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Who taught YOU to drive?

Curious tow trucks to coveted license plates

I’ve seen tow trucks camped along Interstate 95 on the way to New Hampshire probably dozens of times, but not once did it occur to me to ask why the heck they are there.

Fortunately, I have you, my readers, to pick up the slack.

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“For the last two or three months, my wife Ginny and I have noticed them,” wrote Paul ­Cappello of Boxford. “They appear to be parked on the grassy portion of the cloverleafs, and they are there all day. We have noticed also that one is on the northbound lane, the other on the southbound lane. We are curious as to who is paying for this?”

It’s time to clear out my inbox and answer your questions about tow trucks, school zones, and even Teddy Roosevelt.

In tow

Tow trucks have been staking out Interstates 93 and 95 for at least 15 years, according to the State Police. But it’s not a free-for-all: Local State Police barracks vet tow truck companies and assign various sections of highway to those they approve. Stationing trucks alongside the road allows tow companies to respond that much faster to accidents and breakdowns, which in theory reduces traffic congestion.

“They send their trucks out to avoid gridlock if and when they are called,” David Procopio, State Police spokesman, said in e-mail to me.

Procopio stressed that “tow companies on our tow lists are not paid by the state in any way.” The payoff for tow companies lies solely in increased business from the highway incidents they respond to.

Cape plates

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The Cape & Islands special plate, as I wrote recently, is the state’s most popular charity plate, so it makes sense that low numbers such as 1, 20, and 100 have long been scooped up.

Reader Gary Webster of Orleans, however, is curious about what happens when the owner of a low-numbered plate does not renew the registration? Does the next person who clicks the Cape plate option on the Registry of Motor Vehicles website automatically get the number? Or does the plate go back to the charity?

“Are those plates available?” Webster wrote. “Will they be auctioned again? Are they quietly being ­issued using the infamous ‘Friends and Families’ protocol that this state is so famous for?”

Paul Rumul, longtime chairman of the Cape & Islands License Plate Committee, said nonrenewed low-numbered plates do come back to his charity. But nonrenewals are pretty rare; his charity has gotten back just seven or eight plates with numbers below 100.

“They can be willed within a family, basically handed down, so we don’t expect many to be turned in,” he said. “As for the ones we have, we have strict directions from the Registry that they’re not to be handed out to politicians or friends.”

When the Cape & Islands committee launched its plate in 1996, it asked the Registry if it could hold back the first 999 plate numbers for an auction, and the committee was told it could. During the auction, held in 2008, several plates sold for thousands of dollars, another reason people ­aren’t giving them up.

“We got $147,000 for plate No. 1,” Rumul said. “It was an online, timed auction. If we had more time, it might have gone up even more.”

Rumul said all 999 numbers were sold during the auction, which raised $927,000 for causes ranging from housing assistance to sports leagues to museums.

So at this point getting a low-numbered Cape & Islands plate is nearly hopeless, right? Not really, Rumul said. Because his group’s plate has been so successful, the Registry instituted a second run. First-run plates have the letters CI followed by the plate’s number; second-run plates have the letters IC followed by numbers. There are two distinct sets of low numbers.

The first 999 plates of the second run, excluding about five that were mistakenly issued already, will be auctioned off at a date to be determined, Rumul said, along with any low-numbered plates from batch one that have been returned to the charity.

Rough riding

In November, I wrote about the expression “riding shotgun,” which apparently dates back to the Wild West, when a gunman would sit alongside a stagecoach driver to provide protection. But etymologists don’t know exactly when the phrase was coined: The first printed reference is in 1919, long after stagecoaches were obsolete.

Reader Ron Hylen of Needham thought there might be more to the story.

“I believe that the expression came about in the late 1800s [from] Teddy Roosevelt traveling west on trains,” he wrote. “At the time, buffalo were a serious problem for train engineers. I recall hearing that travelers were given shotguns to shoot the buffalo. The comment ‘rode shotgun’ is just the thing that Teddy would have said discussing his journey!”

I figured Hylen’s theory merited investigation, so I contacted Edmund Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Teddy Roosevelt.

“I’ve never seen that phrase in any of TR’s writings or speeches,” he responded through his publisher, Random House.

Sharon Kilzer, who leads Dickinson State University’s Theodore Roosevelt Center, likewise hadn’t heard of Roosevelt riding shotgun.

“Those I consulted confirmed my sense of this,” Kilzer e-mailed to me. “Amy Verone, chief curator of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site [Roosevelt’s homestead] made another important point. While buffalo hunters might have shot from the back of trains in the 1850s . . . [b]y the time TR came west, the large herds were all gone.”

Still 20 mph?

We’ll end with a question from someone who preferred to be known simply as an “avid column reader.”

“During school holidays, the flashing yellow ‘20 mph’ sign for the school zone continues to operate,” he wrote. “Many drivers just ignore it and speed past the school. Others dutifully slow down (much to the ire of the speeders, another issue). You could argue that no one is in school during holidays and slowing down is not necessary. . . . But you could also say there may be extracurricular activities like games or plays going on and the sign’s function is necessary for safety. What is the correct and ­legal response in this situation?”

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

“If the school zone speed limit sign is white with black lettering, then . . . the posted speed limit of 20 miles per hour is in effect, regardless of whether school is in session or not,” he began. “Of course, officers may use their discretion in deciding whether to stop a motorist traveling at 35 miles per hour in a school zone at 12 a.m., but they may also enforce it, too.

“On the other hand, the flashing school zone signs are only enforced when flashing. The signs themselves usually read ‘School zone . . . 20 mph when flashing.’ And the flashing is typically calibrated to coincide with the hours when school is in session. When these signs are not flashing, the speed zone ­reverts to the other black and white speed signs on the public way.”

Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. His ­Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?”and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.

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