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Comments on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Driver's manual

compiled by John S. Allen, February 2, 1997

revised June 16, 2003 and August 31, 2005, John S. Allen

The Registry of Motor Vehicles Driver's Manual underwent a major revision in 1997 and has had minor revisions since then. The presentation of the manual is attractive, the safety-oriented tone is welcome, and it is useful to have the manual available online. There remain, however, a number of significant issues relative to bicycling. I will describe some of them, primarily from my perspective as a bicyclist. I will address a few other issues as well.

Hyperlinks below refer to the 10/2004 online version of the manual at the Registry of Motor Vehicles WWW site. When reviewing the online manual, it is helpful to have a look first at its Table of Contents.

It is also helpful to compare the Massachusetts manual with the California Driver Handbook.

The chapters of the Massachusetts Manual is now available online only as Adobe Acrobat (PDF) documents. The Table of Contents has links to each chapter, and I have linked to individual pages -- but unless you have a fast Internet connection, you will save a lot of time in reviewing the Manual if you download the entire manual and open it on your own computer -- or have a paper copy at hand..

Specific comments follow.

Chapter 1, page. 5: Massachusetts Drivers' licenses, Descriptions and Classifications describes mopeds as "motorized bicycles" and now indicates that they are prohibited on bicycle paths [MGL Ch. 90 1B]. This information represents an improvement over earlier versions of the manual. But this also indicates that mopeds are prohibited on state highways. This is incorrect. Bicycles, including motorized bicycles, are permitted on state highways except for limited-access or express state highways where specific prohibitions against bicycles are posted.

There are a couple of issues resulting from problems in the law. The description of a "moped" (motorized bicycle, with or without pedals) refers only to internal-combustion engines. A driver's license is required to operate these. The status of electrically-assisted bicycles, which have gained in popularity in recent years, is unclear.

Mopeds are restricted to a top speed capability of 30 miles per hour on level ground, and a top speed of 25 miles per hour. The intention is to limit the power of the engine, so as to establish a category of vehicle separate from that for motorcycles. There is no special speed limit for bicycles, apparently under the assumption that bicycles have too limited power to go fast. Either a moped or a bicycle is capable of exceeding 30 miles per hour on downgrades. Limiting power of mopeds is sensible, but establishing special speed limits does not reflect this reality.

Massachusetts does not yet have a law regarding the Segway (or Electrically Power Assisted Mobility Device). There is another page about Segway laws on this site.

Chapter 2, page 42 describes "motor vehicle" infractions without indicating that the same rules of the road  apply to all drivers, including moped drivers, bicyclists, and drivers of animal-drawn vehicles. The penalties and some equipment provisions differ.

Chapter 2, page 53 on alcohol, drugs and driving does apply only to motor vehicle operation; there is no way to cite a bicyclist for these offenses other than for being a disorderly person. See comments elsewhere on this site. The status of moped operators is probably that of other vehicle operators, as moped operators must be licensed.

Chapter 3, page 73, "Safe distances around your car" includes the advice "If you are following a motorcycle, allow even more distance than you would for another vehicle. This should say "if you are following a single-track vehicle (motorcycle, moped or bicycle)..."

Chapter 3 includes a section on interacting with motorcyclists and a section on motorcycle safety and now includes one about interacting with bicyclists, which correctly states where bicycles may be ridden, points out that bicyclists have the same right to use the road as motorists, and gives additional good advice. This is a major improvement over earlier versions of the Manual. Also see comments on Chapter 4. below.

Chapter 4, page 88, Rules of the Road, Speed limits: "The Fundamental Speed Law for motor vehicles..." The word "motor" should be removed. This law, which prohibits drivers from exceeding a safe speed regardless of the posted speed limit, is for drivers of all vehicles, not just motor vehicles. Bicycles can easily exceed the fundamental speed limit, for example when pedestrians are on the roadway, and can often exceed the posted speed limit when traveling downhill.

An error in the 1997 edition has been corrected: The 1997 edition said: "The minimum speed on Interstate and state highways is 45 mph." Minimum speed limits can only exist on limited access and express state highways. [See 720 CMR, Driving on State Highways].The new edition, page 89,  reads "interstate and limited-access highways," an improvement, but not entirely accurate. The fundamental speed law takes precedence when traffic is congested, or when other conditions such as weather conditions or construction make it unsafe to drive at the minimum speed limit.

Chapter 4, page 89 describes traffic signals for vehicles as "motor vehicle signals." This is a serious error. Traffic signals are for all vehicles, including bicycles; not only motor vehicles.

Chapter 4 page 91, Traffic Signals: "Steady GREEN...vehicles, bicycles or pedestrians." Bicyclists are either pedestrians or vehicle operators depending on whether they are riding or walking. Bicycles are defined as vehicles under 720 CMR, and are required to obey vehicular rules under MGL Ch. 85 11B but may be walked in crosswalks. The wording fosters the idea that bicyclists have different rules than motorists or pedestrians.

Chapter 4, p. 91, "Traffic signals not working...If signals are blacked out and not functioning, you must treat the intersection as having stop signs in all directions. Proceed when it is safe to do so." This instruction also applies for traffic signals with defective vehicle sensors which fail to turn green, an especial problem for bicyclists and motorcyclists, as many actuators are not sensitive enough to respond to them; see Web page on the subject of actuators.

Chapter 4, page 92, Traffic Signs, Stop and Yield Signs .. "Come to a complete stop, yield to pedestrians or other vehicles, and proceed carefully." This is an improvement over wording in earlier editions, "When you see a YIELD sign, slow down and be prepared to stop. Let traffic, pedestrians or bicycles pass..." Bicyclists and pedestrians are traffic, and bicycles are vehicles.

Chapter 4, page 94, Construction and Maintenance: An error in the 1997 edition has been corrected. "These warnings help to guide pedestrians and motor vehicles..." did not mention bicycles or other non-motorized vehicles. The new edition says "pedestrians and vehicle traffic."

Chapter 4, page 95, Regulatory Signs: sign "Do Not Pass" is described with words "You may not overtake another vehicle." The sign is misworded, since its intention is to prevent vehicles from crossing the centerline. Bicyclists and motorcyclists can and do safely overtake one another, and motorists can and do often overtake bicyclists in the same lane in no-passing zones, which include almost all two-lane urban roadways as well as rural highways with wide outside lanes or paved shoulders. The problem here is with the standard sign more than with the Manual. Note that the page also includes another sign, "no passing zone," with the caption "you may not cross the yellow line to pass." This is correctly worded.

Chapter 4 page 101, Signaling: An error in the 1997 edition has been partially corrected. Bicyclists are almost the only drivers who use hand signals. The new edition correctly indicates that bicyclists may signal with either hand [MGL Ch. 85 11B]. However, this section still says "You MUST use signals." Signaling is not always possible on a bicycle with handbrakes. Bicyclists can, however, also signal by lane position and a turn of the head. Stationary pedals serve as a slow signal. Despite the inability to use hand signals at some times, bicyclists are the most able to communicate of all drivers.

Chapter 4, page 102: Restricted lanes. An error in the previous edition has been corrected (added wording in italics here). "You must not drive in lanes posted as restricted except when preparing for a turn. Look for signs such as those in the margin." See comment on page 105 for an explanation.

Chapter 4, page 103: Special Driving Situations, Highway Driving: "Highway driving can make any new driver nervous. Following are some useful tips for driving on highways..." The wording is much improved over that of the 1997 edition (in Chapter 5 in that edition) but this section applies only to limited-access and express highways, not to all highways.

Chapter 4, page 105: Turns: An error in the 1997 edition has been partially corrected. The most recent version reads "For a left turn, turn from the lane closest to the center lane." That should be "centerline." The 1997 version read: "Turn from the lane closest to where you want to go. For a right turn, turn from the far right lane. For a left turn, turn from the lane farthest to the left." There are three problems, one of which has been corrected.

  • You make a left turn from the right side of the centerline of the street, unless turning from a one-way street [MGL Ch. 90 14] (correct procedures are, however, shown in drawings on the next page). Compare with the section on lanes for turning and bicycle lanes in the California Driver's Handbook.

  • The correct location from which to turn is different with multiple turn lanes -- which are not described here OR shown in the drawings on the page. They should be, because they are more complicated and confusing than ordinary turn lanes. I have not found multiple turn lanes described in the Massachusetts Statutes or regulations, either. They are not described in MGL Ch. 90 14, where the procedures for turning are described.

  • The very important rule [MGL Ch. 89 4B, Ch. 90 14] which requires right turns to be made from the farthest lane to the right, EVEN IF THIS IS A RESTRICTED LANE (bike lane, bus lane, HOV lane, truck restriction, etc.) is only implied here -- and page 105 is not quite strong enough in indicating that the restricted lane MUST be used if it is the appropriate one for a turn. Motorist right turns from the left of bicyclists are the #3 cause of car-bicycle collisions, so the error here is serious. Compare with the section on turning as it relates to bicycle lanes in the California Driver's Handbook.

Chapter 4, p. 106: U-turns: An error has been corrected. The newest version reads "You may only make a U-turn from the lane closest to the center line." The 1997 edition read: "You may only make a U-turn from the left lane."

Chapter 4, p. 107: "You may not travel in a center turning lane." This is unrealistic and unreasonable, even if it is, strictly speaking, the law. Motorists often must, and do, temporarily merge partway or entirely into the center turning lane to overtake other vehicles including bicycles and right-turning or stopped vehicles. This is particularly the case because the outside lanes are often narrowed to create a center turning lane.

Right of Way Rules: "Right of way is something you GIVE, not take": good, well stated, and a point often lost on Massachusetts drivers.

Pedestrians: This section has been corrected.. Earlier version said: "Pedestrians have the right of way" and contradicted what was said about right of way earlier. Whether this is a good rule or not, vehicle operators are not required to yield to pedestrians outside crosswalks, at least not on state highways in urban areas [720 CMR 9.09 (5)].

Chapter 4, p. 108: Four way stop: This section is correct but our law is unusual. We have two rules for this in Massachusetts. This rule requiring yielding to the driver on the right is stated in MGL Ch. 89 8. The other rule, requiring that a driver yield to "any vehicle in the intersection of approaching on another roadway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard..." is stated in Ch. 89 9 and 720 CMR 9.05 (13). The yield to vehicle on right rule is the only one that still is in the Uniform Vehicle Code. The other rule was removed in 1980 on the grounds that having two rules is unnecessarily confusing.

Chapter 4, p. 108: "Private Roads, Driveways, and Unpaved Roads: If you are entering a paved thoroughfare from a private road, a driveway, or an unpaved road, you must stop first and give the right-of-way to pedestrians, bicyclists, or vehicles traveling along the road you are entering." again, the distinction is made between bicycles and vehicles. while it is good to include bicycles, a better wording would be "vehicles, including bicycles."

Rules for Passing: "You should pass a pedestrian, bicyclist or vehicle ONLY when it is necessary and safe to do so." Good thought, but once again a false distinction is made between vehicles and bicycles.

Chapter 4, p. 111: Road Respect, Sharing the Road: There used to be wording in this section about bicyclists and mopeds, but it is gone except for a tangential reference in connection with slow moving motorized on page 115. Wording about motorcycles also has been removed from this section.

Chapter 4, p. 121, Rules for Bicyclists

It is good that this material is in the Manual, but I find it somewhat annoying that the advice for pedestrians and bicyclists is lumped into the same section with advice about not throwing trash onto the road, and after the section on parking. Motorists need to know what is to be expected of bicyclists, and this information could be better integrated with the driving advice earlier in the manual. See the California Driver's Manual Bicycle Page for a better presentation (though that page is not entirely correct either).

Some of what is presented in the Massachusetts manual as "rules for bicyclists" is law, some is only opinion, and some is simply incorrect.

"You must ride on the right side of the roadway unless you are turning left. To turn left, signal, look, and move into the lane closest to the center line." This is much improved over the wording in the 1997 edition, but there are still some problems.

  • There is nothing said here about its being legal for bicyclists to dismount and turn left as pedestrians, an appropriate and legal way for novice bicyclists and children to turn left at busy intersections and a lawful way for any bicyclist to turn left where left turns are otherwise prohibited.

  • There is nothing said here about legality of riding on the left side of a one-way street, other than to make a left turn. Massachusetts law is contradictory on this subject. While it requires drivers to remain in the right lane unless passing [MGL Ch. 89 4B], it nonetheless permits passing on the right in a one-way street [MGL Ch. 89 2].

  • The rule about riding on the right side of the road is not correctly stated. A driver is required to yield to the right, "when the road is of sufficient width for the two vehicles to pass" [MGL Ch. 89 2], rather than simply keeping as far right as possible, or merely staying somewhere to the right of the centerline.

The unusual Massachusetts right lane law [MGL Ch. 89 4B] does require drivers to use "the lane nearest the right side of the way when such lane is available for travel," and goes on to say that "when the right lane has been constructed or designated for purposes other than ordinary travel, a driver shall drive his vehicle in the lane adjacent to the right lane, except when overtaking another vehicle or when preparing for a left turn."

In its most straightforward interpretation, this rule does require bicyclists to stay within the bicycle lane as long as it is "available for travel." and the list of exceptions here leaves out several which are in the Uniform Vehicle Code -- for example, the Massachusetts law taken literally requires bicyclists to remain within the bicycle lane even when there are hazards of opening car doors

MGL Ch. 89 4B, read literally, requires motorists to drive in the bicycle lane when it is adjacent to a parking lane.

"It is strongly recommended that you avoid listening to headphones while riding." This corrects the 1997 edition. There is no law prohibiting bicyclists from wearing headphones. I have written at length about bicycling, hearing and headphones in an article posted elsewhere on this site.

"When stopping, turning, or passing, you should use hand signals and an audible warning to communicate your intentions to pedestrians and other roadway users. You may use either hand to signal. " These statements are somewhat confused. Compare with MGL Ch. 85 11B. You are not required to use an audible warning "when stopping, turning or passing," though you are specifically required to use one to alert pedestrians. You may use your voice -- there is no requirement to have a mechanical warning device. Hand signals on a bicycle are typically used as a request, not as a warning. And you can not use hand signals when using hand brakes (and it is not necessary, because your stopped pedals indicate that you are slowing, and besides, you are probably already going slower than motor vehicles). There are many other conditions under which it is unsafe but also unnecessary for a bicyclist to use hand signals. Bicyclists are exempt from using hand signals under these conditions, at least on state highways, under the wording in 720 CMR 9.01, definitions, which exempts bicyclists from rules which by their nature, do not apply.

"You and your bike must have proper lights and reflectors when operating at night." The statement here does not specifically mention what equipment is required -- most importantly, a headlight and a rear-facing reflector or taillight.. Compare MGL Ch. 85 11B. Riding at night without proper equipment is highly dangerous, and so better wording is important here.

"About 75% of bicycling deaths and disabling injuries could have been prevented if riders wore a proper bicycle helmet." A more accurate statement is that about 50% of deaths and 75% of permanently disabling injuries could have been prevented.

Chapter 6, page 148: Special Design plates. Several states have "share the road" plates depicting bicyclists. The Massachusetts Bicycle coalition has been advocating that Massachusetts also have such plates as an option

Appendices, page 180: Sample Written Tests. The Massachusetts Bicycle coalition has advocated for questions about bicycling to be included on the tests, and in this section of the manual.

***

This article is being written to suggest improvements in the way the Manual treats bicycling. I realize that some of the problems are with the law rather than the Manual, and that positive suggestions, as well as criticisms, are needed. The Registry, to its credit, has already corrected many problems with the manual and could correct more with the next printing of the Manual.

Please feel free to send your comments to me. A committee is currently meeting to discuss these issues. The Registry has a feedback form, too.


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Contents 1997, 2000, 2003, 2005
John S. Allen
May be republished with attribution
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Last revised August 31, 2005