The strange, the bizarre, the unexpected — these are Halloween’s calling cards. But delve deep into the rules of the road in Massachusetts, and you will find a trove of oddities as well.
For fun on this week of All Saints Day, we present a handful of such legal anomalies. But which laws are real, and which are just tricks? Take a guess, if you dare.
■ Get nabbed for speeding on a county bridge, and you’ll be fined a whopping $2.
■ Fail to affix at least three bells to your horse-drawn sleigh, and you’ll be fined $35.
■ Statewide, the fine for failing to signal is $35, but in Melrose, it’s $5.
■ It is against the law for a Boston taxi driver to wear a T-shirt on the job.
■ In Winchendon, it’s illegal to ride a horse faster than 8 miles per hour.
■ In Peabody, you can be ticketed for walking on the left side of a crosswalk.
■ If a dog chases a car in Weymouth, it’s breaking the law.
■ You could go to jail for removing a parking ticket from someone else’s car.
The scary truth
Some of the most curious laws on our list are also the oldest. So a call to Robert Allison, chairman of Suffolk University’s history department and author of a number of books about the American Revolution, constitutional history, and Boston’s past, seemed in order.
I asked Allison how a law from 1830 fining someone $2 for speeding on a county bridge could still be on the books.
“You would need to have someone repeal it, like a legislator,” he said. “But what reason would there be to repeal a law if it’s simply gone into disuse? You could probably find thousands of laws to address problems at the time’’ that are no longer an issue. “They don’t put an expiration date on them.”
The law was needed, Allison hypothesized, because of the damage that iron horseshoes inflicted on a bridge’s wooden planks. By restricting horses to a walk, which is what the original statute called for, you’d cut down on such wear and tear.
As for why the law still exists for motorists (officially, it’s Massachusetts General Law Chapter 85, Section 20), Allison could not say.
The violation is actually a surchargeable offense, meaning your car insurance would go up if you ever got such a ticket — which of course, you never would. You’d get a regular speeding ticket instead.
As for requiring sleigh bells — another law from the 1830s that’s still active — Allison noted sleighs don’t make much noise when sliding on snow.
“That law makes sense because you might not hear it coming,” he said. “Also, a fellow from Medford wrote ‘Jingle Bells.’ Maybe we want to protect one of our local songs’’ by requiring bells.
Lieutenant Mark Decroteau of the Melrose Police Department couldn’t say when the last $5 ticket was handed out for failing to use a directional signal. Like all other municipal departments, Melrose looks to state law first when administering road rules, he said.
Still, there’s nothing to prevent an officer from enforcing Melrose City Ordinance 220-28, failure to signal, a $5 fine for the first offense. “That’s correct,” Decroteau said.
Pat Curran has been driving a cab in Boston for more than 30 years, and as far back as he can remember, T-shirts have not been allowed.
“I’ve always worn a collar,” he said. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask, to have a little collar on your shirt to look professional.”
The regulation appears in the Boston Police Department’s “Hackney Carriage Rules and Flat Rate Handbook,” which all cabbies must follow.” It states that taxi drivers can’t wear a T-shirt as their “outer” layer of clothing. (Incidentally, “underwear” and “swimwear” are also banned from being worn as outer layers.)
Curran, vice president of the Independent Taxi Operators Association, said he didn’t know of a fine for breaking the T-shirt rule. Instead, cabbies police their own ranks to make sure drivers abide.
“Someone in the association could tell you that you couldn’t do any radio work until you changed your T-shirt. Things like that,” Curran said.
For anyone riding a horse in the Central Massachusetts town of Winchendon, I have this advice: Don’t go too fast.
It is indeed illegal to ride a horse faster than 8 miles per hour on a public way there; violators face a fine of $25, said Town Clerk Judy Ruschioni.
How fast is 8 miles an hour?
“It’s a trot. Anything slower would be a walk,” said Asheley Ireland, assistant trainer at Gathering Farm in Hamilton, home to a former US equestrian team coach.
“I think they probably had the law to keep everyone slow and under control, the same reason we have speed limits now.
“We ride our horses down the road all the time in Hamilton and nowadays you’d never go beyond a walk,” she added. “The cars are moving too fast.”
A few communities away, in Peabody, City Clerk Timothy Spanos confirmed that it is against the law in his city to walk on the left side of a crosswalk.
The fine — not that any are ever handed out — would be the same as the statewide fine for jaywalking: a robust $1.
In Weymouth, a dog who chases a car “upon any way open to public travel” can be ordered muzzled, according to town bylaws.
As for our final question — could you go to jail for removing a parking ticket from someone else’s car? — the answer is yes.
“Whoever unlawfully tampers with or removes from a motor vehicle, or unlawfully changes, mutilates, or destroys any notice affixed to such motor vehicle . . . shall be punished by a fine of not more than fifty dollars, or by imprisonment in jail for not more than one month, or by both such fine and imprisonment,” reads Massachusetts General Law Chapter 90, Section 20D.
So where are all the tricks?
Well, that’s really our ruse.
All of these odd driving laws are, in fact, real.