The Boston Turn Party

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As of the first of the year, Massachusetts finally joined the other 49 states in making lawful a right turn on a red light. Rather priding themselves on being the worst drivers in the nation, Massachusetts motorists have moved forward on red lights for years. It's just that they've refused to turn right -- ever since they discovered Washington wanted them to.

Massachusetts is a state still quite capable of confusing the federal government with George III.

To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, the Massachusetts posture has been: "Do not go gentle into that good right."

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Why, then, has the last rebel capitulated?

There is pious talk of saving two million gallons of gas a year by permitting the right turn on red. Nonsense. Massachusetts is said to have come to terms only when Washington threatened to withhold $1.75 million of federal funds.

Surrender in Massachusetts is like armed insurrection anywhere else. Here is how the last holdout, if you will excuse the expression, complied.

The native lawmakers agreed in principle to the right turn on red -- but only with exceptions. After solicitous consideration of the rights of the Massachusetts pedestrian -- a species who normally gets all the attention of an ant on a dragstrip -- the powers-that-be ruled that the new law could be safely applied to only about one out of ten of the state's intersections with traffic lights.

The fact that the new law is to be honored only 10 percent of the time will not deter Massachusetts from accepting 100 percent of the $1.75 million.

How to enforce a law that is really the sum of its exceptions? An ordinary out-of-state American might suggest: At those one-in-ten intersections erect a sign reading, "Right Turn on Red."

The Massachusetts mind does not work in such a simple direct way. At the other 90 percent of the intersections the state has posted prohibitions reading: "No Turn on Red."

For the 11,500 signs required the price tag is $400,000 -- cost of installation not included. Not to worry about "No Turn," as we put it in negative-think Massachusetts. Of that $400,000, $300,000 is coming from the fed.

"Welcome to the Boston Turn Party," we say to motorists faced with 30 out of 529 traffic lights in the city where they can turn right on red always . . . with 25 other opportunities to turn right on red sometimes . . . if approaching the intersection from a favored direction.

Well, the legend is that Boston streets were laid out over 300 years ago according to the paths traced by cows finding their meandering ways home. So at least an old style is being honored in this most traditional of American cities.

As a Massachusetts thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

How will the Boston Turn Party turn out? This must remain one of those questions of the '80s we are hearing so much about. The Massachusetts motorist confronts his red light as he confronts history -- confused but hopeful.

Actually the odds would be reasonably sporting if Massachusetts had not decided to raise the fine from $25 to $100 for making a right turn illegally. Will a cautious culprit also be fined for not making a right turn when he should?Or will the awful and inimitable honking of the Massachusetts motorists behind him be regarded as punishment enough? The answer is clouded, like so many other answers in this whole area.

But one thing is clear. With $100 riding on the speculation of a right turn, a Massachusetts motorist has entered the state lottery just by acquiring a driver's license.

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