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Unique Rules of the Road: Massachusetts

Unique Rules of the Road: Massachusetts

This is the final installment of our ‘Unique Rules of the Road’ Series. Welcome to Massachusetts, where you may not transport wildlife loose in your car. Check out our other installments for ‘Unique Rules of the Road: New York’, and ‘Unique Rules of the Road: California’.

The state of Massachusetts has a lot of these unique rules of the road. Massachusetts is a small state, ranking 45th in land area, but it boasts the 15th largest population. It also has the 21st largest vehicle fleet in the country, with over five million motor vehicles registered to operate on its roads in 2017, the most recent year for which this information is available. 

Massachusetts is the third most densely populated state, with 80% of its people living in the Boston metropolitan area. This makes driving in the Boston area a challenge, while the rest of the state is mostly idyllic countryside. Let’s take a look at some of the unique rules of the road in Massachusetts, the Bay/Pilgrim/Puritan/Old Colony/Baked Bean State (take your pick!).

Driving in Massachusetts: Things to Remember

Cell phone usage in the car: Drivers who are over 18 can use cell phones for calls, if they always keep one hand on the steering wheel. Drivers may not write, send, or read text-based messages (including email and internet access). For all drivers under 18, cell phone use is prohibited, except for reporting an emergency. A driver who crashes because he or she was using a mobile electronic device will face criminal charges and loss of their license.

Seatbelt use: It is illegal to drive without using a seatbelt yourself, or without all occupants being belted in or in a proper child seat/restraint device. A police officer cannot pull you over and issue a ticket if you or a passenger is not wearing a seatbelt, unless you are stopped for a traffic violation. Drivers of taxis, livery vehicles, police and fire vehicles, postal delivery vehicles, and buses are exempt. Passengers in emergency vehicles are also exempt.

Passing on the right: The law requires drivers to keep right unless turning or passing. Passing other drivers going in the same direction should be done only on the left. Passing on the right is allowed if you are on a physically divided highway (with a median barrier), and you have at least two lanes on your side of the road.

Helmets for motorcycle riders: Drivers and passengers on motorcycles must wear “protective head gear” conforming with state standards, according to the law.

Motorcycle lane-splitting: Lane-splitting is not allowed, but two motorcycles may legally ride side-by-side in the same lane.

Use of headlights: Your headlights and taillights should be turned on 30 minutes after sunset, and also used until 30 minutes prior to the sunrise, as well as any time that visibility is less than 500 feet. If you are using your wipers because of the weather, your low beams should also be on.

Making turns on red: You may turn right at a red light after stopping and yielding to pedestrians, unless it is prohibited. Left turns on red can be made only from a one-way street and onto a one-way street, if not prohibited. Fun fact: Massachusetts was the last state in the US to allow right turns on red (in 1980), and still prohibits the practice at a great many intersections. Watch out for “No Right Turn On Red Light” signs!

U-turns: U-turns are generally allowed in a variety of situations, when safe to do and unless prohibited by a posted sign. You may not make a U-turn:

  • Where there is a curve or hill within 500 feet
  • Where there is heavy traffic

Minimum following distance: There must be at least two seconds of space between you and the car ahead, whatever legal speed you are going.

Pedestrians: If a driver is approaching a crosswalk, pedestrians have the right of way if they are in the path of a driver, or if they are within 10 feet of the halfway point in the road. Drivers may not pass a vehicle that has yielded the right of way to a pedestrian, nor should they block a crosswalk. If a pedestrian is injured by a driver in a marked crosswalk, an investigation will be conducted, and if deemed appropriate, civil or criminal violations will result in a citation, or even a criminal complaint.

Driving under the influence of alcohol: Don’t do it! Massachusetts has very severe penalties, and they are enforced! The blood alcohol limit is 0.08%, but you can be charged at a lower level, if your actions show that you were affected by the alcohol you ingested. 

Smoking marijuana: While marijuana is legal within the state, it is illegal for anyone to operate a vehicle under the influence of marijuana.

Bicycles: Drivers must stay at least three feet away from bicycle traffic. Drivers must yield to an oncoming bicycle turning left. At intersections, drivers must stop at the stop line to allow pedestrians and bicyclists to cross safely. When turning right, drivers must yield to pedestrians and cyclists who are crossing. When a bicycle box (which allows bicyclists to safely turn when approaching a red light intersection) is marked on the pavement, drivers must stop behind the bicycle box (even when it’s empty) and wait for a green light.

Leaving children alone in the car: While Massachusetts does not have a law specifically prohibiting leaving children alone in your car, authorities may criminally charge caregivers under the state’s existing endangerment laws. 

Speed limits: There are some general rules for speed limits in the state of Massachusetts. These will apply, unless posted signage indicates a different limit:

  • School zone 20 mph
  • Inside thickly settled or business districts 30 mph
  • Maximum residential limit 30 mph
  • Undivided highways outside thickly settled or business districts 40 mph
  • Highways outside thickly settled or business districts 50 mph
  • Two-lane roads 55 mph
  • Highways, freeways, and interstates 65 mph

Some crazy Massachusetts driving regulations

Let’s wrap up with some wacky rules that the state and specific Massachusetts localities have put on the books. Some might be based in past experience and may be practical, but others just leave you scratching your head:

  • State of Massachusetts: You may not transport a wild animal in the back of your vehicle, unless it is properly restrained.
  • Milford: Looking inside a vehicle to invade the privacy of the occupants is forbidden.
  • State of Massachusetts: Televisions in cars must be positioned so that the driver cannot see them.
  • State of Massachusetts: Drivers must use their headlights when they are inside a tunnel.
  • State of Massachusetts: Children under age 12 may not ride in the bed of a pickup truck.
  • Drive safely in Massachusetts!