Who taught you to drive?

Answers to some riddles of the road

A motorist asks whether vehicles traveling  in the opposite direction of an emergency vehicle must also pull over to the right.
The Boston Globe/file 1997
A motorist asks whether vehicles traveling in the opposite direction of an emergency vehicle must also pull over to the right.

Gene Walsh of Tewksbury didn’t know where else to turn. He’d just found a ticket on his car in Boston — not for a parking violation, but for an expired inspection sticker, a considerably more painful citation.

“I had completely forgotten for a few weeks to get a new one,” he wrote to me in desperation.

“My question is, will I get a surcharge from my insurance company, as I have been told that the infraction is considered a moving violation? Hope you can help me with this.”


It’s great when people turn to my column with their driving conundrums. And it’s great when I can tell readers what they want to hear.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In this case, though, I can’t do that.

Boston parking enforcement officers can ticket cars for expired inspection stickers and expired registration plates, in addition to issuing the usual parking tickets. They’ve been doing so for least 14 years, city officials said. (A few other cities also do this, with the Registry of Motor Vehicle’s consent.)

And yes, an expired sticker will bump up your car insurance rate, much as a speeding ticket will.

About the only solace I can offer Walsh is this: At least the city didn’t tow his car.


On to more of your questions — with brighter results, we hope.

A dangerous stop?

Last month I wrote about the proliferation of LED — light emitting diode — lights upon our streets. Blinking LED lights on such things as stop signs and crosswalk indicators have been shown to make drivers stop more often for pedestrians, which has to be a good thing, right?

I thought so, until getting this e-mail from Cerinda Newcomb of Woburn.

“While I believe that these LED-lit signs are great for visibility and safety, I am concerned about the effect they have on migraine sufferers and people with epilepsy,” she began. “As I was driving last week I had to quickly avert my eyes from [an LED] stop sign [as] blinking lights can be a trigger for my migraines. Have there been any studies done about this?”

For advice, I sought out Dr. Gregory Holmes, chairman of the Department of Neurological Sciences at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Holmes, one of the country’s leading epilepsy researchers, was previously a neurology professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Research in Pediatric Epilepsy at Boston Children’s Hospital.


“An interesting and important question,” he e-mailed to me. “A number of people with epilepsy are photosensitive, i.e. flashing lights, sun reflecting off water or snow, traveling down a tree-lined street with light flashing between the leaves, can induce seizures. Indeed, when we evaluate patients for epilepsy, we use a strobe light.”

Whether LED stop signs pose a danger, Holmes said, depends on how frequently they blink.

“Seizures are usually induced by stimulations of five to 30 times per second. Patients should not be exposed to frequencies greater than three per second,” he wrote. “Color matters: Red light is the worst.”

Hearing this, I went back to the Somerville LED stop sign I had written about, to count the number of blinks per second. Taking a timed video, it was easy to see that the sign blinks almost exactly once per second. I shared the video with the doctor.

“It would be very unusual for this flash frequency to cause either a seizure or migraine,” Holmes wrote. “I really think it is a non-issue.”

Good news, indeed.

Are convoys illegal?

Sheila Carman of Lowell used to drive a rubbish truck, and one of the rules drivers had to follow was this: No convoys allowed.

A convoy, of course, occurs when drivers collude to travel in a pack, one after another, with no room for outsiders in between. At least, that’s my recollection from 1970s trucking movies.

Carman wrote to me about convoys because she sees them on Lowell’s streets. But instead of trucks, they’re convoys of buses.

“I frequently observe up to six Lowell Regional [Transit Authority] buses leave Robert Kennedy Transportation center in groups,” she wrote, referring to the Robert B. Kennedy Bus Transfer Center. “They turn onto Hale Street and then turn left on Thorndike Street with no space between.

“Is it illegal for trucks to travel within a certain distance to each other on non-highway roads?” she asked. “Does that rule apply to buses also?”

I loved Carman’s question, but it needed some clarifying.

Jim Scanlan, Lowell Regional Transit Authority’s top administrator, and the state’s former transportation secretary, said the only times buses leave that terminal in a group are on Saturdays, when as many as seven buses depart at 8 a.m.

“It may seem like a convoy at the beginning, but [after a few hundred feet] they’re all going in different directions, be it east, west, north or south,” he said, adding that drivers don’t intentionally leave the station together.

But are convoys, even unintentional ones, illegal?

State Police spokesman David Procopio said the proper word to describe such situations is “platooning,” and it’s against the law on state highways.

“It’s dangerous because the second or third driver has his view of the road and traffic ahead obstructed,” Procopio told me. “Generally we want to see a few seconds between the trucks.”

The official violation would be following too closely, a $20 fine.

Are Lowell’s buses platooning? Procopio couldn’t say. For one thing, the statute applies to state highways only, not local roads. Thorndike Street is part of Route 3A, which is a state road, but given that State Police factor in traffic volume and speed when citing for the offense, my guess is that Lowell’s buses are traveling legally.

Captain Kelly Richardson, a spokesman for the Lowell Police Department, said as much. “It’s never been a concern for us.”

Pull over or not?

Lastly, reader Ed Weiss of Ashland had this question:

“Several times while driving I have been forced to slam on my brakes to avoid a car in front of me that pulled over or even stopped when an emergency vehicle, ambulance, fire or police car was coming in the opposite direction, NOT from behind. Does the law about giving way to emergency vehicles apply in this situation?”

State law mandates that when an emergency vehicle is approaching, regardless of which direction it’s coming from, “every person driving on a way shall immediately drive said vehicle as far possible to the righthand curb.”

The only exception is when you’re on a street that’s physically divided by a median or barrier. In that case, you need pull over only when the emergency responder is on your side.

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