The prominence of lane courtesy (slower traffic keep right) as standard driving practice varies greatly from place to place. European drivers are generally acknowledged as the most conscientious practitioners, exemplified by those who travel Germany’s autobahn where lane courtesy is strictly adhered to and accident rates are remarkably low, despite the high speeds.
In India, lane courtesy, or lane discipline as it is known, takes on a decidedly local flavor. In the southern city of Bangalore, lane discipline simply means staying in a lane—any lane. Yet for many drivers, it’s an unfamiliar concept, and, despite targeted enforcement, they have a hard time complying.
Part of the reason clearly stems from the ridiculously congested traffic conditions drivers face in this city of 5.5 million people. It’s every motorist for himself or herself all the time, and that leads to chaos on the roads. But drivers complain that many roads don’t have any lane markings or proper signage. It’s not even clear what direction traffic is supposed to flow on certain stretches. How can drivers be expected to practice lane discipline when there aren’t even any lanes?
So, what’s our excuse? Compared with Indian roads, U.S. roads are less crowded, have plenty of lane markings and dividers, lots of signals and signs (some even say “Slower Traffic Keep Right”). And most people know which direction to drive. Why is lane courtesy so lacking? After all, when drivers are surveyed about their pet peeves, left-lane hogging is usually at the top of the list. And for good reason. Left-lane blockers create traffic back-ups that increase the likelihood of accidents and road rage incidents, among other things.
Part of the reason lane courtesy gets such short shrift comes from driver inattentiveness or from lack of awareness about what lane courtesy is. Part of the reason also comes from the “speed kills” mentality left over from the 55 mph NMSL days—drivers who believe it’s their duty to slow down traffic under the mistaken assumption that slower is safer.
Driver’s education also plays a role. A NMA member recently recounted paging through his daughter’s driver’s education manual looking for the chapter on lane courtesy. Nothing in the table of contents. He then scanned the index. Nothing there either. He finally found a passing (no pun intended) mention that the left lane of a highway is generally reserved for faster traffic or for passing. That’s it.
Another intriguing possibility comes from a fascinating experiment conducted a few years back in Europe. Officials in Drachten, a Dutch city with a population of about 50,000, removed all regulatory traffic signs from the city center. They also removed all lane markings and demarcations between roadways and sidewalks. Despite this free-for-all design, traffic flowed smoothly, pedestrians walked the streets safely and accidents plummeted.
Motorists actually had to think about what they were doing and be mindful of others. “Right of way” became an instinctual process between motorists. The new arrangement fostered an ethos of cooperation and respect, leading to a safer environment.
As the traffic guru behind the Drachten experiment commented: “The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior. The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”
Hmm… Cooperation, respect, consideration, responsibility. Sounds a lot like common courtesy.
June is Lane Courtesy Month, and as the month winds down, let’s all remember the practice of lane courtesy produces benefits year-round.