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Who taught you to drive?: No texting means no texting

It took experts from the cycling community to 
translate

 this confusing signin Sharon.
It took experts from the cycling community to translate this confusing signin Sharon.Credit: Ira Dickerman

If your car is barely moving while stuck in traffic on the Massachusetts Turnpike, should the state’s ban on drivers texting still apply?

Reader Dave Steele of Hopkinton doesn’t think so.

“I think the Commonwealth did a lousy job in educating the public about something that is very serious, extremely dangerous, and now illegal,” he wrote to me. “The question is, when are you technically ‘driving’? Hopelessly stuck in a 3-mile backup on the Pike? Number 4 in line at an ATM with your engine running? In my very random and informal survey, nobody knows!”

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Sunday marks the two-year anniversary of the Safe Driving Law, i.e., the texting ban. But studies show teenage drivers continue to text at alarming rates; pick your major intersection, and you’ll probably find an adult driver typing away at a red light too.

On rare occasions, I’ve been that very driver, scolding myself afterward because I know it’s both dangerous and illegal. Like Steele, I’m not completely clear about just how far the Safe Driving Law goes.

What if you own a smartphone and push one button to check your e-mail, fantasy team, Facebook or Twitter accounts? Is that considered texting? What if you have to look down to dial a passcode to check your voice mail? Illegal?

Today we try to answer some of the questions you’ve submitted. Thanks for writing in.

It’s all texting

It boils down to this: While driving, you can’t do anything with your cellphone other than make a phone call, or check your voice mail. Nothing else; zero; nada.

Think of the statute as a “texting-and-Internet” ban instead of just a texting ban.

“Driving is defined as operating any time your vehicle is in the travel portion of the roadway. This means that even if you are ‘hopelessly stuck on the Pike,’ you may not receive or send an electronic message,” says police instructor and lawyer John Sofis Scheft, whose consulting business, Law Enforcement Dimensions, is based in Arlington.

“Not only is a motorist prohibited from composing a text, he or she is prohibited from even reading any type of electronic message while in a vehicle in the roadway. The only way to lawfully text or access e-mail, etc., in a car is to pull over and park the vehicle. The law is very strict.”

Drivers may type phone numbers or voice-mail passwords, using either digital or physical keypads, while driving so long as they keep one hand on the steering wheel and their attention on the road, Scheft said. Those under 18, though, can’t use cellphones at all while driving.

What about waiting in line at the bank or fast-food drive-through? Since you’re not on a public way, police won’t ticket you. But if you cause an accident, you could be cited for impeded operation, a $35 fine, or even driving to endanger.

Some holiday

Marathon Monday is one of the best days of the year to be in Boston: plenty of excitement, crowds, and good cheer. And since it falls on a holiday, parking restrictions don’t apply.

Or do they?

I got a complaint from a reader whose friend was ticketed in Allston on Patriots Day. He’d parked his out-of-town car in a resident-only zone, which he assumed you could do on Sundays and holidays.

“He tried appealing the ticket, but was told that the holiday rule didn’t apply in Allston. Is that true?” the reader asked. (She didn’t want her name published.)

While Patriots Day is a recognized holiday, parking regulations remain in effect citywide, reports Jim Mansfield, spokesman for the Boston Transportation Department.  

“Actually, all parking regulations with the exception of metered parking are enforceable during holidays and Sundays,” he e-mailed me. “The Boston Transportation Department does not have enforcement officers available on most holidays or on Sundays, but the Boston police can also issue citations.”

Salem is another city whose parking regulations remain in effect 365 days a year. But like Boston, Salem doesn’t have parking officers making rounds on Sundays and holidays.

“The rules are usually enforced by neighbors. If they see someone parked without a sticker, they will call the police,” the city collector’s office told me.

Parking rules vary by community, though. In both Cambridge and Somerville, residential parking restrictions do not apply on Sundays and holidays. Parking meters are also free.

Stop on green?

Reader Ira Dickerman came across a perplexing sign in Sharon that appears to instruct bicyclists to stop for green lights.

The sign’s exact wording is, “Bicycle stop on line for green.”

“Can you tell me what it means?” Dickerman wrote. “If the sign is such a mystery to us, what is the value?”

My contacts at the Boston Cyclists Union and Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition offered sympathy — and an explanation.

“The sign is poorly worded,” said David Watson, MassBike’s executive director. “The idea is that if you don’t stop your bike over the magnetic loop in the ground (under the painted line) then your bike won’t be detected, and the light will never change for you.”

Watson said newer, more accurate versions of the sign read, “To request green wait on line.”

There’s a hitch

Reader Clyde Forsey hates towing hitches that stick out behind cars and trucks.

“Sometimes while walking past one, you may not realize that it is on the truck and it will get you right below the knee,” he wrote. “My wife also hit one with the front bumper because she thought that she had cleared the truck, but the hitch was still on.

“If you are not towing, do you have to take off the hitch?” Forsey asked.

A good question, but you probably know the answer. “There is no law requiring a tow hitch be removed when not towing,” said David Procopio, a State Police spokesman.

Don’t expect your insurance company to let you off the hook, either. “If you hit something — car, tree, fence, hitch — in most cases, you’re at fault,” said Donna McKenna, with the Massachusetts Association of Insurance Agents. “The fact that you didn’t see it is no excuse.”

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