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Who taught YOU to drive?

Sketchy shortcuts and other time-saving dilemmas

By Peter DeMarco
July 24, 2011

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It’s a rare day when my mom defends my dad’s driving. But in a recent parking standoff she was sure he’d done the right thing.

“We’re in a parking lot lined with two rows of cars facing each other. We’re about to pull into an empty space when the car parked on the opposite side decides to drive straight through the open space to get out,’’ she e-mailed me.

“The other driver is yelling at Dad to back up and let her through,’’ she continued. “He obliges and moves so she can pull out and turn right. But she wants to turn left and is pointing numerous fingers at him. At this point he has been as polite as he can and refuses to back up any further. In the end she has to turn right. Is there a law or rule for this situation?’’

My mom’s question got me thinking about other sketchy shortcuts people take.

Cutting through a corner gas station to beat a red light is the most obvious example, but what about pulling into a random homeowner’s driveway when reversing direction? Is that legal? Or cutting through a cemetery to save time? Or ignoring parking-lot markings to expedite your exit?

For answers I turned to John Sofis Scheft, a police instructor and lawyer, whose consulting business, Law Enforcement Dimensions, is based in Arlington.

Don’t mind me We’ll begin with driveway turnarounds. Personally, I’ve always felt a little guilty pulling this maneuver, because you might surprise the homeowner. But if you’ve overshot an address and need to turn around, what’s quicker than using the nearest driveway to reverse direction?

Is pulling into a private driveway, though, a form of trespassing?

“I mean, it’s not nice to do. But it’s not illegal,’’ Scheft said. “The only time it would be illegal is if the private way is posted with a conspicuous sign forbidding’’ drivers to use it. “Sometimes you’ll actually see, for homeowners who are in an area where people are constantly doing that, a sign at the end of their driveway saying, “Don’t do U-turns in my driveway,’ or ‘Don’t come onto my driveway.’ Now, it’s illegal to do so.’’

Even then, a police officer would have to catch you in the act, and the violation wouldn’t be trespassing; you’d be ticketed for operating a motor vehicle on a restricted way, a $50 fine, Scheft said.

Cemetery pass I plow parking lots during the winter for our family business in Malden. Time after time, I’ve been tempted to take a certain shortcut that would save me a whole five minutes on my route. I get cold feet, though, because the shortcut is a cemetery, and I don’t know if cemetery roads are closed to general traffic.

Scheft offered the following guidelines: If “no trespassing’’ signs are posted, or there’s a barrier in the road indicating you’re not allowed to drive on it, then you shouldn’t drive through the cemetery.

If nothing is posted, drive on through.

“There’s a term used in motor vehicle law that’s called ‘access to invitees or licensees,’ ’’ he said. “An invitee is someone who’s there for the mutual benefit of the owner. The classic example is that I open up a restaurant. I want you to drive on my road because you’re a customer and you want to drive on my road because you’re hungry. You’re an invitee.

“A licensee is someone who is there with the passive permission of the property owner. An example would be that I build a warehouse in Burlington and I build a private road for my trucks. My private road connects two streets and people in town start to use it as a shortcut. I don’t like it but I don’t do anything about it. I don’t post signs. I don’t put up a gate. And people continue to drive on it. And that’s OK,’’ Scheft said.

“I would say cutting through a cemetery to get from Point A to Point B you have access as a licensee, and it’s OK.’’

Parking etiquette I’ve written about the ambiguous nature of retail parking lots, where the rules of the road often don’t apply because signs and pavement markings aren’t officially sanctioned. So I had a feeling what Scheft would say about my parents’ standoff.

“It’s unaddressed by the law,’’ he confirmed. “The person is obnoxious for wanting to turn left, but there’s nothing saying they’re illegal for wanting to.’’

Likewise, there are no rules about taking shortcuts over marked parking spaces.

As for my dad, Scheft said he didn’t have to let the woman turn in the direction she wanted to.

“You have to yield when making a left turn, but not a right turn. And he was turning right into the parking space,’’ he said.

But again, that rule, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 89, Section 8, applies to public roadways, Scheft said. When navigating privately owned parking lots, drivers have to base their actions on common courtesy more than anything else, he said.

Cutting corners Last on the list - and only because I’ve written about it before - is the gas-station cut through. Why wait in line for a red light when you can sneak across the corner of a station’s driveway?

Officers have told me that if they were to spot you doing this they could pull you over for failure to stop for a red light, a $100 violation. Scheft agreed that’s possible, though you could argue in court that you intended to use the gas station but changed your mind.

An officer also could pull you over for negligent operation of a motor vehicle, depending on how fast you were driving on your shortcut.

“Negligent simply means that your behavior is unreasonable,’’ Scheft said. “I think you can make the case that there is danger to people’’ when you zip through the gas station, he said, “and that the average motorist knows that’s not appropriate to do. It’s a bit of a reach, but would it justify you getting stopped? Certainly.’’

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