Lane Courtesy Redux

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 this important unwritten rule of the road and now law in many states in  this 2013 e-newsletter reproduced below.

NMA E-Newsletter #218: Lane Courtesy Redux

Although all states have various forms of the “keep right unless passing” (aka “lane courtesy”) requirement in their statutes, it is rare to hear about the police actually enforcing the law against a driver who camps out in the left lane. Such a story surfaced recently from Maryland where a woman was ticketed for maintaining her position in the inside lane of I-95 while traveling at 63 mph in the 65 mph zone.

There was an interesting tug of war going on between readers of the online story. The posted comments range from a few questioning the saneness of issuing the ticket . . .

“Sorry, but the reason it’s called a speed limit is because you can only go AS fast as 65 mph. There’s nothing about going slower than that speed. The signs say speed limit not speed you need to drive at.”

“There is no such thing as a ‘high speed lane.’ The posted speed limit is the law that applies to all the lanes. The left lane is not some “exception” to it.”

. . . to the vast majority of posters — our visual approximation puts it at about an 8 or 9 to 1 ratio — who display a solid knowledge of the benefits of lane courtesy. Sample contributions:

“It’s a provable fact that staying in the left lane when you are not passing is more dangerous than speeding. Check out facts on the Autobahn. No speed limits in most places, but major fines for riding the left lane. Much lower accident and death rates than US highways.”

Even if you are driving at or below the speed limit, the left lane is for passing and faster traffic. Let the speeders (and that includes me) run the risk of a ticket. It’s not your job to play Highway Jesus and refuse to move out of the left lane to yield to faster cars.”

“Many states have laws restricting people from driving in the passing lane AT ANY SPEED except to pass. These are good laws, and I wish they were enforced more. As you drive along a freeway and see a jam of cars ahead, you can be absolutely sure that it is caused by an idiot hanging out in the left lane at a slower speed than traffic is flowing.”

To emphasize the first sentence of the last comment, here are pertinent clauses of the Washington State “keep right” statute (§46.61.100), one of the clearer statements in traffic law of the principle of letting faster traffic move unimpeded in the left lane:

Upon all roadways having two or more lanes for traffic moving in the same direction, all vehicles shall be driven in the right-hand lane then available for traffic, except (a) when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction, (b) when traveling at a speed greater than the traffic flow, (c) when moving left to allow traffic to merge, or (d) when preparing for a left turn at an intersection, exit, or into a private road or driveway when such left turn is legally permitted.

And

It is a traffic infraction to drive continuously in the left lane of a multilane roadway when it impedes the flow of other traffic.

What is interesting, but ultimately frustrating, is the reversal of the “lane courtesy appreciation” sentiment out on the highways where it really matters. It only takes one or two left-lane campers to royally screw up traffic flow, but it seems that at least some who write so forcefully online in favor of lane courtesy change their perspectives entirely when rubber meets pavement.

For many years now, the NMA has declared June as “Lane Courtesy Month,” taking the opportunity to highlight nationally the safety benefits of observing the simple “keep right unless passing” rule. Of course, lane courtesy is not a one-month awareness issue; it only works if it is practiced 365 days a year by all drivers.

Improve traffic flow and safety immediately. If traffic is gathering behind you and you can move to a lane further right, do it. Otherwise you are in the wrong lane, regardless of what speed you are traveling at.

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Leave a Comment

4 Responses to “Lane Courtesy Redux”

  1. James C. Walker says:

    If you are in the left lane at 90 mph in a 70 zone and a car comes up from behind at 100 mph – MOVE OVER TO THE RIGHT LANE. This correct behavior for courtesy and safety is totally unrelated to either the exact speeds or the post limit.

  2. Sherman Johnson says:

    My wife and I do a lot of driving around the country and in our experience drivers on the more lightly traveled Interstates in rural areas are good about using the right lane unless passing.

    The closer one gets to an urban area, the less “keep right except to pass” is observed.

    I am under no delusion that this will happen anytime in the foreseeable future, but it would be nice if the minimum number of lanes on more heavily traveled limited access highways was three (3) in each direction. With two lanes, there are generally 2 choices:

    1) Travel in the rough, rutted right lane with the semis, at whatever speed they are doing — usually something under the limit.

    2) Travel in the left lane at whatever is the 100th percentile speed.

    I’ve been a lead foot for over 40 years. My MVA driving record runs to multiple pages. I’m not exactly anxious to add to it. So rather than run with the 100th percentile drivers (generally 90-95+ mph), I’ll pull right ASAP upon seeing them approach. The last thing I want to do is slow another driver down. In fact, I’m always happy to see someone running faster than we are. I do my absolute best to ensure that another driver does not even have to tap their brakes for us. I constantly check my mirrors and look for safe places to move right.

    Every once in while though, someone will approach at triple-digit speed and I cannot *immediately* move right — because I am passing another vehicle — usually a semi. Truckers are generally good about leaving space in front of them, but sometimes — esp on grades — they can end up nose to tail, which means I have no choice but to pass an entire line of trucks. We typically run about 10 over, but to someone doing 30 over that seems slow. I get that, and I feel bad about temporarily slowing them down, but sometimes there’s no avoiding it.

    Again, that doesn’t happen often because a) I’m in the habit of checking my mirrors frequently, and b) because there is usually space in the right lane.

    If there were a 3rd lane this would be less of a problem — and in fact that’s the case on Interstates that have 3 lanes.

  3. Tom Beckett says:

    There was an item on our local ABC affiliate here in NW Arkansas, KHOG-40/29 about a week ago where they reported that the Arkansas SP had issued over 1100 tickets for driving in the left lane. I cannot now find a link to the story, but at least someone is trying here. The law has stipulated “slower traffic keep right” for a long time here. Last November, a new law went into effect requiring drivers to drive right, pass left, and yield to faster traffic. There are still too many who don’t get it. Oklahoma has a similar law that went into effect last year.

    • Sherman Johnson says:

      That’s excellent news Tom!

      Perhaps one day “Keep right except to pass” will be as strictly enforced as the under-posted speed limits.

      Here in Maryland, for decades there have been signs posted along the Interstates and US highways stating, “Slower Traffic Keep Right”. I have lived here my entire life and to my knowledge that law is almost never enforced.

      I think part of the problem is semantics. A sign saying, “Slower Traffic Keep Right”, is ambiguous to many people. They read that and think, “Everyone traveling slower than *I am* should keep right!” My guess is that (if they even read the sign) many drivers think to themselves, “I’m not ‘slow’ — that dump truck doing 20 under is slow. Why, I’m traveling at close to the posted limit!”

      In addition to the subjective nature of the word ‘slow’, for many people there is also a negative connotation: “Elderly people and unskilled drivers are ‘slow’ — not me!” A secondary, subconscious, factor may be that “slow” is another term for ‘mentally challenged’.

      States that are serious about enforcing proper lane discipline should post signs that say:

      “KEEP RIGHT EXCEPT TO PASS”

      That’s very clear. The driver in the left lane is either passing traffic in the right lane or they aren’t.

      Maybe even post the associated fine and points assessed for violations.

      Of course, there’s ‘passing’ and then there’s PASSING. We’ve all seen the left lane hogs who are technically within the law (at least in some states) because they are running 1 mph faster than the traffic in the right lane. So more specific language is needed. From the post above:

      “… here are pertinent clauses of the Washington State “keep right” statute (§46.61.100)…”:

      “It is a traffic infraction to drive continuously in the left lane of a multilane roadway when it impedes the flow of other traffic.”

      That, along with “Keep Right Except to Pass” should cover it, and allow enlightened cops to keep the left lane clear.

      At the end of the day, we will never eliminate all of the issues with left lane campers — let alone the many other problems drivers face. But routine enforcement of lane discipline sure would help.