Why people drive slow in the left lane is one of the most vexing problems of the road since the invention of the automobile.
Blocking the left lane isn’t only illegal — every state has some type of law restricting use of the left lane on multi-lane roads and highways — but keeping it open for passing causes fewer accidents than speeding because traffic flows more smoothly and there’s less tailgating and less weaving in and out of traffic.
Other benefits of not being a left lane hog include reduced road rage, better gas mileage and getting to your destination faster.
“Any time you get a disruption in the normal flow of traffic, you are apt to increase the chance of an accident to occur,” says Lt. Gary Megge of the Michigan State Police.
Michigan, for example, is one of the few states where slow left lane drivers must pull over to let faster traffic pass. They can remain in the left lane, however, if all lanes are full of traffic, Megge says.
Eleven states only allow the left lane for turning or passing. In 29 states, the law is that any car driven slower than the “normal speed of traffic” should be in the right lane, even if it’s going at the speed limit.
A few states, such as Alaska, don’t allow slow left lane drivers if they’re moving slower than the speed limit.
Why people drive slow in the fast lane
Unless the highway is clogged with traffic or a harsh thunderstorm prevents you from seeing well, why drive slow in the left lane?
Driving in the least crowded lane is one possibility, says Tam Pham, an intern at Spartups.
“Although I have never been ticketed before for driving in the left lane, many drivers want to drive comfortably in the least crowded lane while maintaining the speed limit,” Pham says. “I think it is a good system to have to let traffic flow naturally by having the slower drivers drive on the right and the faster drivers drive on the left but I strongly believe it is not a crime.”
“Why would any average driver driving 65 mph on the left lane be pulled over for maintaining the speed limit? Also, many drivers are so reckless and impatient, I think cars that do drive normally on the left lanes teach them valuable lessons to calm down and follow the law,” he says.
California, where Pham lives, requires drivers in the left lane going slower than the speed limit and slower than other traffic to get out of the left lane. However, if the left lane driver is at the speed limit — which is 65 mph on some stretches of highway — then it’s legal for them to remain in the left lane, according to the California Highway Patrol.
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“A vehicle driving in the left lane of a multi-lane highway slower than other traffic, but at the speed limit, is not in violation of the law,” says Erin Komatsubara, a public information officer for the CHP. Vehicles passing on the right of a left-lane driver who is at the speed limit would be violating the speed limit, Komatsubara says.
So the idea that you can drive faster than the speed limit if the traffic flow is higher than the speed limit, is wrong in California — even if the left-lane driver is impeding traffic by driving at the speed limit.
Don't try to slow traffic
Trying to teach another driver a lesson by driving slow in the left lane — whether at the speed limit or below it — is a bad idea, Megge says. Blocking other drivers can cause an accident, he says, such as when someone tries to pass on the shoulder, or is tailgating.
“If they are out there in the left lane trying to slow traffic down, it is not their job,” Megge says.
Michigan has a law preventing the impeding of traffic, and officers can use their discretion to ticket drivers they think are potentially dangerous, he says. This can include slow drivers who won’t get out of the fast lane, or driving below the minimum speed limit of 55 mph on Michigan’s highways.
The only good news for people ticketed for impeding traffic in Michigan is that it’s not a moving violation, meaning they won’t get points on their driving record for it, which can increase insurance rates. A left lane violation, however, is a moving violation in Michigan with points against a driver’s record.
Left-lane driving can cause accidents
Driving in the left lane for anything other than passing can make other cars slow down and create a traffic backup. A few slow cars can create traffic jams, researchers have found, including a slow driver in the left lane next to an equally slow driver in the right lane next to them.
Driving slower than surrounding traffic is more likely to cause an accident than speeding, according to research. Driving 5 mph slower than surrounding traffic is more likely to cause an accident than going 5 mph faster than drivers around you.
Having slow drivers in all lanes can cause faster drivers to have to slow down and weave back and forth to change lanes, increasing the possibility of accidents.
If speed limits aren’t set at speeds near what most people are driving, than there may be more slow left lane drivers who impede traffic. The National Motorists Association recommends that speed limits be set to the 85th percentile of free-flowing traffic. In other words, the speed that 85 percent of drivers travel at or below.
“This has been show over and over again to be the safest speed at which to set limits because it accounts for the speeds that people naturally drive at,” says NMA spokesman John Bowman.
Actual travel speeds tend to be independent of the of the posted speed, which means people drive at speed they feel is safe and comfortable,” Bowman says. “Turns out this is actually the safest speed at which to set the speed limit. This has the beneficial effect of reducing the speed variance among vehicles and thereby preventing accidents.”
Maybe left-lane driving is an American way?
A European friend once put the left lane hogs in perspective for Frank Rocco, telling him, “Perhaps Americans just don’t like being passed.”
Rocco, a marketing director at Washed Ashore Project, lived in Europe for awhile and saw firsthand how serious European drivers took the left lane as a passing only lane. He was scolded by a car salesman for passing on the right during a test drive in the United Kingdom.
When he returned to the United States, he flashed a driver on a New York highway who wouldn’t move aside out of the left lane so he could pass. He finally did and Rocco could see the driver yelling at him as he “legally” passed him on the left.
U.S. highways aren’t as fast as the autobahn in Germany, where speed limits don’t exist in some areas. But plodding along in the left lane while drivers are trying to pass you, probably isn’t a good idea in either country.
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