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Who Taught YOU to Drive?

Surprising freedoms of the road

 The Scurvy Mermaid, somewhat of a speedboat on wheels, on an Oregon highway in May.

Laura Levis

 The Scurvy Mermaid, somewhat of a speedboat on wheels, on an Oregon highway in May.

The ominous shape first appeared in my rear-view mirror — was it a pirate Duck Boat? A crazy prop vehicle from the Mad Max movie? Something even weirder?

As we fumbled for our camera, the mystery machine came into full view: an Army-green speed boat on wheels, with a skull and crossbones flag waving from a pole planted in the back seat. The driver, a large, bearded man wearing a Jack Sparrow cap, nodded as he sailed by, his vessel’s name, The Scurvy Mermaid (at right), fittingly painted on its tail.

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Chances are you won’t see the Mermaid cruising down Route 128; we encountered it on an Oregon highway while on vacation this May. But I thought it worth mentioning today because of what it so fantastically embodies: the freedom we have to drive darn near whatever we want.

As Fourth of July celebrations wrap up, we’ll stay in theme with some freedoms of the road. You might be surprised at the liberties drivers enjoy.

Full mast

Can you legally stick a flag pole in your back seat? Oddly enough, you can.

A few years ago, I wrote about people who turn their cars into works of art by gluing on everything from artificial grass to fish fins. At the time, we learned it’s against the law to alter a car’s lighting or safety features, to obscure its windshield, or to expand its width beyond 8½ feet. But little prevents you from expanding your car upward, to a maximum height of 13½ feet.

“What the Registry has done now in Massachusetts is they’ve created a bunch of other categories [under which] to register a vehicle; they’ve got hot rods, custom vehicles, etc.,” said police instructor and lawyer John Sofis Scheft, whose consulting business, Law Enforcement Dimensions, is based in Arlington. “So it gives people a lot of latitude.”

The new classifications, adopted in 2011, are Custom Vehicle, Replica Vehicle, Specially Constructed Vehicle, and Street Rod.

The Mermaid — or any other flag-bearing car — would appear to fall under the specially constructed category, which permits unique alterations.

Flipped off

Marblehead resident Janet Spurr has a unique way of communicating with other drivers. When she spots someone texting at a light, or putting lipstick on while driving, she holds a spiral flip board to her window turned to a prewritten message, such as “Genius” or “Makeup Won’t Help.”

“I’ve actually had people tailgating me and [I] put the ‘Genius’ sign out of my sun roof,” she said.

Spurr bought the flip board years ago — she says they are on eBay, but I couldn’t find one — and has had fun with it. But I wonder, is it legal to display such messages while driving?

According to Scheft, such signs can’t be too big, unwieldy to hold, or mounted to a window. Otherwise, he said, Spurr can display them.

“I actually thought about producing something like that myself and just never did,” Scheft said. My book “would have said probably what hers said — criticizing bad drivers, or also thanking them. . . . There’d probably be a few things in there if I was young and unmarried and wanted to get somebody’s phone number. That kind of stuff.”

Spurr’s flip board didn’t contain any offensive language, but under freedom of speech, someone certainly could create his own, colorful (or off-color) sayings.

But what if Spurr’s signs were electronic? While searching eBay, I came across programmable LED scrolling message boards for my car’s back window. They even make electronic “emoticon” signboards to hang in your rear window, a la Baby-On-Board signs, to inform other drivers when you’re happy or sad.

Such signs might appear to be no different than Spurr’s flip board, Scheft said, but because state law forbids after-market lighting in or on vehicles, they would be illegal.

“With lighting . . . if the car didn’t come with it, you can’t have it,” he said. “If someone wanted to make a big deal about it, the appeals court might say it isn’t after-market lighting because it’s not permanently affixed to the car. But I think, based on the spirit and intent and language of the regulation, if I was a cop, I would write somebody a ticket for it.

“It’s a cute idea to allow drivers to communicate with other drivers,” he continued. “But it’s distracting. It may compete with or interfere with the brake lights or the directional signals. That’s why [the state is] so strict about the lighting you can have on a car.”

More freedoms

Can you flash your headlights to warn other drivers of a speed trap? (Yes.)

Can you give another driver “the bird?” (Yes, at your own risk.)

Can you ride in the back of a pickup truck? (Yes, if you’re an adult.)

But questions keep coming.

Can you drive with your car trunk open? Or if your vehicle has a hatchback, can that be open as you zoom down a highway?

Yes to both questions, Scheft said, “but you can’t have anything that might be discharged onto the road.” Drive with unsecured items in your trunk area, and you could be charged with failure to cover your load adequately, a potential $200 fine.

We’ve learned you can add a flagpole to your car, but what can you subtract? Does your car need doors, fenders, windows, or floorboards?

Anything safety-related must remain intact, which, frankly, includes most of your car. But if for some reason you wanted to jettison your car’s hood this weekend, it’s your patriotic right to do so.

“I don’t really know if you need one,” Scheft said.

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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