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Who taught YOU to drive?

Some old habits aren’t right, or safe, anymore

A vehicle owner’s manual offers a detailed illustration of how you should not arrange the seat restraint’s shoulder strap. A vehicle owner’s manual offers a detailed illustration of how you should not arrange the seat restraint’s shoulder strap.
By Peter DeMarco
May 22, 2011

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My goal most weeks is to make us all better motorists, but at times I’m called upon to serve a higher purpose.

Like telling someone’s husband he doesn’t know how to drive.

Reader Kristen Henshaw of Wakefield turned to me for such help recently regarding a debate she has with her husband, Richard “Hoop’’ Henshaw, over stop signs.

Hoop contends that if you’re the second car in line at a stop sign, you’ve met your statutory requirement to stop. Once that first car goes, you can drive past the stop sign without a care so long as the road is clear.

Kristen thinks you should stop at the stop sign regardless of whether you’ve been waiting in line.

“I think we’ve just been lucky so far and haven’t caused an accident,’’ she wrote me. “He does the driving; he says my driving makes him nervous. Second question: Should I be nervous?’’

We respond to this week’s questions with either an affirmation, or a reality check.

Stop means stop Kristen, you’re right! (Doesn’t that feel good?) Massachusetts requires drivers to stop for stop signs: that’s sort of why they’re there.

Specifically, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 89, Section 9, states that “every driver of a vehicle approaching a stop sign or a flashing red signal indication shall stop at a clearly marked stop line . . . or, if none [exists], then at the point nearest the intersecting roadway where the driver has a view of approaching traffic on the intersecting roadway before entering it.’’

You’re not “at the point nearest the intersecting roadway’’ if you’re the second car in line, said Deputy Superintendent Jack Albert, the Cambridge Police Department’s traffic guru.

In Hoop’s defense, he’s not haphazardly making up his own rules. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, you could drive exactly the way he does through stop signs, said Fred Garber, longtime owner of Arlex Auto Driving School in Arlington.

“That was the law many years ago. I think you could have a chain of up to three cars go through,’’ Garber said. “The problem that was happening was that if a policeman was walking by and he didn’t see you stop behind that first car, and he just saw you pull out, he’d say he didn’t see you stop and give you a ticket. So they changed it.’’

But wasn’t that terribly unsafe?

“It would be chaotic,’’ Garber said. “Just because the other guy went doesn’t mean it’s safe to go. You were still supposed to yield. Not everyone did. It was a very dangerous situation.’’

Belt it right We all have our driving pet peeves. For my friend Gregg Ireland, it’s the crossover chest strap on his seat belt.

“In some car that I had at some point the seat belt would rub my neck or the collar of my shirt,’’ and the arrangement was “a bit uncomfortable and annoying,’’ he told me. “I found that putting the belt under my arm gave me protection while removing the annoyance factor. Once I got used to doing that, it became a bit of a habit.’’

Trouble is, Ireland lives in New York, where police can pull you over for not wearing a seat belt. When he tucks the strap under his left arm it looks as though he’s not wearing a belt, so he gets pulled over.

His tribulations got me thinking: Is it illegal to wear the so-called shoulder strap underneath your left arm in Massachusetts, too?

It’s actually a topical question, as state legislators are considering a proposed law known as Natalie’s Bill, named after 21-year-old Natalie DeLeon, who was unbelted when she died in a 2006 car accident. The bill would change the state’s seat belt statute to a “primary’’ law, just like in New York, and institute an automatic $25 fine for not buckling up. Massachusetts currently has a “secondary’’ seat belt law, which means police can’t pull you over solely on the grounds of not wearing a belt, even though using the safety device is required.

If Natalie’s Bill passes, will police be able to pull you over for wearing the shoulder belt under your arm? Could you get a ticket right now for wearing a belt in such manner?

Brian Simoneau, a Framingham lawyer who specializes in motor vehicle law, directed me to the current statute, which says your seat belt must be “properly adjusted and fastened.’’

“There have been no reported decisions on this. All we have is the wording of the statute,’’ he said. “In my opinion, I don’t think wearing it in that manner is ‘properly adjusted and fastened.’ If you were to look at your car’s owner’s manual, it will probably tell you how to put on a seat belt and fasten it, and what your friend is doing probably isn’t considered properly wearing one.’’

Indeed, my car’s driver’s manual devotes a whopping 14 pages to seat belt use, showing various examples of improperly belted occupants: It shouldn’t be loose, twisted, or draped over an arm rest, for instance. It also clearly states that the shoulder strap is not to be worn underneath the left arm.

“Caution: You can be seriously injured if you wear the shoulder belt under your arm,’’ it reads. “In a crash your body would move too far forward, which would increase the chance of head and neck injury. Also, the belt would apply too much force to the ribs, which aren’t as strong as shoulder bones. You could also severely injure internal organs like your liver or spleen.’’

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website says “never put the shoulder belt behind your back or under an arm.’’ The federal agency says 52 lives could be saved a year in Massachusetts if everyone wore a seat belt, and Natalie’s Bill proponents say hundreds of injuries could be prevented. But those numbers are predicated not only on wearing belts, but wearing them correctly.

Sorry, Gregg: comfortable or not, properly wearing your shoulder strap is both safer, and, in Massachusetts, the law.

Peter DeMarco lives in Somerville and can be reached at demarco@globe.com. He also updates a Facebook page, “WhotaughtYOUtodrive?’’