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Who Taught YOU to Drive?

Drawing the line on pushy motorists

Massachusetts drivers can be a pushy lot. But at what point does pushiness earn you a ticket?

I was stopped at a red light recently, the first car in the street’s right lane. An older gentleman in a small Honda was directly to my left, the lead car in a left-only turning lane.

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The left lane got a green arrow, but the older man didn’t move. He was in the turning lane by mistake - we’ve all done this at least once - and wanted to go straight, so he stood pat.

The driver behind him waiting to turn left began beeping his horn, and as the seconds ticked by became more incessant, honking continuously and edging his car dangerously close to the older man’s vehicle. Intimidated, the older man went straight ahead, through the red light, to get out of the way. Fortunately, he didn’t cause an accident.

Nobody wants to miss a green light because of another driver’s mistake, but do you have the right to pressure another driver like that? For today’s column we give you the legal lowdown on driver pushiness, courtesy of police instructor and lawyer John Sofis Scheft, whose business, Law Enforcement Dimensions, is based in Arlington.

Excessive honking

First, Scheft said, it’s important to review what the older gentleman did wrong.

“He committed a marked lanes violation by getting in the turning lane and not making the turn, and he went through a red light. Each of those is a $100 ticket,’’ Scheft said. “The only thing he is supposed to do is make the turn. He’s in that lane; he has to make the turn.’’

So he deserved to be honked at until he moved?

“No,’’ Scheft said. “The purpose of the horn in the vehicle is to signal a driver when there’s a safety difficulty. You get some latitude to signal a driver when they should proceed, but once you’ve made the signal and the driver has obviously heard it, then you’re done. If you end up having to skip a light cycle, it’s unfortunate. But it’s no justification to keep honking like that.’’

Officially, the second driver was violating Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 90, Section 16, which prohibits “harsh, objectionable or unreasonable noise’’ from a horn, a $50 ticket.

I’d never seen another driver bully someone like that, so I wondered whether he was guilty of a more serious offense, such as driving to endanger.

“I think the horn could certainly be a factor in operating to endanger, but I don’t think it could be the sole cause of it,’’ Scheft said.

If the older driver had caused an accident, could the second driver have been blamed for making him panic? One could make that argument, Scheft said, though it would be “a reach.’’

“The moral of the story is, once you make a mistake, you have to go with it and stay in the flow of traffic,’’ he said.

Sidelined by rudeness

I pulled over for an ambulance the other day to let it pass, as we’re all required to do. But as I attempted to reenter the travel lane, a driver coming from behind sped up and blew past me. Other cars followed close behind her, forcing me to wait a few minutes on the side of the road before I could proceed.

The lack of courtesy really irked me. If you yield the right of way to an emergency vehicle, shouldn’t other drivers let you get back in line?

“Morally, yes. Legally, no,’’ said Scheft. “There’s nothing in the traffic law that I know of that prohibits overtaking another vehicle that is pulled over to the side of the road’’ if done safely.

The woman who was the first to pass me would only be in trouble, Scheft said, had she failed to pull over for the ambulance, or if she was following the ambulance too closely.

“If she was within 300 feet of the ambulance when she passed you, yes, that’s a $100 civil motor vehicle infraction,’’ he said.

Two final points: While we typically see signs on firetrucks that say to stay back 300 feet, the rule, as Scheft indicated, also applies to police vehicles and ambulances whose lights or sirens are activated.

It also applies to drivers who have pulled over: Even if the roadway is clear, they must wait until the emergency vehicle has gone 300 feet past them.

Courteous to a fault?

A reader from Wakefield named Jeff, who asked that his last name not be used, sent me an e-mail titled “Courtesy that kills.’’ In it, he complained about drivers who stop the normal flow of traffic to let people pull out of driveways or make left turns.

“I get that some folks are trying to be nice. But they don’t get that the road is about predictable and legal behavior,’’ he wrote me. “They can’t cede their right of way, or direct traffic, by waving at people and ‘telling’ them to go. They can’t be sure that someone isn’t passing on their right, and is going to T-bone the driver they think they’re helping, which happened to both my mother and father separately.

“Am I alone in my thinking that this is dangerous behavior?’’

I agreed with Jeff that there are times when it would be faster for everyone involved if drivers maintained the flow of the traffic. Still, I had to point out the following passage in the Registry of Motor Vehicles driver’s manual:

“ ‘Right-of-way rules’ help drivers handle traffic situations not controlled by signs or signals. These rules are based on safety and courtesy. They do not give you any ‘rights.’ Remember, the right of way is something you give, not take.’’

Scheft said Jeff’s logic wasn’t correct, either. “There’s nothing in the traffic law that says you can’t yield the right of way to another vehicle,’’ he said.

From an insurance standpoint, he added, you’d be at fault if you rear-ended someone who had stopped to let another driver proceed. “For the most part if you rear-end somebody, even if they were crazily courteous, that’s your problem,’’ Scheft said. “The insurance company will say . . . you weren’t paying attention.’’

Jeff pointed out that there are at least a few court cases, including one from 2009 that I was able to confirm with New Jersey officials, in which drivers who courteously waved for people to go ahead of them have been found responsible for causing accidents.

But Scheft said that under Massachusetts law you’d have to be found negligent or reckless - “that you consciously disregarded the risk’’ - in waving another driver or pedestrian to go ahead. It would be difficult, though not impossible, to prove, he said.

Curmudgeonly or not, Jeff makes a good point: If you’re going to do something nice for another driver, make sure it’s a safe move.

Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. His twitter feed is @whotaughtU2driv.
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