Lane Courtesy or Law–A California Cultural Examination

Editor’s Note: Lane Courtesy, the principle of slower traffic yielding the left lane to faster traffic, needs to become ingrained in our driving ethos.  Many drivers acknowledge the benefits of Lane Courtesy yet they don’t practice it; they never believe they’re the ones holding up traffic. We explored how the driving culture has evolved in this 2017 e-newsletter reproduced below.

NMA E-Newsletter #439: Lane Courtesy or Law–A California Cultural Examination

from Norman Risch, NMA California Member

While the NMA has been increasingly promoting left lane courtesy for years, I can compare several states in which I have lived or worked. California is far worse than Maryland, DC, or Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and most other Eastern states in left and right lane courtesy (not that any of them are anywhere close to perfect).

However, I have found in the NMA’s coverage of the subject of left-lane courtesy, there is hardly any mention of the relationship between that lack of left lane courtesy and the culture that seems to have been established regarding right lane rules. The two issues affect each other.

I think that a large part of the left-lane courtesy issue is the nearly complete lack of emphasis on what was taught in the East: Keep right except to pass. It seems to be ignored or glossed over in Driver Education courses. Indeed, the DMV booklet covering the topics for the driver license test seems to go too lightly on this and another issue: Right of Way when entering a freeway.

On the left lane courtesy issue, there are the random signs in the (ever-smaller) median strips about slower cars moving to the right, but they do not address the circumstance of someone feeling “righteous” about driving slightly slower than the speed limit, and feeling that they shouldn’t let any faster car pass.

However this problem seems to be related to the absence of yield signs at the end of oncoming ramps, resulting in increasing confusion about extending courtesy to oncoming traffic and the actual law. Rather than truly understanding that ramp traffic must yield to the existing freeway traffic, some seem to believe (erroneously) that the law provides that oncoming ramp traffic holds the right of way!

It seems to be true that California’s generally longer ramps (than in the East) permit an easier merging, but that easier merge may have been more valid when the total volume of traffic was less than it is today. Even worse, most drivers’ experience with Yield signs is at the increasingly (traffic engineer) popular Roundabouts. Even there, few drivers truly understand their purpose. (At roundabouts, traffic at incoming “spokes” must yield to pedestrians and traffic already in the roundabout, but not for traffic in the other feeder lanes.)

What happens is that there has developed a culture that lane courtesy is mandated for the right lane only, a point emphasized by the DMV booklet suggesting that continuing traffic use the center lane(s) or left lane instead of the right lane.

In short, the attitude is set to reinforce illegal behavior in the right lane, always yielding to oncoming traffic, to avoid driving in the right lane, and almost no mention of leaving the left lane(s) for allowing passing traffic (of any speed) to use that passing lane. (That is even true of the behavior of many trucks in 3-lane configurations. The trucks routinely occupy the center lane.)

The changes for these bad, if not outright dangerous, conditions will only occur when the DMV booklet stops emphasizing right-lane vacancy, when CalTrans adds Yield signs to the end of every on-ramp (and indeed) at any intersections that do not have a defined traffic signal or Stop sign. Additionally, the Eastern mantra of Keep Right Except to Pass needs to be added to the DMV booklet, and more importantly emphasized in both New Driver Education as well as Remedial Driver Education courses.

These two issues seem to be linked, both in their encouragement of unsafe driving practices, but also in the widespread popular culture of California drivers.


  1. Add Yield signs near the end of every on-ramp, and not just at roundabouts. (Indeed most people don’t know what they mean, even there.)
  2. Emphasize in the DMV booklet the issues of Right-of-Way for existing freeway traffic at on-ramps.
  3. Emphasize the use of the left lane for any faster vehicles, driving at the speed limit or not.
  4. Work both of these concepts into both the First-time and Remedial Drivers’ Education courses.

While I applaud the NMA focusing on left-lane courtesy, the subject (at least for California) should not be taken out of the context of related driver culture, seemingly encouraged by the California DMV, its publications, and the many new and remedial driver education courses.

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