Peter DeMarco | Who taught YOU to drive?

Lines, lights, and rule breakers

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter DeMarco
February 3, 2008

Each week, more letters. It's hard for a writer to keep up. Thanks again to all who write in, and if I didn't answer your question today or in last Sunday's piece, I'll do my best in the near future.

Holding the line
Motorcycle rider Mark Holbrook of Pepperell was driving in Western Massachusetts in October when he got a ticket for crossing the divider line. But in his case, it was a single, solid yellow line, and not the double yellow we see everywhere.

Holbrook did his research, finding out that single yellow lines are obsolete road markings that have been out of fashion for more than 50 years.

"You won't find [them] in the Massachusetts Driver's Manual. Nor in the [federal] Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which Massachusetts is obligated to follow. Nor in the Massachusetts supplement of the federal manual," he wrote. "As a matter of fact, as far back as 1948," the federal manual said, " 'Do not use, for fear of confusing motorists.' And yet they still exist."

Holbrook contended that, unlike with the double yellow, he could pass on a road with a single, solid yellow.

My first thought was: "This guy's so wrong."

Sergeant Joseph Deignan, Watertown's traffic head, was equally doubtful.

"He's not in Massachusetts. There's no such thing as a single yellow line in the middle of the road here," he said.

But then, Deignan thought about it - and changed his answer.

"I can see how you might have a few left over on rural roads. This guy is right," he said.

"The only thing you can't pass on is a double yellow. On rural roadways they'll [sometimes] delineate with a single yellow line and a speed limit. If it's not posted I think the limit is 40 miles per hour. It does not prohibit you from passing, or making a turn, or even making a U-turn."

Holbrook appealed his ticket in December, but the issuing police department didn't send anyone to court. "So the judge said, 'Not Responsible. Merry Christmas!' " Holbrook wrote. "That was certainly OK with me, but I was ready to fight it."

And he would have won.

Flashing green
"What does a blinking green traffic light mean?" writes reader Meredith Dill of Somerville. "I saw one last night in Wakefield, but I don't recall learning about that in driver's ed."

The driver's manual put out by the Registry has a section on traffic signals. A flashing red light has the same meaning as a stop sign; a flashing yellow means that you should proceed with caution; a flashing green . . .

Alas, the manual doesn't say anything about that.

Fortunately, Officer Carlos Figueroa of the Cambridge Police Department's traffic division had an answer.

"Flashing green is the same as a solid green. It means at that intersection, you have the right of way," he said. "I see them where there's a park, or where there's a school district. Where there may be heavy pedestrian traffic as opposed to vehicle traffic. It's a way to get people to slow down."

Drivers on the cross street, Figueroa added, see a flashing red.

Mind the gap
Those city drivers! So impatient! Amherst resident Jessica Mix Barrington wishes they would wait their turn.

"In the last 10 years or so I've noticed a dramatic increase in the number of people who turn right in front of me onto the road in the same direction I'm going. I often have to apply my brakes so that I don't hit these people. Usually no one is behind me, so that if the other driver had waited just 30 seconds, the road would have been clear," Barrington writes.

"I think this bad habit arises from city driving - if you don't take advantage of a small gap, you will be waiting for many minutes until the next one. But it is also a sign of the increasing 'me first' attitude that is making daily life uncivil and ungracious.

"Certainly, I have never read in our local police report that anyone has been pulled over for this bad driving. I wish the police would do so."

The fact is, Jessica, police can pull people over for such unsafe driving.

"It's failure to use care and caution when entering an intersection. I think the fine is $35," said Deignan of Watertown. "If you are on a side street, the person on the main road absolutely has the right of way. You're only supposed to leave that stop sign and enter the main roadway when it's safe to do so. In other words, when there's no traffic."

Deignan said that common sense prevails - or should prevail - in such situations. Cars traveling more than 35 miles per hour will probably need a few hundred feet to completely stop. If the car on the main road is that close, you shouldn't pull out.

"Those are what we refer to as 'high accident rate' violations," Deignan said. "It's rush-hour traffic, and the operator on the side street is in a rush to get onto the highway. He looks for that 8-foot gap and guns it. The first car manages to avoid hitting him, but the second, third, fourth, and fifth cars behind him can't brake in time. Now we have a four-car pileup and the guy who caused the accident is on the Mass. Turnpike sipping his coffee on the way home."

What drives you crazy about local drivers? Is there a traffic rule you've always wondered about, or a pet peeve that never fails to annoy you? Send us a message about it at We'll check it out.

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