obviously be good. It should also be noted, however, that giving police another reason to pull over vehicles could increase the total number of traffic stops in the state. The downstream effects of this should be weighed seriously.

Amid renewed conversations about the role of policing in America, many have argued, including some police advocates, that police are often deployed too broadly to situations, like traffic enforcement, that arguably don’t necessitate armed officers. This practice can stretch departments, particularly in rural areas where forces are already thin. It can also unfairly — and tragically — target populations that have historically faced discrimination.

That discrimination can play out in traffic stops. Based on data from millions of U.S. police reports, statistical analysis by the Stanford Open Policing Project shows that Black drivers are more likely to be pulled over, and Black and Latino drivers are more likely to be searched.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about Bay State’s low seat belt rate, but in addressing the issue we must keep in mind the potential consequences of increasing traffic stops and police-civilian interactions.

On the other hand, red-light cameras, another piece of Gov. Baker’s bill, would seek enforcement through automation instead of direct policing. However, this also requires thorough consideration — as always the devil is in the details. The proposal would allow municipalities to deploy red-light cameras at intersections to take pictures of license plates when a driver runs a stop light or makes an illegal turn on red.

This isn’t the first time the practice will be weighed on Beacon Hill. Last year, the state Senate debated red-light camera legislation, though the bill was eventually pulled back over privacy and efficacy concerns.

Again, better enforcement of traffic violators in a way that frees up police to do more important work elsewhere would be a good thing in itself. But as with any measure that involves surveillance, this deserves close scrutiny. Any towns or cities that opt to use the cameras would have to post a notice at the relevant intersection — hopefully a deterrence all its own for some would-be violators. The bill would require the red-light cameras’ recorded evidence to be destroyed within seven days of final disposition of a violation, and photographs and other information collected by cities and towns through the cameras would not be considered public records.

The Baker administration likely included these conditions to deter the aforementioned privacy worries, but they raise questions about public access to government-collected information. In the pursuit of more motorist accountability, government accountability can’t be discarded. This would be local governments deploying cameras regulated by the state to capture information on public roads — why shouldn’t this information be as available to the taxpayers as it is to the enforcers?

Another part of the package would bring tougher penalties for driving recklessly or causing vehicular injury or death while operating with a suspended or revoked license. This would only apply to drivers who lost their licenses over motor vehicle violations, not those who merely missed a fine or fee. This is a wise distinction that would increase punishment for dangerous drivers who continue to offend without unfairly targeting poor people who simply can’t afford a payment.

One thing this bill could yield more of is tickets. That would be nice for the state’s coffers, though perhaps not so nice from the average Massachusetts motorist’s perspective.

Roadway deaths are a serious concern, and the governor’s bill is a good-faith effort to mitigate needless tragedies on our streets and highways. This multifaceted piece of legislation deserves a close, nuanced look from all angles.

Many communities want to make high-volume intersections safer, but the option of state-regulated surveillance in the form of red-light cameras should be explored with great care. Policies that could affect the number of traffic stops in the commonwealth call for careful consideration as well. More people being pulled over can have consequences, but so can fewer, since traffic stops are where high-risk offenders like drunken drivers are often thwarted.

We raise these issues not to endorse or dismiss the bill, but to frame the important questions that lawmakers face in the deep debates these proposals deserve. The fine line between public safety and state reach can be a difficult one to walk, but good governance demands finding that balance. The governor has now put the ball in the Legislature’s court. We hope it weighs these issues carefully.