A holiday appeal to left-lane scofflaws

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to an eight-lane stretch of Interstate 95 between Manassas and Kings Dominion. The stretch is between Dumfries and Kings Dominion, and it has six lanes. This version has been corrected.

Courtland Milloy
Columnist December 25, 2011

Ordinarily, slow drivers who hang out in the left lane of a highway make me want to curse. To my mind, they are the real scourge of the road, the rarely acknowledged cause of massive traffic jams and instigators of untold frustration and rage.

But today I will refrain from name-calling and finger-pointing except to say: Is it asking too much for people to show a little lane courtesy?

“I stopped these folks who were in the left lane and said to the driver, ‘Do you realize that the next car in front of you was a half a mile ahead and so much traffic had piled up behind you that you were creating an unsafe situation?’ ” Maryland State Police 1st Sgt. Russell Newell told me. “The driver was shocked. He and his mom had been engaged in conversation and were completely unaware of their surroundings.”

Most states have laws prohibiting this sort of thing. The Virginia code, for instance, is pretty straightforward: “Except when overtaking and passing on the right is permitted, the driver of an overtaken vehicle shall give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle.”

The law doesn’t say it’s okay to clog up the left lane as long as you are obeying the speed limit. It says move over. (Elderly drivers might want to take a refresher course in how to get out of the way sooner rather than later.)

During this holiday season, from Dec. 23 to Jan. 2, AAA estimates that 84 million people will be taking road trips. Be sure to avoid the “three deadly D’s of driving,” AAA cautions: drunk, drowsy and distracted. But what about the doodling driver who ruins the holiday spirit for thousands?

It seems to me that the worst offenders can be found along Interstate 95 in Virginia, between Dumfries and Kings Dominion. Here you have a six-lane highway — three each way — and invariably there will be some motorist loafing in the left lane like a marshal in a funeral procession. In cases like that, Virginia ought to step up enforcement of the second part of the lane safety code: “Any over-width, or slow-moving vehicle . . . shall be removed from the roadway at the nearest suitable location when necessary to allow traffic to pass.”

Several years ago, the Manchester Driver Behavior Research Group in England identified roughly five situations that are most likely to provoke anger or trigger aggression in drivers. Being tailgated or cut off by reckless drivers topped the list. “Finally, there is the situation in which your progress is impeded by another driver’s hesitance or sluggishness,” the researchers reported. “You feel thwarted, impeded, and may be tempted to believe that the other driver is doing it purposely, just to inconvenience you.”

“Tempted to believe”? More like knowing for a fact.

“Some people feel they have the right to regulate speed by blocking the left lane, as if they had been sworn in as law enforcement officials,” said Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, a drivers’ rights advocacy group. “Our members think that if drivers practiced more lane courtesy and worried less about drivers going a few miles over the speed limit, there would be less congestion and less frustration.”

State police agencies in Washington, Minnesota and elsewhere recently announced crackdowns on left-lane scofflaws. Others should follow. As Col. Anne Beers, chief of the Minnesota State Patrol, said in a recent interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “We know there is aggressive behavior out on the highways. Why contribute to that? Let someone who wants to go faster go by you and your stress stays under control.”

Newell, who is stationed at the barracks in College Park, gave the driver he stopped a lecture about lane safety and directed him to a rest stop for a cup of coffee.

Biller, of the National Motorists Association, believes that he handled the situation just right.

“Based on the letters we receive, almost everybody agrees that slower traffic should stay right,” Biller said. “Yet, out in the real world, you rarely see it practiced. Coming from a positive standpoint, we believe more education would help.”

In that same spirit, I repeat: Slower traffic, keep right.

Please.

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