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After 2 Fatal Collisions, Cambridge City Council Calls for Stronger Truck Regulations

The Cambridge City Council meets in March. The Council voted on Monday to ask City Manager Yi-An Huang '05 to push for stronger truck safety legislation.
The Cambridge City Council meets in March. The Council voted on Monday to ask City Manager Yi-An Huang '05 to push for stronger truck safety legislation. By Marina Qu
By Tilly R. Robinson, Crimson Staff Writer

The Cambridge City Council voted unanimously Monday to ask City Manager Yi-An Huang ’05 to work with state and federal representatives to push for legislation mandating safety measures for trucks — a vote that comes after two Cambridge cyclists were killed in collisions with box trucks this month.

Monday’s Council meeting immediately followed a vigil on the steps of City Hall to mourn the deaths of the two women, which all eight councilors attended.

In light of the accidents, local cycling safety advocates have ramped up calls for renewed intersection infrastructure and other policy measures, citing similarities between the two crashes. Both occurred as box trucks made right turns, and neither truck involved in the crashes was equipped with side guards — protective devices designed to prevent cyclists and pedestrians from sliding under vehicles during collisions.

After discussing intersection safety audits last week, the Council’s focus largely shifted to vehicle regulations during Monday’s meeting.

Cambridge already requires trucks that are owned by or contract with the city to have side guards, as well as convex and cross-over mirrors to improve visibility. But the City Council has little authority to extend its regulations beyond city-affiliated vehicles.

Instead, Monday’s policy order banks on state and federal cooperation. It also asks Huang to look into providing training for truck operators on how to safely drive alongside cyclists and pedestrians in Cambridge — and whether such training could be required for trucks that do business with the city or as part of the permitting process for construction projects.

A separate clause asks Huang to “begin the process to make immediate changes” to Cambridge’s five most dangerous intersections and to provide a timeline for the project by the Council’s Sept. 10 meeting. The order also asks Huang to present plans by that date for a “continuous program of safety audits for dangerous intersections or following severe crashes.”

At their meeting last week, the Council passed a policy order asking Huang to report to the Council “in a timely manner” on intersection safety audits. But Monday’s vote creates a firmer deadline for the request.

Like the first policy order, Monday’s proposal was spearheaded by the Council’s progressive wing — Vice Mayor Marc C. McGovern, Councilor Sumbul Siddiqui, Councilor Burhan Azeem, and Councilor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler — but the full Council voted to sign on as co-sponsors.

The policy order once again skirted the bike lane debates that have divided the Council. In April, the Council voted to push back the completion date for a 25-mile network of separated bike lanes — a decision that drew condemnation at the Monday vigil, including from Massachusetts State Representative Michael L. Connolly, who represents East Cambridge.

During Monday’s meeting, Sobrinho-Wheeler said “there’s still time” for the Council to reverse the delay.

McGovern, who also voted against the delay, said he sees bike lanes as one measure to reduce the risks faced by cyclists, but that intersections require a separate set of interventions.

City Solicitor Megan Bayer weighed in on the legal prospects of the Council’s proposals, saying their future may be constrained by federal and state laws. In particular, she said, expanding the scope of side guard requirements was likely impossible.

“The very, very brief explanation is, in the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution, we can’t unreasonably burden interstate commerce,” Bayer said. In the past, the Commerce Clause has prevented Cambridge from imposing general regulations on trucks that enter city streets, since those vehicles may travel throughout the country.

Sobrinho-Wheeler said he hoped to work with local businesses, major employers, and universities to put pressure on truck operators to adopt the proposed safety standards. The move would not be without precedent: Since 2018, Harvard has installed side guards on its own trucks, asked vendors that drive large trucks on its campus to install side guards, and required its contractors to develop a plan for side guard implementation.

“We cannot control every single truck in the United States, but we have contacts beyond just the city of Cambridge,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said.

Massachusetts’ state government — which, like Cambridge, requires side guards and convex mirrors on the trucks it owns and contracts with — is similarly limited by the Commerce Clause. But in an interview before the Council meeting, Connolly, the state representative, said he would look for “creative ways” to increase uptake of safety devices, including working “through local businesses and institutions.”

Connolly told activists at the vigil that he hoped to speak to Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) about the possibility of pushing for federal side guard regulations. But federal efforts have stalled in the past amid opposition from trucking industry lobbyists.

Councilor Paul F. Toner asked Bayer about the possibility of restricting truck traffic on specific streets. Bayer said that truck restrictions must be approved by the state government and would only apply to vehicles that do not have local destinations, making them difficult to impose and enforce.

Though its options are constrained, the Council appeared determined to forge ahead with whatever remains on the table. Siddiqui, one of the policy order’s original sponsors, acknowledged concerns that stricter requirements could reduce the number of companies that bid on city projects, potentially hiking costs. But she said the city should be open to “anything we can do.”

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

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