Reminders never get old: The left lane is for passing

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Staying out of the left lane except to pass isn’t just about courtesy, it’s also about safety.
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The Maine Department of Transportation has installed signs along Maine’s highways using cleverly worded messages to remind drivers to be safe. Many focus on not speeding, driving while impared or texting while driving.

There has also been this catchy admonition: “Camp in the woods, not in the left lane.” Clever, but also an important reminder that the left lane is for passing while the right-hand lane is for travel.

Every state has restrictions on traveling in the left lane of a divided highway. Maine’s left-lane restriction applies on roads with speed limits of 65 mph or higher. “An operator driving on a limited-access way with a speed limit of 65 or more miles per hour is restricted in ordinary operation to the right-hand lane and may use adjacent lanes for overtaking and passing another vehicle, but must return to the right-hand lane at the earliest opportunity,” the law states.

If there’s an emergency vehicle in the breakdown lane on a divided highway, such as Interstate 95, then drivers should temporarily move over to the left lane. That’s state law, too.

Staying out of the left lane except to pass isn’t just about courtesy, it’s also about safety. Traffic, especially on interstate highways, is meant to flow smoothly. A vehicle traveling more slowly than others is a major hazard because drivers will navigate around it.

Here’s the science behind it. Variations of speed among cars on a road — not high speeds on their own — are more likely to contribute to a crash. In other words, a car traveling much more slowly than the rest of the vehicles on a road, especially in the left lane, is more likely to cause a crash than a car traveling in the left lane at a high rate of speed but generally the same speed at which all the surrounding cars are traveling.

The slower car backs up vehicles behind it, causing people to brake and change lanes more frequently. Both are more dangerous maneuvers than simply driving straight ahead. Lane changes cause as many as 10 percent of highway crashes.

Using the left lane only for passing also improves gas mileage because traveling at a consistent speed is more fuel efficient than accelerating after slowing down. Another byproduct of consistent speed is reduced road rage, the National Motorists Association says, because drivers behind don’t get angry at that annoying car blocking their way.

There are groups that have dedicated themselves to encouraging left-lane blockers to move on over to the right. One such group is America Keep Right, which has state chapters. A group called Left Lane Drivers has even become a bit passive-aggressive in its approach — it sells windshield decals with the words “Move Over” and an arrow pointing to the right.

But passive-aggressive decals, tailgating or flashing your lights at left lane drivers won’t solve the problem. Instead, reminders on electronic highway signs and patrols by police are safer and more effective.

The problem is getting attention nationally. Several states have recently passed laws to institute or increase fines. Many states, like Maine, are trying an educational approach.

The message is simple, and reminders never get old: Pass in the left lane. Drive in the right.


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