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Who Taught YOU to Drive?

When crossing state lines, beware the rules of the road Beware of those out-of-state rules

May 27, 2012
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My Uncle Jack is as much a New Hampshire driver as he is a Massachusetts one, having commuted north to work for decades. But he rarely drives anywhere else, which may explain why a recent swing through Maine turned into such an adventure.

Driving in a rainstorm around 4:30 p.m. near Eliot, my uncle passed a parked police cruiser. Moments later, looking in his rearview mirror, he saw blue flashing lights.

My uncle wasn’t speeding, so he couldn’t imagine the lights were for him. Naturally, he was wrong.

“The officer said, ‘I’m stopping you because you don’t have your headlights on,’” my uncle recalled. “I said to him, ‘Are you kidding?’ He started laughing. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s a law in Maine that you have to have your lights on when it’s raining.’”

My uncle had never heard of such a law because it doesn’t exist in either Massachusetts or New Hampshire. Neither had I, for that matter, which got me wondering about how other driving laws vary across the New England states.

With the arrival of Memorial Day weekend, road-trip season is officially underway.

So let’s examine some laws you need to be mindful of — cellphone use, bike helmet requirements, child booster seat rules, etc. — when traveling through New England., plus New York for good measure.


Connecticut is a hands-free state in terms of cellphones, so you’ll need a Bluetooth device or some sort of one-eared headset if you want to make calls on the road. Get caught without one and the fine is $125.

The same fine applies to texting while driving. Texting, in fact, is illegal in every state on our list, and you should assume that wherever you go, junior operators can’t use cellphones at all while driving.

Connecticut has a “primary” seat belt law, which means an officer can pull you over and fine you whenever he or she sees someone unbelted in either front seat. As for those riding in the back seat, only those under 16 need to buckle up. (In Massachusetts, everyone in the car is supposed to wear a belt.)

Each state on our list has its own rules regarding child safety restraints. (It’s strange there’s no federal standard.) The quick summation of Connecticut’s law: Children who are either under age 7 or weigh less than 60 pounds must sit in either a child booster or car seat that’s belted into place. All others must be buckled up. (In Massachusetts, children can’t graduate to seat belts until they are either 8 years old or 4 feet, 9 inches tall.)

Likewise, states have varying rules in terms of reporting car accidents. Massachusetts requires you to report any car accident involving an injury or $1,000 or more in property damage to the police, the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and your insurer.

Connecticut’s trigger is much different: You must call their state police only when someone is injured in the car accident.

Of course, for your own protection, you can always call your insurance agent or company after an accident, or the police if there’s a dispute, officials advise. (If you ever hit a parked car or damage unattended property, assume you’re required to notify the owner or police.)

Massachusetts requires bicyclists 17 and under to wear helmets. In Connecticut, the law is 16 and under. Our state requires all motorcyclists to wear a helmet; Connecticut requires helmets only for those under 18.

Like Maine, Connecticut requires your headlights to be on whenever your windshield wipers are. The fine for failing to do so is $92.


It’s okay for drivers to hold cellphones in Maine, so no deviation there from Massachusetts rules. Maine legislators, though, have recently passed a law that will see the fine for texting increase to a sizable $250 by the end of summer.

Both Maine and Massachusetts have “secondary” seat belt laws, which means police can fine you for failing to wear a belt only after they pull you over for another moving violation. Maine requires child restraint systems for children who are under age 8 or who are under 4 feet, 9 inches tall — same rule as Massachusetts — but children under 12 are also required to ride in the back seat.

Accidents totaling $1,000 or more in damage, or with injuries, must be reported immediately to the Maine State Police. Bicycle helmets are required for those under 16.

New Hampshire

I wrote an entire column this winter on New Hampshire road rules, but I’ll review a few here nonetheless.

The Live-Free-Or-Die state has no laws requiring adults to wear motorcycle helmets or seat belts, and you can use your hands when calling while driving. Occupants under 18 must buckle up; children age 6 and under, or any child shorter than 4 feet, 7 inches, must be secured in a proper safety seat.

Bicyclists under 16 and motorcyclists under 18 need helmets when riding on public ways. Accident reporting: same requirement as Maine, but you can call either the local or state police.

New York

New York is a hands-free cellphone state; the fine is $100. Junior operators, however, are also allowed to use cellphones so long as they’re hands’ free.

Children under age 4 must ride in either a safety seat or a booster seat depending on their size. Children ages 4 to 7 must do so as well unless they weigh more than 100 pounds or are taller than 4 feet 9 inches. If they meet those benchmarks, they can wear seat belts.

You must report any accident with damage over $1,000, or where there’s an injury, to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles. If someone is injured, you must immediately notify the police.

Headlights are a must when your wipers are on. Bicyclists 14 and under must wear protective headgear, as must their passengers.

Rhode Island

Drivers can use their hands when calling, but fail to put on your headlights when your wipers are on and the fine is $85.

Children 8 and under must ride in the back seat. Children who weigh less than 80 pounds or who are less than 4 feet, 9 inches tall must use an appropriate child restraint system.

Everyone else must buckle up. According to state law: “A violation for transporting a child not in a child restraint system mandates a court appearance.”

Bicycle helmets are required for those 15 and under; motorcycle helmets are required for those 21 and under, plus all passengers.

Any accident with either injuries or more than $1,000 in property damage must be reported in writing to the Division of Motor Vehicles within 21 days.


Cellphones can be hand-held, as can any GPS device, including a smartphone displaying a program such as Google Maps, said a spokesman for the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles.

“We do not honor out-of-state learner’s permits,” said Chauncey Liese, the spokesman.

“We do honor junior operator’s licenses, but they must abide by the restrictions of their home state.”

Car accidents in which there are either injuries or at least $3,000 in damage must be reported to the DMV within 72 hours, but not necessarily to the police. “There is no statutory requirement to report to the police, but police in each jurisdiction do like to be told,” Liese said.

Children 8 and under must ride in the back seat, using booster seats until they are big enough to wear a seat belt. As in every state on this list, infants must be in child-safety seats.

Most states have laws forbidding minors from riding in the back of pickup trucks, but Vermont does not.

Nor does Vermont have a state bicycle helmet law, though cyclists are required to have front-facing bike lights at night.

Peter DeMarco can be reached at He updates a Facebook page, “Who Taught You to Drive?”

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