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Who Taught You to Drive?

Easy to trip over law’s gray areas

Once a year I make a pilgrimage to a certain furniture store south of Boston (yes, the one that sells Swedish meatballs). But to me, shopping is a necessity, not a pleasure, so the last thing I want is to make a return trip if everything I’ve bought doesn’t fit in the car.

Should extreme measures be required to cram it all in, so be it.

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This time, however, I may have gone too far.

Shoving a twin mattress, a spare bed frame, a two-door wardrobe, and a large bookcase into my Chevy Equinox required me to drive as if I were navigating a clown car. My seat was pushed so close to the steering wheel that my knees nearly touched it. With a box behind my head, I had to lean so far forward that my face was a foot from the rear-view mirror.

As for my arms, they were pulled in tight, like a Tyrannosaurus rex, with my wrists curled daintily over the wheel.

As I hit the road, I realized how stupid my attempt to save time was. By contorting my body in such a way, I soon wondered, was I also breaking the law?

Are there rules about how far your seat needs to be from the steering wheel? Your arms? Your face?

‘Anything that interferes with the proper operation of a vehicle is illegal. It covers stuff like reading the newspaper . . . having a dogin your lap . . .or 20 balloonsin the car.’’

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Today we delve into some gray areas of the rules of the road. Are the following actions legal, or not?

Smushed

When you drive in fear of being spotted by a police officer, the odds are that you’re doing something wrong.

Massachusetts General Laws don’t specify how you are supposed to sit while driving, but you’re certainly not supposed to be all crunched up, says police instructor and lawyer John Sofis Scheft,  whose consulting business, Law Enforcement Dimensions, is based in Arlington.

“The broad law that covers this is Chapter 90, Section 13, which is impeded operation,” he said. “Anything that interferes with the proper operation of a vehicle is illegal. It covers stuff like reading the newspaper while driving, having a dog in your lap while driving, or 20 balloons in the car while driving.”

The fine for impeded operation is only $35, but it’s a moving violation, so my insurance premium would have gone up had I been pulled over. Because of my compromised position, I could have caused an accident, or been unable to maneuver around an unexpected obstacle.

Then there’s the issue of the airbag in my vehicle’s steering wheel. By cramming myself that close to it, was I inviting a severe airbag injury?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the closest your breastbone should be to the center of the steering wheel while driving is 10 inches. Anything closer and you’re at risk.

“Serious or sometimes fatal injuries can occur if the occupant is too close to — or is in direct contact with — the airbag when it first begins to deploy,” the agency says.

Or the opposite could happen: Because I wasn’t seated properly, my airbags might have not have deployed at all, said John Wilkerson, spokesman for TRW Automotive, an international airbag manufacturer. I’d avoid an airbag injury, but in a severe accident, an airbag is what could save my life.

That’s a coin I’d rather not flip. Before my next trip to Ikea, I’m borrowing a pickup truck.

Undetectable

I met a trucker who used to keep a big box of tissues on his dashboard. Not because he had allergies: He hid his radar detector in it.

Ever since, I’ve been under the impression that radar detectors are illegal to possess. The police can catch you, but not the other way around.

Turns out, that’s only half right.

“It is legal to have a radar detector in your personal car,” David Procopio, spokesman for the State Police, e-mailed me. “Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Regulation 392.71, however, prohibits commercial drivers to use or even have a radar detector.”

The decision on whether passenger vehicles can have radar detectors is left to the states. At the moment, only Virginia and Washington, D.C., outlaw them.

I assumed that truckers would want radar detectors, but the commercial ban, which has been in place since 1993, is supported by trucking interest groups such as the American Trucking Associations and the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance.  

Like the federal government, those groups realize that speed is a significant factor in commercial-vehicle accidents, and that with a radar detector, people will drive faster.

“And with bigger vehicles, their crashes are more significant,” said Randy West, director of driver programs for the safety alliance.

Unless a state has adopted specific legislation, truckers caught using radar detectors are not ticketed, fined, or even put out of service, West said. However, they do receive demerits on their safety record, or their company’s safety record.

Why stop?

Bicyclists are supposed to stop for red lights, just as motorists do. But I’ve come across certain intersections while on my bike where the rule, frankly, doesn’t seem to make sense.

The intersection of Ames Street and Broadway in Cambridge’s Kendall Square is one such place. It is a “T” intersection, with Broadway being the top line of the T. A marked bicycle lane hugs the right-hand side of Broadway, but, unlike at most intersections, the lane continues without interruption because there’s no cross street on that side of Broadway.

I dutifully stopped when I came to a red light on Broadway, but why? Regardless of whether the light was green or red, I could have continued pedaling in the bike lane without fear, because at no point would any motor vehicle, from any direction, need to enter or cross the bike lane.

I asked Sergeant Kathy Murphy of the Cambridge Police Department whether she would have ticketed me for biking through the red light.

Her answer: Definitely.

“The reason why bikes can’t go straight through that intersection is because there’s a crosswalk in the street and bikers might hit a pedestrian,” she said. “If there wasn’t a crosswalk there, [we] would probably say bikes can proceed through.”

Leaders of MassBike and the Boston Cyclists Union had to agree.

“There is a need for cyclists to stop,” said the union’s Pete Stidman. “But once the cyclist has seen that no pedestrians are present, should the law require them to continue waiting? It’s a question that needs to be addressed.”

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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