Who Taught You To Drive?

Stay alert for some new rules of the road

By Peter DeMarco
January 18, 2009
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Change is the catchword of 2009. For proof, look no further than some of our driving laws.

In September we wrote about gas-saving electric vehicles with the catchy name "ZAP cars" that, because of their unique classification, were illegal in Massachusetts. Well, on New Year's Eve, the state Legislature rectified that. If gas prices soar again, you might actually see a ZAP car on the road next summer.

In March we pointed out that our state is one of a handful lacking an official "move-over" law. That, too, is no longer the case: As of this spring, you'll be required to give police and emergency vehicles a buffer zone when driving past them.

And last July, when Vespas were the rage, I wrote about how inconsistent and confusing moped parking regulations tended to be. In 2009, things should be considerably more clear in that area.

It's time to update several columns from 2008. Here's the latest:

ZAP cars
ZAP cars are small, three-wheeled electric vehicles that get up to 100 miles per charge. They were illegal in Massachusetts because they didn't fit legal definitions of either a car or motorcycle.

A joint effort by the Registry of Motor Vehicles, state Senator Robert L. Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, and state Representative Garrett J. Bradley, a Hingham Democrat, has now changed that.

Both the House and Senate passed legislation on Dec. 31 - which Governor Deval Patrick signed late last week - that allows three-wheeled motor vehicles on our roads. The legislation also gives Registry officials the authority to limit ZAP cars (and similar vehicles) to roads with speed limits of 40 miles per hour or less, and to issue license plates to ZAP owners indicating the restrictions. The speed restriction is important because ZAP cars can't safely motor in high-speed traffic.

"These are economical cars that will help the environment . . .," Bradley said. "The law hadn't caught up with the technology."

The same legislation will also bring about significant changes for many a moped owner.

First, it will allow the Registry to issue, for the first time, license plates for mopeds that can travel faster than 30 miles per hour. A large number of mopeds fit this description, including several Vespa models.

Without license plates, police have been hard-pressed to tag moped operators for moving violations and parking offenses. (Mopeds are currently identified by small inspection stickers, which few pay attention to.)

The Registry would also have the authority to require moped operators to insure their vehicles. Alas, while such a requirement would hold moped drivers more accountable, it will also make driving a moped, a cost-efficient solution for urban commuters, more expensive.

The legislation, however, is not without benefit. Lots of mopeds can achieve speeds of 40 miles per hour, but under current laws, it's illegal to go faster than 25 miles per hour. The new legislation allows speeds of up to 40 miles per hour.

Move-over law
The premise of a move-over law is simple: If you are approaching someone who has pulled over in the breakdown lane, do not pass right next to them. Instead, slide your car one lane to the left and give them some space. This minimizes the chance of hitting them.

Massachusetts was one of just seven states not to have a move-over law - a reality that defied explanation. But in 2009, that will change. On Dec. 22, Governor Patrick signed Massachusetts' first move-over law, approving a bill sponsored by state Representative Christine E. Canavan, a Brockton Democrat, and state Senator James E. Timilty, a Walpole Democrat.

When the law goes into effect in late March, drivers will be required to move over a lane if there are police cruisers, ambulances, fire trucks, tow trucks, or public works vehicles in the breakdown lane, so long as it's safe to do so. If you can't move over, you must slow down. The fine for violating the statute is $100.

Crash test standards
There is one more change worth noting, this one regarding the federal government's crash-test safety program.

Just a few months ago I delved into significant changes announced for the program starting with year 2010 model vehicles, which will begin to trickle into the market by late 2009.

In short, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's testing program had become outdated, as hardly a car on the market failed to notch four or five stars in crash tests, the highest marks possible. The revised testing program would have fixed that by toughening up standards and establishing the first-ever "overall" safety scores for vehicles.

The safety board promises that those changes are still coming, but, unfortunately, not as quickly as I first reported. In December the government announced that it is pushing back by a full year the new crash-test standards. Model year 2011 cars and trucks, which we won't see until at least late 2010, will be the first to be evaluated under the new system.

"This delay will give manufacturers another year to prepare for what are the most significant changes since the rating program began in 1979, and provide consumers with an additional year to become familiar with the new rating system," read the department's statement explaining the delay.

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