Hey, there! Log in / Register

Court to drivers: Stay in your lane

A divided Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that crossing the "fog line" that separates a road from its shoulder, even if just for a couple seconds, is a marked-lane violation that a cop driving behind you can use as justification to pull you over.

The ruling comes in the case of Zachariah Larose, who was pulled over on Rte. 202 in Belchertown, initially for crossing the white line, once, for no more than three seconds, but who was then charged with OUI, after the police officer who'd pulled him over determined he was drunk at the time.

Larose's lawyer argued - and a Superior Court judge agreed - that because the line did not divide travel lanes and because Larose did not do anything else that would have been unsafe,, crossing it was not a marked-lane violation, so he shouldn't have been pulled over for it. And that means he should not have been charged with OUI, since that was a result of "the illegal seizure" involved in his being pulled over.

But in a precedent-setting ruling today, a majority on the state's highest court disagreed and said the traffic stop was legal and, thus, so is the OUI charge, which means that Larose now faces a trial on the charge.

We conclude that in this case, where the circumstances suggest that the defendant both failed to operate his motor vehicle entirely within his lane of travel and moved from his lane of travel without first ascertaining the safety of that movement, the defendant violated [the state marked-lanes law] and the ensuing traffic stop was reasonable.

At issue for the court was not just the marked lanes law, Chapter 89, section 4a, but the grammar used by legislators in crafting it:

When any way has been divided into lanes, the driver of a vehicle shall so drive that the vehicle shall be entirely within a single lane, and he shall not move from the lane in which he is driving until he has first ascertained if such movement can be made with safety.

Larose's attorney and the lower-court judge had argued that the way that paragraph is written only orders drivers to only avoid unsafe movements and was not a directive to stay in in their lanes for the most part. The majority disagreed:

[W]e read § 4A as commanding drivers to adhere to two distinct directives. First, drivers must operate entirely within a single lane. We take that to mean that drivers must maintain their lanes and avoid drifting or swerving into an adjoining lane or the shoulder. Second, drivers must not move from their respective travel lanes without first ascertaining whether it is safe to do so. That the Legislature intended for these two directives to operate independently is demonstrated by the Legislature's inclusion of two legal predicates directing the actions of drivers and conscious separation of those predicates by a comma and the conjunction "and."

The court continued:

First, the defendant's position has the undesirable effect of affording drivers unfettered discretion to ignore lane markings so long as they do not in fact make unsafe movements. Not only does this interpretation render the Legislature's command to drive entirely within a single lane meaningless, which we strive to avoid, see Ciani v. MacGrath, 481 Mass. 174, 179 (2019), but it also is entirely inconsistent with the clear, obligatory language of the statute that requires drivers to maintain their lanes regardless of whether a failure to do so would be in fact unsafe. It also would have the practical effect of requiring law enforcement officials to engage in a "no harm, no foul" type of analysis before initiating a stop and prohibit them from taking action until a driver's maneuvers are sufficiently "unsafe," which might risk the safety of the driver and others in the vicinity. Common sense dictates that this cannot be what the Legislature intended. ... We do not require such an analysis for other traffic violations and see no reason to require one here. ...

It is axiomatic that in order for traffic to flow safely, drivers and others sharing the road must be able to quickly and accurately anticipate one another's movements and respond accordingly. When individual drivers, purposefully or otherwise, fail to operate in conformity with applicable traffic rules, particularly one as fundamental as the directive to drive entirely within one lane, they pose a serious danger to themselves and others. To hold otherwise would be inconsistent with the Legislature's intent in enacting traffic laws generally, as well as G. L. c. 89 specifically, which was to promote the orderly and safe flow of traffic.

The justices continued:

This is not to say that drivers may never move from their respective lanes of travel, either entirely in order to change lanes or exit the roadway, or partially to avoid an obstacle or other hazard in their lane, but only to say that drivers must operate entirely within the bounds of one lane until and unless they decide to move from that lane and, in the event they choose to so move, that movement must be preceded by an assessment of its safety. We agree with the dissent that an overly narrow reading of § 4A could lead to absurd results. Nonetheless, we think that our interpretation avoids the absurdity with which the dissent is concerned and is consistent with related traffic laws that make room for necessary and purposeful lane deviations that can be made safely.

And so:

[T]he circumstances suggest that the defendant violated § 4A in two ways: he failed to operate his motor vehicle entirely within a single lane of travel; and he moved inadvertently from his lane of travel onto the road shoulder, the necessary implication being that he did not first ascertain that his movement onto the shoulder could be made safely. The defendant did not use his turn signal to indicate an intention to move out of the northbound travel lane; he did not reduce his speed in order to come to a complete stop on the road shoulder; he returned entirely to within the confines of the northbound travel lane after only a few seconds; and there was no visible hazard or other obstacle in the road that might explain his brief digression onto the shoulder. In these circumstances, the violation was clear and the ensuing stop was reasonable.

The justices noted the concern the ruling could lead to police using a minor infraction of momentarily passing onto a shoulder as a "pretext" for arrests on more serious charges, but said, in a footnote:

We note that the court is tasked with construing the marked lane statute as written and is obliged to stay in its lane. If the Legislature is concerned that too many drivers are being stopped for minor marked lane infractions, then it may amend § 4A or pass other corrective legislation.

Justice Barbara Lenk, joined by two other justices, though, dissented from the ruling, saying the law to her is pretty clear that a marked-lane violation involves improperly movement between travel lanes that cause a potentially dangerous condition, and that inadvertently going over a white line for a couple of seconds, without any additional evidence of any wrongdoing, is just over the line.

Under the court's literal interpretation of the statute, a driver commits a marked lanes violation every time he or she crosses a lane marker or fog line, even for a fraction of a second, when it otherwise is safe to do so. In the court's view, a driver violates G. L. c. 89, § 4A, if the driver moves over the fog line in an effort to dodge a pot hole or patch of ice, or to avoid another vehicle that drifts too close during perilous weather conditions. A driver also would commit a violation if, ever so slightly, he or she crosses the fog line in order to give more room to a large vehicle, a bicyclist, or a pedestrian, or to steer clear of an animal that has darted out onto the road. In fact, as best as I can tell, a driver would violate G. L. c. 89, § 4A, every time he or she crosses over a lane marker in order to exit a highway, to pull onto the shoulder of a highway to change drivers when tired, or to pull into a gasoline station, parking lot, or driveway.

Indeed, if the language of the statute is read this literally, any lane change would, for just an instant, violate the statute because the driver would not then be driving the vehicle "entirely within a single lane." Of course, this interpretation would be absurd, but its silliness only demonstrates that the language of the first clause cannot be construed in such a literal or narrow manner.

Neighborhoods: 
Topics: 
Free tagging: 
AttachmentSize
PDF icon Complete ruling and dissent133.7 KB
Ad:

Comments

... the state can start enforcing it when they fix ALL THE POTHOLES EVERYWHERE.

up
Voting closed 18

Let's see -- I think this was the reasoning in Salem:

if the person is a witch then they must be so construed as if they were to be made of wood and hence said person would be expected to float upon water. In contrast a non-witch would not be construed to be made of wood and would by consequence then sink. Therefore the test to be applied to the person accused of witchcraft is to place the accused in a large container filled with water -- if they float then they are a witch and the sentence for sorcery and blatant witchcraft is to be execution by hanging. However, if they sink to the bottom then they are innocent of witchcraft and sorcery -- and so after their body is retrieved -- the following can be affixed upon their tombstone --

"that the test exonerated them of the accusation of witchcraft and sorcery".

*1

When any way has been divided into lanes, the driver of a vehicle shall so drive that the vehicle shall be entirely within a single lane, and he shall not move from the lane in which he is driving until he has first ascertained if such movement can be made with safety.

This is what the Legislature must have enacted sometime about when Larz Anderson was driving his battery powered auto-mobile about the lanes of Brookline*2

So now we have a "divided court" ascertaining that

, and he shall not move

implies that the Legislature back 100 years ago implied two separate "directives" are involved -- as the majority stated:

commanding drivers to adhere to two distinct directives. First, drivers must operate entirely within a single lane. We take that to mean that drivers must maintain their lanes and avoid drifting or swerving into an adjoining lane or the shoulder. Second, drivers must not move from their respective travel lanes without first ascertaining whether it is safe to do so. That the Legislature intended for these two directives to operate independently is demonstrated by the Legislature's inclusion of two legal predicates directing the actions of drivers and conscious separation of those predicates by a comma and the conjunction "and."

Note there was no procedure indicated in the legislation as to how

ascertaining whether it is safe to do so

was to be determined [no error bars were specified as to what constituted the margin of safety -- let alone did they define a fail-safe method of ascertaining "whether it is safe"].

Ignoring the supposed legal logic and applying the logic of a scientist acquainted with Newton's Laws of Motion -- Consider this hypothetical [aka a Gedankenexperiment a la Einstein's famous light from headlights of a moving car] Suppose that I encounter a "wrong way driver" in my travel lane and decide to bail to the right without taking time to ascertain the safety of driving in the breakdown lane -- except for the certain knowledge that a collision with a potential stationary vehicle or a vehicle slowly moving in my direction of travel would most likely be preferable to a collision with a rapidly moving vehicle traveling in the opposite direction. Now obviously I didn't stay in the prescribed lane, Nor did I take time to ascertain if the right hand lane was safe to enter -- However I can't imagine that the Legislature would have preferred me to participate in a head-on collision with the miscreant driver [who was incidentally violating the keep to the lane edict].

The minority dissent didn't get to head-on collisions only commenting:

a marked-lane violation involves improperly movement between travel lanes that cause a potentially dangerous condition, and that inadvertently going over a white line for a couple of seconds, without any additional evidence of any wrongdoing, is just over the line.

Under the court's literal interpretation of the statute, a driver commits a marked lanes violation every time he or she crosses a lane marker or fog line, even for a fraction of a second, when it otherwise is safe to do so. In the court's view, a driver violates G. L. c. 89, § 4A, if the driver moves over the fog line in an effort to dodge a pot hole or patch of ice, or to avoid another vehicle that drifts too close during perilous weather conditions. A driver also would commit a violation if, ever so slightly, he or she crosses the fog line in order to give more room to a large vehicle, a bicyclist, or a pedestrian, or to steer clear of an animal that has darted out onto the road. In fact, as best as I can tell, a driver would violate G. L. c. 89, § 4A, every time he or she crosses over a lane marker in order to exit a highway, to pull onto the shoulder of a highway to change drivers when tired, or to pull into a gasoline station, parking lot, or driveway.

You can't make this stuff up -- its just too rich with absurdity even for Monty Python

*1 -- note not actually a quote from the Salem Witch Trials -- but in the spirit** of "Adam LaShiz" -- this is just a parody

*2 -- as amended no doubt at least a dozen times before the original routing of Rt-128 through the center of Lexington along Massachusetts Ave and Waltham St. -- but never since.

up
Voting closed 3

OMG I might have to follow the rules of the road! NO FAIR!

up
Voting closed 3

You tried real hard, but not even your wall of text can obscure the fact that there's more than just the one traffic law in Massachusetts. There are other laws that cover needing to make a sudden movement while driving to avoid imminent danger.

up
Voting closed 3

Even when they're driving drunk, running over children on sidewalks, etc.

up
Voting closed 35

I see run-over bollards all around Somerville, but of course no one wants to admit that drivers are the real problem.

up
Voting closed 5

...running over children on sidewalks

That escalated quickly.

up
Voting closed 13

Fortunately all the marked lane lines in Boston area have long since worn away and neither the state nor the city has any intention of repainting them so I don't have to worry about being stopped for crossing the non-existent lines

up
Voting closed 20

Not even to go around a left turning vehicle? (after checking for bikes and peds of course....I am thinking of Rte 6 outer Cape Cod - everyone does that.)

up
Voting closed 8

"... without first ascertaining the safety of that movement... "

That would cover it. Meaning to do it and checking that it is safe beforehand is different than weaving into another lane.

up
Voting closed 18

Seriously - buy a dash cam and do some stats on the time stamps.

It does NOT save you time to do these things. It really doesn't. You just end up at the next backup.

up
Voting closed 19

I read this as if you drift from your lane for no apparent reason, without intending to do so, or in a way that poses a hazard to others, that is considered a marked lane violation. Avoiding a pothole or going around an obstacle would be fine. But drifting over the line because you're drunk would not. The catch is that a lot of people in my observation are lazy drivers. When a road curves, they will cut the curve by driving in the shoulder or in another lane because they don't want to slow down enough to easily stay in their lane. IMO that should be a marked lane violation as well.

up
Voting closed 9

There is only one Marked Lane Violation which really matters -- that is driving in a lane in the wrong direction

With few exceptions this should be treated as if the person was driving while intoxicated -- with severe penalties

Note that the "unforgiving Laws of Motion" as promulgated by Prof. Newton give us all the directives which we need to proceed.

  1. First law: every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force
  2. Second Law: A [Vector] The acceleration of an object is dependent upon two variables - F [Vector] the net force acting upon the object and M [scalar] the mass of the object. More commonly stated as: Force [Vector] is equal to Mass [scalar] times Acceleration [Vector] ==> F=MA
  3. Third law: For every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction

The consequences of these laws in the case of driving in the wrong direction are often deadly for the Perp-driver [and passengers] as well as any innocent target vehicle's occupants.

Moral of the story -- if you are driving on a divided road at highway speeds -- and see someone heading toward you in your lane -- the most likely safest course of action is to turn sharply to the right into the next lane or even off the road. No collision which you can have with a another vehicle moving along with you [small relative velocity] or even with a stationary object [vehicle, or even a tree or a bridge] will be as violent and destructive as a head-on collision at highway speeds.

If you can't get out of the way of the wrong-way driver -- at least turn so that the collision is as close to a glancing blow as possible -- even spinning out of control is better than a direct head on collision.

Ironically, the modern design of passenger vehicles to crush their front ends to try to maximize the integrity of the passenger cabin might be responsible for some of the worst of head-on collisions. In the old days [10 to 20 years ago] the two cars would likely bounce while today they are more likely to merge into one integrated wreckage essentially at rest. While the accelerations to which a driver or passenger would be exposed associated with the bounce [elastic collision] would be larger than those associated with formation of the merged object [inelastic collision] -- getting someone's engine in your lap is generally not survivable.

After a steady stream of recent "wrong way driver" precipitated accidents -- its time for the Legislature to act -- more enforcement and possibly technology triggering enforcement actions is needed

up
Voting closed 1